Is Yemen the Next Afghanistan?

If Yemen gets by, it’s going to be with a lot of help from its friends. Fortunately, it has a few. “Yemen has rich neighbors,” Mecham noted. “It is surrounded on the Arabian Peninsula by neighbors that have much higher per capita gross domestic products that do two things for Yemen. One, they absorb massive amounts of the Yemeni workforce, so many young Yemenis go into the Gulf to work and send labor remittances home. There’s an escape valve. Two, these neighbors are all invested in Yemen remaining in its borders, and remaining somewhat stable, and are willing to provide aid. Afghanistan doesn’t have those things. If I’m a young Afghan, where am I going to go next door to work in a way that’s going to provide me with the same kind of support as Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates?”

Saudi Arabia monitors Yemeni discord like a seismograph and is effectively propping up President Saleh’s government with annual cash infusions said to be in the billions. “It kind of drowns out whatever we bring to the table,” said Carnegie’s Christopher Boucek. So when the State Department announced a Friends of Yemen initiative last year, it wasn’t paying lip service to the need for collaboration—the U.S. is neither the loudest voice nor the highest bidder in the room.

To hear Mecham describe Friends of Yemen, a policy-child of his office at State, imagine an intervention: “You’re invited into a room with all your friends looking at you, and they all have the same message.” The program brings together key stakeholders—Americans, Saudis, Europeans, smaller Gulf neighbors—to coordinate language and goals, to focus on specific projects, and to “provide the necessary tough love to help the Yemeni government recognize that it needs to make some changes that are critical to its long-term survival—and it needs to make them now.”

Friends of Yemen, which met for a third time this winter in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is designed to solve failures of international coordination. For example, it carefully orchestrates “the political messages that get delivered to President Saleh’s regime, so that there’s not a lot of message leakage. It’s also a way for a country like the U.S., which is not particularly close to Yemen, which doesn’t have very good influence, to work with people that have more influence,” Mecham said. Counterterrorism may top the list of American concerns, but U.S. officials know they can’t go it alone. “If we make it all about counterterrorism,” said Boucek, “we risk alienating the Yemeni government and Yemeni people. We risk fueling the grievances that give rise to al-Qaeda in the first place.”

In present-day Yemen, the Obama administration does not face the next Afghanistan. But depending on how deeply the U.S. militarizes its aid packages—and how those weapons are used, and whether they come at the expense of “smart” development dollars—we may midwife it. “The right metaphor for what we’re doing in Yemen,” Mecham told me, is not “saving” or “fixing” it, but “putting airbags in the car rather than actually being able to stop it from crashing.” He continued, “There are some good programs in Yemen, but the problem is whether we can move fast enough and independently enough, with clean actors, to put a little air in those airbags. It’s a long-term commitment.”

For nearly a decade, the U.S. has been living in the long shadow of an elsewhere war. In Yemen, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, the battlefield has a peculiar calculus: body counts are additive, but radicalization is exponential. For every Hellfire missile that reduces to ruin the small home where an al-Qaeda operative is hiding or a tribal leader is sitting down to dinner with his family, the cousins, brothers, and nephews who slip past death are left to pick through the char, a new kind of sorrow and disbelief on their lips. One could be forgiven for asking the same question that Maj. Gen. David Petraeus did of a Washington Post reporter in 2003, six days into the drive to Baghdad, the question that has come to haunt a generation of soldiers, insurgents, and innocents: “Tell me how this ends.”

Kevin Charles Redmon ’10 wrote “The Shadow Government” in the spring 2010 issue of the magazine.

A video interview with Quinn Mecham can be found at middmag.com.

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