The Yemeni General Who Turned Against President Saleh

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled the country for 32 years, pledged today that he will step down by January 2012 after organizing congress elections. But, following months of protests, the opposition is not satisfied with this proposal, demanding his immediate departure. Most of Saleh's cabinet has resigned or been dismissed and, on Monday, General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Saleh's half brother, pledged allegiance to the rebel movement. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates expressed concern that the unrest could strengthen Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based terrorist group.

In 2003, Robert D. Kaplan traveled to Yemen and found that the war on terrorism was forcing the U.S. to involve itself with Yemeni tribal politics. He wrote in The Atlantic that, at the time, the country averaged four firearms per person and that their availability threatened to transform the small-scale tribal fighting into a debilitating anarchy. As Gates did this week, Kaplan highlighted how Yemen played a central roll in the destiny of Arabia and Al Qaeda.

Kaplan had this to say about the relationship between Saleh and al-Ahmar:

Saleh has reduced the risk to himself by pulling closer to Ali Muhsen Saleh Al-Ahmar, his half brother through his mother and the brigadier general of an armored division that protects the capital. The general is reputed to be a buttoned-down, capable organizer who is close to the fundamentalist Islah movement, to radical gun-running sheikhs, and even to some in al Qaeda; one expert in Yemen even speculates that Ali Muhsen knew in advance of the attack on the USS Cole. The American pressure following September 11 was so severe, however, that both Ali Muhsen and Saleh felt they had no choice but to accommodate President Bush for the time being. In turn, the Americans have made a deal with this former "bad guy": it is said that giving his regiment a chunk of the American military-aid package is the price of doing business here. After Saleh, Ali Muhsen--not the chief of the military staff or the Prime Minister--may well be the most important person in Yemen. His ties with the radicals will be crucial for Saleh should the latter ever need to distance himself swiftly and credibly from Washington.

Read the full story at The Atlantic.

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Miriam Krule writes for and produces The Atlantic's International channel.

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