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For U.S. policy-makers, Yemen is not Afghanistan

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The subtext of the question that has been echoing around media and policy circles the last few weeks -- what to do about Yemen -- has been a discussion about where Yemen is going. The question that has been asked, repeatedly, is if Yemen is the next Afghanistan, or, with a little more nuance to the story, if it is the next Somalia. However, it is neither or these. Lost in comparison is the simple truth, seemingly too obvious to merit mention: it is nothing except the current Yemen.

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I know it seems tautological -- Yemen is Yemen -- but I think it is something that policy-makers need to keep reminding themselves. The language that we use shapes policy, and if we gear our policy to avoid a "new Afghanistan" we'll be boxing ourselves into the ideas and strategies that shaped our Afghan plan. Essentially, we will be fighting the last war.

On the surface, the comparisons make sense. Like Afghanistan, Yemen is a mountainous, fractured country without a strong tradition of central government, and with a history of Islamist ideology (the mountains are interesting as more than just a quirk of geology; in an under-developed country, mountains tend to separate culture and inhibit a sense of nation). Somalia looks like the nightmare template for Yemen's future: a lawless, tribal land of pre-modern government and post-modern weaponry.

But Yemen is neither of these. For starters, while Afghanistan is a country that is ethnically divided, with the Pashtun population more connected with their brethren in Pakistan, Yemen, for whatever its political divisions, is uniformly Yemeni. There are a multitude of ideas about what this means. Some want a republic, some a tribal confederation, some a secular democracy, for a few an Islamist-government. But there is no doubt that people want their version of Yemen, a land that while not connected has for millennia has a sense of self. Even the mountains are part of the creation myth, rather than just a military fastness.

There is a one-letter difference to the challenges, one that sounds uncomfortably like vague and squishy poly-sci lingo, but is actually very important. In Afghanistan (and Iraq), the trick is to bring together various peoples. In Yemen, it is to deal with various people. Please don't take that as some kind of Pollyanna sentiment; the difficulty of the task is enormous. But even the religious differences -- Sunni vs. Shia -- are far less relevant than the political difference between the groups. The dominant strand of Yemeni Shi'ism, Zaydism, is much closer to Sunni practices than it is to what is practiced in Iran or Iraq.

It is here that the U.S. can do the most good. By stepping back militarily and helping Yemen's structural problems, it will be able to been seen as a more honest and benign friend, and not further the central government's legitimacy crisis. By aiding Yemen's underlying fault lines -- the country is running out of oil, water, and money -- we can help to stave off the catastrophe of state failure, and give the government more breathing room to deal with both al-Qaeda and the other, far more dangerous rebellions.

This is impossible, though, if we treat it like Afghanistan. Even suggesting the comparison brings up an unavoidable debate. Troops are successful, and justifiable in Afghanistan. So that makes the discussion start with military action, instead of taking that reckless and self-defeating option off the table from the get-go. When we look backwards, we will inevitably stumble.

Brian O'Neill, a former writer and editor at The Yemen Observer, is currently an independent analyst and Yemen security expert based out of Chicago.

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