Tariq Ali is in the London Review of Books this month, breaking down all things Yemen, including the tidbit that there’s likely only a few hundred Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters there. The alarmist D.C. rhetoric of an AQ takeover will result in $63 million in U.S. aid this year — at least a fifth for weapons; the rest, Ali says, mostly to line pockets of the leadership. That doesn’t include whatever the Pentagon decides to send over ($67 million last year). This beefed up attention — not to mention yet another covert drone war — was set off by a 23-year-old Nigerian with a fire in his pants on Christmas Day.
Ali gives a long, wonderful and informed history of Yemen, winding from the Middle Ages right up to today, and finally gets to some solid reporting on just what the hell is happening there. It’s the sort of recounting Spencer Ackerman wishes U.S. policy-makers would read more of in a feisty post after Joe Lieberman‘s late Christmas gift to Yemen — which amounted to a one-man, unilateral declaration of war.
This little bit of Ali’s reporting was sprinkled in at the beginning:
Abdul Karim al-Eryani, a 75-year-old former prime minister and still an adviser to the president, received me in the large library in the basement of his house. […H]e told me that thanks to the Nigerian bomber he had been visited by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Friedman, having asked his questions, went back to the US and told his readers that the city ‘was not Kabul … yet’, but that AQAP was a ‘virus’ that needed urgent attention before the spread of the disease became uncontrollable. He didn’t speculate on the cause of the infection. But when I asked Eryani to estimate the size of AQAP, his response was a mischievous smile. ‘Three or four hundred?’ I pressed. ‘At the maximum,’ he replied, ‘the very maximum. The Americans exaggerate greatly. We have other problems, real and more important.’
He concludes the article with another reference to Tom Friedman’s visit there — “Sana’a is certainly not Kabul, but if the regime continues to use force on this scale new civil wars seem probable” — when the two-time Pulitzer winner and darling of the Congress literally had drug-fueled fantasies about the Middle East. Ali doesn’t mention the euphoric drug qat — let alone Friedman’s use of it (I couldn’t resist, at the time) — and I wonder why not. It’s a prominent Yemeni foil in the Western media, deserving of either confirmation or some myth-rebuttal.
While Ali’s focus is on history and the real conflicts occupying the Sana’a-based Saleh regime, it’s worth noting the increasing marginalization of Al Qaeda and its ‘global jihad’-focused affiliates at the center of Obama’s ‘Global War on Terror’ (irrespective of what he calls it).
AQAP barely exists, it turns out. No one takes seriously Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia’s new counter-counterinsurgency plan. AQ Central, never strong in numbers and based in Pakistan these days, seems to be struggling with a the covert U.S. drone onslaught that might cost the U.S. government the recently productive help of the Pakistanis. (For an excellent rundown on the drone situation in Pakistan, be sure to check out this regularly updated database at the New America Foundation, maintained by Katherine Tiedemann and Peter Bergen.) And AQ is unlikely to get back into Afghanistan even if a deal is struck with the Taliban (a necessary step toward the end of that war), as Ahmed Rashid wrote in last month’s New York Review of Books:
The Taliban leader Mullah Omar, while urging his fighters to continue the jihad against “the arrogant [US] enemy,” also pledged that a future Taliban regime would bring peace and noninterference from outside forces, and would pose no threat to neighboring countries—implying that al-Qaeda would not be returning to Afghanistan along with the Taliban.
Nonetheless, when you throw in Somalia, it brings the total number of Muslim countries the U.S. is actively making war in to five, including those two little efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As for drones, the Yemeni authorities deny it; the Pakistanis want in on the action or want it gone; and the would-be Somali honchos admit it and are grateful for the help. And the whole stinking thing might get the U.S. sued.
And all for what? A few hundred fighters here? A few hundred fighters there? At what point does the Al Qaeda narrative about U.S. designs on godless world domination become a self-fulfilling prophecy? (The bombs dropped by these unmanned vehicles are called Hellfire missiles, for chrissake!) And at what point does this whole situation cause sympathy for that AQ narrative, filling its ranks with willing adherents?