Is Yemen the Next Afghanistan?

Yemen’s problems—“challenges,” Mecham often corrects himself—seem to give new definition to “inextricable.” Yemen is intractably poor. Slightly less than half of Yemenis live on less than $2 a day; slightly more than half can read. Its growth rate is unmatched in the Arab world: the average woman gives birth to more than five children, and each year more farmers abandon their land and head for the sprawling cities. On the U.N.’s most recent gender inequality index, Yemen was at the very bottom.

The capital is running out of fresh water, draining aquifers and pumping nonrenewable “fossil water.” Khat, a leafy, mild narcotic chewed by most men on a near-daily basis, is a cash crop that provides agricultural jobs to rural Yemenis, but growing it is water-intensive; irrigation is nonexistent, and it’s estimated that the plant sucks up 40 percent of Yemen’s water resources. But khat is also part of the warp and weft of male Yemeni society. “It’s where a lot of Yemeni politics gets done,” Mecham said. “It doesn’t get done in legislature. It gets done in the khat chew.”

Geographically, Yemen has less in common with the Arab Gulf’s petrocracies than with the Horn of Africa, and it has none of the Saudis’ resource wealth. Within the next decade, the country will run out of oil, and when the hydrocarbons dry up, so will Yemen’s cash flow. In a country where unemployment is officially low-balled at 35 percent and the suspension of diesel subsidies recently incited riots, cash flowing into the economy helps keep discontent at a dull roar.

The man most concerned about this dull roar, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, has been in power since 1978, first as a military officer in the north’s Yemen Arab Republic, and later, after reunification with the Marxist south in 1990, as an autocrat. In 1994, he put down a full-blown civil war that threatened to disintegrate the country. From Sana’a, he manipulates a tangle of patronage networks, setting tribal leaders and hungry supporters against one another, alternately creating conflicts and solving them. It’s an expensive game, but he plays a deft hand.

On the ground, Saleh is hemmed in by groups threatening to topple his fragile constructions. To the north, in provinces along the Saudi border, the six-year-old al-Houthi Revolt, which began as a Shia revivalist movement, has become an insurgency. To the south, a secessionist movement continues to smolder, fed by inflation and endemic corruption. “At a bare minimum, people in the southern movement have real grievances about discrimination and resource distribution,” Mecham told me. Oil money flows only one direction in Yemen—toward Sana’a—and the south has little real development. (Since the 2000 al-Qaeda attack on the USS Cole, Aden, a once-booming southern port, has gone quiet.) And in 2009, one of Saleh’s own, a former mujahid in Afghanistan, defected to the southern movement, where he has become an outspoken secessionist. “Saleh survives not from Islamic legitimacy but from an extensive network of patronage,” Mecham said. “And that patronage is tied both to close associates and to families and tribes. So when he wakes up in the morning, he asks himself, ‘Given all the threats that I face, what do I need to do to best survive?’”

With their forbidding geographies, narcotic-strewn fields, fractured tribalism, resource scarcity, internecine civil conflicts, pockets of virulent Islamism, and atrophied economies, it’s seductively simple to compare Afghanistan in the eighties to the Yemen of today, looking for a template or, better, a carbon copy. Caveat emptor.

“What I get most nervous about with people making explicit comparisons between Yemen and Afghanistan,” Mecham told me, “is that we’ve come to the conclusion in Afghanistan that there are parts of Afghanistan that require a military solution. That is not clear in Yemen. Another difference is that in Afghanistan you have a big political movement, Islamist in orientation, which overlaps into Pakistan and has lots of places it can retreat to; it’s a major political force that is very anti-American. Yemen doesn’t have that.”

He continued, “There’s just nothing Taliban-like there. There’s no war to fight. The U.S. could not send an army and know who their enemy was. So when you attack or militarize this conflict, it takes tribal leaders that have, right now, very little sympathy for al-Qaeda, and suddenly projects an enemy on them.”

What it means to be al-Qaeda in Yemen matters, too. “Yeah, their affiliation is with al-Qaeda,” Mecham said, “but they have cross-cutting identities, so they’re also the cousin of some guy in Hadramout. He’s the cousin of some tribal leader, and, you know, this tribal leader may not like al-Qaeda but he’s not going to kick out a cousin because he has the wrong stripe of political activism. You don’t just cut him off.”

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