Yemen’s Two Different, Dangerous Wars

Yemen’s government hasn’t focused on Al Qaeda, rather a separatist insurgency.

Since the war in Yemen garnered worldwide attention last Christmas, when a terrorist trained in the small Middle Eastern country attempted to blow up an American airliner headed for Detroit, Great Britain and the United States have been supporting its counterinsurgency efforts with the latter investing some $150 million this year alone to train and equip Yemeni forces.

Last Thursday, President Barack Obama praised Yemen’s “determination” to fight terror during a phone call with his counterpart Ali Abdullah Saleh, according to the White House. Does the country really deserve Washington’s applause though? Chris Harnisch of the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project doesn’t think so.

Harnisch points out that Saleh, who has been in office, in one way or another, since 1978, has never been much of a friend to the United States. Instead, his government has shown tremendous leniency, and sometimes outright support, for Al Qaeda.

For starters, Saleh of Yemen — once known in the Middle East as “Little Saddam” — opposed the American liberation of Kuwait in 1991 when Yemen held a seat on the UN Security Council. In the immediate aftermath of Al Qaeda’s attack on the USS Cole in a Yemeni port in 2000, not only did some Yemeni officials try to hinder the FBI’s investigation and convince agents that the explosion was caused by a malfunction in the vessel’s operating system, but Saleh went as far as to ask the United States to help pay for damage in the port which the United States allegedly caused.

Since, things have started to get more difficult for Saleh and suddenly, he revealed himself into an ally of the West. The quiet war in Yemen that erupted in 2004 has proven difficult for the Yemeni government to control. It has alleged that Iran funds the Shiite uprising in the north of the country while neighboring Saudi Arabia built a wall and conducted airstrikes to prevent rebels from crossing the border into the kingdom. Said rebellion however is distinct from the separatist threat in the central south of the country that is fueled by Al Qaeda.

According to Harnisch, in spite of the millions of aid that have flowed into the country, “the Yemeni government has failed to have any significant impact on [Al Qaeda’s] strength.” Rather it is using the money to suppress the insurgency in the north which poses a greater risk to Saleh’s regime but is of little interest to the rest of the world. Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that the government has actually started negotiating with Al Qaeda.

Of course, Saleh will pretend that the two conflicts are intertwined; that Al Qaeda is communicating and coordinating tactics with the rebels; and that Iran is the evil mastermind planning everything from afar. The average Westerner may have difficulty distinguishing between the two insurgencies, for both would appear to be violent outburst of radical Islamism. One is an internal power struggle however that the United States should want to keep its hands off altogether. The other is a minor terrorist threat which the Yemeni government has, and probably will be, unable to quell, no matter its “determination.”

One comment

  1. RAND recently published an insightful report on the Saada War. The southern independence movement is probably the most difficult for Saleh to handle since its a truly popular movement.

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