Don’t Break It
Why there's still hope for Yemen.
The Romans, notoriously tough to impress when it came to the barbarians on the fringes of their empire, knew Yemen as Arabia Felix, or Happy Araby. A few thousand years later, Yemen remains a surprisingly easy place for visitors to fall under the spell of. For one thing, there’s just the way the country looks and feels — Yemen’s isolation, its lack of wealth, and a predilection for harboring al Qaeda members that scares away all investors and development, leave the country a rare and generally lovely remnant of old Arabia.
Elsewhere in the Arab world, you see office parks and Sheratons. When you walk through Yemen’s 2,000-year-old capital, Sanaa, you still see arthritic camels turning stone mills to grind out olive oil, and blacksmiths blowing on coals in hole-in-the-wall smithies. Yemen’s architecture is beautiful, and largely innocent of the modern era — the entire old city of the capital is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Yemen’s traditional buildings are designed against the desert, so that tall brick homes shade narrow streets and stained-glass windows in every home cut the glare. The sun-raked landscape is dramatic; stark stone cliffs cut by irrigated green valleys. Many of the people are friendly and curious about the ways of the world outside. Even now, with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Yemeni officials and ordinary citizens, and even many figures on the fringes of law and order, are cordial to Americans, welcoming them into homes and soliciting their opinions on local and world affairs, over rounds of coffee. Westerners remain uncommon enough that children sometimes call out to them in the streets; but Westerners remain tolerated enough that the children don’t throw rocks. That’s always nice. If you’re an American and al Qaeda doesn’t kill you on a visit to Yemen, odds are you’ll love the place.
Thanks to Yemen’s isolation, combined with what in many Yemenis seems to be inexperience in the ways of the outside world; a Yemeni tradition of hospitality; and perhaps a certain naïvete about the motivations and controllability of smiling visitors, Yemen can be as easy a place for foreign correspondents to work in as it is for al Qaeda. Within hours of calling up the foreign minister for an interview on one trip, I was in his home, listening to him complain that U.S. travel warnings, which had come after repeated al Qaeda attacks on foreigners, were killing Yemen’s tourist business. Yemenis’ addiction to chewing khat, a stimulant, and their tendency toward late-night business meetings lead the country’s lawmakers and cabinet ministers to be a little more voluble than they ought. Outsiders help break the tedium for Yemenis — one evening I ended the daily Ramadan-holiday fast with a former bodyguard of Osama bin Ladin, Nasser al-Bahri, now a self-proclaimed retired jihadi and businessman in Sanaa. Idle as any retiree, the ex-Qaeda figure, still a devotee of bin Laden, spoke with me for hours over dinner, than tagged along afterward to a travel agency to sit and talk for another half-hour while I waited to change a plane ticket.
Accessibility of hard-liners in Yemen is such that within hours of a deadly September 2008 attack on the U.S. Embassy that the United States and Yemen blamed on al Qaeda, I was sitting in a hotel lobby in the capital interviewing the Islamist brother-in-law of Abdul Majid al-Zindani. The United States calls Zindani a prominent recruiter and supplier for al Qaeda. The brother-in-law boasted that al Qaeda in Yemen now was stronger than the government. In Afghanistan, when other reporters and I were covering the advance of the U.S.-allied Northern Alliance in 2001, we used to joke about sticking at the end of our stories, "The Taliban were not available for comment." In Yemen, the other side in the United States’ proclaimed war on terror is almost always available for comment.
My Yemeni experiences talking with courteous, even affable, men who endorsed attacks on all Americans while politely trying to avoid giving offense to the American immediately present underscored for me as much as any bombing the pervasive and daily nature of the threat that al Qaeda and its allies pose to the United States.
But my overall experiences in Yemen — including the hospitality, the friendliness and openness of almost all of the Yemenis I met, and my perception of the country’s isolation, inwardness and poverty — lead me to believe that Yemen remains a country with wriggle room, where religious extremists cannot count on overwhelming sway and support. Yemen is a country that’s weirdly bent, but isn’t yet fully broken. We Americans shouldn’t break it. The average Yemeni does not yet appear to entirely hate us, and U.S. prospects for checking al Qaeda here, if Americans are smart and diligent about it, still seem reasonable. Behaving as we did in the first years of our Afghanistan and Iraq engagements — for example, carrying out repeated strikes on suspected Qaeda targets on what often was weak intelligence, with little regard for civilian lives and with scant understanding of local political fault lines — would turn Yemenis against the United States, and toward religious militants. Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s call last month for "pre-emptive" action in Yemen, evoking the Bush administration’s build-up to the invasion of Iraq, was vague, but uncomfortably bellicose.
Yemen is not yet Afghanistan under the Taliban, nor is it neighboring Saudi Arabia, home to the harsher Wahabbi branch of Sunni Islam. Most of Yemen’s Sunnis are Shafii, members of a branch founded by a studious 8th-century cleric known for traveling everywhere with a camel laden by books. Recent attempts by Yemeni clerics to introduce Saudi-style morals police in Yemen were widely unpopular.
Yemen is unique in that its president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is a Shiite governing over a majority-Sunni country. Saleh’s government has tried to play a double game with al Qaeda and the United States; his defense minister even admitted enlisting al Qaeda and other Sunni religious extremists for the government’s fight against a Shiite rebellion in Yemen’s north. Western diplomats also accuse Saleh of long enjoying a de facto gentlemen’s agreement with al Qaeda, in which he allowed Qaeda figures to live in Yemen as long as they didn’t include strikes against Saleh’s government or other targets in the country. For a Shiite leader intent on presenting himself to Western governments as cooperative, Saleh’s accommodation with Sunni al Qaeda doesn’t seem like such a good idea.
The new generation of al Qaeda and its allies has broken that arrangement, killing a number of European tourists in Yemen and occasionally striking Yemeni security forces, as in a July 2008 attack on a police station that killed one security officer. Saleh will undoubtedly meet some U.S. demands for increased action against al Qaeda, but his government will face stepped-up attacks by al Qaeda and its allies as a result. For the United States, easy options are few.
But there are some reasonable options for the United States in Yemen. Save for Lieberman, most informed observers in and out of the U.S. government seem to be stressing, correctly, that the United States should remain behind the scenes as much as possible in its fight against al Qaeda in Yemen, to avoid a popular backlash. The U.S. military’s increased emphasis on taking care to limit civilian casualties in Afghanistan is therefore a good policy for U.S. strikes in Yemen. And well-targeted U.S. aid and development projects — as opposed to throwing millions and millions of dollars at U.S. contractors, as has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan — could go far. Yemen’s basic needs are many, even for agricultural development, for example. The United Nations says Yemen has one of the highest child-malnutrition rates in the world, with nearly half of Yemeni children malnourished. (That’s owing in part to Yemenis’ khat addiction, which takes water away from food crops to grow the chaw.)
Even the U.S. moves to beef up Yemen’s counterterrorism forces could turn out to be a good idea — although whole branches of some of Yemen’s security forces are seen as unreliable, and Saleh has not been loath to turn his warplanes against Shiite civilians in the area of the northern rebellion, according to accounts from survivors among the civilians. (The government has blocked foreign reporters for years from travel to the site of the northern rebellion. However chatty its officials, Yemen’s not entirely ideal for foreign reporters.) And given the refusal or inability of Saleh’s government to arrest or re-arrest many of the al Qaeda figures wandering freely around some areas of the country, releasing more Guantánamo inmates to Yemen now seems a bad idea.
The United States already knows from its first years in Afghanistan and Iraq how to do it wrong, compelling a bigger infusion of U.S. troops in the latter years. In Yemen, for once, there seems to be an opportunity for smart and attentive efforts to do it right.
Update: The sentence reading "The United Nations says Yemen has one of the highest child-malnutrition rates in Africa" was corrected to state "The United Nations says Yemen has one of the highest child-malnutrition rates in the world." FP regrets the error.