General Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan recently commented that “We’ve been at this for about seven months now and I believe we’ve made progress.” In fact, it is entirely possible that a further build-up of US troops in Afghanistan could militarily defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda, or at least keep them at bay, preventing them from controlling large swaths of the country. After all, these forces have nothing to offer the masses in Afghanistan as far as resolving their basic problems. All they have to offer is bloodshed, continued poverty, and further repression.
However, recent events half a world away show that US and the Western capitalist powers cannot succeed in dominating the Islamic world, at least not without continued turmoil. The attempted fire-bombing of Northwest Airlines flight 253 on Christmas day just as it was about to start landing over Detroit, Michigan shows that. There are some questions about how the alleged perpetrator – Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – got on the flight. There are reliable reports of a “well dressed man” who arranged his boarding the flight in Amsterdam, despite Abdulmutallab’s failure to show a passport. Nevertheless, it does seem that Abdulmutallab had connections with the “Al Qaeda of the Arab Peninsula” (AQAB), the group that allegedly planned and organized this terrorist attempt.
Behind AQAB lies the continual crisis and turmoil in its home country of Yemen, which is now becoming prominent in the news.
The ancient cultures of what is now Yemen date back over 4,000 years. They were built around agriculture, which included complex irrigation systems, and the spice trade. The area was first conquered by the Persian empire, then the Ottomans and later by the British empire. Prior to WW I, the British empire dominated what is now southern Yemen and the Ottomans dominated the north. Following their defeat in WW I, the Ottoman Empire withdrew its troops from the north. The British Empire sought to dominate the entire region, with the assistance of Saudi princes at times.
The rise of radical nationalist forces in Africa and the Middle East were felt in Yemen, especially in South Yemen, where Egyptian President Nasser was influential. These forces eventually moved further left, broke with capitalism and founded the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1970. The PDRY was allied with the Soviet Union. Isolated and bureaucratic, the PDRY was unable to resolve the basic problems of an underdeveloped Yemen, and after a series of conflicts and civil wars, north and south Yemen were united in 1990 with Ali Abdullah Saleh as president.
Zebras & Gazelles
Saleh has remained president since that time, and his rule can be understood by a saying in Southern Yemen regarding police interrogations methods. “They can make a zebra admit it’s a gazelle,” it is said.
Thus we see all the fundamental processes of the entire underdeveloped world at work in Yemen. Imperialism (first Persian, then Turkish, then British and now US with an assist from Saudi Arabia) dominated the region. It allied itself with the feudal rulers, and kept this formerly extremely culturally rich region underdeveloped. Neither radical nationalism (Nasser) nor Stalinism was ultimately able to offer an alternative. Ultimately, some sort of central state was founded, based on extreme repression, meaning that poverty for the masses continued as did repression of the different cultural and tribal groups. Given the underdevelopment, the central state was and remains extremely weak and also dependent on an imperial force, presently the United States and also Saudi Arabia.
Another process is at work here also – the absence of the working class as a mass, independent force on a world scale. As a result, a revolt against the repression and poverty in the predominantly Muslim countries, including Yemen, takes a different route. – that of Islamic nationalism or religious fundamentalism. It must be stressed that in Southern Yemen there are reported to be all sorts of resistance groups. Al Qaeda is only one of these, although the Western capitalist media reports on it as if it were the only one. It is hard to imagine that the traditions of the National Liberation Front (of Southern Yemen) and the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen – both left forces of the ‘50s and ‘60s – have not left some traditions there. In fact, in November thousands of people came out in the streets of Aden – Yemen’s capital – to commemorate the withdrawal of British troops. This event quickly turned into a protest against the poor conditions that exist. And the remnants of the former ruling party – the Yemeni Socialist Party – also remain. In northern Yemen, the Houthi rebels are also at war with the regime. Because they are Shia Muslims, however, al Qaeda has no influence there. Instead, Iran is blamed. According to some reports, however, it is not Iran behind this rebellion but simply a falling-out between Saleh and some of his previous allies.
These dynamics in Yemen are mirrored throughout the region, especially in Northern Africa. There Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb has been organized. It operates in Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger. In the Caucasus, there is an Islamic fundamentalist group that operates in Chechnya.
US and Western capitalism may succeed in partially crushing these forces in Afghanistan, only to see the struggle to arise elsewhere. Direct US military intervention will only exacerbate the situation. However, if the US ignores it, this will only allow these forces to continue to build. That is because of the factors that underlie their growth. On the one hand is the poverty and disorganization of the underdeveloped world. On the other hand is the domination and repression of US and Western capitalism. Included in the latter is the unequivocal support for the racist and expansionist policies of Israel, a state which US capitalism needs in the region. In some cases, al Qaeda as a particular force may be exaggerated by a particular regime in the hopes that that regime will get money from the US to fight its domestic opponents. And in other situations, including Yemen, a rebel group can simply brand itself as “al Qaeda” in order to give itself increased prestige. In any case, though, the spread of this form of rebellion will continue as long as the conditions that gave rise to it remain.