US Must Engage Yemen's Real Power-Brokers

Article excerpt

Yemen's rural tribes will play a pivotal role in its future. With President Ali Abdullah Saleh's power eroded, US diplomats are going to have to leave the comfort of the capital and engage these tribes, whether in resolving the government crisis or countering Al Qaeda.

In protest-racked Yemen, the embattled president's hold over his country has deteriorated to such an extent that he's euphemistically known as the "mayor" of only one half of the capital city, Sanaa. The erosion of President Ali Abdullah Saleh's authority must prompt the United States to focus on the true longtime power brokers in Yemen - the tribes.

As has become self-evident in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where central authority is weak or, in Yemen's case, verging on nonexistent, tribal engagement is an absolute necessity. But throughout Yemen's recent history, the US State Department has rarely shifted its focus away from Sanaa to Yemen's rural areas.

One reason for this lack of American diplomatic venturing is security concern about leaving government-controlled urban centers. Yemen's tribes are indeed heavily armed and skilled with their weapons. On several occasions, they've roundly beaten Yemen's military, each time bringing Saleh's power into question.

Another concern for US officials is Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Many American and Western policymakers believe this terrorist force receives free rein in Yemen's rural north because of the "lawless" tribal areas there. However, an extensive report by the US National Counterterrorism Center on two rural Yemeni governorates reveals no true or fundamental link between AQAP and Yemen's tribes - with most of AQAP's leadership and low-level soldiers hailing from urban areas, even if hiding in the north.

To effectively promote the US interests in Yemen, some young American diplomats are going to have to earn their stripes in the provinces of Marib, Shabwa, and Al-Jawf. Perhaps most importantly, diplomats need to be allowed to chew khat, the leafy, green stimulant chewed by most Yemeni men and women across the country. Any serious negotiation in Yemen is done in a khat chew.

Often incorrectly characterized as a den of bumbling idiots, the US Embassy in Sanaa is home to capable and knowledgeable diplomats and Arabists, many of whom speak excellent Arabic, including US Ambassador Gerald Feierstein. However, these resources are squandered in Sanaa in hopeless negotiations with political parties and regime loyalists.

There is no doubt that some of these diplomats could do effective work outside the capital if security paranoia calmed down. …