One of the debates rekindled by the Arab Spring and its wave of unrest is the solidity and even the concept of the Arab State. In an article for Foreign Policy, Aaron David Miller argues that the Arab Spring essentially exposed the limits of state building in the Arab world, that the societies in these regions haven’t yet succeeded in reaching the concept of nationhood and that tribal identity remain the norm. I won’t try here to debunk or expose the shortcomings of such an unbalanced (orientalist?) view. Others have done so (I invite you to check the response of Karl Sharro). But there is of course some truth in Miller’s argument. One has to be blind to ignore the worrying state of disintegration of three countries having experienced or still experiencing violent conflicts: Yemen, Libya and Syria. In the cases of Libya and Syria, full-fledged civil wars tore apart the fragile fabric of the countries. Yemen is a more unique case. Like its fellow Ara
b states, it has experienced a revolution that brought down an aging autocrat but unlike Libya and Syria, the violence didn’t get to the level of open warfare. Unlike Libya and Syria, the fragmentation process wasn’t brutal and new. In Yemen, the state has always been weak and fragmentation has been to various degrees a common feature. Nevertheless, Yemen is an interesting case study to understand the dynamics behind fragmentation a
nd the dangerous impact continuous foreign meddling can
have on the ability of the state to survive as an integrating force. I have written for Sawt Al Yaman (or the Voice of Yemen) a small comparative piece between Yemen now and Cambodia then, two countries where the United States plays and played a defining role.
Yemen and more precisely the loosely controlled southern areas of the country are increasingly seen as the new safe-haven for Al-Qaeda. The radical group has greatly benefited from the chronic instability that characterized Yemen during this last decade, from the Houthi rebellion in
the northern mountain to the more recent Yemeni episode of the Arab spring. But more importantly the terrorist organization has very shrewdly played the deep rooted enmity between the Southern regions and the Northern central government. Feelings of alienation and resentment are very present in the South because of perceived Northern domination of the administration and the economy. Since North and South were unified in 1990, the southerners have regularly complained that the Sanaa-based government denies them jobs and a fair share of oil revenues. Calls for secession and independence are increasingly heard in Aden and its surroundings as the flag of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen has made a notable reappearance in the streets. For a long time, scholars and analysts have characterized the rift between North and South as a cold war symptom between two ideologically competing regimes. But it appears that the divisions run along ancient and deep-rooted tribal fault lines that nurtured and fed an aversion towards central authority in the southern regions. The dispute between the secessionists and the central government created an ideal situation for the spread of Al Qaeda in the former South Yemen. The acceptance of AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) among South Yemenis was due in large part to the way the organization sympathized with the southern cause and created a climate of friendliness and mutual interests with the tribesmen.
The United States chose to face the threat by replicating its policy in Pakistan and relying quite exclusively on the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) commonly known as Drones. Under the Obama administration, the drone campaign has increased in term of numbers of strikes and of geographical scope in Yemen. They were several prominent hits like Abu Ali Al Harithi, one of the alleged masterminds of the 2000 USS Cole attack, or more recently Anwar al-Awlaqi, a leading figure of the AQAP network. But increasing reports of mistakes and civilian casualties (latest, a strike on a wedding party in December 2013) led several voices to question and criticise the drone policy and its impact on the field.
One of the main blowback regularly identified was the increased ability of AQAP to recruit new members, especially those who have friends or family killed in a previous attack. But another more frightening and long-term blowback has been overlooked: the destabilizing effects of these increasing and concentrated airstrikes on the very fabric of the country. Indeed, repeated attacks could very well constitute the catalyst for AQAP and other radical groups to move to the next stage and seek to establish their own regime over Yemen. The central government, very weak and perceived as an American stooge, would be easily overrun by militant groups branding themselves as victims of oppression and resisting American imperialism. A sustained American drone campaign could very well be the last straw for Yemen as a unified state.
In fact this scenario is nothing new and America just needs a quick look in its rear-view mirror to spot some warning signs. Cambodia in the 1970s presents some troubling similarities with nowadays Yemen. At the time, the country was a hotspot due to the war raging in Vietnam. Prince Sihanouk’s government had been overthrown in a military coup because of its softness regarding the Vietcong’s. But General Lon Nol regime, corrupt and incompetent couldn’t effectively control the east of the country which quickly turned into a safe-haven for the Vietcong. This prompted the Nixon administration to launch a series of secret bombing operations deep into Cambodia.
The airstrikes were aimed at destroying the mobile headquarters of the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese army in the Cambodian jungle. Recent reports revealed that an estimated 2,750,000 tons of bombs were dropped in more than 113,000 sites across the country. The 100 or so drone strikes over Yemen can’t be compared with the carpet bombing of Cambodia militarily speaking but the destabilizing effects are the same. The constant attacks drove ordinary Cambodians into the arms of the Khmer Rouges, a radical group that seemed initially to have slim prospects of success. Everyone knows how the story ended. The Khmer Rouges launched a guerrilla that eventually succeeded in capturing Phnom Penh the capital before conducting an atrocious genocide and deconstructing methodically the whole infrastructure of the country.
The US airstrike campaign played a defining part in the rise of the Khmer Rouges. By declaring half the country a de-facto warzone and by subsequently depriving the Cambodian state of its most important regalian function, America helped in the fall of a friendly regime and in the unravelling of a sovereign state. The same could happen in Yemen. Like the Lon Nol regime, President Hadi’s government is very weak and enjoys a very limited legitimacy among its people. Like Cambodia in the 1970s, the US airstrikes over Yemen are creating a situation where restive parts of the country are policed by a foreign and unpopular power driving a revengeful population into the arms of radical groups.
Comparisons can be misleading but when they summon history and old experiences they provide us with precious guiding steps. Drone warfare in Yemen won’t overcome Al Qaeda and its networks. On the contrary, they will strengthen the organization and endanger the future of a country that has been struggling to find peace and stability.
PS: For anyone interested in the Cambodian tragedy and the murderous regime of the Khmer Rouges, check out the 1984 three times Academy Awards winner movie ” The Killing Fields”.