The ruins of the 3,000-year-old desert capital of the kingdom of Saba (the biblical Sheba), outside the Yemeni city of Ma'rib, should be overrun by tourists. Mud-brick towers tilt crazily on a vast, sunbaked mound, amid the crumbled debris of antiquity. But when I visited the ruins recently, I was alone—except, that is, for an armed escort of Yemeni soldiers who trudged with me through the inch of moon dust covering the ancient city. Even the souvenir stand here, built before a wave of kidnappings of Westerners, and before the region's infiltration by al Qaeda, is just another ruin. On November 3 of last year, a month before my visit, a missile fired by an unmanned CIA Predator aircraft near Ma'rib incinerated a vehicle in which a suspected al Qaeda leader, Abu Ali al-Harithi, was traveling with five others. Since then Americans have usually been prohibited from the area, for their own safety. "If anyone asks," my Yemeni guide advised me, "tell people you're Australian."
Between the Yemeni capital of Sana'a and Ma'rib, a distance of a hundred miles to the east, in ashen, sandy wastes speckled with Sabaean ruins and abutting the Saudi border, there are eleven military checkpoints, each signaled by cement-filled oil drums. The government presence in the region is greater than it has ever been before, and this is no small achievement. Yet the checkpoints provide security for the main road only. Nearby, mud-brick battlements hide the encampments of rebellious tribal sheikhs, some with their own artillery pieces. Off the main road a Western visitor is safer under the protection of a local tribe than with a government escort.
Filthy cinder-block storefronts line portions of the Sana'a-Ma'rib road, crowded with tribesmen buying and selling guns and qat—a plant that provides a mildly energizing narcotic effect when chewed. Qat offers Yemenis a rare luxury in an otherwise dismal existence. But qat crops are water-intensive, and their cultivation is a reason for the ongoing desertification of the country. According to the World Bank, groundwater supplies in Yemen will last no more than another generation or two. Meanwhile, Yemen's population growth rate is higher than three percent, one of the highest in the Middle East. Half of the country's population consists of children under fifteen.
Ma'rib's ratty streets smell of urine and petrol. The city swarms with young men, often in their early teens and with bad teeth and skin discolorations, riding around in pickup trucks, armed with knives and AK-47s. The knives are jambiyahs. Blunt and difficult to remove from their sheaths, they are rather impractical as ready weapons, and instead symbolize the stabilizing influence of tribal custom in Yemen—the social glue that keeps the rate of random crime low. The AK-47 is another matter. "Once you have a gun, why bother to learn to read and write?" a Yemeni soldier said to me, after I had asked a particularly hostile knot of young men if they attended school. They did not.
Estimates of the number of fire-arms within Yemen's borders go as high as 80 million—four for every Yemeni. Their availability, along with perhaps the largest al Qaeda presence anywhere outside the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, threatens to transform the small-scale tribal fighting that has plagued Yemen for centuries into a debilitating anarchy. Indeed, the high walls, the concertina wire, and the proliferation of armed guards in Sana'a indicate the level of apprehension felt by both the Yemeni government and the foreign community here.
Keep in mind that terrorism is an entrepreneurial activity, dominated by enterprising self-starters. An American military expert told me, "In Yemen you've got nearly twenty million aggressive, commercial-minded, and well-armed people, all extremely hard-working compared with the Saudis next door. It's the future, and it terrifies the hell out of the government in Riyadh." Take, for example, the Wadi Hadhramaut, a hundred-mile-long oasis in southeastern Yemen, surrounded by great tracts of desert and stony plateau and inhabited since 1,000 B.C. Despite its isolation and a history of insular tribal feuds, the region has for centuries maintained links with India and Indonesia, among other places. The Nizam of Hyderabad, in south-central India, recruited his bodyguards exclusively from among Hadhrami tribesmen. The Hadhramaut is also linked to Saudi Arabia, by Bedouin trails that in antiquity were caravan routes. Today all this makes for a convenient social and economic network in which an organization like al Qaeda can conduct global business—especially since Osama bin Laden's family has its origins in the Hadhramaut region.
Yemen is central to the destiny of Arabia and, therefore, to the war on terrorism. It was the political tensions in the Arabian Peninsula that spawned most of the September 11 terrorists, almost all of whom were Saudi nationals. Though Yemen has only a quarter of Saudi Arabia's land area, its population is almost as large, so the demographic core of the peninsula is here in its mountainous southwest corner, where sweeping basalt plateaus, rearing up into sandcastle formations and volcanic plugs, embrace a network of oases densely inhabited since the classical age.
Separated from one another by mountain fastnesses and rich from the production of funerary spices, ancient tribal kingdoms such as Saba, Hadhramaut, and Himyar fought wars even as their merchants cultivated contacts with Africa and South Asia. These kingdoms were followed by a bewildering array of medieval Shiite and Sunni Arab dynasties, among them the Ziyadids, the Zaydis, and the Rasulids, and while they reigned each valley or oasis remained sovereign unto itself. Though the Ottoman Turks ostensibly conquered Yemen in 1517, large swaths of tribal lands never came under their control. The British officers who followed the Turks and manned the Aden Protectorate were kept busy maintaining peace among the feuding tribes in the Hadhramaut and adjacent wadis. Freya Stark, a British explorer and Arabist who traveled in Yemen in the 1930s, wrote of "wild little men of some earlier world" who spent a lifetime in "guerrilla warfare."
Violence has never truly ceased in this corner of Arabia. From 1962 to 1968, in northern Yemen, a civil war between the forces of a conservative imam and revolutionary officers supported by Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt gradually disintegrated into tribal feuding, with villages regularly switching sides; the conflict claimed 200,000 lives before a military-run republic, known as North Yemen, emerged. Meanwhile, in southern Yemen, the Aden Protectorate gave way to a Marxist state, known as South Yemen; Moscow's attempt in 1986 to change the leadership of the Yemeni Communist Party led to a month-long intertribal war in which 10,000 people were killed. The Soviets found that governments in Yemen, as in Afghanistan, were easy to change, but that once installed they were undermined by clan divisions with origins in the hinterland. Because of its rugged topography, which has sustained a history of warlordism, Yemen, like Afghanistan, has been a stranger to successful colonial rule and to effective central government.
North and South Yemen were officially united in 1990, after South Yemen collapsed in the course of the worldwide dissolution of the Soviet empire. But the experiment with democracy, which succeeded in Eastern Europe, led instead to another civil war, in 1994, this time along north-south lines. The north emerged victorious; 7,000 people died in the fighting. Charred tanks still litter the southern road along the Arabian Sea.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a former army lieutenant colonel, has ruled first North Yemen and then unified Yemen since 1978. By most accounts, his government controls the main roads, oil fields, and pipelines; but significant patches of the countryside, especially the desert regions near the Saudi border, such as Ma'rib, al-Jawf, and Sa'da, stand largely ungovernable. Traveling around Yemen, one can see why this situation obtains. I sat at many crowded local road stalls where every man or boy not only had an AK-47 but didn't put it down even while eating. Nevertheless, President Saleh may be doing better than the Turks or the British before him in extending control over this country.
The level of stress on an Arab leader like Saleh—and, indeed, the risks both to him and to his immediate and extended family should he badly miscalculate—is so great that it would immobilize most American politicians, themselves no strangers to intense pressure. The aim of a ruler in Saleh's position is less to accomplish great things than to rule for a long time and then die peacefully in bed. This is why the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak—whose somewhat sterile, dead-end autocracy evokes derision in the West—is by the region's standards a success, whereas his more dynamic predecessor, Anwar Sadat, assassinated by Islamic radicals in 1981, is often judged to have been an abject failure. Saleh's ability to keep hold of Yemen for a quarter of a century, even though several of his predecessors had short tenures before being assassinated, constitutes one of the region's less remarked-on success stories. Saleh has accomplished this by mastering tribal politics—which truly define what we in the West mean by "underdevelopment."
Underdevelopment can encompass many things (illiteracy, bad infrastructure, high unemployment, and infant mortality), all of which can be found in abundance in Yemen. Yet at root the word defines a situation in which the governing administration and its attendant bureaucracies are not guided by an impersonal system of laws and standards. Family ties and whom one knows are what's important. Thus Mexico is underdeveloped, even though it is a democracy, because Mexican judges are regularly bribed, and the police are perceived to be as dangerous as the criminals. Yemen is the ultimate underdeveloped country because of its tribal nature—an inheritance of geography and antiquity.
One afternoon in Sana'a, I sat in the top room of one of the city's many multi-tiered houses with about twenty tribesmen who reclined on the floor or on sofas, chewing qat. Sunlight fell through the stained glass in the room's latticework windows. A sheikh sat with a notebook, his Makarov pistol, and his AK-47, and spat qat leaves and juice into a spittoon. He listened to numerous supplications from those in the room, including one from a man whose brother had been arrested for allegedly stealing funds from the central bank. The idea that a good lawyer and an independent judge would provide justice was not especially considered. Only the sheikh, it seemed, could guarantee a fair resolution of the matter. "In Yemen," one of the supplicants told me, "the qabili [tribal] system is stronger than the government, stronger even than Islam."
Saleh's regime is subsumed by tribalism. Saleh belongs to the Hashid tribe, the smaller of the two main tribal confederations in western Yemen; the other is the Bakil. Of the two, the Hashids are better organized, and have saved the President during a number of confrontations in the past, especially with Marxist South Yemen. Officially, the country holds elections and has ministries. Unofficially, local elections are often a means of institutionalizing a sheikh's rule, so that a ministry can be partly a tribal fiefdom. Whereas rulers in the Persian Gulf states have used profits from oil to build roads and institutions in order to strengthen the grip of central government, from which modernization can ensue, this has not happened to quite the same degree in Yemen, partly because Saleh has had to use his petroleum profits—which account for two thirds of all government revenues—to bribe tribal leaders into quiescence, though these bribes will often go by the name of development assistance.
The tribal lands I traveled through in the Ma'rib region look poor, but their sheikhs are in some cases rich—from highway robbery, from smuggling guns across the border to Saudi Arabia, and from bribes. Saleh must compete with the largesse of Saudi Wahhabis and also, it is said, with al Qaeda for the loyalty of the sheikhs. To remain secure in power he must work not to alienate Yemen's tribal leaders. One Western analyst explained, "He holds all his enemies close so that he can see what they are up to, including the radical 'Afghan Arabs'"—veterans of the mujahideen war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, on whom Saleh was forced to call for help in Yemen's 1994 civil war. One way he keeps a watchful eye on the sheikhs is by offering them land for lavish homes in Sana'a, so that they will spend less time in places like Ma'rib.
There are positive elements, of course, in the anachronistic Yemeni trinity of family, village, and tribe. It prevents the kind of stultifying centralized tyranny found in Iraq, Syria, and other Arab countries. Egyptians view their elections with cynicism, because they are transparently used to legitimize the regime; in Yemen the absence of a true tyranny may empower tribal leaders, but it also makes elections a vehicle for the legitimate expression of public dissatisfaction on many issues. Indeed, the problem in Yemen is more the diffusion of power than the concentration of it. Even the military checkpoints are freelance enterprises, with soldiers charging a few thousand riyals ($20) to jump into a car with a foreigner and protect him up to the next checkpoint.
Tribalism also acts as a restraint on partisan politics, so hard-fought elections need not necessarily lead to civil war, as they have in the past here. For example, the Islamic Islah party (the "Congregation for Reform") represents the main opposition to the government. Yet the Islah leader, Abdullah Al-Ahmar, belongs to the Al-Ahmar branch of the President's own Hashid tribe. Such links count in Yemen to a greater degree than they do elsewhere.
The challenge now is that this unruly yet viable tribal system is threatened by two destabilizing elements: al Qaeda and intense pressure from the Bush Administration.
Al Qaeda's attacks on the USS Cole, in Aden Harbor in 2000, and on the French tanker Limburg, off the Yemeni coast in 2002, may have perplexed some Western observers. After all, the bombings should have served to bring the United States and France, two bickering allies in the anti-terror coalition, closer together. But al Qaeda knew exactly what it was doing. Without Saleh, Yemen would be a conveniently chaotic, culturally sympathetic base for al Qaeda, much more useful than non-Arab, geographically peripheral Afghanistan. Saleh's regime is not necessarily weak: its security and party apparatus provide an institutional basis for power rare in twentieth-century Yemen. But a substantial reduction in government revenues, which are Saleh's main tool to placate hostile sheikhs, could still destabilize his regime. Some informal estimates suggest that the attacks have reduced the amount of cargo arriving in Aden by 75 percent, and that $25 million a month is being lost in the container trade. And war-risk-insurance premiums for ships calling at Yemeni ports are already six times the worldwide average. Reportedly, Saleh's government has lowered the price of its oil to compensate for the higher insurance rates, even though the costs and perceived risks of transporting it have caused less oil to be shipped from Yemen.
Oil revenues helped Saleh to end the wave of kidnappings of Westerners that plagued Yemen in the late 1990s. In typical enterprising Yemeni fashion, a sheikh who needed a water well or some other form of aid would simply kidnap a foreigner and hold him for ransom until a bargain with the regime had been struck. As the burgeoning tourist industry collapsed, Saleh increased the military presence along the main roads and made financial deals with tribal leaders to halt the abductions. Since the end of 2001 there have been no expatriate kidnappings. But if oil revenues diminish further, Westerners in Yemen fear, the abductions could resume.
Meanwhile, President George W. Bush has applied what can only be described as overwhelming pressure on Saleh to hunt down members of al Qaeda in Yemen. The successful Predator attack in Ma'rib—the product of intelligence that very probably came from the highest levels of the Yemeni government—shows how effective such pressure can be. In return Saleh is getting $22 million a year in military aid, which includes funds to establish a coast guard for the protection of Aden and other ports and to train Yemeni special forces to project power in the tribal badlands. Then there is U.S. aid for building hospitals and schools in the very areas threatened by al Qaeda, as part of a brave and spirited American attempt to show local people whose side they should be on.
Although in 1990 and 1991 Saleh allied himself with Saddam Hussein, now a stream of U.S. officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney and General Tommy Franks, the head of the U.S. fighting force in the Middle East, have paid visits to Sana'a. "Saleh has bought himself a one-way ticket with the Americans," a Western official in Yemen told me. "There is no turning back for him now."
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.
On the Horn of Africa, just a forty-five-minute flight from Yemen, across the Red Sea choke point of the Bab el Mandeb ("The Gate of Lament"), is the newly independent, sleepily calm, and remarkably stable state of Eritrea. While the West promotes democracy, market liberalization, military demobilization, and the muting of ethnic hatreds as necessary to domestic tranquillity, Eritrea, at least for the moment, provides a rejoinder to all that. The country has achieved a degree of non-coercive social discipline and efficiency enviable in the developing world and particularly in Africa—and it has done so by ignoring the West's advice on democracy and development, by cultivating a sometimes obsessive and narcissistic dislike of its neighbors, and by not demobilizing its vast army, built up during a thirty-year conflict with Ethiopia, unless there are jobs waiting for the troops.
Whereas Yemen's streets and shops are plastered with photos of President Saleh (whose cult of personality is mild compared with those of other Arab and African leaders), one never sees such photos of the Eritrean President, Isaias Afewerki, the veritable founder of this country. For decades Afewerki led a low-intensity guerrilla movement that finally wrested independence from Ethiopia in 1991. "Photos of me would create an air of mystery and distance from the people," he told me in December. "It's the lack of photos that liberates you. I hate high walls and armed guards." While other leaders in the region live inside forbidding military compounds, Afewerki lives in a modest suburban-style house and greets people in his secretary's office, which sits at the end of an undistinguished corridor. He moves around the capital in the passenger seat of a four-wheel-drive vehicle, with only one escort car, stopping at red lights. Western diplomats here say they have seen him disappear into large crowds of Eritreans without any security detail at all. "It's easy to put a bullet in him, and he knows it," one foreign diplomat said to me.
Security, which consumes the Western diplomatic and aid communities in Sana'a (and everywhere else in the Middle East), is barely an issue in Asmara, Eritrea's capital. Despite its tattered storefronts, Asmara not only is one of the cleanest capital cities in Africa but also may be the only capital south of the Sahara where one can leave the car doors unlocked or prowl the back streets at all hours without fear of being robbed, even though the police are barely in evidence. American, Israeli, and other resident diplomats and aid administrators in Eritrea move freely around the country without guards or other escorts, as if they were at home.
Desperately poor and drought-stricken, with almost three quarters of its 3.5 million inhabitants illiterate, Eritrea nonetheless has a surprisingly functional social order. Women run shops, restaurants, and hotels; handicapped people have shiny new crutches and wheelchairs; people drive slowly and even attend driving school; scrap-metal junkyards are restricted to the urban outskirts; receipts are given for every transaction; there are few electricity blackouts from sloppy maintenance or badly managed energy resources. Foreign diplomats in Asmara praise the country's lack of corruption and its effective implementation of aid projects. Whereas rural health clinics in much of Africa have empty shelves and unexplained shortages of supplies, clinic managers in Eritrea keep ledgers documenting where all the medicine is going.
An immense fish farm near the port of Massawa testifies to Eritrea's ability to utilize foreign aid and know-how. The 1,500-acre complex channels salt water from the Red Sea, purifies it, and then uses it to raise shrimp in scores of circular cement tanks. The nutrient-rich excess of that process is used for breeding tilapia, a freshwater fish. The remaining waste water is pumped into asparagus and mangrove fields and artificially created wetlands. Though the operation was initially overseen by a firm from Phoenix, Arizona, and for a time employed an Israeli consultant, the consultant is now only rarely used. The Eritreans themselves run the operation in every respect.
Such initiative and communal discipline are the result of an almost Maoist degree of mobilization and an almost Albanian degree of xenophobia—but without the epic scale of repression and ideological indoctrination that once characterized China and Albania. The Eritrean xenophobia and aptitude for organization are, as Eritreans never cease to explain, products of culture and historical experience more than they are of policy choices. Eritrea never had feudal structures, sheikhs, or warlords. Villages were commonly owned and were governed by councils, or baitos, of elders. "It was not a society deferential to individual authority," I was told by Yemane Ghebre Meskel, the director of President Afewerki's office, "so we didn't need Marxist ideology to achieve a high stage of communalism." Wolde-Ab Yisak, the president of the University of Asmara, observed, "Communal self-reliance is our dogma, which in turn comes from the knowledge that we Eritreans are different from our neighbors." (On my flight out of Eritrea, I overheard a teenage Eritrean girl from the diaspora lecturing her younger siblings in American English about how "the Ethiopians murdered our people.")
A monument in downtown Asmara definitively symbolizes such self-reliance, collectivity, and rudimentary survival. The monument celebrates not an individual, or even a generic guerrilla fighter, but a giant pair of sandals—shedas, in the native Tigrinya language. Such sandals, worn by every Eritrean fighter during the long struggle with Ethiopia, were homemade from recycled tire rubber, and gave fighters the ability to move quickly in the stony desert war zone. The monument shows what mythic proportions the conflict with Ethiopia has achieved in the minds of Eritreans; it has come to supersede the power of religion itself, in a society split evenly between Islam and Orthodox Christianity. This is an impressive achievement on a continent where Muslims and Christians are forming increasingly antagonistic group identities.
Eritrea's clarified sense of nationhood, rare in a world of nation-states rent by tribalism and globalization, is in part a legacy of Italian colonialism. "We acknowledge that the legacy of colonialism was not all negative," says Yemane Ghebreab, the political-affairs officer of the People's Front for Democracy and Justice—successor to the country's guerrilla force, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front. Having conquered Eritrea in the late nineteenth century, the Italians had by the late 1930s turned their new colony into one of the most highly industrialized places in Africa, with road and railway networks that united a people previously divided by mountains and deserts. To drive from Asmara to Massawa—a descent of more than 7,500 feet in only seventy miles, down tangled vertebrae of coppery-green peaks, on a road of never-ending switchbacks, bridges, and embankments, built by Mussolini in the mid-1930s and kept in excellent condition by Eritrean highway crews working seven days a week—is to experience the historical energy of the industrialized West transplanted successfully to an African nation.
Another benefit of Italian colonialism, according to Ghebre Meskel, was town planning. Rather than concentrate everything in Asmara, the Italians developed Massawa and similar towns so as to prevent the overcentralization that now plagues other developing countries. To stem migration into Asmara and preserve this legacy, the Eritrean government has tried to improve life in rural areas; thus Asmara is not surrounded by shantytowns that might breed political extremism.
Following the defeat of Fascist Italy in World War II, and the dissolution of its East African empire, the new United Nations voted to incorporate Eritrea into Ethiopia. The Eritreans, unhappy with this decision, finally revolted in 1961. For thirteen years Eritrean guerrillas fought an Ethiopia backed by the United States. In 1974, when Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown, leading to a Marxist regime headed by Mengistu Haile Mariam, Eritrean guerrilla activity did not cease, and from then on the Eritreans fought an Ethiopia backed by the Soviet Union. Despite their ability to grind away at a Soviet-supplied war machine, which featured MiG fighter jets in the air and Soviet generals on the battlefield, the secretive and independent-minded Eritreans received no aid under the Reagan Doctrine (a U.S. program for arming Third World anti-communist insurgencies). Nevertheless, in 1991 Eritrean and Tigrean guerrillas, fighting on separate fronts, defeated Mengistu, and Eritrean tanks rolled triumphantly into the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. In the minds of the Eritreans, they had fought and won a three-decade struggle against a state ten times as populous, with no help from either of the superpowers or anyone else in the outside world. They now feel that they owe nothing to anybody, and they are filled with disdain for international opinion. (A taxi driver berated me for the West's focus on the crimes of the former Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic; Mengistu, he said, was responsible for at least twice as many deaths through his collectivization programs, but now lives in lavish exile in Zimbabwe.)
In 1996, following a long series of town meetings, the Eritreans drafted what one foreign diplomat has called "an impeccable constitution." But a second war with Ethiopia erupted in 1998, and the constitution has never been implemented. That war lasted until 2000; by some estimates it left 19,000 Eritreans and 60,000 Ethiopians dead, after tanks and fighter jets engaged in desert combat reminiscent of the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973. A U.S.-brokered cease-fire has resulted in the current demarcation of the disputed border under UN auspices.
Since this latest war the very stubbornness and social discipline that continue to make Eritrea the most civil of societies, in ways rarely considered by Western journalists and policy elites, have also made it a pariah in Europe and the United States—and for good reason. In 2001 national elections were postponed indefinitely (though free and fair elections at the village level were under way at the time of my visit). Far more disturbing, though, is that Eritrea now has the worst press repression in Africa. And in a widespread government crackdown on political dissent, eleven high-ranking officials, nine journalists, several businessmen, and two Eritreans working for the political and economic sections of the U.S. embassy were arrested; they are still being held without charges. Moreover, a campaign of national mobilization requires young men and women to spend eighteen months in the military or the civil service: a good idea in principle, but they are often kept much longer, with no guaranteed release date. That, together with the political repression and the exceedingly slow pace of economic reform, has induced young people to quietly leave the country. An increasingly disaffected diaspora has refused to invest substantial amounts in Eritrea until conditions have been liberalized.
"We're not asking all that much," one foreign diplomat told me. "They don't even have to hold national elections. If they would just implement a version of China's economic reforms, this place could bloom overnight, like Singapore, given its social control and small population." But several diplomats admitted that the sense of patriotism is so strong here, except among some of the urban elite in Asmara, that they detect no widespread unhappiness with the regime. "The change would have to come at the top," one foreign resident told me. "It's not altogether impossible that we will wake up tomorrow morning and learn that Isaias is no longer around." Another outside expert told me that he has not given up on the President, but if 2003 goes by without some political and economic reforms, he will consign Afewerki to the ranks of boorish African strongmen.
My first interview with Afewerki was in 1986, in a cave in northern Eritrea, during the war with Ethiopia. That meeting had been scheduled for ten in the morning—and at ten exactly he walked in and said, "You have questions for me?" He hasn't changed. He was just as punctual when we met this time, and he spoke in the same blunt and remote tone, with the same shy asceticism. He spoke in intense, spare bursts of cold analysis—in contrast to the gasbag homilies one hears from many Arab and African politicians—for more than two hours. Afewerki may be the most intellectually interesting politician in the history of postcolonial Africa.
"All that we have achieved we did on our own," he said. "But we have not yet institutionalized social discipline, so the possibility of chaos is still here. Remember, we have nine language groups and two religions. No one in Africa has succeeded in copying a Western political system, which took the West hundreds of years to develop. Throughout Africa you have either political or criminal violence. Therefore we will have to manage the creation of political parties, so that they don't become means of religious and ethnic division, like in Ivory Coast or Nigeria." He went on to say that China was on the right path—unlike Nigeria, with its 10,000 dead in communal riots since the return of democracy, in 1999. "Don't morally equate the rights of Falun Gong with those of hundreds of millions of Chinese who have seen their lives dramatically improve," he told me.
Yemen, Afewerki thinks, is "a medievalist society and tribal jungle going through the long transition to modernity." He accused it of advancing an "Arab national-security strategy against Israel," a country he openly supports. However, he accepted the international arbitration that awarded the disputed Hanish Islands, in the Red Sea, to Yemen. As for Ethiopia, he said it could fragment, because it is controlled by minority Tigreans who have created a Balkanized arrangement of ethnic groups (Amharas, Oromos, and so on) rather than trying to forge an imperial melting pot, in the way of Haile Selassie.
Despite Afewerki's refreshing, undiplomatic brilliance, a few hours with him can be troubling. His very austerity, personal efficiency, and incorruptibility are mildly reminiscent of Mengistu himself (who also suffered from a seeming excess of pride), even though the latter was a mass murderer and Afewerki could yet turn out to be among Africa's most competent rulers. Civilization in the Horn of Africa has often bred sharp political minds that, with cold efficiency, dealt with their intellectual enemies not through written attacks but by imprisoning or killing them. And it is said repeatedly in Asmara that the President has closed himself off since arresting the very people who challenged him intellectually.
General Franks, on several visits here, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, during a visit last December, have held long talks with Afewerki. "The meetings were superb," Afewerki told me. "I mean that they were frank, without pretensions or flattery on either side. I share the strategic view of the Americans in the region. French forces in Djibouti have been a stabilizing factor, and U.S. troops will add to that. You need outside powers to keep order here. It sounds colonialist, but I am only being realistic."
When I pressed Afewerki about human-rights abuses, which Rumsfeld had pointedly raised in their meeting two weeks earlier, he said, "If you just leave us alone, we will handle these matters in a way that won't damage our bilateral relationship and won't embarrass us or you." He indicated that he would be more likely to satisfy U.S. demands on human rights in the context of a growing military partnership, but would not do so if merely hectored by the State Department.
I worried that Afewerki, like many other realists, is obsessed with everything that could go wrong in his country rather than with what could go right. True realism requires a dose of idealism and optimism, or else policy becomes immobilized. And that might be Afewerki's problem. He seemed more comfortable when I first met him, in a state of wartime emergency, than he does now, in a state of peacetime possibility. He analyzes brilliantly what he knows, but he gives in to paranoia about what he doesn't know. He did not seem to understand that U.S. foreign policy is often a synthesis of what the State and Defense Departments are comfortable with, and that therefore Foggy Bottom alone cannot be blamed for Eritrea's image problems in the United States.
Nevertheless, Afewerki has essentially offered the United States exactly what it wants: bases enabling its military to strike at anyone in the region at any time, without restrictions. Although the World Bank has questioned the economic viability of a new airport at Massawa with a long jet runway, Afewerki reportedly told Rumsfeld, "The runway can handle anything the U.S. Air Force wants to land on it." Eritrea also boasts deepwater port facilities at Massawa and Assab, both strategically placed near the mouth of the Red Sea.
Afewerki told me, "The increasing social and economic marginalization of Africa will be a fact of life for a very long time to come." Ethiopia in particular, he said, will weaken internally as the Oromos and others demand more power. Its Tigrean Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, already lives inside a vast security apparatus designed for his protection. Meanwhile, across the Red Sea in Yemen, not only water but oil, too, is running out even as the armed young population swells, potentially threatening the political order of significant parts of Arabia. And with fighting terrorism now a permanent strategic priority of the United States, the stability and discipline of Eritrea make it the perfect base for projecting American power and helping Israel in an increasingly unstable region. That, in turn, might foster the Singaporean kind of development for which, according to some, Eritrea appears suited.
So there you have it: Yemen and Eritrea, two case studies in the war on terrorism. In Yemen the United States has to work with unsavory people in a tribalized society in order to prevent more-unsavory people from destabilizing it to the benefit of Osama bin Laden. In Eritrea the United States may have to use a bilateral military relationship to nudge the country's President toward prudent political and economic reform, so that Eritrea, too, won't be destabilized. Thus our military involvement with both nations will mean political involvement in their domestic affairs—and throughout the ages that has been the essence of imperialism.