New War for America?
“Yemen: Latest U.S. Battleground”
I’m providing here a link to an interesting article by University of San Francisco Politics Professor Stephen Zunes, published in ‘Foreign Policy In Focus’ last week, entitled “Yemen: Latest U.S. Battleground”. Zunes writes that, “The United States may be on the verge of involvement in yet another counterinsurgency war which, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, may make a bad situation even worse”; this time in the Arab nation of Yemen, on the southern shores of the Arabian Peninsula.
The US has been backing the Yemeni government’s counterinsurgency efforts against ‘al-Qaeda’ forces for some time, but connections between Islamic militants in Yemen and the recent incidents of the massacre at Fort Hood, and the failed Christmas Day bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight, have moved involvement in Yemen up the list of priorities. Previously Yemen was also the site of a major al-Qaeda attack in October 2000, when terrorists damaged the U.S. Navy ship Cole and killed 17 American sailors with a bomb in the Yemeni port of Aden. It is currently estimated that almost 200 foreign al-Qaeda operatives are active in Yemen – more than twice as many as estimated to still be in Afghanistan – and they are in alliance with around 2,000 experienced Yemeni insurgents who have already spent time in Iraq battling American forces.
Conditions in Yemen are certainly conducive to radicalisation as it one of the poorest countries in the world, has more than 40 percent unemployment, and its economy has suffered recently under the conditions of a U.S.-backed structural adjustment program. However, there are also deeper roots to Yemen’s jihadi movement. Zunes writes that:
“Thousands of Yemenis participated in the U.S.-supported anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan during the 1980s, becoming radicalized by the experience and developing links with Osama bin Laden, a Saudi whose father comes from a Yemeni family. Various clan and tribal loyalties to bin Laden’s family have led to some support within Yemen for the exiled al-Qaeda leader, even among those who do not necessarily support his reactionary interpretation of Islam or his terrorist tactics. Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis have served as migrant laborers in neighboring Saudi Arabia. There, exposure to the hardline Wahhabi interpretation of Islam dominant in that country combined with widespread repression and discrimination has led to further radicalization”.
The Yemeni government currently has its resources stretched, dealing with a rebellion in the north and a secessionist movement in the south, while under constant pressure by the US to focus on targeting al-Qaeda activities. But Zunes warns that trying to intervene by deploying Western soldiers in Yemen, or stepping up a campaign of missile strikes, could actually worsen the situation by strengthening radical Islamic support and potentially sparking a tribal rebellion against the foreign occupation forces. Yemen has an ancient tribal heritage and a modern history of ideological battles between Marxists, nationalists and Islamists, making it a divided and chaotic country. Tribes regularly shift alliances in feuds with each other and the national government, and from adolescence onwards almost every male routinely carries a gun. Bringing order in these circumstances will require patience and diplomacy, rather then an approach of brute force.
Unfortunately, despite being a candidate elected under the motto of change, US President Obama seems to be overseeing a foreign policy in Yemen that is embracing the same misjudged strategies as its predecessors: “support of a repressive and autocratic regime, pursuit of military solutions to complex social and political conflicts, and reliance on failed counterinsurgency doctrines”. Zunes concludes that,
“[while] al-Qaeda in Yemen represents a genuine threat … any military action should be Yemeni-led and targeted only at the most dangerous terrorist cells. We must also press the Yemeni government to become more democratic and less corrupt, in order to gain the support needed to suppress dangerous armed elements. In the long term, the United States should significantly increase desperately needed development aid for the poorest rural communities that have served as havens for radical Islamists. Such a strategy would be far more effective than drone attacks, arms transfers, and counterinsurgency”.
Indeed, exporting democracy and economic development, instead of backing authoritarian regimes and imposing destructive economic ‘reforms’, would probably go a long way towards resolving many of the globe’s current crises.