Foreign Policy Update: An Interview with the Top American Expert on Yemen

Lila Pechter, Print Staff Writer

Dr. Gregory Johnsen is the author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia and, until recently, was the armed groups expert for the United Nations’  Yemen Panel of Experts. I had the opportunity to sit down with him (virtually) and ask him about what’s happening in Yemen, a Middle Eastern country facing significant struggle during this time.  

  1. 70 percent of Yemen is starving and cholera is rampant.  Why is this the case?

“The war began five years ago and broke Yemen into two pieces. In the north, a terrorist group backed by Iran called the Houthis took control, while the rest of Yemen is controlled by forces backed by Saudi Arabia. The political leadership became fractured, leading to Yemen’s banking system breaking down and a blockade in the north in an attempt to defeat the Houthi rebel group which has blocked a lot of food and medicine from reaching Yemen. The airspace over Yemen is closed and the hospitals are broken down, so people who are sick have nowhere to go to receive medical attention.”

  1. Is cholera worse than COVID-19?

“Cholera is very serious, just like coronavirus. But unlike COVID-19 there is a vaccine to cure cholera.  Due to the lack of medicine and clean water and malnourishment throughout the country, cholera is all over Yemen. Also, the Houthis have been manipulating the aid that comes into the country, further preventing the civilians from receiving help.”

  1. Why should Americans care about Yemen now when we are all focused on COVID-19?

“In America, it is hard enough to go through this pandemic, but imagine being an innocent person in a third world country going through a war and a humanitarian crisis AND having to also endure this terrible pandemic with barely any healthcare. The US does not and cannot only focus on one problem at a time. Coronavirus illustrates this principle: what is an issue in one part of the world can quickly become a problem for the whole world. ” 

  1. The US has been using drone strikes to kill Al Qaeda leaders in Yemen. Is this the right strategy? 

“Drones are powerful tools that the US has and Al Qaeda doesn’t. But they are not enough to get rid of Al Qaeda in Yemen. Right now, we are entering the second generation of killing terrorist leaders, but we still have not been good at preventing new members. If we can do a better job with that, it will be the end of these groups.”