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Politics & Current Affairs

Reporting Yemen: Time Not to Repeat Mistakes of the Past

The attempted destruction of North West Airlines Flight 253 over Detroit by suicide bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallah has belatedly shone a spotlight on Yemen, the country where the terrorist allegedly received his training. Bungled security aside – the sort of security that lists over 400,000 individuals who shouldn’t be allowed to fly, while in fact allowing all but four thousand of them to do so – this is something of a ‘Eureka!’ moment for both the US President and the British Prime Minister.

‘Eureka!’ as in the apparent discovery of Yemen as a failing State and one on which Al-Qaida is able to operate fairly freely. Both President Obama and Prime Minister Brown are to host an International Summit on Yemen and Afghanistan on January 28th, and we will hear much more in the coming days of the serious threat posed by Al-Qaida where the writ of the Yemeni Government does not run, i.e. in most areas outside of the main cities.

There have been plenty of warnings about the deteriorating security situation in Yemen, just as there have been about Somalia and the North West Frontier districts of Pakistan.  The pleas for assistance from the Yemeni authorities though, have not been heard. In the case of Somalia, the international community seems to have given up altogether. Pakistan’s frontiers with Afghanistan have been a perennial bug-bear for both the authorities in Islamabad and for the West.  But only more recently has Pakistan began to merit the attention it deserves. Both the US and Britain became so bogged down in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the first against Saddam, the second against the Taliban, they took their eye off the real danger – Al-Qaida.

I have reported out of Yemen for both television and newspapers, albeit four or five years ago. But even then the British Foreign Office advice was not to travel from Aden to the capital Sana’a in the North, although ironically I did travel that route in a military convoy, stopping off at the town of Al-Qaida (meaning “the place”), with the then British Ambassador. Yemen is the poorest country in Arabia, blessed with none of the fine attributes of oil and gas of its neighbours. What it does have in abundance however, is a wild beauty. Sana’a is rightly a World heritage site, where tourism is still rare. A colleague picked up an ancient coin dating back to the Assyrian Empire at a market, staggered that such treasures could still be found – and exchanged for a handful of dollars. On another trip out into the bad-lands, I could only travel with a local Yemeni tribal chief to navigate the roadblocks. At one point he wanted to know if I would like to go and fire off AK47 machine guns at tins at the desert, and when we got to our final destination in the mountains, there was a scene from the old Wild West; a one horse town, bordered on either side by low, shabby buildings, each selling every weapon imaginable. In one I found old Lee Enfield rifles, abandoned by the retreating British from Aden. In another, I almost stepped on a grenade, before stumbling across a row of Rocket Propelled Grenade Launchers, or RPGs. I still have the footage of me holding one and aiming across the street. It’s hardly surprising then that Yemen is one of the major weapons trading areas in Arabia, and so concerned became the Saudis at both the traffic of weapons and people, they erected a fence along their still contested border with the country.

The tribal Bad Lands then, provide great cover for any Al-Qaida operatives. But if the writ of the Yemeni Government doesn’t run there, how does anyone know what the strength of Al-Qaida is? Without infiltrating some of the many Madrassas that aren’t registered with the Government, how does anyone know what is actually being taught in them? The point is that time has been wasted, and the international community – not just the US and Britain now need to think through new strategies to tackle Islamic extremism, while also choking of Al-Qaida operatives where ever they are. That also requires our Governments to treat us as adults and the nations of the Middle East and the Sub Continent as equal partners. It also requires working through the offices of the United Nations, and to act when that organisation decrees the World needs to act. In the case of Somalia, when I was based in New York as a United Nations Correspondent, I witnessed the UN fail to build enough support for an intervention in that country designed to stabilise a country wrenched apart at the scenes by banditry and violence. That could partly be explained by the disaster that was the Clinton Administration’s unilateral military intervention in the country – and intervention made all the more memorable by the Movie “Black Hawk Down”.

Treating us as adults also means telling us the truth about the Afghanistan War, and facing down those on the neo conservative Right in the US who have helped stoke the flames of fundamentalism so disastrously. The Afghan war has lasted longer than the Second World War and still there is no end in sight, only the prospect of more coffins being returned home. This is a traditional war being directed at Afghan tribesmen who have a fairly solid record in seeing off foreign interventions for over a hundred years. Afghanistan was not tamed by the British Raj, or the Soviet Union, and it isn’t likely to happen now. In any event, this is not a war directed against Al-Qaida, more an offensive against the Taliban.

The more the US and Britain are bogged down in a war without end, the less attention and resources will be placed on the tactics and assistance needed to remove Al-Qaida from Pakistan, Yemen and wherever else they may be operating. President Obama has pledged $70 million to assist the Yemeni authorities tackle Al-Qaida while Prime Minister Brown has promised £100 million. If this money is not to be wasted or worse still find its way into the hands of the weapons traders and their friends, it needs to be spent wisely on ‘hearts and minds’ campaigns, on building infrastructure and on creating job opportunities for young Yemenis. And this is a strategy that should be prioritised in Afghanistan too.

But there is another reason why Britain in particular should not be seen to making to overt an intervention in Yemen. Politicians have short memories. When I was at school, I remember a friend’s father recalling how they dumped their armoured cars and Lee Enfield rifles over the side of their troop ship, one of the last to leave in the great British scuttle from Aden, South Yemen, in 1967. I thought of that story as I saw a similar rifle being exchanged in the gun market forty years on from that time. And I thought about it again when I visited the still well ordered British Commonwealth war graves in that same city. Despite the still obvious care and attention however, some of the crosses marking the graves had been smashed.

It was yet another reminded that the West has to tread very carefully in a part of the World with long memories and a fierce nationalistic pride.


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