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. …