Middle East


In Yemen, government troops appear to be moving against al-Qaida militants who've established a stronghold there. U.S. special operations forces are advising government troops. The U.S. military has been in Yemen for some time, and some people are wondering whether Yemen is joining Iraq and Afghanistan as a theater of war.

NPR's Tom Gjelten reports on the parallels and the differences.

TOM GJELTEN: With U.S. forces engaged in two ground wars already, there's certainly a temptation to point to Yemen as the next place we'll have to fight al-Qaida. Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut jumped at the chance to do that during an appearance Sunday on ABC.

Senator JOE LIEBERMAN (Independent, Connecticut): Iraq is yesterday's war, Afghanistan is today's war, and if we don't act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow's war.

GJELTEN: Lieberman said he was just quoting a line he'd 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. The U.S. is now involved in both countries. But where the analogy breaks down is in the role their neighbors play Pakistan in the anti-al-Qaida fight in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

Ian Bremmer is president of the Eurasia Group.

Mr. IAN BREMMER (President, Eurasia Group): The U.S.-Pakistani relationship -extremely strained, particularly on this issue. 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.

GJELTEN: Pakistan sees its traditional rival, India, as the 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, protecting their oil and the royal family, do worry about al-Qaida and so now does the government of Yemen.

Fawaz Gerges is a Middle East specialist at Oxford University.

Professor FAWAZ GERGES (Oxford University): Saudi Arabia feels very threatened by the rising threat of al-Qaida. Saudi Arabia and Yemen share a very strategic objective in preventing al-Qaida from becoming a potent force either in Yemen or Somalia or the Arabian Peninsula as a whole.

GJELTEN: Saudi military forces have actually moved into Yemen on occasion with the full support of the Yemeni government. Potentially, this means there'd 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. Fawaz Gerges says that makes the fight against al-Qaida there far more challenging.

Prof. GERGES: We're not just talking about 100 or 300 al-Qaida operatives in Yemen. 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.

GJELTEN: Al-Qaida in Yemen now portrays itself as the vanguard of opposition to the government - a smart move. The Yemeni government is widely seen as corrupt, unjust and ineffective. And Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group wonders how much help the Yemenis can be in the fight against al-Qaida.

Mr. BREMMER: 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. They are on the brink of being a failed state.

GJELTEN: 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 non-military 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.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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