Yemen and the “War on Terror”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Mark N. Katz

Senior Fellow

Yemen has witnessed many conflicts since the early 1960s. Currently, there is conflict taking place between the Saleh regime and the Houthi rebels in the north. There is also tension between the Saleh regime and southern secessionists. And, as frequent press reports note, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is also active in Yemen.

The United States has become primarily concerned about Yemen because of the al-Qaeda presence there, and has sought Yemeni government cooperation in targeting AQAP. The Yemeni government, though, has been more concerned about the Houthis and the southern secessionists, who pose a greater threat to it than AQAP does. Indeed, although Yemen has received assistance from the United States ostensibly for the fight against AQAP, the Yemeni government has also turned to radical Sunnis in the fight against the Houthis. Some of these radical Sunnis may have ties to AQAP, or even be part of it.

Yemen is not the first case where a government and an external power supporting it have pursued contradictory aims. Indeed, this is not the first time it has happened in Yemen.

In this conflict, as in so many others, the external power is mainly concerned about the global or regional conflict it is involved in, whereas the local government is mainly concerned about its local opponents. In his A History of Modern Yemen (2000), the British anthropologist Paul Dresch argued that this is the norm in Yemen: “[C]ontests among people in the same moral system are sometimes all that matters, and states, even empires with their grand pretensions, become pawns in games of local interest. This is something of a theme in Yemen’s history….Two brothers at odds may seek help, perhaps, from different governments” (p. 25).

The problem, then, for any outside power (such as the United States) that seeks to side with one Yemeni party against another is not only that Yemen is highly complex and difficult for outsiders to understand, but that the Yemenis regard alliances not as fixed and permanent, but as fluid and temporary. While the U.S. government, in particular, often sees conflict in terms of “you’re either with us or against us,” for Yemenis, today’s enemies can become tomorrow’s friends, and today’s friends can become tomorrow’s enemies.

Thus, the United States has been disappointed with the Saleh government’s inconsistent cooperation with Washington in the “War on Terror.” While Sanaa aided American efforts to kill or capture al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen for a couple of years after 9/11, its cooperation with the United States not only diminished after this, but the Saleh government moved closer to Sunni radicals inside Yemen who were sympathetic toward al-Qaeda.

Saleh’s changing behavior, though, can be understood as an effort to balance the internal and external threats he has faced in a rapidly changing situation. His cooperation with the United States in the aftermath of 9/11 and the seemingly successful U.S.-led interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq may have been motivated by a desire to avoid direct U.S. military intervention in Yemen — the possibility of which was then being discussed in the American press. But, as the United States and its allies became increasingly bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq, the possibility of the United States intervening in Yemen diminished. Just as important, the growing strength of both the Houthi rebellion in the north and the secessionist movement in the south not only led the Saleh government to pay more attention to them, but also resulted in its cooperating with Sunni radicals against the Shia Houthis in particular. This move was similar to Saleh’s alliance with Sunni radicals against the southern secessionists during the 1994 Yemeni civil war.

Thus, while the United States sees Sunni radicals as its primary opponents in Yemen and other countries, Saleh has been willing to ally with Sunni radicals against opponents he has viewed as even more threatening. Since mid-2009, however, American press reports indicate that Saleh has once again renewed his cooperation with the United States against AQAP. In his Washington Post column of January 28, 2010, David Ignatius wrote, “The breakthrough came last July, when Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh decided that his regime was threatened. It was his fight, in other words, not just ours. ‘We had an embrace in July, literally and figuratively,’ says Gen. David Petraeus, the Centcom commander who has been the US point man with Yemen.”

If Saleh has indeed come to regard al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as more of a threat than he did previously, this would certainly explain his renewed cooperation with the United States against it. There could, however, be another explanation for his behavior: realizing that the Obama administration is especially concerned about AQAP and desirous of obtaining American resources in order to fight against his other opponents, Saleh has a strong incentive at present to make a show of cooperating with the United States against AQAP.

Which explanation is correct? If the Saleh government’s cooperation with Washington against AQAP continues indefinitely, this would support the former explanation. But if, as before, the Saleh government’s cooperation with the United States wanes and a degree of tolerance for AQAP in Sanaa re-emerges, this would support the latter explanation. If the February 2010 cease-fire between Sana’a and the Houthi rebels holds, the Saleh government may actually be able to focus more attention on AQAP. But if this cease-fire breaks down — as has occurred previously — then Sanaa may again focus on fighting what it, and not Washington, considers its most threatening opponents.

It must be noted, though, that Yemen’s complicated political dynamics not only constrain the United States and other external actors, but also al-Qaeda. Members of AQAP are protected by various tribes at odds with Sanaa in remote areas of Yemen that the government does not control. As a result of force, persuasion or both, the leaders of these tribes could reach an accommodation with Sanaa that results in their expelling or even turning over the AQAP fighters they have hosted. Further, the willingness of various tribes to host AQAP may depend on the tribal shaykhs believing that AQAP is weak, dependent on, and hence not threatening to, the tribes. If they see AQAP growing strong enough to threaten the authority of the tribal shaykhs, the latter may quickly turn to Sanaa — or external powers such as Saudi Arabia or even the United States — for support against AQAP. Just as the Saleh government has not always been a reliable partner as far as Washington is concerned, AQAP cannot depend on the Yemeni tribes whom they now cooperate with to remain reliable partners either.

Yemen’s internal conflicts and the broader “War on Terror” are connected but separate. Just as resolving Yemen’s internal conflicts will not bring about an end to the “War on Terror,” resolving the “War on Terror” will not bring about an end to Yemen’s internal conflicts. Indeed, even if, by some miracle, the “War on Terror” came to an end in a manner advantageous to the West, as the Cold War did in 1989-91, Yemen’s various internal antagonists can be expected to seek assistance from opposing sides in other regional or global conflicts that either already exist (such as Saudi Arabia vs. Iran) or may yet emerge (such as China vs. the West).

Mark N. Katz is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Middle East Policy Council and a Professor of Government at George Mason University. Links to many of his publications can be found on his website:

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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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