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SANA’A, YEMEN – A car is sprayed with gunfire. Several men in the bullet-riddled vehicle are left slumped over, bloodied, quite dead. A scene from The Godfather? No, just Yemen.

The slain are police who chased a suspect in a tribal murder. Their killers run free. Ho hum, life in Marib — the region of Yemen where the Queen of Sheba is believed to have ruled — goes on. Such are the ways in this backwater trying to poke its head into modernity.

Indeed, a tribal sheik said the cops had it coming. “This loss of life is merely the result of the government’s interference. We have our own rules, our own lifestyle, our own ways to deal with things, and we want the government to stay out of trouble.”

This, after the Yanks have given tens of millions of dollars, and training, to help secure this helpless country. Yemen can’t guard its own coastline without sticking American chewing gum on its boats. The Marib incident even came after thousands of new security officers were put on the beat.

Now Afghanistan. Another tribal backwater, forgotten in the crash called Iraq, but not by loved ones of 1,900 Canadian troops stuck there this Christmas. Critics say such international forces are unwittingly protecting drug lords. Apparently, Afghanistan now produces 75 per cent of the world’s opium. (The Taliban would cut your nose off if your beard wasn’t the right length, but it did curtail opium farming.)

Still, you can bet that our boys, stationed mainly in the capital Kabul, are appreciated by security-starved Afghans. And they deserve our thoughts as Afghans now try to leave 20 years of ugly war. Community leaders have finished with their magic markers and have a draft constitution in hand.

It enshrines rights, like the freedom to mark an X beside the electoral candidate of your choice, rather than the guy with the biggest gun. If the document isn’t torn up when the traditional grand council, or loya jirga, looks it over, there’s hope. Afghanistan may be able to build a new society. Free elections, maybe, in June.

If Yemen is any indication, however, theirs will be a bumpy ride. Owner of the only multi-party parliament in the Gulf region, in one generation Yemen has moved from a medieval, feudal state under imam rule to a democratic republic. Sort of. Democracy, Yemeni-style, runs like a parade clown’s wobbly jalopy.

Its 301-seat parliament has been headed for 12 years by former military chief Ali Abdullah Saleh, a moderate who somehow garnered 96 per cent of the tally in the last presidential election. That vote is now held just every seven years.

Then there’s the official opposition, the Islamic Islah (Reform) party. It has 46 seats, but feels it’s still not time to field its first female candidate.

Elections at all levels are marred with violence, and charges and countercharges of poll rigging. Backroom deals are cooked up over a mishmash of bread infused in thick honey. And like the former imam, the government also plays the tribal kidnapping game, taking hostages sometimes to gain leverage in anti-terror pacts with tribes.

Then there’s corruption among the poorly paid civil service. Want to know where that foreign aid goes? Then again, faced with feeding your family or being honest, what would you choose?

But enough about the nobility and bourgeoisie. Most Afghans, like Yemenis, live in the sticks, where you’re lucky to have a change of clothes for the kids. They want water and electricity and health clinics. They care less about elections than safety so they can send their kids to school.

So while the best form of counterterrorism may be democracy, even the Magna Carta won’t help folks drowning in poverty, ignorance and danger. Freedom for Afghans, with their historic divides and six million widows, I’m afraid, will be a slow, bumpy ride. Which is all to say that our troops may be in Afghanistan longer than we think, or want.

And God help them if they venture outside the capital.