You are in > International
Yemen – new front in the war on terror
Since then, pressure has been growing for full-scale military action in Yemen. Democrat senator Joe Lieberman has called on the administration to “pre-emptively curb terrorism in Yemen”, Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, has demanded the option of air and missile attacks, and Hillary Clinton has described the instability in Yemen as a ‘global threat’. The New York Times has joined in the interventionist chorus, saying that the “Christmas Day plot is a warning – we hope in time – of why it’s so important to head off full chaos in Yemen.”
According to the Wall Street Journal: “The Obama administration plans to increase its counterterrorism support to the government of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh from $70 million in 2009 to roughly $190 million this year, and the U.S. and U.K. have agreed to jointly fund a new counterterrorism police force inside Yemen.” In 2006, the equivalent aid was $4.6 million.
The Wall Street Journal continues: “The U.S. military’s direct involvement in Yemen has already begun to grow. In the weeks since the Christmas Day attack, the U.S. has increased the number of surveillance drones flying over Yemen, as well as the number of unmanned aircraft outfitted with missiles capable of striking targets on the ground… U.S. forces aren’t involved in direct combat within Yemen, but special forces troops are helping Yemeni counterterror personnel plan attacks against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula targets inside the country…”
The US insists all ground assaults have been “Yemeni-led”, but even before Christmas, the US had carried out roughly 30 missile strikes on Al Qaeda targets in December, killing several suspected leaders. The number of US special forces now arriving in Yemen marks a significant increase on the 200 or so stationed there, and many will remain for long tours.
Despite the Yemeni Foreign Minister’s calls for internal issues to be dealt with internally, the recent London conference on Afghanistan and Yemen set up a new forum, the ‘Friends of Yemen’, to “support Yemeni government initiatives to strengthen their counter-terrorist capabilities, and to enhance aviation and border security.” The West and the Gulf states will oversee a clampdown on dissent and draconian spending cuts, including a 75% cut in fuel subsidies, and the imposition of a general sales tax that will hit the poor; this after the IMF decreed that Yemen’s current austerity cuts do not go far enough to address the country’s projected deficit of 8-9% of GDP.
Oil, trade routes and US global strategy
Such punitive measures are not new. When Yemen was a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 1990 and voted against the US military drive against Iraq, the US immediately withdrew $70 million in foreign aid to Yemen while boosting aid to pro-American neighbours, as well as facilitating Saudi Arabian raids across the disputed border. At the same time the Saudis expelled a million Yemeni workers.
The Americans have focused on Yemen since the attack on a warship in 2000 and the bombing of the US embassy in 2008. Obama adviser Bruce Riedel, a longstanding CIA man, believes the attempted blowing up of the Detroit airliner: “… underscores the growing ambition of al Qaeda’s Yemen franchise, which has grown from a largely Yemeni agenda to become a player in the global Islamic jihad in the last year.” Though US intelligence reports put Al Qaeda’s numbers at only 200 in southern Yemen, the return of 2,000 veterans of Musab al-Zarqawi’s anti-American Iraqi insurgency has strengthened it, and there is concern that Al Qaeda’s recent statement of support for the secessionist rebellion in the south may boost the Southern Movement and help expand its own base.
Over the past year, the southern rebellion has grown into a broad nationalist campaign, due in part to the leadership of Tariq al-Fadhli, an ex-jihadist leader who fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, a former ally of President Saleh. A central leading body – the Council for the Leadership of the Peaceful Revolution of the South – has been formed, consisting mostly of MPs of the Yemeni Socialist Party (the ex-ruling party of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, now a social-democratic party), and ex-army officers.
So far, the Southern Movement has denied any links with Al Qaeda, perhaps because it has little need, having a genuinely popular base, but the US fears the co-ordinating powers of Al Qaeda, particularly with its links to the Al Shabaab Islamists now asserting control of southern Somalia. Al Shabaab has announced it is sending fighters to southern Yemen, while last year saw a record number of attacks by Somali pirates, with a dramatic increase in the past three months, a likely indication of co-ordinated action. There has been a recent call by Al Qaeda for joint action to close the vital sea-lanes in the Red Sea.
Meanwhile, there is also instability in the north of Yemen, where a Shi’ite tribal rebellion in the Houthi region is being put down using Saudi arms and direct Saudi intervention, backed by the US. Both the Yemeni and Saudi governments have accused Iran and the Iraqi Shi’ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr of arming the rebellion. The revolt has been further fuelled by the Yemeni military’s brutal methods, which have resulted in thousands of civilian casualties, the displacement of at least 130,000 people and indiscriminate detention without trial. Shias make up about half the Yemeni population.
Giving an overview, dissident US author F. William Engdahl says: “The picture that emerges is one of a desperate US-backed dictator, Yemen’s President Saleh, increasingly losing control after two decades as despotic ruler of the unified Yemen. Economic conditions in the country took a drastic downward slide in 2008 when world oil prices collapsed. Some 70% of the state revenues derive from Yemen’s oil sales. The central government of Saleh sits in former North Yemen in Sana’a, while the oil is in former South Yemen. Yet Saleh controls the oil revenue flows.” Lack of oil revenue has limited Saleh’s ability to buy off opposition groups.
The right-wing Center for a New American Security (CNAS) paints a similar picture of Yemen’s instability: “Facing an active insurgency in the north, a separatist movement in the south, and a domestic al-Qaeda presence, Yemen rests today on the knife’s edge.” The CNAS’s main worries are the knock-on effect of a radicalized Yemen on Saudi Arabia, and the danger to Suez oil ships: “The consequences of instability in Yemen reach far beyond this troubled land, and pose serious challenges to vital US interests… A destabilised Arabian Peninsula would shatter regional security, disrupt trade routes and obstruct access to fossil fuels… Yemen itself has limited oil reserves, but is strategically positioned adjacent to the vital sea lanes from the Middle East to Europe via the Suez Canal.”
The size of Yemen’s oil reserves is a matter of dispute – Engdahl believes it may be sitting on some of the biggest oil reserves in the world and points to Total’s investment in developing Yemeni oil production as an indicator.
It is the trade routes that are most immediately pressing to the US. The Bab el-Mandab seaway between Yemen, Djibouti and Eritrea connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. According to the US Government Energy Information Agency: “closure of the Bab el-Mandab could keep tankers from the Persian Gulf from reaching the Suez Canal / Sumed pipeline complex, diverting them around the southern tip of Africa. The Strait of Bab el-Mandab is a chokepoint between the horn of Africa and the Middle East, and a strategic link between the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean.”
Engdahl makes this analysis: “An excuse for a US or NATO militarization of the waters around Bab el-Mandab would give Washington another major link in its pursuit of control of the seven most critical oil chokepoints around the world, a major part of any future US strategy aimed at denying oil flows to China, the EU or any region or country that opposes US policy. Given that significant flows of Saudi oil pass through Bab el-Mandab, a US military control there would serve to deter the Saudi Kingdom from becoming serious about transacting future oil sales with China or others no longer in dollars, as was recently reported by UK Independent journalist Robert Fisk. It would also be in a position to threaten China’s oil transport from Port Sudan on the Red Sea just north of Bab el-Mandab, a major lifeline in China’s national energy needs.”
Revenge of history
Yemen’s strategic position, with its port of Aden, has exposed it to foreign domination for hundreds of years. The British took Aden in 1839, ruling it as part of British India – Aden’s culture even into the 1950s was predominantly Indian rather than Arab as result. Britain was ousted from the southern region in 1967 by an armed uprising, while a bloody civil war raged in the north between Saudi-backed royalists, who’d ruled since the end of Ottoman rule in 1918, and an Egyptian-backed army coup. Of the two rival nationalist groups in the south, it was the more left-wing National Liberation Front (NLF) that emerged the stronger, partly because Egypt’s defeat by Israel in the 1967 war discredited Nasser’s model of nationalism. After independence on November 30, 1967, ties were strengthened with the USSR, Eastern Europe and China.
The new state redistributed privately owned land to co-operative farms, under the authority of a peasant militia. The means of production were nationalized and central planning introduced, including in retail. In 1970 southern Yemen was renamed the People's Republic of Yemen (PDRY) and all political parties were then amalgamated into a communist party, which became the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) in 1978. Alongside the militia, other mass organizations of workers, youth, women and peasants covered most parts of the country. A Family Law, brought in to a chorus of protests by conservatives, began to transform women’s lives, making Yemen’s constitution the most feminist in the Arab world. Islam was marginalized, and religious endowments nationalized; the state paid the clerics’ salaries and controlled any foreign funding of the mosques. A mass literacy campaign was begun.
The faction fighting that beset the PDRY was due in part to colonial pressures. The state was surrounded by reactionary feudal regimes, whose influence led to splits within the Party over how to relate to these countries. For instance, Abd al-Fattah Ismail, the Party’s leftwing ideologue, took an uncompromising stance against North Yemen and the oil-rich neighbours Saudi Arabia and Oman, as well as promoting clearly socialist economic policies. This line was challenged by prime minister Ali Nasir Muhammed, who forced Abd al-Fattah Ismail into exile and brought in a mixed economy, limited nationalization and rapprochement with neighbouring states.
In spite of the instability within the party, the PDRY managed to produce half its food needs out of a mainly desert territory, eliminate unemployment, and provide free education. As with other populations that have experienced socialism, there is still significant support in southern Yemen for the gains made.
With the defeat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War, unity with the north was forced through, and nationalized land in the south was returned to private hands. Women’s rights were removed and sharia became the basis of law-making. A civil war in 1994 ended in defeat for the southern secessionists, with returning Yemeni mujahedeen from the Afghan war enlisted by President Saleh to defeat the ‘socialist’ south. The regime is now fighting these very same forces, the jihadists and tribal leaders.
Yemen is the 153rd poorest country in the world out of 192 nations. The Yemeni prime minister, in his keynote speech at the London conference, said that more than three million children in Yemen are not receiving education, and that half of the population is not receiving basic services like electricity, which only covers 42 per cent of the country, and water, only 26 per cent. 32 per cent of families in Yemen suffer from malnutrition and unemployment is at over 40 per cent. These figures are even worse for the million Yemenis expelled from Saudi Arabia. The recent doubling of the price of grain has pushed the country into a food crisis, and the government has pleaded for its foreign debt to be halved and for $50 billion of aid over the next ten years.
This is the context for the upsurge of anti-colonial feeling in Yemen – expressed in a warning earlier this year by a group of prominent Muslim clerics, led by Sheik Abdul-Majid al-Zendani, that they will call for jihad if US troops occupy the country. Zendani, who has a large following in Yemen and is courted by the Yemeni government, told a news conference: “If any foreign country insists on aggression and the invasion of the country or interference, in a military or security way, Muslim sons are duty bound to carry out jihad and fight the aggressors… We reject any military occupation of our country and we do not accept the return of colonialism.”
The BBC correspondent in Yemen has sounded a note of caution over current US strategy: “The government is corrupt and unpopular, so backing it to fight al-Qaeda is risky, while the use of US missiles and drones to kill al-Qaeda leaders is very sensitive. An overt US military presence is politically impossible, as Yemen is a conservative tribal society where hostility to the US runs deep.”
But Conservative MP Mark Pritchard of the Parliamentary Yemen Group has urged Gordon Brown to take action to “shore up its struggling government”. With broad Western support for the re-imposition of colonial rule on Yemen, there are few signs that a bloodbath will be avoided.
This article will also be published in the Spring 2010 issue of the Socialist Correspondent.