What was a Yemeni replica of the peaceful demonstrations that had been occurring throughout the Middle East this year turned into a deadly internal conflict last month that is edging closer to an all out civil war.
The crossover occurred two weeks ago when Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of Yemen, rejected for the third time a peace proposal mediated by the Gulf Cooperation Council that would have rewarded him with immunity for stepping down. The country’s most powerful tribal confederation, the Hashid (which Saleh’s own tribe is a part of) finally decided that enough is enough. With the blessing of the tribe’s leaders, also Yemen’s wealthiest businessmen, Hashid fighters have begun attacking Saleh’s government with live ammunition.
The battles between Saleh’s security forces and Hashid insurgents have plunged the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, into a state of desperation. Over two hundred people have been killed over the last week of fighting alone with both sides registering casualties. Hundreds of Yemeni families are gathering up their belongings and heading out of the capital city toward towns in the periphery which are experiencing problems of their own.
In a bid to consolidate his authority and eliminate his strongest political rivals, Saleh’s military rained mortars and rockets onto the Hashid leadership compound. None of them were killed though the attack highlighted the steps that Saleh was willing to take to kill his opponents and silence dissent.
The military operation only worsened the situation however. Rather than cow down, tribal fighters approved a retaliatory strike by shelling the president’s palace residence in the heart of the city. Saleh, his prime minister and the speaker of the Yemeni parliament were all injured in the attack. Seven guardsmen were killed and the violence got so out of hand that the White House and American State Department released a statement calling for all sides in the conflict to stand down and implement another ceasefire.
Luckily for the United States, Saleh was not killed in the shelling. For if he was, the administration would have been forced to recraft its Yemen policy virtually overnight.
Washington may be distancing itself from its onetime ally and asking the president to lead a peaceful transition but the death of Saleh would have been a catastrophic blow to the American position. Counterterrorism is America’s top priority in Yemen even if the safety, security and prosperity of the Yemeni people happen to concern the United States as well. Economic reconstruction and the development of strong and resilient governing institutions in Yemen is one way President Barack Obama has attempted to stem the pool of terrorist recruits in the bud. Unfortunately, that strategy has hinged on the hope that Saleh would act responsibly and use his power to bring about political reforms. In the record of the past four months, indeed of the past decade, it is evident that improving the lives of Yemeni citizens is not on Saleh’s “to do list.” Any foreign assistance that is diverted away from the military would strain the patronage network that Saleh has depended on for the past three decades.
The problem for American policy in Yemen is its lack of depth and clarity. Fighting terrorism and preventing extremism from proliferating in Yemen has been the central focus for the past ten years. Supporting Saleh to the hilt, even as the 65-year old president detained human rights activists and terrorized religious minorities, was a far easier way for the United States to bring this about rather than addressing Yemen’s root insecurities. Building schools, fostering political participation, diversifying Yemen’s economy and redesigning its political structure would take years, if not decades, to achieve. Training Saleh’s army and hoping that they would take the fight to Al Qaeda, on the other hand, is a quicker way of frustrating the terrorists’ plans.
Yemen policy since 9/11 has been to promote a short-term fix to a terrorist threat that has longevity. Indeed in Yemen, extremism is generational, with former Arab resistance fighters telling their children stories about the 1980s Afghan jihad. Their lessons are passed on to grandchildren, creating another wave of recruits for the radical Islamist cause.
Saleh is, or was, an integral part of America’s fix against terrorism in Yemen. Yet his history of combating jihadists is spotty at best. During the 1994 Yemeni civil war, Saleh’s regime enlisted Salafi extremists to fight southern secessionists, to deadly effect. The Yemeni leader has also been known to hype the Al Qaeda threat in the hopes of extracting more money from the United States and the international community.
Saleh’s near death experience should serve as a warning to American officials. It is time to look to the future. Sooner rather than later, Saleh will be gone and Yemen’s various power centers will begin competing among themselves for a spot in the new government. That new leadership may or may not have the gumption to thoroughly pluck away at Yemen’s multiple problems. Even if there is dedication, Yemen’s fumbling economy assures that these new leaders won’t have the resources to do the job effectively.
Washington has money but not the dedication. Dedication will only come if a new strategy for Yemen is devised, one that is geared toward helping the Yemeni people rather than aiding the Yemeni regime. A post-Saleh Yemen could be a fresh start for both.