May 10, 2011

Saleh Replays al-Qaeda Card

Powerful moments in history possess the capability to imprint a time, location and activity on a memory. 9/11 naturally stamped this impression onto the collective American consciousness, as did the death of Osama bin Laden. However the latter event, putting conspiracy theories aside, tasted more artificial due to the breathless anchors from ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN, all of which made direct references to “remembering where you were.”

Yemeni protesters remember where they were. As the U.S. public celebrated into the night, leaders of the various street coalitions gathered to debate a response to bin Laden’s death. Automatically recognizing the impact on their revolution, Yemeni activists accepted one overriding fact as concrete: President Ali Abdullah Saleh will exploit bin Laden’s death in any way possible. Saleh has attempted (and failed) to disconnect the youth from the rest of the revolution during his national addresses, a plan designed to link Yemen’s uprising with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

He’s also slandered the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) - the only group he’s willing to negotiate with - as “bandits” of AQAP’s network. Expecting the same treatment, bin Laden’s triggered warnings from protester leaders to keep the focus on Saleh.

Yemen’s embattled president further fulfilled these expectations last Thursday, when a U.S. drone strike targeted AQAP cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in the southern Shabwah governorate. The unsuccessful attack demonstrated Washington’s intent to continue military operations in Yemen regardless of the political situation, not that protesters found this surprising. Many have since expressed fear that, with U.S. attention already turning away from Afghanistan, Yemen will become the decisive battleground between America and al-Qaeda.

Of even less shock, however, was the information that followed: Saleh had increased the intelligence flow to Washington since the revolution began. Immediately realizing the appreciation of AQAP’s value with bin Laden dead, Saleh knows that Washington needs him more than ever. Thus after previously protecting al-Awlaki, Saleh green-lit his assassination as a gift to the Obama administration. The cleric’s use had finally run out, not unlike Roger in Training Day. Having exploited AQAP to secure America’s political protection and military aid, Saleh now needed to cash al-Awlaki to buy another reprieve.

“The timing of the Awlaki attack appears to be a calculated move by the Yemeni president to prove his counter-terrorism credentials to international allies like America and Saudi Arabia, which have been involved in intense diplomatic negotiations to get him to step down from office,” The Wall Street Journal reported.

Now comes Saleh’s latest calculated move. In a report published by Saba state media, the government goes into surprising detail when explaining counter-terrorism relations with America. “Many observers believe that Saleh has been able to attract attention of the United States and French to support Yemen logistically to help him play active role in fighting terrorism,” Saba reports, seemingly oblivious to the negative image shrouding Saleh’s unholy alliance with Washington.

After positioning AQAP at the forefront of America’s war against al-Qaeda, Saba then steps back to cover both sides of the political equation. With U.S. support in the bank as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) negotiates without protester input, Saleh pivots against this very support by minimizing its importance.

“Despite US assistance in training and qualifying specialized anti-terror forces and gaining support for this purpose, the Yemeni government adopted clear policy by refusing US interference in fighting Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula from one hand and seeking US cooperation from another. Although Yemen refuses direct US interference in fighting AQAP, it seeks logistic support in its war against terrorism.”

Apparently daily Predator patrols equate to logistics.

These statements vividly display Saleh’s duplicity against America and Yemeni protesters. Manipulating one against the other, Saleh has scared Washington away from engaging the revolution while distancing himself from the main power keeping him in place. The routine feels like a sitcom, where a man scrambles between two dates before the whole act falls apart.

Particularly odd is Saba’s references to David Petraeus, then commander of CENTCOM. After going all the way back to the 2000 U.S. Cole bombing, Saleh highlights his success through Petraeus’s commendation of a prevented 2008 Embassy attack. “US experts and security officials visited Yemen. Head of CIA and commander of US central forces met Yemeni officials” in 2009, Saba adds, in addition to a visit from Senator John McCain. This documentation both ignores and cites AQAP’s many successful attacks as reason to stay vigilant.

It also ignores Petraeus’s January 2010 meeting with Saleh, during which he authorized U.S. air-strikes under Yemeni political cover. The deal broke down after Saleh pinned an errant strike on Washington, and was further revealed by a scathing WikiLeaks. Drone patrols increased again after October, when AQAP test ran its bombs through UPS. Although some believe this to be a unilateral decision, either way Saleh's rejection of direct interference rings hollow.

As a final omen the fate of bin Laden's fifth wife may be drifting towards Yemen. Rashad Mohammed Saeed Ismael, a Yemeni sheikh in his early 30s, explained the wedding process during an interview with The Guardian, from bin Laden’s initial request to the Yemeni wedding in Kandahar. After rushing a Navy SEAL, the wounded Amal Ahmed al-Sadah finds herself in a custody battle between Washington and Islamabad.

One alternative would return al-Sadah to her native Yemen.

The possibility has Raymond Davis scribbled all over it. Ismael, “who describes himself as a staunch supporter” of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), says that al-Sadah must return home out of “ardth,” or family honor. Washington doesn’t have a good track record of handling religious terms and values, as its cold-blooded use of diyat proved in Davis’s case.

"When a woman like Amal is widowed, it is a duty upon all Muslims to look after her and ensure her safety. All the Yemeni people want her to come home."

Ismael understands what this means though: Amal could be Saleh’s next gift to Washington. Political complications are likely to block a transfer, which in the end is Ismael’s objective. He’s merely using the opportunity to reinforce AQAP’s political message.

"The policy of the Arab world rulers has lost them the sovereignty of their countries,” he concludes. “All constitutions and laws have been sacrificed. The Americans will continue to bomb us because Saleh's regime no longer controls anything and will use anything to gain support and stay in power."

The combination of Saleh's manipulation and Washington’s urgency to continue “dismantling” al-Qaeda leaves no doubt that both prefer to maintain their arrangement. Instead of confronting and potentially capitalizing on democracy’s variables, the U.S. government would rather accept a flawed relationship with, as Riyadh calls Saleh, “the Devil we know.” This strategy affords few advantages to Washington and the Yemeni people, whether in the short-term or long-term.

Mainly because it gives Saleh everything he wants.

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