The trouble with aiding Yemen

Yemen keeps a low profile. It’s rarely mentioned in the news, few can find it on a map and most of the international community has had little reason to pay it any mind. Things are changing, however. The terrorist who attempted to blow up an airliner bound for Detroit on Christmas Day came from Yemen, and so the country is receiving more attention. The question of how best to direct the West’s anti-terrorism strategy is broadening in scope as countries, like Yemen, take on a sometimes unwilling role in the spread of terrorism.

Most of Yemen’s problems– like being the poorest state in the Arab world– aren’t new. But the attention the country has received recently is due to the impact of actors within it toward the outside world. Specifically, al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups are using it as a launch point for terrorist attacks, like in the case of the Christmas Day attempt. As terrorist cells are pushed out of their traditional locales like Afghanistan and Pakistan, the number of safe havens available to them dwindles. Also, new groups are arising in these different areas, increasing the number of places the intelligence community has to keep watch of.

In one respect Yemen is similar to Pakistan: Ali Abdullah Salah, Yemen’s president, has done little to get rid of terrorist cells within the country, and by many accounts provides significant aid to them. Coalition forces in Afghanistan have had a similar problem in Pakistan, with which Afghanistan shares a border. Efforts by the Pakistani government to seriously aid in the Afghanistan war have been intermittent, and when they do occur they lack the effort a determined response should have.

The problem for developed countries, the United States in particular, is that money is not a complete solution. In fact, it’s likely that any money America does provide to Yemen will do a better job of padding Salah’s coffers than helping the fight against terrorism. This is because, at least for now, Salah has a greater interest in supporting al-Qaeda fighters, who are an important part of Salah’s strategy against the independence fighters in Yemen known as the Houthi. The Houthi have caused unrest in the north-western portion of Yemen for many years and Salah sees them as a major hindrance to peace.

The international community must choose its response carefully. Yemen lacks the oil much of the rest of the Middle East possesses, so compared to states like Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran, it’s without a dependable source of wealth. It’s also likely that Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, will be the first capital city in the world to run out of water. Once political unrest is added, along with a corrupt government, the possibility of Yemen becoming a failed state is high. This is the most undesirable outcome, as what little control the developed world has in Yemen’s future will be lost if the state collapses.

Of all the pragmatic options available, the best choice is to use diplomatic pressure to convince Salah to reform. Alternatively, outside countries could make a concerted effort to see a fair election take place. This isn’t likely, however, because the corruption is too widespread for a new leadership to fix the problems single-handedly. By diplomatic pressure I don’t mean sanctions: Yemen is too impoverished for sanctions to do any good, and the example of Iraq showed the potential for leaders to dig in their heels when pressed too far. Using sanctions is valuable when the general population has control over the circumstances; an absence of electoral choice is not such a case. In addition, the Yemeni population has endured enough harm.

Despite its long term appeal, few countries are willing to invest in another Afghanistan, or worse, Iraq. The stakes are high if they don’t, though. So long as al-Qaeda and its affiliates are using Yemen as a training ground, the value of reforming the state is great. After all, its geographical location means that there is potential for development, even without the natural resources other Arab countries possess. Next to doing nothing at all, the worst solution is to simply send money.

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