There are three ways to deal with your enemies: ignore them, kill them or engage them in dialogue to seek a mutually beneficial arrangement for living together.
We all know that ignoring them doesn’t work. So, most countries these days – including the post-9/11 United States — has chosen to try to kill them. There are a couple of problems with that strategy, however. It violates the principle of due process so dear to Western democracies. It leaves collateral damage in its wake, injuring and killing innocents no matter how “clean” drones and other technologies are billed. The Stanford University report, Living Under Drones, found that the number of “high-level” militants killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low – estimated at just 2% of deaths. And, in the long term, the strategy simply doesn’t work. Kill one militant and another will take his place, as the root causes of rebellion continue to simmer. In fact, although it is an issue of some dispute, many observers believe that drone strikes actually serve as a recruitment tool for non-state armed groups, motivating further violent attacks.
That leaves the “third way” of neutralizing enemies – engagement. When the rebels are an organized, entrenched group of a country’s own citizens, rather than an external “spoiler,” I’d argue that dialogue is the only hope of a long-term solution. And I am in good company. My Codepink delegation met today with Abdurahman Barman, head of HOOD, the most prominent human-rights-focused non-profit in Yemen, and heard some surprising news: About four months ago, Barman and his team arranged a meeting between members of the transitional Yemeni government and Naser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) – public enemy No. 1, at least on the United States’ list. [The staff at the Yemen Polling Center painted quite a different picture of concerns at the local level. Although no one they interviewed in their Dec. 2012 security survey condoned AQAP, few considered the shadowy network to be a serious threat to their daily lives. In fact, some wondered if the organization was even real. Rather, they worried most about revenge killings among tribes, such as between the Islah (Islamic) party and the Houthis (northern Shias) and Southern secessionist movement.]
Despite some opposition from his deputy, Barman reported, Al-Wuhayshi is tired of fighting. His followers want jobs, and Al-Wuhayshi expressed a desire to participate in the “National Dialogue” now underway. In return for stopping all AQAP operations, he asked that the government release prisoners from his group, stop sanctioning U.S. drone strikes and close all commercial banks. (Usury is banned by Islam; however, that demand would likely have been dropped, Barman said.) Was the offer real? Barman thinks so. At the very least, it seems like an opening that was worthy of exploring. The only hope Yemen has of a peaceful transition to a new government that actually represents and serves all of its constituents is to get each of the stakeholders to the table. However, the meeting was suddenly cancelled, and Barman said he was told the decision makers weren’t Yemeni, but American and Saudi.
“Dialogue is the only way Yemen can build a better future,” Barman told us. “But the United States is playing the lead in the transition process. Our own leaders are afraid to upset the U.S. I didn’t believe it before, but now I’m a firm believer: The U.S. does not want to eliminate terrorism and the AQAP completely. It wants to keep it going to some degree so it can retain a presence in the region.” (I actually believe the same about Hamas; it serves a useful purpose for Israel by being the “bogeyman” upon which a lack of peace can be blamed.)
Far-out conspiracy theory? Maybe. But Barman isn’t the only one who believes that the United States and other international players are trying to call the shots during Yemen’s “National Dialogue.” We’ve heard more than once that the real powerbrokers behind the scenes are the United States and Saudi Arabia vs. Russia and Iran.
“The absence of a strong, independent state allows external actors to have their way,” agrees Abdulhadi, a spokesman for the Organizing Committee of the Revolution, the group that served as the coordinating body for the 2011 popular uprising against former President Saleh. “Creation of the National Dialogue was one of our demands (after Saleh’s ouster). But to work it has to be inclusive. We need everyone at the table – including the tribes and AQAP.”
Abdulhadi (middle) and his Organizing Committee colleagues.
Abdulhadi and his peers on the committee (about 20, in addition to a number of subgroups) remain tentatively hopeful that real, positive change can still result. However, they are quick to lament the slow implementation, with the economy and security situation worsening every day and promises such as the release of political prisoners still unmet.
“We’re watching the situation very closely,” he said. “We welcome help from the outside, but the United Nations and the United States seem to care only about stability – even if it’s unjust. We may need to go to the streets again. “
Jodie Evans, co-founder of Codepink and one of the organizers of Occupy Wall Street, expressed the sentiments of the delegation when she commisserated: “None of our demands have been met either. In fact, it’s worse. As citizens of the world, we are all upset with our governments. But it seems that here in Yemen, and in the United States, it’s still the same players reshuffling the deck. The question is, do we need to stop out of the old structure all together?”
I think the answer is yes.
Jodie Evans flanked by our two Yemeni “guides,” Luai (left) and Osama.