Amid an intensifying US effort to curb Al Qaeda activity in Yemen, locals in this impoverished country are worried that a focus on military aid alone could backfire – spawning a more robust militant movement and potentially drawing the US into an Afghanistan-like war.
In a smoke-filled hall in the capital of Sanaa, where men gather to chew the mildly intoxicating leaves of the qat tree and smoke water pipes, most of the talk is about Al-Qaeda and American intentions in Yemen.
“By God, they want to turn this country into Afghanistan,” declares Mohammad al-Jaffi, a young man who says he fled the Arhab area, a mountainous region just north of Sanaa, after a recent attack on a suspected Al Qaeda hideout. On Monday, the government said it killed two Al Qaeda members in the Arhab region.
“We are not radicals here,” Mr. Jaffi adds, his cheek bulging with the pulpy green leaves that strict Salafis -- the Muslim sect that Al Qaeda members belong to -- consider forbidden. Holding up a qat branch, he yells, “Look at this. We all chew this here – in Afghanistan, in Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabis would kill us for chewing qat.”
But US and other foreign diplomats are clearly concerned. France, Germany, and Japan all closed their embassies Monday, following US and British closures the previous day, amid reports that a significant amount of explosives had gone missing from the Yemeni army.
'Exclusive focus on Al Qaeda a mistake'
With the reported surge in Al-Qaeda activity in Yemen, the Obama administration has reiterated its “partnership” with the increasingly vulnerable regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who faces a rebellion in the north and secessionists in the south. Gen. David Petraeus, who as head of the US Central Command (CENTCOM) is overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, announced on Jan. 1 that the US would double military aid to Yemen after allocating a reported $70 million in 2009.
It has been widely reported that the US is also providing the Yemeni government with intelligence and military trainers. Britain, meanwhile, has announced that it will fund an antiterror police force. Such a sole focus on suspected terrorism is seen as a mistake by some experts as well as locals.
“I think an exclusive focus on Al Qaeda to the exclusion of every other threat in Yemen is a mistake,” says Gregory Johnsen, a Princeton PhD candidate who was recently in Yemen for his research on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). “Viewing this threat only through the prism of Al Qaeda induces exactly the kind of result the US is hoping to avoid.”
Locals in two provinces often cited as Al Qaeda strongholds, Al-Jawf and Marib, are more concerned with severe poverty – an issue they say the central government has done little to alleviate.
“This government does not care about us. Everything we have, we have to fight for – to get money for a school or medicine we have to block the road. This is all they listen to,” says Ahmad al-Nasri. “By God the tribe is all we have, it is what protects us.”
Mr. Johnsen says that development aid is “crucial” in Marib and Al-Jawf, but disputes the popular depiction of Yemen as a place with large areas that are totally ungovernable.
“The government doesn’t appear to be able to constantly control these areas,” he acknowledges, citing recent flare-ups between tribal leaders and the government. “But the image of Yemen being a Wild West ... is not necessarily accurate."
Yemeni government offices in Sanaa were closed and the Yemeni embassy in Washington was unable to comment before press time.
A potentially greater destabilizing influence than militancy in Yemen is water shortages, which are already the root of a large percentage of the inter-tribal fighting that plagues the country.
The UN has ranked Yemen as one of the most water-scarce countries, and one local geology professor has estimated that Sanaa’s wells will go dry by 2015 at current usage rates. The country is in desperate need of investment in new drip irrigation systems and water conservation measures.
“Look at these apricot trees,” says Mohammad Faris, who owns an orchard on the outskirts of Sanaa that once flourished. “Half of them are dead from lack of water.”
“We don’t need more guns in this country,” declares Mr. Faris as he stands among the parched remains of what used to be fertile ground. “This village needs a new water pump and we need new trees that drink less water.”
Increased sympathy for Al Qaeda?
Many locals emphasize that the country’s primary need is development aid, which has in the past been hampered by international concerns about government corruption. But some say they’re ready to fight if the US comes – a prospect that as yet looks unlikely, though Sen. Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut recently suggested that without preemptive action a future war may occur.
“We have a long history of fighting invaders here,” says Ismail Hadi, a village elder in the rugged mountainous province of Hajjah, not far from the sectarian war being fought against Houthi rebels. As he looks out over his terraces of qat trees that cascade down towards a deep canyon, he adds, “We fought the Turks, we fought the Egyptians, God willing we will fight the Americans when they come.”
Back at the Sanaa qat hall, Uithman al- Ansi echoes that sentiment.
“If the Americans want a fight they will get it,” says Mr. Ansi as he grabs the hilt of his jambiya, the traditional dagger carried by many men here. Another man who says he is from Marib, one of the two frequently cited Al Qaeda strongholds, suggests that US attacks or support for attacks on suspected militants could increase the number of Al Qaeda sympathizers in Yemen.
“The Americans don’t know our customs,” says the man. “When they attacked al-Harithi [a suspected Al-Qaeda member who was targeted by a US drone in November 2002] on our lands, his people became our guests. We have long memories.”
Christa Case Bryant contributed reporting from Boston.