Yemen is not quite the desert journalists dream up

The journalistic war talk on terror took a sidestep over the past week or so as commentators sought to tweak the Wikileaks for all they could be imagined to be worth. Here was cable-ready proof that diplomats do not believe exactly what they say in public, that rulers are not always stable and “secret” communication may be secret for a reason. Ah, yes, diplomats with no clothing. But now it’s back to Al Qaeda. In a recent commentary for The Christian Science Monitor, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, Walter Rodgers, weighs in on Al Qaeda in Yemen.

The result is a prime example of run-of-the-treadmill sinthetic (spelling intended) reportage. All the right people are quoted, those who actually know something about Yemen. This includes a former ambassador, Barbara Bodine, a historian, Bernard Haykel and a young political scientist, Gregory Johnsen. Each is granted a short quote, although the reader has no idea what the full context of each comment was. So Ambassador Bodine at some point said “The issue is geography,” which clearly needs explanation. Unfortunately Rodgers flunks his geography lesson. Yemen is not “nearly all mountainous desert.” The only true desert areas in Yemen are along the coast and entering the Arabian desert, not in the mountain valleys and plateaus.

The journalist’s geographical blunders are equaled by his historical ignorance. “The climate is so harsh that the ancient Roman legions made only one attempt to conquer Yemen. Beaten by a scorching sun and fierce tribes, the Romans gave up and never returned,” adds Rodgers. Gosh, even the Roman legions could not make headway here, so how can we ever hope to root out AQAP, certainly not ASAP? The historical evidence for the expedition of Aelius Gallus in 25 BCE suggests it was a drastic failure, in part due to the loss of numerous ships on the way to southern Arabia and then to a treacherous guide that took six months to lead them through inhospitable areas from the coast to Marib, where a siege failed and the Romans suffered from disease as well as lack of fresh water. At the time Ma’rib was still a city state about to change ruling dynasties, not exactly wild tribesmen. There was plenty of scorching sun in North Africa, where the Romans had little trouble making headway. But if the issue is geography, AQAP is not bunkered down in a desert enclave. Yemen as a whole is certainly not “one of the most inhospitable regions in the world” as any tourist who has visited can validate.

But then there is the name dropping. “It’s worth mentioning that Yemen’s Hadhramaut Province is where Osama Bin Laden’s father came from…” It is only worth mentioning, if it is also relevant to note that Al “Scarface” Capone’s father was from Naples. Many Hadrami families emigrated out over the centuries, including missionaries to India, Indonesia and Malaysia and the East African coast. Up until 1967 the Hadramawt was under the nominal control of the British, so perhaps we should also blame the British for abandoning Aden to what became a socialist regime. After all, a number of wealthy Hadrami families moved up north after the revolution in the south.

So what do we learn about AQAP? “AQAP fighters are pros. They are the sons and grandsons of Yemenis, who, 35 years ago, went to Afghanistan to defeat the once mighty Soviets.” So that is what it takes to be a pro: simple ancestry? I have three uncles who served in World War II, so I must be a military pro as well. But in the very next sentence Rodgers admits that these pros were “effectively stamped out” of Saudi Arabia. These do not appear to be very effective pros.

So it will be a long battle, as the experts warn. “Militating against an easy solution is Yemen’s burgeoning and sometimes hostile population, as well as its lack of natural resources,” suggests the journalist. Certainly there are few easy solutions whenever terrorism is to be dealt with. But population growth with limited natural resources is only a setting. Who in Yemen is “sometimes hostile” and who are they hostile to? Rodgers notes that perhaps the Yemeni president is inflating the terrorist threat in order to get more weapons to find insurgencies against his own role. So if there are some Yemenis who are hostile against their own government, does this makes them budding terrorists we need to drone out of existence?

I agree with one conclusion of Rodgers, that it will not work to simply throw lots of money around. Indeed our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan proves the stupidity of trying to buy hearts and minds. But I do shudder to read him say that “By now we should have learned that a little money goes a long way in these places.” “These places”? Is Yemen a whorehouse in the ghetto rather than an escort service at the Ritz? Rodgers would have the U.S. “help Yemen manage and reduce its vulnerabilities.” I assume this means getting them to get rid of the nasty terrorists we do not like. But there is a far better way to manage and that is to help with development, help reduce the poverty and help with scholarships so educated Yemenis will be part of this developing nations’s government and private sector growth.

Then there is the punchline: “Folks – if you liked Afghanistan, you’ll love Yemen.” This is journalistic pablum at its folksy worst. Here is the news story according to the reporter who must make his biweekly column on something: Afghanistan harbored Bin Laden, the ultimate terrorist; Bin Laden comes from the mountainous desert of Yemen; some 150-300 AQAP pros are about to hijack a nation of some 23 million very poor and hostile people; we can’t buy them off with big bucks; War on Terror déjà vu. Folks, if you like pathetic news coverage, you’ll love this post by Walter Rodgers.

Daniel Martin Varisco