Commentary: Clinton visits Yemen — the new frontier of terror

Special to McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 24, 2011 


A bustling street in the historic district of Sanaa, the capital of Yemen.

SHASHANK BENGALI — Shashank Bengali / MCT

Hillary Clinton's visit to Yemen on July 11 — the first by a U.S. Secretary of State since 1990 — highlights the dilemma faced by U.S. officials handing out aid, military hardware, intelligence and drone attacks to fight terrorism in weak, small countries around the globe.

Yemen is a nesting place for anti-American Islamist terrorists such as Osama bin Laden’s followers — his father Mohammed bin Laden was born in Yemen before migrating to Saudi Arabia and striking it rich in the construction business.

But shoveling — with front end loaders — truckloads of American cash and bullets into the fragile one party state of Yemen fails to touch on the country’s problems. And until Yemen’s structural, economic, environmental and cultural problems are unraveled — in some distant future — the fight against terrorism threatens to destroy what is still a peaceful backwater that retains a positive image of the United States.

The Obama administration has increased U.S. civilian aid to Yemen from $17 million in 2008 to $130 million in 2010. This aid serves a noble purpose. It provides clinics and schools. It trains teachers, nurses and even government officials. It funded livestock immunization after Rift Valley Fever infected herds and Saudi Arabia blocked imports.

But when you walk around Sana and other cities or towns, what strikes a visitor is that all afternoon, many men have a huge bulge in their cheek — they are chewing Qat, a midly narcotic plant. Some men continue to work, serving freshly-made breads and coffee or hammering away in small workshops. Others simply kick back into the shade to let the afternoon pass away. Still others use the opportunity to gather and talk politics in amazingly frank ways — Qat sessions remind me of college bull sessions in the dorm where we’d chat about life, politics, sports, anything. It’s said they take pressure off people in a country ruled for 30 years by Ali Abdullah Saleh.

But Qat consumes millions of hours of work time, up to 50 percent of a workman’s wages and up to 60 percent of the water used in agriculture. It’s so deeply embedded in Yemeni culture that even Saleh appears on TV with a wad in his cheek at times.

The second thing that strikes a visitor is the number of weapons. Sana the capital officially bans carrying guns openly but every adult male and many children sport the curved ornamental daggers in their waistbands that tradition demands.

In Marib, the neighboring province, every adult male is free and takes advantage of that freedom to sling an AK-47 over his shoulder. Since it’s unlikely they fear attack by the goats, sheep and camels they herd, the guns are a sign they do not believe the government can protect them from fellow humans. Given the long and chaotic history of tribal rivalries, leaving the state in control of only major cities and roads, Yemen has a long way to go to provide public security and cohesion.

Into this gorgeous, mellow, ancient, artistic, traditional, Muslim country — poorest of all the Arab nations — have come the conflicts between the United States and Muslim extremists. The failed Nigerian underwear bomber on Christmas 2009 was inspired and equipped by Anwar al-Awlaky, a Yemeni-American extremist cleric. He was also linked to bombs mailed to the United States in print cartridges in October, and to Maj. Nidal Hassan, the U.S. Army psychiatrist who killed 12 soldiers and a civilian at Ft. Hood, Texas in November, 2009. Earlier, in 2000, terrorists blew a hole in the U.S. destroyer Cole, killing 17, as it anchored in the Yemeni port of Aden.

Al Qaida forces have at times aligned themselves with President Saleh to help him defeat South Yemen separatists. Al Qaida in Arabia then set up camp in outlying provinces that are a magnet to international terrorists.

WikiLeaks released a U.S. State Department cable indicating that when U.S. drones bombed Muslim extremists, President Saleh would claim the Yemeni forces were responsible. This would avoid turning Yemen’s population against the U.S. — a turn of events that is the goal of Al Qaida and would threaten Saleh’s government, U.S. security, and the Yemeni people’s own future.

The dilemma for the U.S. is clear. If we call for free elections and seek to end Saleh’s three decades of absolute power, we risk unleashing tribal violence, religious war by northern Shiites, southern separatism and Muslim extremism aligned with Al Qaida.

If we continue to arm Saleh at the current level of $170 million a year, we risk to turn a remote backwater from a wild west of occasional kidnappings, tribal shoot outs and relatively small terror networks into a more massive conflict sucking in the vultures of extremism from Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran.

This is a terrible choice similar to ones we face throughout the Middle East and in Africa. Strongmen in Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia, Uganda and other countries provide a bulwark against terrorism, keep things quiet (at the cost of stagnation) and do provide people with a peaceful way of life.

U.S. leaders must carefully walk a narrow path between wanting to spread our American form of democracy to other cultures and following the medical oath’s primary rule: first, do no harm.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2011 by He can be reached at

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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