Yemen fever has reached the second most-searched topic on Yahoo! in large part because President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s opening hand to al-Qaeda.
“Dialogue is the best way... even with al-Qaeda, if they set aside their weapons and return to reason," Saleh said in an interview with Abu Dhabi TV.
The veracity of his statement was supported by what many Yemenis and US officials fear. A corresponding AP interview with Ali Mohammed Omar, who fought during Afghanistan’s post-Soviet era form 1990 to 1992.
"Any movement against al-Qaeda will lead to the fall of the Yemeni regime," he said, warning that US attacks would cause, “the whole (Yemeni) people will become al-Qaeda. Instead of 30 or 40 people, it would become millions... If the government draws them into a fight, they will fight the government.”
Omar has certainly heard of David Kilcullen’s book The Accidental Guerrilla, or else has lived it.
US officials cannot be happy with President Saleh’s latest remarks though; this is the last thing they want to hear. Conversely, this is roughly what Yemenis want to hear. Most average citizens won’t flock to al-Qaeda in the millions as Omar suggests, but neither do they want America bringing its war into their daily lives.
Contrary to US officials who believe al-Qaeda's Yemen arm is luring them in, al-Qaeda has maintained a presence in the country for over a decade. The activity has picked up because of Afghanistan, but that was always the flaw of President Obama’s strategy.
A key difference exists between Afghanistan and Yemen. While al-Qaeda came to Afghanistan and Pakistan for jihad, it has a natural history in Yemen rooted in Osama bin Laden’s personal history. Rather than moving into Yemen, as America view the situation, al-Qaeda has always been in Yemen.
Thus America is likely to appear as the bringer of war rather than al-Qaeda, generally speaking.
As a result Yemen’s government is open to dialogue with al-Qaeda, a local actor, in order to tone down American rhetoric and military pressure. Saleh’s offer to talk may be hallow, but it gives the impression of independence while playing to his domestic audience, which is growing anxious about America’s plan of action.
Yemen isn’t in a position to deal blows to al-Qaeda, which risks alienating its ideological sympathizers.
Ali Saif Hassan, who runs a Yemeni group that mediates between the government and opposition, said those with extremist thoughts, “are everywhere, in the government, in the military, among the tribes and the wealthy... it is difficult to draw the line between who is a fundamentalist and who is al-Qaeda.”
Ultimately President Saleh is powerless to move against al-Qaeda in the way the White House demands, raising the risk of unilateral US military operations. Such a course would be ignorant.
The real reason Saleh just extended a dialogue to al-Qaeda is likely found in the Dhale, Lahaj, Shabwa and Abyan provinces of southern Yemen, far from the Governorate of Sa'dah. Here we find all shops shut, transportation halted, and tens of thousands of protesters rallying against government policy and alleged oppression.
Sporadic clashes broke out after the Southern Movement, a secessionist movement, called for “acts of disobedience.” The government, they say, is ignoring their demands.
It’s clear that Yemen will never be able to engage al-Qaeda as America demands until its secessionist movements in the north and south are resolved. These issues alone will take years of earnest progress, decades with half-measures. Yemen’s government is said to reach not much further than outside the capital, Sana’a.
Saleh knows this, which is why he’s trying to mitigate military force against al-Qaeda.
A parallel has developed. As Americans want Obama to fix health care and the economy instead of Afghanistan, so too do Yemenis want their government to concentrate on domestic issues, like unemployment. Too much focus on America’s problems and Yemenis will become angry that their own problems are second-fiddle.
And Omar’s theory may start playing if US officials keep pressing for specific action on al-Qaeda while avoiding every other problem in Yemen.