From today's edition of The Washington Post:
Militants linked to al-Qaeda emboldened in Yemen - The Washington PostIslamist extremists, many suspected of links to al-Qaeda, are engaged in an intensifying struggle against government forces for control of southern Yemen, taking advantage of a growing power vacuum to create a stronghold near vital oil-shipping lanes, said residents and Yemeni and U.S. officials.
Over the past few weeks, the militants have swiftly taken over two towns, including Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province, and surrounding areas and appear to be pushing farther south, said Yemeni security officials and residents. Increasingly, it appears as if al-Qaeda’s regional affiliate is seeking for the first time to grab and hold large swaths of territory, adding a dangerous dimension to Yemen’s crisis.
What is unfolding provides a classic illustration of the dangers of a power vacuum. IMO, the U.S. should have pursued a strategic reassessment to understand more about what was going on in Yemen, rather than immediately seeking an end to the tyranny in that state. Such a reassessment would likely have revealed that Yemen was probably seeing more a slow reignition of its earlier civil war than the spontaneous pursuit of liberal democracy. The call for democracy was merely the packaging deployed by anti-regime elements to create a perception of legitimacy.
Unfortunately, unlike Libya in which U.S. interests are peripheral, Yemen still possesses greater geopolitical significance albeit below the level during the Cold War. Until the turmoil there, Al Qaeda had been declining. The emergent power vacuum may well have reinvigorated the terrorist organization and amplified its reach.
My guess is that Yemen's neighbors may have to play a pivotal role in trying to arrest Yemen's collapse, if absolutely necessary, or at least contain the fallout of such an outcome. The current regime has been discredited and a U-turn from the U.S. is unlikely, as it would undermine U.S. prestige.
Even if the current government tries to hang on, the limits of its authority have been exposed and various factions, including Al Qaeda, are attacking that limited authority relentlessly and brutally, and further diminishing it. If the government falls or is replaced by a transitional government, that successor government will likely be perceived as weak from the onset. Its weakness will almost certainly be challenged. Hence, there may be no near-term respite from the ongoing assault, particularly from Al Qaeda. Unless Yemen's military forces possess adequate power to impose stability--and that capability is in question--Yemen could continue to evolve toward becoming an even greater element of regional instability.