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AOL’s Sphere: Is Yemen’s President Saleh Another Karzai?

January 8, 2010

by Haley Sweetland Edwards

SAN’A, Yemen (Jan. 8) — The United States is ramping up military and financial support to fight al-Qaida in a country whose president is regularly accused of corruption, nepotism, political wheedling and unsavory compromise. No, not Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai, but Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of Yemen for more than 30 years.

Saleh is already struggling to retain political power in his divided country. That task won’t be any easier now that he also has to satisfy the increasingly impatient demands of a United States suddenly energized by al-Qaida’s perilous foothold in Yemen.

Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh, here right with a tribal official, has been in power for 30 years, but his tenuous hold on his country is likely to complicate U.S. efforts to fight al-Qaida there.

“The president’s political mandate is nonexistent,” said Naif al-Gunas, a spokesman for Yemen’s parliamentary opposition coalition. “The international attention, money and support will make him stronger in one way, but it’s not enough.”

“His main goal is to maintain power, for himself and his family members,” he added.

Saleh, 67, regards his political longevity as a personal point of pride. When he became president in 1978, few thought he would last a year, let alone 30.

Like Karzai, Saleh has stayed in power by playing a complex political game with the tribal leaders, the military, Salafists and sheiks, all jockeying for influence in this impoverished country of 23 million.

Saleh managed to preside over the unification of North and South Yemen in 1991, which was no mean feat, however fragile that union is now. He is a member of the Zaidi Shiite minority that is fighting Yemeni and Saudi armed forces in the north of the country.

In San’a, Saleh’s likeness is ubiquitous on posters, which depict him variously wearing traditional Yemeni garb, a military beret and aviator glasses, or business attire with a halo around his head. Some show him gently comforting crying children.

“He’s is a very, very good juggler,” said Ali Saif Hassan, a political analyst and the president of the Political Development Forum in San’a.

But experts say that Saleh’s hold on power has required trade-offs that may ultimately compromise U.S. efforts to combat terrorism in the country.

“Is Saleh going to be able to deal with the pressure he’s getting from the [international community]? Will he be able to compromise some of his old political allies? I don’t know,” said Christopher Boucek, an expert on Yemen at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. “We have to help because we have no other option. This is the government we have now in Yemen. We have no other choice.”

Despite a history of U.S.-backed counterterrorism campaigns in the past decade, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has flourished in recent years. The group has claimed responsibility not only for the attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day, but also the attempted high-profile assassination of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s chief of counterterrorism, in September, as well as dozens of other attacks against foreign and domestic targets.

Al-Qaida’s growth in Yemen has a lot to do with the vacuum of power in certain regions of the country, but many analysts agree the organization also flourished under Saleh’s negligence. On the list of threats to his regime, al-Qaida has ranked fairly low.

Higher priorities for the government have been battling the Houthis, a Shiite insurgency in the north, and an increasingly violent secessionist movement in the south. Saleh’s power does not extend much beyond the capital and a constellation of military outposts throughout the country.

In Abyan, a province near the southern port city of Aden, people openly display the South Yemen flag, a symbol of support for the southern separatist movement that opposes Saleh’s government in San’a.

In past decades, Saleh has used Sunni tribes and ultraconservative Salafists as pawns against his enemies. During the civil war in 1994, he used them to battle the more secular South and, more recently, he used them as mercenary soldiers to battle the Houthis. Those ultraconservative elements, while not associated with al-Qaida, may have allowed al-Qaida to claim a more solid foothold in the country, said Gregory Gause, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the University of Vermont.

“I’ve made it a priority to strengthen our partnership with the Yemeni government – training and equipping their security forces, sharing intelligence and working with them to strike al-Qaida terrorists,” President Barack Obama said in his weekly address on Jan. 2.

In fact the U.S. has been training troops since 2002, but it long limited the amount of financial aid because of concerns over corruption; only about $10 million in military aid flowed to Yemen in 2006. But that aid has skyrocketed recently. Last week, Obama asked Congress to approve $150 million in security assistance to Yemen for the 2010 fiscal year.

“The thing to remember is that we need to empower Saleh to do what we want him to do,” said Boucek, the Carnegie expert. “All those supporting Yemen – the U.S., the U.K., Europe, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, everybody – we have to speak with one voice. We have to say, ‘Look, we’re spending a lot of money on you and we want a return on our investment. This isn’t just about you anymore.’ ”

As the experience with Karzai suggests, as easy as that message is to convey, making it stick can be difficult.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. MMB permalink
    January 10, 2010 8:25 pm

    A great frame of reference! I can only hope that making this kind of thoughtfulness extends to the government bureaucrats.


  1. Yemen and familiar mistakes « Craig Considine

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