I hear the war drums calling us to do battle in Yemen. I have never visited Yemen. However, I did serve as a PCV in Asmara, Eritrea, then a provincial capital in Ethiopia, now the capital of Eritrea, and lies directly across the Red Sea from Yemen. It was a very pleasant place. The combination of latitude, in the tropics, and elevation, about 8000 feet, provided a near ideal climate with warm days and cool nights and very predictable rains. It resembled a small city in southern Italy with a wide main boulevard with palms and other trees shading the tables of sidewalk cafes.
No wonder Asmara was the favorite “R&R” (rest and recuperation) center for the leaders of both sides in the civil war raging across the Red Sea in Yemen. One could tell who was winning the war by counting the visitors from each side at any given time with the ones on the ascent being the larger contingent. You could also determine the progress of the war by seeing how many “Qat” flights came in from Yemen. Qat or Khat is a leaf chewed for its mild stimulant effect by Yemenis and it was imported into Asmara for its large expatriate Arab community.
The connection between Asmara and Yemen was hardly new. The legendary kingdom of the Queen of Sheba (Saba) straddled the Red Sea with one leg in southern Arabia and the other in northern Ethiopia. There has always been a healthy movement of goods and ideas between the two sides. Coffee originated in Ethiopia but reached Europe via Yemen, thus the coffee bean was named “arabica” instead of “africana” by the Europeans.
There has been internal strife in Yemen for almost all of the 45 years since I left Asmara. And this is ruthless, intense warfare. All Yemeni men wear a knife known as the “jambiya” on their belt. It features an ornate hilt, curved steel blade and wooden sheaf. Its only known use is to slit a throat.
More relevant to the current world situation, the Bin Laden family originated in Yemen. Benny Laden’s roots are in this cauldron of war. So the call to make Yemen the next “Afganistan” in our war to eliminate Al Queda makes sense.
But hold the phone. Yemen is sandwiched between two very powerful American allies, Saudi Arabia and Ethopia. The Saudis have a very well outfitted military machine and the Ethopians have the most disciplined and well marshalled army in Africa. Saudi Arabia kicked Benny Laden out and would love to see him gone completely. Ethiopia sent its army into Somalia to take down a movement linked to Al Queda. Rather than get our military directly involved in Yemen, it would perhaps be better to work more closely with the Saudis and Ethiopians.
Unfortunately I fear President Obama may pay heed to those urging us to become directly involved in Yemen. I hope he doesn’t.