In response to the failed Christmas day bombing of Northwest Airlines flight 253, US officials and the Obama administration made a very public show of shifting their already turbo-charged ‘war on terror’ into overdrive.
Here in the US, officials – aided by the corporate media – attempted to reassure a terror-weary American public with nationally televised displays of stepped up screenings at airports, increased numbers of air marshals on international flights and the addition of hundreds of names to the CIA’s ‘terrorist watch list.’
All but eclipsed by this ‘security sideshow’ was the administration’s accelerated military campaign in the beautiful and impoverished little country of Yemen, located on the southwest tip of the Arabian Peninsula, where the would-be Christmas bomber allegedly had "connections to Al Qaeda."
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that "Yemen has become the international jihadi’s destination of choice from which to prepare, plot and launch future terror attacks," a claim that pretty much sums up the official US justification for its new focus on Yemen. But, as fate would have it, Yemen has also become the "destination of choice" for a lot of other people – including war and climate refugees from the Horn of Africa.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported in December that record numbers made the perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen in 2009. The agency says tens of thousands of Somalis and Ethiopians, "driven by desperation," traveled across the sea to escape civil war, political instability, poverty, famine and drought in the Horn of Africa. The latest numbers issued by the Ministry of the Interior report more than 1.8 million refugees residing in Yemen. The UNHCR called this a "staggering increase" over the number of people who arrived there in 2008.
An unharmonic convergence of ‘compounded emergencies’
Yemen’s al-Wahda newspaper reported in December that the country had received grant money for dealing with disasters "that happened and could happen because of climate change in these countries." While refugees view Yemen as their last best hope for survival, the influx could not have come at a less opportune time for one of the least developed countries in the world.
"Yemen is expected to face negative impacts by climate change, including heat waves and torrential rains that could badly affect main developmental sectors such as agriculture, health and coasts," al-Wahda reported early this year.
At the same time, the country is struggling to cope with a Shi’ite rebellion in the north and a movement for autonomy in the south. And, by most accounts, Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, only has about ten years left before its own wells run dry. "Yemen is set to be the first country in the world to run out of water, providing a taste of the conflict and mass movement of populations that may spread across the world if population growth outstrips natural resources," wrote Judith Evans in an article published late last year in the UK’s TimesOnline.
"The situation in Yemen is becoming increasingly complex as the country faces a series of compounded emergencies," states the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on its website. "Some 48% of households in Yemen are food-insecure, and half of all children are chronically malnourished … It is likely that these already alarming levels of chronic food insecurity and malnutrition have only further deteriorated as a result of the complex situation."
As if this weren’t enough for Yemenis to cope with, the UN recently reported that the conflict in northern Yemen, combined with extreme drought has forced thousands of Yemeni civilians to flee from that country.
US steps up military presence
When asked by People Magazine in January what the US strategy in Yemen would be, President Obama answered that he had "no intention of sending US boots on the ground in these regions." But (at least in ‘Pentagonese’) "boots on the ground" are one thing. Cruise missiles are another.
Only days before the narrowly averted Christmas day bombing, network news stations – including NBC and ABC – reported that Obama had "personally ordered" two cruise missile attacks in Yemen. An article in the New York Times said the US had given Yemeni forces military hardware and intelligence to carry out the attack. A local Yemeni official told reporters that the missiles had killed more civilians than Al Qaeda. Among the dead were 23 children and 17 women. Such attacks may not qualify as "boots on the ground," but they’re a far cry from the "nimble and precise" US strategy described by Obama in December.
Although Yemeni leaders have made it clear they do not want US forces on their soil, Pentagon sources told the New York Times the US would spend more than $70 million there over the next 18 months – mostly for special forces, to train and equip Yemeni military and paramilitary forces. That number is more than double previous US military aid levels there.
A "wonderfully beautiful" place
Journalist Patrick Cockburn calls Yemen: "a dangerous place … wonderfully beautiful. "The Yemenis are exceptionally hospitable, humorous, sociable and democratic, infinitely preferable as company to the arrogant ignorant playboys of the (rich regional) oil states," Cockburn recently wrote at his blog site. On average, he writes, "Yemenis own three guns per person … including one or more automatic weapons, like an AK-47 as well as heavier arms." Yemeni Professor Ahmed al-Kibsi once told a British reporter: "Just as you have your tie, the Yemeni will carry his gun." As a result, Cockburn says, "Yemen has all the explosive ingredients of Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan."
One UN official recently told reporters: "If they do not find a solution [in Yemen] … fanatics will find very fertile ground to recruit and develop their infrastructure."
"We don’t need more guns in this country," a Yemeni farmer told the Christian Science Monitor in January. "This village needs a new water pump and we need new trees that drink less water."
Slippery underpinnings of US ‘war on terror’
"Besides waging direct or proxy wars on multiple fronts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, the Philippines, Sudan, Eastern Congo [and] elsewhere in Africa," writes Stephen Lendman, of the Center for Research on Globalization, "Yemen is now a new front in America’s ‘war on terror’ under a president, who as a candidate, promised diplomacy, not conflict, if elected."
Yet, when it comes to the ‘war on terror,’ most Americans are (understandably) reluctant to put President Obama in the same category as his predecessor – despite the fact that both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have effectively managed to exploit Americans’ fear of terror to promote the expansion of US military might across the globe.
Some, like author and researcher F. William Engdahl, insist that the ‘war on terror’ is, and always has been, more about protecting the free flow of oil than stemming the tide of terrorism. "The evidence suggests that the Pentagon and US intelligence are moving to militarize a strategic chokepoint for the world’s oil flows … [using] claims of a new Al Qaeda threat arising from Yemen," writes Engdahl. "In addition, undeveloped petroleum reserves in the territory between Yemen and Saudi Arabia are reportedly among the world’s largest."
"Impending US military actions in Yemen – strategically located on an important trading route linking the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea – are directly linked to US oil interests in Nigeria," wrote Ken Boyte in January at AllVoices.com. He goes on to cite a feasibility study produced by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1975 that identified Yemen as "a target for invasion."
Still others report that recent civil unrest within Yemen and on its borders has alarmed the oil thirsty western powers, who fear a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Whatever the underlying reasons, Americans are just beginning to feel the economic, social and political consequences of having abdicated their power to incompetent and/or immoral leaders. It doesn’t take "boots on the ground" (in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen or anywhere else) to fire cruise missiles into neighborhoods filled with women and children or to send unmanned drones into villages, and hope they hit the desired mark. It doesn’t take brains, courage or good leadership skills either. What it does is insure a self-perpetuating cycle of endless war. That may enrich the military-technological complex for a minute, but it is guaranteed to impoverish the rest of us for generations to come.