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Welcome to Qaedastan

In 2010, Yemen will celebrate the 20th anniversary of national unification. But it won’t be much of a party: This could well be the year Yemen comes apart.

Even the brutal 1994 civil war failed to threaten the structural integrity of this country chronically teetering on the verge of disintegration as much as the current crises, all of which may be coming to a head in 2010.

Yemen has so many dire problems that it’s easy to be overwhelmed. Al Qaeda is growing in prominence, a Shiite rebellion is expanding in the north, and the threat of secession is renewed in the south. There’s a brewing fight over what comes after President Ali Abdullah Saleh, age 67, who has ruled Yemen for 31 years; the country’s elites are locked in a closed-door struggle to take power once he departs. Finally, and perhaps most intractably, Yemen is an environmental and resource catastrophe in the making. The country’s water table is nearly depleted from years of agricultural malpractice, and its oil reserves are rapidly dwindling. This comes just when unemployment is soaring and an explosive birthrate promises only more young, jobless citizens in the coming years.

The overburdened and crisis-ridden government has never felt much urgency in dealing with this last category of concerns. But Yemen’s first two troubles, security and governance, are a combustible mix — and together they might explode in 2010 if al Qaeda consolidates its gains by taking advantage of a government in disarray. The organization, already the most regionally and economically representative of any group in the country, has only grown stronger over the past three years. Once disorganized and on the run, today al Qaeda members are putting down roots by marrying into local tribes and establishing a durable infrastructure that can survive the loss of key commanders. They have also launched a two-track policy of persuasion and intimidation, first by constructing a narrative of jihad that is broadly popular in Yemen, and second by assassinating or executing security officials who prove too aggressive in their pursuit of al Qaeda fighters. So, while U.S. President Barack Obama is busy trying to stamp out terrorist safe havens in Jalalabad and Waziristan, new ones are popping up in Marib, Shabwa, and al-Jawf.

For much of his career, Saleh has been a master manipulator, surviving three decades in power in a country where his two immediate predecessors were assassinated within a year of each other. He’s lasted so long by relying on a coterie of relatives and trusted allies. But now, the style and structure of his rule are beginning to fracture. Yemen’s economic straits mean that he has less money to maintain his patronage network or play different factions against one another. Within his own Sanhan tribe, the once-strong bonds of loyalty are starting to show signs of strain as relatives and other powerful figures scramble for position in hopes of eventually seizing the presidency themselves.

Whoever does take power in the capital of Sanaa may find there’s not much of Yemen left to rule. The country continues to dissolve into semiautonomous regions amid various rebellions, all of which feed off one another. The military’s inability to put down the insurrection in the north is emboldening calls for independence in the south, while other groups, who sense Saleh’s growing weakness, are beginning to press their own demands.

The United States has not helped matters. Washington’s continued insistence on seeing the country only through the prism of counterterrorism has induced exactly the results it is hoping to avoid. By focusing on al Qaeda to the exclusion of nearly every other threat and by linking most of its aid to this single issue, the United States has only ensured that al Qaeda will always exist.

Instead of imploding, Yemen is going to explode. And when it does, Yemen’s problems of today are going to become Saudi Arabia’s problems of tomorrow. This is already foreshadowed by Saudi involvement in the northern conflict and al Qaeda strikes from Yemen into the kingdom. By the time Obama and his team cobble together a smarter response, the time for prevention will have passed and their only option will be mopping up the mess.