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Guest Thinkers

Abandoning Yemen to al-Qaeda

Friday December 17 marked the one year anniversary of the US air strikes in Majalla, which killed, along with some al-Qaeda operatives, a number of women and children. The incident has been utilized by AQAP over the past year to both gain recruits and to strengthen its argument that Yemen is no different from Iraq and Afghanistan. That is, just like those two countries, Yemen is also under western military attack. (Thanks to Wikileaks this is no longer in doubt.)

To mark the occasion the Yemeni government (the News Yemen story says local government, but I’m not sure) forbid demonstrations to mark the attack. Someone probably affiliated with AQAP – although there has been no statement yet – attempted to mark the anniversary by attacking some Americans working for the US Embassy in Sanaa. (Why someone in the US government then confirmed to the media that the four individuals work for the CIA is beyond me.)

But perhaps the best respone has come from al-Sharq al-Awsat, which is currently running a series written by its Yemen correspondent, Arafat Madabish. While I don’t agree with everything Madabish is writing – he is especially shrill on the importance of Fahd al-Quso – much of his reports are quite good.

Today’s was especially so. Madabish visited the area of Rafdh in Shabwa, which was the site of a Dec 24, 2009 US air strike on Fahd al-Quso’s farm, and which according to the man himself killed five AQAP operatives just not al-Wihayshi and al-Shihri as was initially reported.

But what really interested me in Madabish’s article was his discussion of what life was like in Rafdh. No water, no electricity, no schools and no paved road. Sound familiar? This has been a common denominator over the past year. Where these things are missing in Yemen, you tend to find AQAP. Now I’m not saying defeating AQAP is as easy as developing Yemen, but development is a big part of the answer.

Even for those of you who don’t read Arabic, click on the link to Madabish’s article for the pictures. The bottom one shows the school in Rafdh, which used to be manned by members of AQAP, who were teaching area youth the Qur’an and, well you can imagine what else they were teaching them.

The school is now empty for lack of teachers. This is not good. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out how this can be spun locally by AQAP, should they return: “You didn’t have water or electricity (the government doesn’t care about you) but at least you have teachers, at least you did until the US came and bombed them.”

My real question after reading Madabish’s article is: where is the US aid?

I keep hearing all these lofty promises from President Obama and the State Department that the US is pursuing a multi-faceted response to the problem of AQAP in Yemen, that it isn’t going to make the mistake of trying to militarily solve the problem. But on the ground nothing is changing. Things are only getting worse. It has been a year since the US dropped bombs on this area, why hasn’t anything been done?

Surely, the US understands that areas that it bombs are incredibly susceptible to future radicalization. Why is not putting out some carrots to go with the sticks of Cruise Missiles?

This isn’t just a US problem, the patronizingly titled “Friends of Yemen” group has kept pace with the US’ rhetoric on changing Yemen through more than just bombs, but it has as dismally poor of a record as does the US. The group has done laughably little.

My point is this: the seeds of AQAP – the group we are dealing with today – were sown in the late 1990s. The seeds of future generations of al-Qaeda are being sown today in an environment that is much more radical than the one that produced the current crop of leaders. If the US doesn’t do something on the ground to reverse the trend then it is going to be dealing with a much more severe problem down the road.

The US has had a year. Where it matters most – on the ground – it has done nothing.


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