Go, go, you coward; you are an American agent
– Protesters chanting in Sana’a, March 24
So far no R2P (“responsibility to protect”). No United Nations resolution. No no-fly zone. No “coalition of the willing”. No Tomahawks. No Predator drones. No C-130 gun ships. No humanitarian imperialism.
Yet so far, protesters are being killed; a dictator refuses to step down; al-Qaeda is thriving, and in the open; counter-insurgency rolls; there’s a lot of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on the ground; and civil war looms. Welcome to the curious case of not-fit-for-humanitarian-imperialism Yemen.
United States President Barack Obama’s mantra on Libya is that “Muammar Gaddafi must go”. Pentagon supremo Robert Gates, asked about the Yemeni Gaddafi, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, answered, with a straight face, that Washington had no opinion, because it does not interfere in internal affairs of other countries.
The evidence points otherwise. The first African-American president – a Nobel Peace Prize laureate – now also holds the dubious distinction of being the only American president to launch a war on an African nation. He has also launched his re-election campaign, which is bound to gobble up a cool US\$1 billion.
Meanwhile, Saleh kept killing his own people, and injuring hundreds – like in the southwestern city of Taizz this Monday. Obama had to do something, so he has “quietly shifted positions”, in the quaint words of the New York Times; the new mantra is “Saleh must go”. Contorted rhetoric suggests Washington now wants Saleh to go because it has come to the conclusion that his days in power are gone, even though for over two months, killing spree included, he enjoyed full US backing.
Our cunning bastard
Yemen festers with George W Bush-era special forces-led counter-terrorism – widely expanded under Obama. Saleh is the local contractor. The target is bogeyman al-Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula (AQAP), which is hit by frequent bursts of “kinetic military action” (in White House speak). “Collateral damage” may have reached the low hundreds.
A March 2011 Glevum Stability Assessment found out that no less than 96% of Yemenis believe “the West is at war with Islam”; only 4% approve of the US “war on terror” chapter in their lands; and a majority regards AQAP as involved in “self-defense”. Yet as far as Washington is concerned, the only thing that matters in Yemen is counter-terrorism – not what the locals think.
There are at least 60 million lethal weapons in Yemen. Yet the Yemeni youth uprising has been a model of pacifism. Saleh, truthful to the standard Arab dictator script, branded them “drug dealers”, money launderers and a “small minority”.
North Yemen and South Yemen were united in 1994. Saleh delegates control over much of Yemen to tribal sheikhs whose loyalty is dodgy, to say the least. Saud Arabia runs riot, buying everyone in sight and bankrolling the influence of hardcore Wahhabism. AQAP is just a minor detail in a complex political landscape.
In the north, Zeydi Shi’ites are fighting for autonomy. Saleh’s tactics are to massively bomb their villages, displace hundreds of thousands of civilians, and then attack them. No, no one will slap him with a no-fly zone for it. In the south a peaceful secessionist movement struggling for more equality has been savagely crushed. Some of its members went the guerrilla way.
Saleh has been very clever into instrumentalizing AQAP against his domestic enemies, while using the AQAP threat to extort weapons, intelligence and hundreds of million of dollars from the Americans. It worked, up to now. Obama ramped up “military assistance” for Yemen from \$67 million in 2009 to \$150 million in 2010.
WikiLeaks widely exposed dirty deals between Washington and Saleh – including General David Petraeus lying to Yemenis about who was killing Yemeni civilians during the “war on terror”. But unlike demonized terrorist/rehab/thug Gaddafi, Saleh is one of “our bastards”. He’s cunning enough to smash Zeydis, southern Yemenis, journalists and peaceful student protesters instead of smashing his golden egg, AQAP.
Now that Obama hinted he must go, bets can be made on a scenario of the CIA using AQAP against Saleh. Target: to balkanize Yemen. This is where the legacy of Said al-Shihri comes in – a Saudi freed from Guantanamo sent to Yemen by the Bush administration, and killed on February 12; as well as the influence of American-born Anwar Awlaki, a classic CIA double agent.
The CIA is already instrumentalizing al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Libya; with or without Gaddafi in power as part of a balkanized Libya, AQIM is already a destabilizing factor in the big picture. The modus operandi is the same: the CIA/Pentagon use the al-Qaeda specter to justify the endless war on terror, be it in northern Africa or in the Arabic Peninsula.
For its part, the House of Saud has been fighting tooth and nail for Saleh to stay; he is as much a House of Saud lackey as the al-Khalifas in Bahrain. But without support from the Obama administration, the best the House of Saud can hope for is the usual “stability” and “smooth transition of power” – as in yet one more Saudi Arabia-friendly General. Saudi Arabia wants a “smooth” military coup. They would not be exactly displeased with hard line commander Major General Ali Mohsin Saleh Ahmar as the new leader.
After waves of political, ministerial, ambassadorial and military defections either Saleh goes or there’s civil war (true to script, he says there won’t be civil war only if he stays). The new government in Sana’a has installed a state of emergency. Saleh may last a while longer – as he counts on the Republican Guard, Special Forces and internal security, led by his son and nephews.
As for the opposition party coalition, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), it now poses as a true representative of the masses protesting in the streets when they have always been court jesters. The fact is Yemeni power elites have co-opted the peaceful revolution. What will be precluded is a real road to democracy, what the people in the streets of Yemen have been fighting – and dying – for.
The protests in Yemen started on February 11 with less than 200 Sana’a university students and young activists and only two women. Then the Zeydi in the north pledged their cooperation, and the secessionists in the south stopped their demonstrations and started calling for suqut al nidham (“the fall of the regime”) – the rallying call across the Arab world.
As Yemeni political scientist Abdulghani al Iryani told Nir Rosen, “We’ve never had real street mobilizations … Before Tunisia the opposition had a demonstration of 200. After Tunisia they came in the thousands. After Egypt it became an avalanche. There is a new appreciation of collective power. What the formal political establishment could not do, to bring the people together, the youth protest has succeeded in doing.” Their key demands remain constitutional reform and a new electoral law.
And what about al-Qaeda?
The sprawling US “war on terror” industry – corporate media included – considers it as deadly as a Star Wars plot, unfolding in this ultimate Orientalist dream, the “dangerous deserts and mountains of Yemen”.
Yet AQAP is a joke. Its record of “success” is a failed underwear bomb and a package bomb that, well, bombed. Saleh himself knows they are a joke – an absolutely marginal movement not only in Yemen but all across the Middle East. The real reason the US is in Yemen is because the country is supremely strategic – bordering the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and Saudi Arabia, the key crossroads between the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.
The vicious 2011 Arab counter-revolution keeps working its mysterious ways. Turkey and the BRIC countries are perplexed that the US is now arming the AQIM-infested “rebels” – and may be showering them with juicy bits of the \$32 billion in frozen Libyan government assets, plus a share in upcoming oil sales.
Talk about a hot Club Med. Under the Bush administration, al-Qaeda was used as the perfect excuse for bombing and pre-emptive wars. Now, under Obama, al-Qaeda – as in AQIM and AQAP – is being used in the balkanization of selected nations, facilitating the breakdown along tribal, sectarian and criminal lines.
The ghost of Osama bin Laden continues to pull a Cheshire cat. The al-Qaeda franchise is booming like never before. It may even be back in the game in its original status – as a CIA guerrilla army. There’s no war like an endless war.