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A not-so-new war

James Napier | Monday, February 1, 2010

Thanks to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s — also known as the underpants bomber — attempted Christmas gift, the United States is beginning to take a much keener interest in Yemen. The poorest Arab country, it is also the base for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula which likely trained and supplied the now infamous underpants bomber. According to CNN, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with other world leaders last Wednesday to discuss ways to help Yemen improve its economy and fight terrorism.

To date, the United States has supplied Yemen with a great deal of money, arms and military support over the past several years. This support began under Bush but has continued unabated under the Obama administration.

Unfortunately, years of military backing has done very little to improve the security situation or increase government control of the country. In fact, many analysts agree Yemen is a country teetering on the brink. The current government led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh faces an armed Houthi rebellion in the north and a secessionist movement in the south. Additionally, the government only holds limited sway outside of the capital city, Sana’a, as a result of the very fractal tribal system.

To compound the country’s political problems, Yemen has few natural resources and very little water. The little oil the country has is rapidly diminishing and so is the water. According to several news agencies including the Washington Times, Sana’a will run out of water within the next 10 or 15 years. The prospect of nearly two million people without access to safe water is a frightening one indeed. But the problem is not only in the capital — access to water is quite limited throughout the country. The minimum amount of water to which a person is supposed to have access is 1,000 cubic meters but on average, any Yemeni is estimated to have access to no more than 200 cubic meters a year.

Though it is scary to think parts of the country outside government control — which actually constitutes much of the country — offers safe havens to terrorist organizations plotting against the United States. However, no simple reaction — whether economic or military — to the recent failed attack will solve the situation. Yemen has been a political basket case for the better part of the last half of the twentieth century. Attacks on U.S. personnel is not exactly uncommon in the country; nor is it uncommon for Yemeni citizens to be found fighting Americans in Iraq or Afghanistan. Roughly 100 of the remaining detainees at Guantanamo Bay are Yemeni. This most recent attack should be put into perspective.

Knowing there are dangerous people operating a country is not the same as knowing how to neutralize the threat. This is not to say military operations are pointless but that they are of limited value. Military strikes and training should be carried out when feasible but should not be the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy towards Yemen. Also, giving hundreds of millions of dollars to an extremely corrupt government with limited accountability is generally a very bad idea.

A successful policy must include dialogue with the tribes and a solid economic component. While it can be argued that dialogue with anyone other than the official government will undermine stability, many of the worlds greatest problems have been caused or exacerbated by a lack of communication. If the tribal areas are where Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is hiding then that is where America must go. Taking Iraq as an example, the insurgency was dealt a significant blow when American commanders began talking to local leaders and actually listening to them. There is no reason a similar approach will not work in Yemen. As for the economic situation, this is too complex to be dealt with in depth in such a limited space but a good place to start is to secure safe drinking water and begin instituting sustainable development practices.

Last year, America gave the Yemeni government nearly $80 million — the most recent investment in the past several years — and from this money America has seen little return. If a better and more peaceful future is desired for both America and Yemen then our officials in government must start considering long-term solutions and not political gambits. Too often, America’s foreign policy has been fueled by short-sighted policies. Allowing Yemen to be added to this long laundry list of failures would prove disastrous for all interested parties.


James Napier is a senior history major. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.