Is Yemen Next on the U.S. Hit List?

By all accounts, official as well as those in the print and other media, it was a close call. The 23 year-old Nigerian, with a Muslim name, nearly succeeded in blowing up a Delta Airlines flight, from Amsterdam to Detroit, in mid-air. The would-be bomber, overpowered by other passengers, had begun his journey in Lagos, Nigeria. But before that he is believed to have received training in terrorist acts from Al Qaeda in Yemen.

For quite sometime now, especially since the American forces started getting bogged down in Afghanistan and a resurgent Taliban got a visible upper hand in the moribund ‘war on terror,’ the U.S. intelligence community, amply aided and abetted by the news media has been hollering of Al Qaeda casting its net wider beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan. The success of the Pakistani army in hounding out the Pakistani Taliban and their Al Qaeda sympathizers from sensitive areas of Pakistan has been cited as another compulsion on Al Qaeda to look for other, more accommodating sanctuaries.
Yemen is where the Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden hails from. The rugged, inhospitable, terrain of Yemen is where Osama has his ancestral roots. But Yemen has been a cockpit of internecine war among its own people, not only now but in the past decades, too. It had fought a costly civil war before the two halves of Yemen decided to become one country at the close of the decade of 80s when the patron of the Socialist South Yemen, the erstwhile Soviet Union, itself ran out of steam and crumbled.

The U.S. intelligence wizards have long suspected Yemen to be a fertile breeding ground for Al Qaeda-and a hard-to-scour training ground for terrorists. Osama bin Laden is believed to have a cult following among the ill-educated and unemployed youth of Yemen, which ranks as the poorest member state of the Arab League. The number of Yemeni detainees at the infamous American ‘Gulag’ of Guantanamo testified to the U.S. sensitivity with regard to Yemen as an active bastion of Al Qaeda. Even today, Yemen has the largest contingent-90-of its nationals among those still languishing at this notorious and tortuous prison.

Yemen was also the site of the 2000 bombing of a U.S. naval vessel, USS Cole, which saw 17 American sailors killed. It was an incident that rudely rattled American nerves ahead of the cataclysmic events of 9/11 a year later. Once again, in 2008, there was a brazen attack on the American Embassy in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, in which one American was killed.

Perhaps because of the notoriety that his country had acquired with the Americans that President Ali Abdullah Saleh was one of the first Arab rulers to have denounced the ghastly tragedy of 9/11 and offered every co-operation to the U.S. administration to combat the scourge of terrorism, of which his country had also been a victim. But the arrogant Bush administration, with its vision blurred by an intoxicating crusading sense and ambition, embarrassed Saleh publicly when, in 2003, during his presence in Washington it announced a hefty cut in the American economic assistance to Yemen. Saleh was even further incensed by the accusation, again publicly aired, that his government was corrupt and because of it Washington was chopping off good chunks of assistance to it.

President Saleh has, however, remained steadfast in his commitment to fight terrorism and actively abet American efforts to eradicate the menace. He may feel compelled to stay on the right side of the Americans because he’s engaged in a sectarian conflict in the north of his country-in which the Saudis have also become his allies as they see in it an insidious campaign by their arch-rival, Iran, to stoke the fires of discontent and resentment among the Shia Zaidis of northern Yemen, sitting too closely to the Saudi border. Saleh is also saddled with a potentially explosive insurgency in the south, where socialist influences are still fairly strong and there is a seething resentment of being willfully deprived of their rights among the people of the south.

Washington, keenly aware of these brush-fires in Yemen-a huge landmass as big as France, with a difficult and daunting terrain-nursing the potential of flaring up into a full blown civil war that could only further weaken the tenuous hold of an autocratic Ali Abdullah Saleh, and augment Al Qaeda’s influence on the Yemeni youths, now seems to be focusing more intently on salvaging the situation.

But the U.S. angst is not so much because Yemen may disintegrate or splinter-which would be critically adverse for American efforts to combat the Al Qaeda menace in that country and those surrounding it. The greater cause of concern is on account of Yemen serving as a forward base of Al Qaeda for the spread of its influence in the neighbouring Arab countries a swell as, more ominously, into Africa. The fact that Somalia-a country that has been a crucible of conflict for two decades-is within hailing distance of Yemen works to raise the concern in Washington to the level of alarm. Somalia is where the Americans were bitten nastily in 1993 and had to withdraw in the kind of precipitous haste reminiscent of a similar exodus from Lebanon a decade earlier.

No wonder that the abortive attempt by the Al Qaeda-brain-washed Nigerian youth to stage a murderous attempt, right on Christmas day, has jolted the Obama administration into hectic and urgent action, which may seem more like a knee-jerk reaction to some observers ( closing down the American Embassy in Sanaa for three days was certainly like hitting the panic button prematurely).

The new, stiffer, security measures imposed on travellers heading to U.S. from any part of the world is just one early reaction to a tragedy-in-the-making that was luckily averted by a hair- breadth. But travellers from 14 mainly Muslim countries, named in a sort of ‘black list,’ will be accorded ‘special treatment’ at U.S. airports, including full body search and interrogation. These countries include Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Yemen, among others.

The Obama administration is being led into imposing extra security measures because of an insidious and vituperative campaign of vilification headed by, none other than, an incontinent hawk like Bush’s Vice-President, Dick Cheney. Cheney should, in an ideal and law-abiding world, be hauled before an international tribunal or criminal court for his gross abuse of power and violations of international law, especially one governing the treatment of prisoners of war. Cheney, along with Bush’s Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, should be a most deserving candidate for being tried for crimes against humanity. These two notorious Bush aides were the authors of torture of prisoners transported to Guantanamo, as well as those kept at secret CIA locations around the world and also rendered to countries like Egypt and Syria where torture was practiced as a matter of routine against prisoners.

Cheney seems to have taken upon himself to wage a one-man crusade against Obama and his policies from public speaking stumps, to which adoring fans from the American conservative and hawkish echelons are drawn in large numbers. Cheney’s punch-line against President Obama-whom he obviously seems to dislike viscerally-is that the liberal-minded president is making U.S. and Americans less safe because of his more accommodating policies.

Irrespective of whether Cheney is being deliberately ignorant or calculatedly mischievous, his blatant arm-twisting is forcing Obama’s hand. The president is, no doubt about it, being saddled with the onerous task to prove himself effective and alive to the call of national security and not be seen as soft or irresolute about it.

So, understandably, in the wake of the latest security mishap, while on the one hand air travel security measures are receiving a major overhaul to make them impregnable to terrorism, Obama, on the other hand, is also focusing his administration’s gaze more intently, if not exactly ominously, yet, on Yemen, Osama’s homeland, and the latest hatchery of terrorists feared by U.S.

President Obama’s team of principal advisers and aides is getting quickly aligned into action to give the appearance of an administration seriously involved in counter-measures. General David Petraeus, chief of the Central Command of U.S. military forces overseeing the two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, has been rushed to Sanaa in a surprise visit. After conferring with President Saleh, Petraeus announced the doubling of the $ 67 million Yemen received from Washington, in 2009, for counter-terrorism.

But typical of a governance posture honed by George W. Bush as his trade-mark, the Obama administration isn’t shying away from letting the world know that no options are being ‘taken off’ the table as far as broad policy measures in regard to Yemen are concerned. When asked by reporters if U.S. troops might be dispatched to Yemen, Obama’s top counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, answered: "We’re not talking about that at this point at all." However, he committed to provide the Yemeni Government with "the wherewithal" to take on Al Qaeda and dismantle its setup.

This is a clear indication that the use of force, by the U.S. on it own, or through an obliging government in Sanaa, is not being ruled out. Obama himself and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, too have forcefully articulated the need to combat the threat Al Qaeda poses to U.S. interests, and the interests of its allies in the region and the world over.

Yemen is getting into the cross-hairs of U.S. not just because it has become another  outpost of Al Qaeda, which, per se, should be a casus belli for a global military power that has made the war against terror as its most defining aspect of policy in the prevailing world order. Yemen is also becoming a fall-back position for the U.S. in regard to its current difficulties in dealing with both the Taliban and Al Qaeda threat in Afghanistan.

There are visible indicators that Obama, besides injecting another large dose of muscle power into Afghanistan is also desperately looking for an exit strategy. It would be a tough call for him to save face and get out of there relatively unscathed against a Taliban rebounding with force and enjoying the advantages of home terrain. However, if in the process the focus could also shift to Yemen it would serve as a kind of escape chute to Obama to cover up the likely debacle in Afghanistan.

Will the American people buy another theatre of operation is another matter. On the face of it, it would be a hard sell after the colossal toll of $ 1.3 trillion squandered over the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and with the American economy still not out of the woods. On top of it, more than 4000 soldiers have been killed in Iraq alone, not to mention more than a 100,000 Iraqi victims of the American adventure, most of them civilians. The casualty toll in Afghanistan isn’t as high as in Iraq but the prospect of an intensive campaign to come-a kind of last hurrah by the Americans-a casualty upsurge is a distinct possibility.

It’s highly unlikely that U.S. military involvement in Yemen, whenever that happens, would involve land forces or a full scale invasion on the lines of Iraq and Afghanistan. The forbidding Yemeni terrain should dent any such scenario. But the use of American air power, especially Drone attacks of the kind inflicted on the northern areas of Pakistan with impunity, is a plausible option. That would also be an easier sell to the American people fed up with wars of no results or, at best, shady outcomes.

But with all these pros and cons on the drawing board before him, President Obama will have to convince himself, before anybody else, that a continuation of the Bush syndrome of pre-emptive military adventures, an embodiment of George Orwell’s allusion to a state perpetually at war, would be the best option for him and the American people.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 January 2010 on page no. 26

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