Feature

What (not) to do about Yemen

Thus far the U.S. has helped the Yemeni government crack down on jihadist bases and debated whether to provide military assistance to the regime of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

What should the U.S. do about Yemen? asked Simon Tisdall in the London Guardian. The small Arab state, squeezed underneath giant Saudi Arabia and just across the Gulf of Aden from lawless Somalia, has become “the international jihadi’s destination of choice from which to prepare, plot, and launch future terror attacks.” Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who allegedly tried to blow up an American plane on Christmas Day, told officials that he was trained and armed by al Qaida operatives based in Yemen. And he wasn’t the first terrorist trained there: The suicide bomber who nearly killed Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism chief last summer had crossed into the country from Yemen. The U.S. hasn’t entirely ignored the threat. It has aided Yemeni crackdowns on jihadist bases, and it is reportedly considering providing military assistance to the regime of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. But is that enough?

Bolstering the Saleh regime could easily backfire, said Marwan Bishara in AlJazeera.net. Right now, the regime has little control over the country. It is threatened in the north by the Houthis, a militant Shiite group, and in the south by a well-armed tribal secessionist movement. If the Yemeni army feels empowered to go after both the Houthis and the tribes, the resulting bloodbath could turn the country into another Somalia. Those who advocate aiding the Yemeni government argue that Yemen is “the forgotten front” in the war on terror. That’s just not true. The U.S. has had a presence in Yemen ever since the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole off the Yemeni coast. U.S. special forces have raided al Qaida targets in Yemen numerous times—yet the effort has “utterly failed” to curb radicalism. A greater American presence would only “feed instability and violence.”

Innocent Yemenis are already being killed by American bombardment, said Hassan Al-Haifi in the Yemen Times. Some reports say that recent Yemeni army bombings of Houthi areas, which killed hundreds of civilians, were “carried out with direct U.S. involvement and not just its blessing.” It’s unclear what the U.S. hopes to gain by helping Saleh fight the Houthis. Ostensibly, the point is to eliminate threats against the Saleh regime so that it will have “a free hand to deal with al Qaida.” But it’s not as if Saleh is dying to crack down on al Qaida and has just been too busy. He’s been in power for two decades. He is the one who allowed extremist jihadist culture to “grow and multiply with little interference.”

Saleh reminds us a lot of Saddam Hussein, said Lebanon’s Daily Star in an editorial. Like Saddam, Saleh is “an autocrat with a fair amount of blood on his hands.” And, like Saddam did, he presides over a “security-oriented regime” threatened by ethnic and sectarian rebels. The parallels with U.S. policy are eerie, too. The U.S. is currently trying to shore up the Saleh regime, just as it supported Saddam during the 1980s. We have to wonder whether the same fate will grip Yemen that befell Iraq, “when a supposed friend of Washington suddenly became an enemy.”

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