War is breaking out between the Yemeni military and a group called “Ansar al-Shari‘a” in the southern province of Abyan — and it is in danger of spreading. Somewhere between 100 and 200 soldiers are being buried after battles March 5 in the provincial capital of Zinjibar, and other soldiers captured are being paraded through the streets of the forlorn neighboring town of Jaar.
Both cities fell to militants affiliated with al-Qaeda in April 2011 when President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih withdrew forces from Abyan to protect his regime against mass demonstrations elsewhere in the country. Now that Salih has transferred power to his handpicked vice president, the new administration of Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi has launched a new offensive against the militants. American-trained and -armed government forces just lost the first battle.
Viewing Yemen not as a place full of popular aspirations for social justice and decent governance but only as a theater of counter-terrorism operations situated in Saudi Arabia’s backyard, the US has helped to ignite this dangerous engagement and is deeply implicated. Amidst many badly informed postures toward Yemen that failed to take Yemen into account, two from the past year stand out.
Over the course of 2011, as peaceful demonstrations against the Salih kleptocracy gained momentum only to be met with brute force, a string of American political actors declared that the Yemen-based “AQAP” poses a grave peril, including to the American homeland. New CIA chief Gen. David Petraeus dubbed it “the most dangerous regional node in the global jihad” in testimony before Congress in September. AQAP was the strange acronym given to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which was actually less a unified command than a motley handful of preachers, militants and misfits including the Ansar al-Shari‘a. It is difficult to imagine a more effective recruitment tool for al-Qaeda wannabes worldwide than this mantra and, sure enough, scores of jihadis and frustrated youth from Somalia, Pakistan and elsewhere sneaked into Abyan to fight the good fight against the imperial infidels and their Saudi-sponsored lackeys.
Adding flame to a tinderbox of fuel, the Obama administration ordered targeted remote-control drone assassinations of individual suspects including, most famously, the US-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaqi, and some weeks later, by way of collateral damage, his teenage son. The lesson to Yemeni officers and infantry acting in close coordination with the US military is clear: Shoot first, ask questions later.
Now, the US ambassador in Sanaa and other officials are complaining loudly about (still unsubstantiated but increasingly likely) Iranian support for the al-Houthi rebels up near Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia, who have nothing to do with al-Qaeda. So the new Yemeni president’s counter-terrorism advisers are sending the message that brute force is warranted in the north as well.
Americans don’t hear much about Yemeni politics unless it affects Americans. We should get used to hearing more bad news.