Long-standing conflict in Yemen has heated up in the past month, not only raising concern about the situation in that strategically located country but also calling into question the basic policy rationale for a continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
Yemen is a nation of 24 million, with borders on Saudi Arabia and Oman, located at the juncture of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, which leads into the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, at the core of the Middle East. It has a very troubled history. Its north became independent from the Ottoman Empire in 1918, its south from the British in 1967 after warfare. The north and the south fought each other and then united in 1990. It is almost entirely Muslim, but divided between 55 percent Sunni and 42 percent Shiite.
Its predominantly Sunni government is now challenged both by a Shiite rebellion in the north, led by the Houthi clan, a five-year-long conflict that has heated up in the past month, and by a Sunni rebellion that is believed to be supported by al-Qaida that has lasted three years so far. The humanitarian impact on desperately poor Yemen has been disastrous, with some 150,000 persons displaced by the fighting in the north, which has included government bombing of villages.
None of this is particularly new for Yemen, which has known such conflict for more than 50 years. But the current descending disorder in Yemen, prompted by actions both by Shiites, the dominant Islamic religious sect in Iran but not in neighboring oil-rich Saudi Arabia, and by al-Qaida, blows a large hole in the argument that American governments have used since the 9/11 attacks to support continuing the U.S. and now NATO war in Afghanistan.
The idea is that the United States has to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan in order to prevent al-Qaida from reestablishing itself there as a base for another attack on the United States. If that argument is valid in reference to Afghanistan, it is just as relevant if not more so with respect to Yemen, in as chaotic a state as Afghanistan and even closer to U.S. interests in the Middle East, not to mention Europe and the United States.
If that is the case, should America not be asking itself if it shouldn't be supporting the shaky government of Yemen in its two internal wars, against the rebel Shiites in the mountainous north of Yemen and against al-Qaida in the south? It is hard to imagine any enthusiasm for such a war in the United States or in other NATO countries. So isn't it really time to accept that Americans have done enough in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia as well, and to concentrate the country's efforts and resources on rebuilding its own military and economy at home?