by M.S. Ahmed
Before his meeting with US president George W. Bush at the White House on November 27, all that president Abdullah Ali Saleh was prepared to do to accommodate Washington’s concerns about “anti-US terrorists” in Yemen was to expel a group of ‘Arab Afghans’ allegedly allied to Usama bin Ladin, and to take steps to prevent fleeing al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters or supporters from entering his country.
But since then he has thrown caution to the winds, ordering his security forces to attack tribal groups whose leaders the Americans wanted arrested for sheltering pro-bin Ladin terrorists. Such a move is fraught with danger and can lead to widespread unrest in a country that is strongly tribal and was fighting a civil war as recently as 1994. According to tribal and Islamic sources, the Yemeni armed forces were supported by US helicopters and aircraft in the operations, although the US denies any involvement. However, US forces may have been involved without Washington wanting it to be known.
Saleh, who is shrewd enough to have retained power in a divided society for more than 20 years, knows that Yemeni tribes are not averse to combat and are armed to the teeth, so he has avoided antagonising them in the past. He must also know that the unification of North and South Yemen, over which he had the honour of presiding, can be undone by military campaigns against the Yemeni tribes.
The military campaign began in earnest on December 18, when helicopter gunships backed by tanks stormed a “hideout used by bin Ladin’s supporters”, as Western media reports put it. The move, said to be the first military operation of its kind since the events of September 11 in the US, came almost a fortnight after Edmund Hull, the American ambassador to Yemen, announced the adoption of anti-terrorism arrangements by Sana and Washington. Hull said that the two had agreed on “practical and important measures to combat terrorism”. The operation, carried out in the Marib province, 140 kilometres (85 miles) east of the capital, Sana, led to the deaths of 18 people, including soldiers, and 25 others being injured.
The following day, special army units led by president Saleh’s son, Colonel Ahmed, were sent into two eastern provinces. A Reuters report quoted a security official as saying that the “special units led by Colonel Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh have been dispatched to support army units in Marib and Shabwa provinces.” The fact that Colonel Ahmed is head of Yemen’s Republican Guard, the elite force in charge of protecting the government, suggests that his father, who is also a colonel, can only trust his own son and is not willing to take chances with his life by giving responsibility for his protection to another officer. That he is willing to take chances with the safety of his own country is made abundantly clear by the fact that extensive operations are now in progress in no less than three provinces — Marib, Shabwa and Jouf— and are expected to spread.
It is true that in Yemen security forces and tribal bandits are often on the brink of clashing, and that individuals who frequently kidnap foreign tourists and even diplomats are pursued. Kidnappers do not always demand ransom; they have been known to demand instead the release of friends and colleagues arrested by the government. But the authorities have before always shown restraint, preferring to use tribal channels to defuse crises rather than resort to military actions. Even when ‘suspected terrorists’ bombed the USS Cole in Aden harbour in October 2000, killing 17 American sailors, Sana did not act aggressively against those ‘terrorist groups’ to which the two suicide bombers allegedly belonged. After arresting several suspects and interrogating them, the Yemeni authorities declared the investigations closed and refused to share their evidence with the FBI team in Sana, which were later withdrawn for “safety reasons”.
Commentators in both the Arab world and the western media have recognised the sudden change in Yemen’s attitude that the military operations display, and attribute it to strong US pressure on Sana and to the September 11 incidents in the US. Public statements by US leaders to the effect that the war in Afghanistan will be taken next to Yemen, the Sudan and Somalia are also thought to have played a large part in persuading president Saleh to act to avert a US military campaign. But the commentators naturally differ in their attitude towards the change, with some hailing it as a desirable development and others condemning it as a capitulation, not characteristic of president Saleh, that could engulf Yemen in civil war.
An editorial in the Washington Post on December 24 has aptly illustrated the first attitude, and an editorial in the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi daily on December 20 the second. The Post noted that only six days before September 11 Saleh had “boasted of how he had denied the US access to his country and forced it to surrender to his terms.” It concluded that the “shock” of September 11 on the US began to “change Yemeni minds” but that the most effective influence was the “destruction of the Afghan Taliban regime, and the frequent public statements by senior Bush administration officials.” It welcomed the change as a “small but significant breakthrough” in the war against terrorism, and as a sign of the Bush administration’s current ability to “exercise powerful leverage over Middle Eastern government, both friendly and unfriendly”.
The al-Quds al-Arabi editorial, on the other hand, saw the military operations as a dangerous gamble that could catapult Yemen into another civil war. Noting Saleh’s past cautious approach, based on his knowledge of the political realities in Yemen, the editorial concluded that his change of direction was the result of US pressure and threat of military intervention. Citing Yemen’s social and tribal structure, and many Yemenis’ frustration with current political realities, it feared that the killing of so many people and the destruction of several tribal leaders’ houses during the military operations would lead to social unrest.
But misgivings about the efficacy of military operations and the American military and financial ‘aid’ to president Saleh have also been expressed by western diplomats who are familiar with Yemen’s political scene and history.
Stephen Day, a former British ambassador in the Middle East, considers the very idea to be “bizarre”. He was quoted in the London-based Financial Times on December 19 as saying: “The idea of US troops or the FBI going back to Yemen and trying to help president Saleh control the activists is bizarre. The great lesson of the 120-year British presence in Yemen was that , far from being peacekeepers, the military presence was the cause of extremism.”
If Saleh continues to ignore this lesson, his country could be thrown into military and political turmoil, which Yemeni unity and his own regime might not survive.
The US, which of course would survive any turmoil in Yemen, would not rue the loss of his regime or Yemeni unity. It may be safer after all for Saleh and his country to ignore US pressure and not risk military intervention. If such intervention occurs, the Yemeni people will fight on his side against a foreign enemy, rather than confront him as they would if he chooses to give in to Washington.