April 3, 2011
The tumult in Libya has made it hard to focus on events elsewhere in the Middle East. But for the United States, the stakes are particularly high in Yemen, where a branch of al-Qaida (al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP) maintains strongholds. AQAP has been linked to the foiled attempt by the “underwear bomber” in 2009, and to efforts to blow up two U.S.-bound cargo planes last year. Also, Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born al-Qaida leader based in Yemen, is believed to have inspired the accused Fort Hood gunman.
Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's leader for 32 years, is clinging to power but clearly must go. Protests against his rule surged after government snipers fired on demonstrators March 18, killing at least 52. Last week, outrage increased after an explosion at a munitions factory that had been abandoned by government soldiers. At least 78 people were killed and scores injured. Foes blamed deliberate maneuvering by Mr. Saleh to make his leadership appear irreplaceable.
During his long rule, Mr. Saleh has presided over a stew of contending forces that includes fractious tribal leaders, Shiite rebels in the north and secessionists in the south. He has maintained order (if barely) by playing them off against each other. By letting the U.S. bomb al-Qaida militants in southern Yemen, he has also made himself seem indispensable to Americans (all while accepting increasingly large sums of aid).
After two months of turmoil, numerous high-ranking officials, including military leaders, have now deserted Mr. Saleh. The U.S., joined by other nations, would do best to encourage an orderly transfer of power to an interim government. As much as possible, this government should include all parties and honor the student-led opposition’s push for a new constitution. At the same time, the U.S. should explore ways to promote development in this utterly impoverished nation, where so many are desperate for jobs.
The danger is that, under a weakened government, or a collapse into civil war, al-Qaida will be able to operate even more freely in Yemen than it now does. It is vital therefore that the U.S. step up its diplomatic efforts.