Y emen is prettier than it looks on TV. If you drive the length of this rugged nationfrom the border with Saudi Arabia in the north to the sparkling turquoise of the Gulf of Aden in the souththe landscape outside your window will slip from something resembling New Mexico, to West Texas, to Baja California, until finally youll arrive in a place that is as desolate and craggy as the moon. Somewhere around Qatabah, a crumbling town a hundred-odd miles south of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, the ubiquitous portraits of President Ali Abdullah Salehplastered on billboards and storefronts and gas station pumpswill slowly give way to a smattering of South Yemen flags hung from bedroom windows and painted on boulders, an open act of defiance against the government up north. Yemen is perhaps more complicated than it looks on TV, too.

After a Yemen-based al Qaeda cell took responsibility for a Nigerian would-be terrorists botched airline bombing on Christmas Day, American newspapers and television channels were flooded overnight with images of Yemena stark, ancient nation awash in tribes and fundamentalism and AK-47s. Americans collectively groaned. Really? This again? It was all too familiar: a countrythe cracked heel of the Arabian Peninsulawith a forebodingly stark landscape, loosely ruled by a weak central government and a patchwork of tribal sheikhs, the newest gang of al Qaeda operatives convening in hideouts at the end of long, dirt roads. In Jon Stewarts words, “Cant we get in a war with paved countries?”

Of course, only Joe Lieberman actually wants to go to war with Yementhe Obama administration, for its part, has made it quite clear that the United States has no intention of invading the country. In any case, after stretching its military capabilities in Afghanistan and Iraq and losing its credibility with most of the Muslim world over the last decade, the U.S. doesnt have the counterterrorism options in Yemen that it might have had in the past. This time around, the U.S. will rely almost entirely on Yemens President Saleh to do the fightingwhich is a little like tapping Al Capone to run Neighborhood Watch.

In recent months, Saleh has promised the international community that, among the colorful array of troubles facing his government, fighting al Qaeda is his “first priority,” but no one really believes him. Over the course of his nearly thirty-two-year presidency, Saleh has depended heavily on the political and military support of radical Islamists, jihadists, and tribal membersthe same people he will have to alienate politically, if not outright bomb, if he intends to really disrupt the growth of al Qaeda in Yemen. “From a purely political standpoint, Saleh would prefer to leave the al Qaeda question alone,” Mohamed Abdulmalik al-Mutawakel, a prominent Yemeni opposition leader, told me during an interview in January. “It is a problem for the West, not a problem that directly affects Yemen.”

But if the Yemeni government doesnt see al Qaeda as its problem, it does see it as an opportunity. The U.S. war on al Qaeda comes with an open checkbook, Yemen is bankrupt, and Saleh has never been one to waste a crisis. The Yemeni presidents “first priority” is probably the same now as it always was: to hold on to his own power and to pave the way for his son, Ahmed, to inherit the presidential throne. “For [Saleh], al Qaeda is just another tool he can use to play opponents off each other, to get more money, and to keep the Western powers afraid, so that they continue to believe that security is more important than democracy,” Mutawakel said. In all likelihood, Saleh will try to continue to govern as he always has. He will play his friends off one another, placate his enemies, and, as one taxi driver in Sanaaquoting an Arabic proverbput it, “keep dancing on the heads of snakes.”

I n the thousands of portraits of him that appear on billboards and telephone poles around Sanaa, Salehwho at age sixty-seven resembles a glowering and slightly paunchier Groucho Marxappears either in a military beret and aviator glasses or in a suit with a halo around his head, gently comforting crying children. Yemenis call him “Uncle Ali,” and he is the only president in Yemens chaotic modern history whom theyve had time to get to know on a first-name basis. Ibrahim al-Hamdi, who led a military coup that toppled the civilian government of the northern Yemen Arab Republic and became president in 1974, was assassinated three years later. His successor, Ahmad al-Ghashmi, lasted barely eight months before he was blown up by an exploding briefcase.

Saleh, a former army tank driver with a primary school education who grew up in the dusty tribal village of Bayt al-Ahmar, was elected by a committee to the presidency of the republic later that same year. He stayed in office until 1990, when the north and the formerly Soviet-allied South Yemen rejoined, and has held on to power as president of reunited Yemen ever since. Salehs three-decade run has not come easily: he has evaded assassination attempts, tamped down military coups, waged war on his own people, imprisoned his colleagues, and survived a handful of civil wars, all while holding together a country so culturally and geographically disparate, so factionalized by tribal feuds and conflicting regional loyalties, that at several points in its 5,000-year history conquering powers have declared it ungovernable.

Saleh may never have taken a political science class, but the energetic strongman has a visceral understanding of the traditional authority of tribes, the complex loyalties in Yemens military hierarchy, and the rats nest of political maneuverings in Sanaa. He knows that his power is far from absolutethat he relies heavily on the loyalty of powerful actors within the military and tribal confederaciesand his decisions are shaped accordingly. His colleagues describe him as petulant, proud, intelligent, and, above all, Machiavellian. “He has no permanent enemies, and no permanent friends,” said Ahmed al-Aswadi, an influential member of al-Islah, the powerful Islamist party in Yemen. “He uses people and plays them off each other. He creates enemies so that later, he can make friends again.”

In the past thirty years, Saleh has both allied with and fought against local Socialists, Islamic extremists and Shiites, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. At the moment, hes entrenched in an on-again, off-again battle against the Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite sect from Yemens northern provinces (Saleh himself is Zaydi); an increasingly powerful separatist insurgency in the south (led in part by one of his former military leaders); and a resurgence of locally based al Qaeda operatives (some of whom once fought for Saleh). “Yemeni politics are a tangle of unspoken alliances,” said parliamentary member Mohammed al-Qobati, head of the political division of the Yemeni Socialist Party. “If you pull one string, you get ten more.”

Since the U.S. war on terror began in 2001, Saleh has walked a fine line, exaggerating the power of al Qaeda in Yemen to secure international support while downplaying the threat to avoid having to actually fight the militants. Most political analysts in Yemen believe Saleh has used the majority of international funds designated for counterterrorism efforts to fight his own internal enemies and to maintain his own corrupt government, which survives off a steady regimen of payouts and bribes. One of the major problems facing Saleh right nowand one of the major reasons he has agreed to cooperate with the United States in fighting al Qaeda within his bordersis that he is broke. Oil revenues are dwindling, unemployment rates top 40 percent, and state coffers are drying up. Already, Saleh has had to cut oil subsidies, and government salaries are not keeping pace with inflation. Poor people dont necessarily become terrorists, but unemployed, disaffected, and hungry people can create a base of support for any alternative to the government, no matter the ideology. The president is aware that his grip is slipping.

S alehs relationship with al Qaeda is murky and convoluted, and it begins with the Islamic jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. After the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, tens of thousands of victorious jihadists poured back into their home countries, some of which were less than thrilled about the radicalized additions to their populations. As a result, many of the young guerrillas took to heart an apocryphal hadith of the Prophet Muhammad: “When disorder threatens, seek refuge in Yemen.” They headed south, where, by and large, they received a heros welcome. The influx increased further a year later, when Saudi Arabia deported a million Yemeni laborers to punish Saleh for siding with Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War (throughout the 1980s and 90s, Saleh declared Saddam to be an ideal Arab leader, and portraits of the former Iraqi dictator still decorate fruit stalls and taxis around Sanaa). During their time in the kingdom, many of these young men were steeped in a radical and stringent interpretation of Islam called Salafism, or Wahhabism, the dominant sect in Saudi Arabia and the ideology that underscores most jihadist literature.

In the 1990s, many of these young men were deliberately absorbed into the Yemeni military structure, given plush posts and salaries both to reward them for their “previous service abroad” and to discourage them from pursuing any non-state-sanctioned jihad within Yemen. “The governments main goal was never to rehabilitate or neutralize these people. It was to control them enough so that they could use them as a card to play against their political opponents,” Qobati, the Socialist parliament member, told me. By 1994, Saleh, with the help of al-Islah, their Salafist allies, and a powerful tribal backing, managed to turn this unwieldy group of battle-ready young men into his own personal paramilitary force to fight the Socialist-dominated southern secessionist movement, which he characterized as “godless” and “atheist communists”rhetoric that resonated with the former jihadists. This particular force was led in part by two men: Sheikh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, a radical sheikh who is said to have been the “spiritual leader” for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, and who is now listed as a high-ranking terrorist by the U.S.; and Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, an ultraconservative Salafist and Salehs tribal kinsman. In the past few years, Ahmar, who is now the most powerful general in the Yemeni military, has again enlisted former jihadists to fight the governments ongoing battle against the Shiite rebel group in Yemens north.

Yemeni ex-jihadists from the Afghan-Soviet war are not the shadowy, marginal characters that Americans sometimes imagine them to be. They have stores and drive taxis and raise their teenage children. They are, for the most part, respected members of Yemens political and military societies, and have created what Edmund J. Hull, the former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, calls the “mujahedeen fraternity”an informal yet powerful network, where cousins are linked to uncles, sisters, and local leaders by marriage, family, and tribal ties. It would be a mistake to suggest that these ex-jihadists are all al Qaeda, just as it would be a mistake to say all al Qaeda members are ex-jihadists. But the sheer numbers of former fighterswhich swelled with veterans of the conflict in Chechnya in the 90s, as well as combatants from Iraq and Afghanistanand the ongoing U.S. wars in the region have helped foster a virulent anti-American sentiment and a “prevailing culture of jihad” in Yemen, according to Hassan Zaid, president of Yemens parliamentary opposition coalition. State-sanctioned educational curriculum, thousands of Saudi-funded Salafi religious schools, and Yemens three satellite television channels all “combine to spread the belief that anyone who is unlike you can be killed,” Zaid said.

Abdulelah Haider Shaeya, a journalist with sources in al Qaeda, told me that elements in the Yemeni government arent so much affiliated with al Qaeda as passively approving of it. “There is no one in the government who calls himself al Qaeda,” he said. “But there are people who support al Qaeda because of personal interests, or because they agree with what [al Qaeda] is doing. They dont dare support al Qaeda directly, but they look out for what its doing, they look out for its interests.” Abdul-Salam Al-Korary, a local radio journalist, put it this way: “No one in the government is going to give al Qaeda a bomb. But some might look the other way if someone comes in to steal one.”

T hroughout the 1990s and much of the last decade, Yemens disaffected radical elementsthose who were not absorbed into society or formal military and security structuresbegan to radicalize and coagulate into what would become al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a group affiliated with the international terrorist organization. The newest, most radical phase of al Qaeda can be traced back to a prison break in 2006, widely believed to be an inside job, when twenty-three al Qaeda members escaped, incuding the current leaders of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Saleh has for the most part enjoyed an unspoken gentlemans agreement with the group: al Qaeda would not attack Yemeni interests so long as the government left them alone. This, needless to say, has long complicated both the U.S.s and its allies efforts to pressure Saleh into fighting al Qaeda within his borders.

After the USS Cole was attacked in the Port of Aden in 2000, killing seventeen Americans, Saleh refused to allow U.S. investigators to look into Yemens network of militant Islamic groups. After the Twin Towers fell, Salehmotivated, perhaps, by worries that the U.S. would invade Yemenagreed to cooperate with the Americans. He invited U.S. Special Forces to advise and train the Yemeni military, received hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid, and launched a series of attacks against al Qaeda strongholds, some of which ended with disastrous shootouts between soldiers and alleged militants. In 2002, he quietly allowed U.S. Predator drones to strike a sport utility vehicle in Yemen, killing six al Qaeda leaders. As always, however, the president hedged his bets. That same year, Saudi Arabia tried to get Yemen to extradite al Qaedas chief of operations for the Persian Gulf, Abdal-Rahim al-Nashiri, but Saleh refused. Saudi officials later angrily claimed they spotted Nashiri walking down the street in Sanaa with Yemens then deputy director of intelligence.

Local al Qaeda affiliates havent always been thrilled with Salehs diplomatic tightrope act, either. On a handful of occasions in the last nine years, Yemeni soldiers, officials, and security officers have been targeted and killed by the terrorist group. Last fall, al Qaeda members killed one of Salehs regional chiefs of political security and five others in an ambush in the Hadramaut, a region of eastern Yemen loosely controlled by the central government and known to be an al Qaeda stronghold. In light of these events and Salehs renewed cooperation with U.S. counterterrorism effortsshortly after offering to negotiate with the militants in January, Saleh declared “open war” against al Qaedasome politicians suggest Salehs symbiotic relationship with the organization is effectively over. “The confrontation has begun now, really. The reconciliation between Saleh and al Qaeda is finished,” said Aswadi, the al-Islah member. If thats true, the United States, Europe, and Saudi Arabia could find themselves with a suddenly willing ally in their war against al Qaeda in Yemen.

But in all likelihood, Salehs heart isnt really in the confrontation, and neither is al Qaedas. The majority of Yemeni politicians and political analysts I spoke to believe that al Qaeda is not particularly interested in destroying Yemens central governmentthe militant organization has bigger, Western fish to fry. And Yemens central government has more pressing concerns than destroying al Qaeda. While violence between the two groups is almost certainly going to increase as Salehs U.S.-backed “open war” continues this spring, it is unlikely to escalate much beyond perfunctory tit-for-tat attacks on tribal strongholds and government installations. In the past, with only a few exceptions, al Qaeda members generally have attacked Yemeni soldiers and officials only when they could be perceived to be acting as proxies for the U.S. In December, after a U.S.-backed government strike in Abyan Province, a masked al Qaeda member wielding an automatic weapon gave a speech at a local rally, which was later broadcast on television and posted on jihadist Web sites. “Soldiers, you should know that we do not want to fight you,” he said. “There is no problem between you and us. Our problem is with America and its allies. Beware taking the side of America.”

The best reason Saleh has not to push hard against al Qaeda may be a paradoxical one: if he were to eliminate Americas enemies in Yemen, he wouldnt be able to fight them anymore. If the group remains a threat, Salehs cash-strapped government receives huge sums of money and pledges of political support from the international community, so why would Saleh slaughter his cash cow? “So long as there is al Qaeda, no one will let him fail. Its simple,” said Naif al-Gunas, the speaker of the opposition coalition, the Joint Meetings Party. A war against a dissolute enemy like al Qaeda also allows Saleh to use counterterrorism funds and military resources to battle his internal enemiesthe Shiite rebel group in the north, and the separatists in the southsimply by accusing them both of being allied with al Qaeda, which he has done repeatedly. (The alliances are mostly unproven, but, as one parliament member put it, “Shared enemies make unlikely bedfellows.”)

At the end of the day, Salehs ability to sell his own temporary allegiance to the highest bidder is his main political asset, and for the time being the U.S. seems to have secured the dubious prize. While the concern, following the attempted Christmas bombing, was that Yemen would be the next Afghanistan, and Saleh the next Hamid Karzai, in truth the Yemeni president resembles no one so much as former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Like Saleh, Musharraf took vast amounts of American military aid intended for the fight against terrorism and spent it on his own military priorities, including an arms buildup against India and a secret nuclear weapons program. Like Saleh, he balanced occasional crackdowns on al Qaeda with a broader live-and-let-live gentlemans agreement, allowing the organization to thrive and metastasize in the tribal areas. And like Saleh, he was seen by Washington as the best available partner we had, regardless of his flawswhich, perhaps, he was, at least for awhile. In Yemen, as in Pakistan, the only thing more daunting than the odds of the alliance producing anything of value is the lack of other options.

On a sunny Saturday morning in January, Yemeni government officials herded two dozen journalists into Land Rovers and drove with them to a dirt parking lot a few miles northeast of Sanaa. There, a single set of concrete bleachers fitted with a beige metal awning overlooked a barren valley, where an elite Yemeni police force was preparing to perform their counterterrorism exercisesattacking a mock al Qaeda hideout with grenades and AK-47s; ambushing a car with an array of explosivesfor the benefit of the assembled press corps. The units American and British trainers were hidden from view, for their own security, explained a Yemeni soldier who arrived in a pickup truck to brief the journalists. He wore a khaki uniform and a bulletproof vest, a black face mask and sunglasses, and a buck knife strapped to his thigh. The exercises had been tailored to make it easier for the television stations to get footage of the event, he said, gesturing with an unlit cigarette to a cement platform on his left where, moments later, a half-dozen television reporters set up their cameras, fixed their hair, and yelled their reports (As Yemen ramps up its fight against al Qaeda …) above the howling cacophony of mock warfare in the valley below. If nothing else, Saleh has learned how to put on a good show. After a half hour, the men finished their exercises, climbed into their Humvees, and rumbled offstage.

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Haley Sweetland Edwards

Haley Sweetland Edwards, a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is the former deputy Washington bureau chief at TIME.