How Should We Deal with Yemen?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In a country that most Americans couldn't name on which continent it is located prior to two weeks ago, Senator Joseph Lieberman's declaration on Fox News Sunday about the impoverished south Arabian nation Yemen last week was stark: "Iraq was yesterday's war. Afghanistan is today's war. If we don't act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow's war."

The global threat from Al Qaeda in Yemen finally grabbed international headlines last week after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian national with connections to the Yemeni branch of the international terrorist network, was found with explosives aboard a plane bound for Detroit on Christmas day right after it was announced that Yemen launched missile strikes against Al Qaeda holdouts throughout the country with alleged support from the US government.

Yemen has been a safe haven for Islamic extremists for years, but recently an influx of Al Qaeda-inspired operatives have crossed into Yemen from its northern border with Saudi Arabia to make use of the freedom of movement in Yemen's far eastern regions and south. The Yemeni government on the other hand has become increasingly distracted with other threats to its stability including a war with a rebel Shiite group in the northern regions of the country and calming a burgeoning secessionist movement in the South.

However, the notion of Yemen as a jihadi wasteland is not quite correct either. In fact, the average Yemeni would be much more likely to offer an American in his country sweet tea and a handful of the mild narcotic plant, qat, than think for an instant about some Al-Qaeda-world-domination-idea of killing him.

In recent days, news outlets have posted photos of protesters in southern Yemen under the caption describing the Yemenis as demonstrating against the recent strikes on Al Qaeda. The pictures are misleading. The protestors portrayed rather are part of the southern separatist movement and waving the flag of South Arabia, a former socialist state. Southern Yemen's populace have been politically and economically marginalized since North and South Yemen unified in 1990 by a government which the US is actively supporting, according to the a recent Human Rights Watch report.

And so if the US government has finally realized that is must act now to reverse Yemen's trajectory towards failure, as Senator Lieberman suggested, are targeted attacks against extremist holdouts in the country the most effective strategy?

After Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh proclaimed his country an ally of the US's war on terror in 2002, the Yemeni government carried out a major campaign to round up extremists in the country that was seen by many as an act to gain favor (and aid money) from the Americans. The campaign had a direct correlation to the radicalization of Anwar Al Awlaqi, the radical imam who inspired Fort Hood attacker Nidal Hassan, who was jailed around this time when he returned to Yemen.

The missile strikes against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen's local branch of the international terrorist network, on December 17th and 24th failed to kill the specifically targeted AQAP leaders, but did in fact kill women and children.

Furthermore, taking out Al Qaeda leaders in Yemen in the recent past has not decreased the strength of the terrorist organization. Rather such strikes feed into the extremists' narrative that the Yemeni government is acting as a pawn of the United States to further American involvement in the region.

Yemen analysts agree and have reiterated over the past week that the Obama administration should help find political solutions to Yemen's five-year long war with the Shiite rebels, the Houthis, in the north. The Americans should help establish rule of law throughout the tribal-system dominated country, and work on weeding out corruption from Yemen's government. Essentially, there are many political and development solutions to Yemen's woes -- the source of the instability that has allowed for Al Qaeda to flourish in the country -- that don't involve bombs, and the recent months will show which solution the US government chooses to pursue.