Is Yemen the Next Afghanistan?

Not long ago, political science professor Quinn Mecham was in Aceh, Sumatra, a once-rebellious Indonesian province and ground zero of the 2004 tsunami that swept more than 230,000 lives out to sea. Hopping a bush flight up and over the mountains to Meulaboh, a remote and deeply conservative city where Sharia law had been recently enacted with some vigor, Mecham and his U.S. State Department colleagues went in search of the governor and his religious police. Public shamings and canings were causing a stir among aid groups, whose projects dotted the post-disaster landscape. The governor told him that the Muslim community was tight-knit, and so the laws were quite popular, Mecham recalled recently. “When I left, he gave me a dagger.”

Later, talking to a British aid worker, Mecham heard a different explanation. “During the war of rebellion, tons of men were killed. Shortly after that, when the tsunami hit, a disproportionate number of women were killed—men tend to work inland, while children, women, and grandmothers live down by the coast. Suddenly there was a rebalancing of the genders, and lots of singles. There was this new dating season, and marriage season—and it’s now adultery season. People are disillusioned with these second marriages.” Sharia law was an effective way to pull the community back together, to tighten social strictures and save patched-together families. “I don’t think the governor would have told me that story. But I found it quite compelling.”

“Compelling” is high praise from a scholar and tarnished idealist whose travels through the darker corners of the world have left him with a lingering mistrust of simple explanations. On a leaden-skied September afternoon, over lunch at the Storm Café, in Middlebury, Mecham was trying to find compelling answers to the question of Yemen. “You could make a laundry list of problems facing Yemen,” he said, between bites of potato garlic soup and a deconstructing sandwich, “some of which are going to matter a lot more than others.” Draining aquifers, oil wells that will soon pump only mud, a violent insurgency in the north and a secessionist movement in the south, endemic corruption, and an agile despot for a president—any of these alone would weaken a country. Together, they may collapse it.

Failed modern states are rare; Somalia is one. And the sudden rise of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), out in the rugged Yemeni desert, with its series of near-successful terrorist attacks, invites comparison to another: Afghanistan. The U.S. has spent nine years and $336 billion in a spectacular effort to simultaneously right Afghanistan and fight a war there. One wonders if Yemen needs our help, and if it could survive it.

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