Heavy fighting erupted in Yemen’s capital of Sanaa today as the country edged closer to a full-blown civil war. Anti-government protesters have been challenging the 33 year rule of President Saleh for months who, despite several negotiations and agreements regarding his departure, has yet to leave office. The latest outbreak of violence has been between government troops loyal to President Saleh and supporters of tribal leader Sadiq al-Ahmar. Locals reported heavy shelling of residential areas as well as widespread gunfire. Meanwhile, the Sanaa airport remains closed and traffic on roads leading out of the capital was reportedly at a standstill.
Saleh’s refusal to step down threatens the country with a civil war whose effects on regional security and international terrorist activity could be dramatic. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has a strong presence in Yemen and is the arm of al-Qaeda that many counter-terrorism analysts regard as the most dangerous, particularly in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death. A civil war in Yemen would take pressure off of AQAP. For this reason, the US and Yemen’s northern neighbor, Saudia Arabia, are likely to attempt to circumvent a civil war in the troubled nation. The US was initially slow to say that Saleh should step down, but President Obama today called for the Yemeni President to ‘immediately’ end his 33 year rule. This call for an immediate end to the crisis represented an important step in US policy and signaled Washington’s growing unease with the political stalemate that threatened to undermine counter-terrorism efforts.
American hesitance to specifically ask for Saleh to abandon power – instead merely condemning the violent government crackdown against protesters – was no doubt due to the Yemeni President’s past willingness to cooperate with the US and allow American counter-terrorism operations to take place in his country. Today, in apparent response to Obama’s call for his immediate resignation, Saleh said that ‘[he doesn’t] take orders from outside.’ He also promised to remain in power and to stop the violence from descending into a civil war. Whatever Saleh’s ultimate fate, the path Yemen follows over the days and weeks to come and how the US and Saudi Arabia react to the unfolding events will have important repercussions for the future of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninusla.
Osama bin Laden is dead, killed at the hands of a US Navy SEAL team in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Despite initial claims to the contrary, Pakistani officials had no prior knowledge of the operation and they are undoubtedly going to face tough questions over the upcoming days and weeks. Abbottabad is a city of 100,000 people only 80 miles from Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. The complex Bin Laden had been living in was several times larger than any of the neighboring properties and, despite the apparent affluence of its inhabitants, lacked both telephone and internet connections. The outside walls are up to 18 feet tall in some places and covered in barbed wire and the residents burned their trash instead of leaving it outside for pickup.
It seems impossible that the Pakistani government could not have known of Bin Laden’s presence here. While President Obama did give a shout-out to Pakistan for its ‘cooperation’ in his announcement last night, the revelation that Osama bin Laden had been hiding out in a Pakistani city less than two hours away from Islamabad – and not some tribal region cave along the border – could not have come at a worse time for US-Pakistan relations. The ongoing drone strikes targeted at militants along the border with Afghanistan, the recent arrest of admitted CIA contractor Raymond Davis, and the ever-present American sentiment that Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani intelligence agency, is actively aiding the insurgency in Afghanistan have all led to a massive cooling of relations between the two nations. It will be interesting to see what effect the raid on Bin Laden’s compound has on the US-Pakistan partnership and, indeed, the war on terror.