Uncle Ali: If You Liked Hamid Karzai and Pervez Musharraf, You'll Love Our Latest Ally, Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh

By Edwards, Haley Sweetland | The Washington Monthly, March-April 2010 | Go to article overview

Uncle Ali: If You Liked Hamid Karzai and Pervez Musharraf, You'll Love Our Latest Ally, Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh


Edwards, Haley Sweetland, The Washington Monthly


Yemen is prettier than it looks on TV. If you drive the length of this rugged nation--from the border with Saudi Arabia in the north to the sparkling turquoise of the Gulf of Aden in the south--the landscape outside your window will slip from something resembling New Mexico, to West Texas, to Baja California, until finally you'll arrive in a place that is as desolate and craggy as the moon. Somewhere around Qa'tabah, a crumbling town a hundred-odd miles south of the Yemeni capital of Sana'a, the ubiquitous portraits of President Ali Abdullah Saleh--plastered on billboards and storefronts and gas station pumps--will slowly give way to a smattering of South Yemen flags hung from bedroom windows and painted on boulders, an open act of defiance against the government up north. Yemen is perhaps more complicated than it looks on TV, too.

After a Yemen-based al Qaeda cell took responsibility for a Nigerian would-be terrorist's botched airline bombing on Christmas Day, American newspapers and television channels were flooded overnight with images of Yemen--a stark, ancient nation awash in tribes and fundamentalism and AK-47s. Americans collectively groaned. Really? This again ? It was all too familiar: a country--the cracked heel of the Arabian Peninsula--with a forebodingly stark landscape, loosely ruled by a weak central government and a patchwork of tribal sheikhs, the newest gang of al Qaeda operatives convening in hideouts at the end of long, dirt roads. In don Stewart's words, "Can't we get in a war with paved countries?"

Of course, only Joe Lieberman actually wants to go to war with Yemen--the Obama administration, for its part, has made it quite clear that the United States has no intention of invading the country. In any case, after stretching its military capabilities in Afghanistan and Iraq and losing its credibility with most of the Muslim world over the last decade, the U.S. doesn't have the counterterrorism options in Yemen that it might have had in the past. This time around, the U.S. will rely almost entirely on Yemen's President Saleh to do the fighting--which is a little like tapping Al Capone to run Neighborhood Watch.

In recent months, Saleh has promised the international community that, among the colorful array of troubles facing his government, fighting al Qaeda is his "first priority," but no one really believes him. Over the course of his nearly thirty-two-year presidency, Saleh has depended heavily on the political and military support of radical Islamists, jihadists, and tribal members--the same people he will have to alienate politically, if not outright bomb, if he intends to really disrupt the growth of al Qaeda in Yemen. "From a purely political standpoint, Saleh would prefer to leave the al Qaeda question alone," Mohamed Abdulmalik al-Mutawakel, a prominent Yemeni opposition leader, told me during an interview in January. "It is a problem for the West, not a problem that directly affects Yemen."

But if the Yemeni government doesn't see al Qaeda as its problem, it does see it as an opportunity. The U.S. war on al Qaeda comes with an open checkbook, Yemen is bankrupt, and Saleh has never been one to waste a crisis. The Yemeni president's "first priority" is probably the same now as it always was: to hold on to his own power and to pave the way for his son, Ahmed, to inherit the presidential throne. "For [Saleh], al Qaeda is just another tool he can use to play opponents off each other, to get more money, and to keep the Western powers afraid, so that they continue to believe that security is more important than democracy," Mutawakel said. In all likelihood, Saleh will try to continue to govern as he always has. He will play his friends off one another, placate his enemies, and, as one taxi driver in Sana'a--quoting an Arabic proverb--put it, "keep dancing on the heads of snakes."

In the thousands of portraits of him that appear on billboards and telephone poles around Sana'a, Saleh--who at age sixty-seven resembles a glowering and slightly paunchier Groucho Marx--appears either in a military beret and aviator glasses or in a suit with a halo around his head, gently comforting crying children. …

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