Americans got a crash course on Yemen for Christmas.
That’s because we’ve wanted to know more about the little-known, dirt-poor country in southwestern Arabia where the “underwear bomber” who tried to blow up a plane — bound for Detroit from Nigeria on Christmas Day — says he was trained. President Barack Obama says, correctly, that “large chunks” of Yemen “are not fully under government control.” So it seems to make sense to strengthen the Yemeni government, to get at “al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” as the local gang of Islamist extremists is known.
The State Department has duly doubled aid to Yemen, pledging $63 million in 2010, $12.5 million of which will buy military equipment. And there will be more from the Pentagon: Yemen received $67 million for its armed forces from the Defense Department in 2009, an amount set to increase this year.
But what kind of government rules Yemen, and how is it using these boatloads of Pentagon boodle?
Its elected parliament makes Yemen a democracy in name only. Its president, Ali Abdallah Salih, has held office longer than any other Arab ruler except Libya’s strongman, Muammar Qaddafi, and is grooming his son to take over.
Salih’s regime has battled rebels in the far north since 2004, and today it also faces a very disaffected population throughout the south. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is a tertiary concern at best. In fact, Salih has a history of strategically enlisting radical jihadis to keep his political opponents in check.
In combating threats to its power, moreover, the regime has violated international human rights standards galore. The army has fired indiscriminately on villages in the northern highlands, contributing greatly to the displacement of some 150,000 people. The scale of these civilians’ suffering is unknown because the regime enforces a news blackout on the area, but it’s certainly severe since Yemen’s government also blocks the inflow of humanitarian relief.
To curry favor with Washington, Salih and his cronies promote the notion that the northern rebels, who belong to a Shiite sect, are on the dole of the Islamic Republic of Iran. But the guerrillas are homegrown, and they are making inroads against both the Yemeni army and its allies from Saudi Arabia. The army’s blatant disregard for civilians hardly boosts the government’s popularity in the north.
With similar ineptitude, the Yemeni military has mounted widespread raids on proto-militias in the south. Some of the attacks, in thickly settled areas, probably verge on war crimes. Again, the details are vague: The independent Yemeni newspaper that filed the richest reports from the south was shut down by the regime last May. In recent days its offices were literally besieged by riot police. Since some al-Qaeda operatives hide out in the south, the situation there could worsen.
In the week before Christmas, reportedly with U.S. assistance, Yemen bombed two southern villages. The radical Yemeni-American cleric who is said to have schooled Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the underwear bomber) was supposed to be there, but he wasn’t. The operations killed more civilians than militants.
If the Yemeni state is “failing,” it’s largely because it rules increasingly by brute force. The last thing Yemen’s people need is more weapons. And the last thing America needs is to help another Middle Eastern government to become a more effective military dictatorship.
Sheila Carapico is professor of political science at the University of Richmond and the American University in Cairo, and author of Civil Society in Yemen (Cambridge University Press, 1998). She is a Yemen specialist for the Middle East Research and Information Project, publishers of Middle East Report.