Brian O''Neill Brian O''Neill, 3/16/2010 [Archive]

Focus on Rebellion in Yemen not al-Qaeda

By Brian O'Neill

Following the attempted Christmas Day bombing, many in America realized that there was a major al-Qaeda presence in Yemen, which was until then an only vaguely-mentioned country.News stories began describing the wrenching poverty and looming ecological and demographic nightmare that Yemen was facing. There were many stories about a persistent rebellion in the north of the country, which only recently has seen a cease-fire.And now, news reports out of Yemen are dealing with an increasingly violent secession movement in the south.Readers can be forgiven for thinking that governing Yemen is an endless routine of crisis management; after all, this is entirely accurate.

While these series of problems can be met with eye-rolling, as they are almost comical in their repetition, the rebellion in the south is a different animal altogether than the other rebellions.It, more than anything else, has the potential to tear this fragile nation apart.

The briefest of history is in order: North and South Yemen (terms that are geographically imprecise but politically expedient) have only been unified since 1990. Before that, you had a northern Republic and a Marxist southern state, whose main economic benefactor was the Soviet Union.Following the end of the Cold War, two poor states united, but uneasily.Political maneuvering and violence, much of it at the feet of still-President Ali Abdullah Salih, led to war in 1994.

The north won, and, in the southern narrative, essentially colonized their countrymen. In the battle, Salih relied on jihadis recently returned from fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, and saw this as a chance to use their skills against a 'godless' enemy. In return, the fundamentalists were able to impose their writ upon what had been a more free, secular people (they also destroyed Yemen's only brewery, an event which to this day causes the heart to break).Land was taken, and the south slumped into even deeper poverty.

Needless to say this chafed.What is now known as the Southern Movement began to coalesce in 2007, when army officers demanded their pension, and younger soldiers decried regional prejudice in promotions - the army being one of the few avenues for social mobility. Salih cracked down, and what started as a peaceful call for more rights and less economic repression turned into a call for divorce.

This is of far greater importance than the immediate threat of al-Qaeda.Qaeda is dangerous, both to Yemen and the West, but ultimately they do not pose an existential threat to Yemen. What they can do is both distract the government from dealing with its larger problems and take advantage of the distractions.As long as the southern issue festers, Yemen will not be able to deal with what we see as most important.It should go without saying that pressuring Salih to focus entirely al-Qaeda is self-defeating.

But this movement puts the U.S. in a problematic position.Salih is our ostensible ally, and the cart to which we have hitched our wagon.We have done so tentatively, wary of his endless calculation and machinations, but in the end we need him.However, it is not in our interest, morally or strategically, to be allowing our ally to crush a movement demanding women's rights, decrying the crashing literacy rate, and asking for both economic opportunities and- most awkwardly- the removal from their lives of Islamic fundamentalism.

A divided country would break Yemen and let al-Qaeda flourish.Salih's brutish maneuverings could hasten that divide.Our desire to see Qaeda crushed might be interpreted green-lighting to that brutality.It gives one a headache.What the US has to do is withhold counter-terrorism money unless Salih goes to the table with the leaders of the movement, and works out a peace deal (which, to me, would have to include a large degree of autonomy, if only to build a wall to re-establish trust).It is difficult to temporarily ignore what is our primary interest in Yemen, but helping to solve this endless cycle of crises is the only way to ensure that a defeated al-Qaeda does not again resurrect itself from the fire.

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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 blogs at Always Judged Guilty, which is largely, but far from entirely, about Yemen.

This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.



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