Brian O''Neill Brian O''Neill, 1/7/2010 [Archive]

Yemen:The United States Should Tread Lightly

Yemen:The United States Should Tread Lightly

By Brian O'Neill

In the weeks since the terrorist bombing attempt over Detroit on Christmas, an obscure and confusing country has shot to the top of the news cycle.Americans have come to realize that the next threat to our country is coming from a place most people had never heard of, and a place that had been largely ignored by the media.We've come to realize the growing strength of a group called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and have been scrambling to figure out who they are, and what we should do about them.But lost in our concern has been a central truth about Yemen: al-Qaeda is the very least of its problems, and therefore should not be the focal point of our policy.

Yemen is wracked by two rebellions, one in the Northern Province of Sadah and one in south Yemen.These have been sidelined by much of the media, the implication being that they are little more than unpleasant sideshows when compared to the pervasive menace of al-Qaeda. In reality, these rebellions present a fragile Yemen with a far greater existential crisis, and are considerably more likely to aid its devolution into a failed state.

It is understandable that our media and policy -- makers are focused on Al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP).Their ascent has been astonishing.It has not yet been three years since their current leadership tunneled out of a Yemeni prison- an event little noticed at the time, but one of those things on which history weirdly pivots.In less than a year since the Yemeni and Saudi branches merged, they have shown an organizational capability that nearly matches their breath-taking ambition.Even those of us who have been following them and talking of their growing strength were surprised that they were able to pull off a trans-national attack, seemingly on the fly.It was unsuccessful, but didn't cost them anything, and achieved their goal of getting respect from the global jihad community.

So the focus on al-Qaeda has been understandable.After all: they attacked us.But their goal has been to destroy the Yemeni government in order to create a safe haven from which to plan and execute attacks in Saudi Arabia, the Horn of Africa, global shipping lanes, and eventually America.They have used the chaos of the rebellions, which have occupied the government's attention, to grow stronger.It is our mistake to treat them as the only game in town.

In Yemen, we are trapped in the unfortunate paradox of the superpower.Our ability to project power has to be tamped down by the need to project it wisely.We should encourage President Salih to go after al-Qaeda, but having top officials publicly demand it of him aids the terrorist narrative that Salih is an illegitimate leader and a puppet of the U.S. Not coincidentally, this is also essentially the narrative of the northern and southern rebellions.We should be wary of furthering that perception.

Military strikes, while legally and morally justifiable, would make our long-term security worse.Direct U.S. strikes might be surgical, but they are still a foreign power being allowed to bomb in Yemeni borders.And action by Salih, if it is seen as an outcome of our demands, would have the same emotional impact.No one doubts that Salih needs to go after al-Qaeda, but it also needs to be on Yemeni terms.

The very best thing that the U.S. can do is reduce our footprint and change the face of Yemen policy.We are seen, with some justification, as only being concerned when there is an immediate threat. But Yemen is faced with many threats, including the elemental one of poverty and a rapidly disappearing water supply.The U.S. needs to help Yemen with more long-term development aid.

If we don't provide aid -- even if we manage to take out this crop of leaders, Yemen will fail.And then we will be dealing with the next generation of al-Qaeda, and then the one after that.Yemen has a convoluted history, which at every step is affecting its present.It might not be fun, but we have to tread carefully around that history, or else we will be sealing its future.

Brian O'Neill, a former writer and editor at The Yemen Observer, is currently an independent analyst and Yemen security expert based out of Chicago.He has been published on Yemen in a number of journals, and with Gregory Johnsen runs the Yemen-obsessive blog, Waq al-Waq. Brian's email is cairobrian@gmail.com



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