As the threat from extremists appears to be growing in Yemen, there's a temptation to point to the small country on the Arabian Peninsula as the next place the U.S. will have to fight al-Qaida.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut jumped at the chance to do that during an appearance Sunday on ABC.
"Iraq is yesterday's war, Afghanistan is today's war, and if we don't act pre-emptively, Yemen will be tomorrow's war," he said, adding that he was quoting a line he had heard from a U.S. official while on a recent trip to Yemen. But he made clear he bought the analysis.
The parallels are indeed compelling, especially between Yemen and Afghanistan: both poor countries with weak governments and long histories of Islamist militancy. But where the analogy breaks down is in the role their neighbors — Pakistan in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia in Yemen — play in the fight against al-Qaida.
"The U.S.-Pakistani relationship is extremely strained, particularly on this issue," says Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a political risk research firm. "The U.S.-Saudi relationship has been quite strained, but won't be on this issue. The Saudis are absolutely of one mind with the United States on going in and dealing with this threat of al-Qaida in Arabia."
Pakistan sees its traditional rival, India, as its top threat, and Pakistani intelligence has long had close ties to the Taliban, al-Qaida's ally. So the Pakistanis haven't been helpful in the fight against al-Qaida in Afghanistan. But the Saudis, who must protect their oil and the royal family, do worry about al-Qaida — and so now does the government of Yemen.
"Saudi Arabia feels very threatened by the rising threat of al-Qaida," says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East specialist at Oxford University. "Saudi Arabia and Yemen share a very strategic objective in preventing al-Qaida from becoming a potent force either in Yemen or Somalia or in the Arabian Peninsula as a whole."
Incentives To Fight Terrorism
Saudi military forces have actually moved into Yemen on occasion — with the full support of the Yemeni government. Potentially, this means there would be less need for U.S. troops to join the fight.
But the situation in Yemen is complicated; there are anti-government rebellions right now in both the north and the south. Gerges says that makes the fight against al-Qaida there far more challenging.
"We're not just talking about 100 or 300 al-Qaida operatives in Yemen," he says. "What al-Qaida has been able to do in the last two years is try to submerge itself, embed itself, within local conflicts in the south, in the north, and also in the eastern provinces."
Al-Qaida in Yemen now portrays itself as the vanguard of opposition to the government, which is a smart move: The Yemeni government is widely seen as corrupt, unjust and ineffective. Bremmer wonders how much help the Yemenis can be in the fight against al-Qaida.
"They'll certainly take money and help to the extent that they get it. But how much they're going to be willing to actually do the heavy lifting themselves is another question," he says. "They are on the brink of being a failed state."
If the Saudis are seen as intervening in Yemen in collusion with an unpopular government, it may not be all that helpful. Analysts say a more valuable Saudi role would be to promote Yemen's political and economic development.
That'd be primarily a nonmilitary approach. Maybe the Yemen comparison should be not to Afghanistan but to Iraq, where Sunni extremists in the end were essentially bought off, not beaten on the battlefield. Maybe some of the anti-government forces in Yemen could be turned against al-Qaida with the right political and economic incentives. And in that regard, oil-rich Saudi Arabia could certainly be helpful.