US Actions in Yemen Helped Create Current Crisis

The Progressive 02/06/2024: [source].
Plus Four Background Articles:

How the U.S. Contributed to Yemen’s Crisis

As a Saudi-led military coalition continues to pound rebel targets in Yemen, the country is plunging into a humanitarian crisis. Civilian casualties are mounting.

With U.S. logistical support, the Saudis are attempting to re-instate the country’s exiled government — which enjoys the backing of the West and the Sunni Gulf monarchies — in the face of a military offensive by Houthi rebels from northern Yemen.

None of this had to be.

Not long ago — at the height of the Arab Spring in 2011 — a broad-based, nonviolent, pro-democracy movement in Yemen rose up against the U.S.-backed government of dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. If Washington and Saudi Arabia had allowed this coalition to come to power, the tragic events unfolding in Yemen could have been prevented.

The movement had forged an impressive degree of unity among the various tribal, regional, sectarian, and ideological groups that took part in the pro-democracy protests, which included mass marches, sit-ins, and many other forms of nonviolent civil resistance. Leaders of prominent tribal coalitions — as well as the Houthis now rebelling against the government — publicly supported the popular insurrection, prompting waves of tribesmen to leave their guns at home and head to the capital to take part in the movement.

These tribesmen, along with the hundreds of thousands of city dwellers on the streets, were encouraged to maintain nonviolent discipline, even in the face of government snipers and other provocations that led to the deaths of hundreds of unarmed protesters.

The Obama administration, however, was more concerned about maintaining stability in the face of growing Al-Qaeda influence in rural areas. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged that Washington had not planned for an era without Saleh, who had ruled the country for more than three and a half decades. As one former ambassador to Yemen put it in March 2011, “For right now, he’s our guy.”

“That’s How It Is”

Though the pro-democracy movement largely maintained a remarkably rigorous nonviolent discipline in its protests, some opposition tribes and rebel army officers added an armed component to the resistance movement. An assassination attempt against Saleh that June forced the severely wounded president to leave for Saudi Arabia for extended medical treatments.

John Brennan, Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser and future CIA director, visited Saleh in a Saudi hospital in July and encouraged him to sign a deal transferring power. Not only was the mission unsuccessful in convincing Saleh to resign, however, the regime — in a continuation of its efforts to use Saleh’s close relationship with the United States to reinforce his standing — broadcast images of the surprisingly healthy-looking president and emphasized his statesmanlike demeanor in meeting with a top U.S. official as a signal of continued U.S. support for the regime.

As the pro-democracy struggle tried desperately to keep the movement nonviolent in the aftermath of the assassination attempt and a growing armed rebellion, the United States escalated its own violence by launching unprecedented air strikes in Yemen, ostensibly targeting Al-Qaeda cells. The Pentagon acknowledged, however, that Al-Qaeda operatives often intermingled with other anti-government rebels.

Indeed, U.S. policy allowed the CIA to target individuals for drone strikes without verifying their identity, resulting in some armed Yemeni tribes and others allied with pro-democracy forces apparently being attacked under the mistaken impression they were al-Qaeda. This scenario was made all the more likely by U.S. reliance on the Yemeni regime for much of its intelligence in determining targets. Complicating the situation still further during this critical period of ongoing protests, teams of U.S. military and intelligence operatives were continuing to operate out of a command post in the Yemeni capital.

It’s entirely possible, then, that the Yemeni government may have used the pretext of al-Qaeda to convince the U.S. government to take out its rivals.

U.S. officials insisted that the violence between the pro- and anti-regime elements of the Yemeni armed forces did not involve U.S.-trained Yemeni special operations forces, and Brennan initially maintained that the unrest had not affected U.S.-Yemeni security cooperation. By the end of the year, however, he acknowledged that the “political tumult” had led these U.S.-trained units “to be focused on their positioning for internal political purposes as opposed to doing all they can against AQAP.”

That meant that Yemeni forces trained by the United States for the purpose of fight al-Qaeda were instead directly participating in the squelching of a democratic uprising. “Rather than fighting AQAP,” an exposé in The Nation noted, “these U.S.-backed units — created and funded with the explicit intent to be used only for counterterrorism operations — redeployed to Sanaa to protect the collapsing regime from its own people.”

According to the well-connected Yemeni political analyst Abdul Ghani al-Iryani, these U.S.-backed units exist “mostly for the defense of the regime.” For example, rather than fighting a key battle against Al-Qaida forces in Abyan, al-Iryani told reporter Jeremy Scahill, “They are still here [in Sanaa], protecting the palace. That’s how it is.”

“Keeping Enough of the Regime Intact”

At the end of July 2011, despite the ongoing repression of pro-democracy forces, a congressional committee approved more than $120 million in aid to the Yemeni government, primarily in military and related security assistance. The aid was conditional on the State Department certifying that the Yemeni government was cooperating sufficiently in fighting terrorism, but there were no conditions regarding democracy or human rights.

As the repression increased, U.S. officials praised the Yemeni regime’s cooperation with U.S.-led war efforts, with Brennan declaring in September, “I can say today the counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen is better than it’s been during my whole tenure.”

Meanwhile, the United States and Saudi Arabia, joined by the other monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), presented a plan whereby Saleh would step down. According to the deal, he and other top officials in the regime would be granted immunity from prosecution, and a plebiscite would be held within 60 days to ratify the transfer of power to Saleh’s vice-president, Major General Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.

Pro-democracy protesters largely rejected this U.S.-Saudi mandate for Hadi. It soon became apparent that despite occasional calls for Saleh to step down — such as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice’s strong statement in early August — the Obama administration was deferring to its autocratic GCC allies on the peninsula to oversee a political transition.

In mid-August, opposition activists formed a National Council, which they hoped would form a provisional government until multiparty elections could be held. It consisted of 143 members representing a broad coalition of protest leaders, tribal sheiks, South Yemen separatists, opposition military commanders, former members of the governing party, and the Houthi militia representing the Zaydi minority in the north.

The Saudis and the U.S. government, however, kept pushing for Saleh to transfer power to his vice president. Supporters of the National Council denounced these foreign efforts as “only a plot to foil the revolution.”

Following a meeting with Hadi in September, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman said, “We continue to believe that an immediate, peaceful, and orderly transition is in the best interest of the Yemeni people. …We urge all sides to engage in dialogue that peacefully moves Yemen forward.” Pro-democracy protesters pushed ahead in their campaign of civil resistance, insisting that the National Council representing a broad array Yemenis not be circumvented.

Shortly thereafter, government security forces fired into crowds during a massive pro-democracy protest in Sanaa. Dozens of protesters were killed and hundreds more wounded.

The U.S. embassy, however, appeared to blame both sides for the killings, saying the United States “regrets the deaths and injuries of many people” and calling “upon all parties to exercise restraint. In particular, we call on the parties to refrain from actions that provoke further violence.” Similarly, U.S. ambassador Gerald Feierstein criticized a peaceful pro-democracy march from Taiz to Sanaa in December as “provocative.”

Soon afterwards, 13 more pro-democracy demonstrators were killed by government security forces, leading many activists to accuse the ambassador of preemptively giving Saleh permission to shoot civilians. Time magazine, summarizing the view of pro-democracy activists, noted, “The early intercession of foreign powers with a transition plan distracted attention from popular demands, they say, and allowed the president to cite ongoing talks in delaying his resignation. Many Yemenis believe the key interest guiding the U.S. has been keeping enough of the regime intact to combat al-Qaeda, and that this has distorted the outcome.”

“This Revolution Has Been Stabbed in the Back”

Eventually, U.S. officials bowed to international concerns and put forward a threat of United Nations sanctions against the regime, which finally forced Saleh to formally resign.

In January 2012, the Obama administration allowed Saleh into the United States for medical treatment, rejecting calls for his prosecution. U.S. officials believed that doing so was the best way of finally forcing him to step down as president and finally make a peaceful transition of power possible.

Pro-democracy activists in Yemen were outraged.

Protest leader Tawakkol Karman, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the previous month, called on the United States to “hold Saleh accountable.” She also observed, “There shouldn’t be any place for tyrants in the free world. This is against all international agreements, laws, and covenants. The entry of Ali Saleh into America is an insult to the values of the American people. This was a mistake by the administration, and I am confident he will be met with wide disapproval in America. This will tarnish the reputation of America among all those who support the Arab Spring revolutions.”

Saleh returned to Yemen the following month to oversee the transfer of power to his vice-president and has remained the country ever since. Now, he’s making a bid to retake control, having formed an alliance with his former Houthi adversaries and, with the support of some allied army units, playing a critical role in their rise to power.

This has greatly angered the pro-democracy movement, whose leaders twice petitioned the Obama administration for support but were rejected in favor of negotiations led by the Saudi regime and other autocratic GCC monarchies. This greatly set back the hopes for a genuine democratic revolution and alienated the very liberal youth who would otherwise be the West’s most likely Yemeni allies.

As Francisco Martin-Royal, an expert on counter-radicalization in the region, wrote at that time, “The lack of U.S. support means that these young men and women, who effectively ousted Saleh and continue to call for democratic institutions, have broadly failed to have a voice in the formation of Yemen’s new government or have their legitimate concerns be taken seriously.”

He continued, “Yemen’s pro-democracy activists largely blame the U.S. for failing to live up to its rhetoric — a disillusionment that potentially makes them vulnerable to recruitment by other well-organized forces that are against the existing regime, namely extremist groups like AQAP and separatist movements. From their perspective, the only real changes in Yemen — the establishment of a semi-autonomous region by the Houthis and the propagation of sharia law in various cities in southern Yemen by Ansar al-Sharia — have come through violence.”

U.S. Ambassador Feierstein kept pushing the vague idea of a “national dialogue” among elites and criticized ongoing protests within the government institutions, particularly military units, on the grounds that “the problems have to be resolved through this process of dialogue and negotiations.” By contrast, he castigated the pro-democracy activists, saying “We’ve also been clear in saying we don’t believe that the demonstrations are the place where Yemen’s problems will be solved.”

In February 2012, President Obama publicly endorsed Hadi, claiming — despite Hadi’s service as vice-president in a repressive regime and his distinction as the only candidate in the subsequent plebiscite — that his subsequent election was “a model for how peaceful transition in the Middle East can occur.”

The pro-democracy movement thus largely gave up on the United States, with prominent young pro-democracy activist Khaled al-Anesi fuming, “This revolution has been stabbed in the back.”

What Could Have Been?

This marginalization of Yemeni civil society — which had struggled for so many months nonviolently for democracy — and Washington’s failure to accept the broad-based National Council to head an interim government created the conditions that led to the dramatic resurgence of the armed Houthi uprising, which until last year had only operated in the Zaydi heartland in the far northern part of the country.

The Houthis were helped along by the Hadi government’s lack of credibility, ongoing corruption and ineptitude at all levels of government, a mass resignation of Yemen’s cabinet, and controversial proposals for constitutional change. They also received support from armed groups allied with the former Saleh dictatorship, which enabled the Houthis — who represent only a minority of Yemenis — to nevertheless emerge as the most powerful force in Yemen. They surprised the world by seizing the capital of Sanaa in August, consolidating power in January, and subsequently expanding southward.

Most Yemenis strongly oppose the Houthi militia and, in Taiz and other parts of the country, have challenged their armed advance through massive civil resistance and other nonviolent means. Yet the Houthis have actually expanded their areas of control in some key regions, even where they’ve faced armed resistance and Saudi air strikes.

It would be much too simplistic to blame the current crisis in Yemen entirely on the United States. However, one still has to wonder: If instead of allying with Saudi autocrats to install another strongman in the name of stability, Washington had supported that country’s nonviolent pro-democracy movement, what might have been?

Powerful nonviolent resistance to armed conflict in Yemen

While media coverage of the tragic situation unfolding in Yemen in recent months has focused on armed clashes and other violence, there has also been widespread and ongoing nonviolent civil resistance employed by a number of different actors.

In fact, the most significant setbacks to the Huthi militia in their march southward across the country in recent months have come not from the remnants of the Yemeni army or Saudi air strikes, but from massive resistance by unarmed civilians which has thus far prevented their capture of Taiz, the country’s third largest city, and other urban areas. The resistance efforts have also pressed the Houthis to withdraw their forces from a number of previously-held areas, including universities, residential neighborhoods, and even military bases. This kind of nonviolent resistance by ordinary people is remarkable, but it is not new in Yemen.

The fall of President Saleh and rise of the Huthis

It was just four years ago, in 2011, when—inspired in part by the successful civil insurrections against the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia and the Mubarak regime in Egypt—millions of Yemenis took to the streets in massive nonviolent protests against the autocratic US-backed government of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had held power for three and a half decades. An impressive degree of unity was forged between the various tribal, regional, sectarian, and ideological groups taking part in the pro-democracy protests, which included mass marches, sit-ins, and many other forms of civil resistance. Leaders of prominent tribal coalitions publicly supported the popular insurrection, prompting waves of tribesmen to leave their guns at home and head to the capital to take part in the movement. These tribesmen, along with the hundreds of thousands of city dwellers, were encouraged to maintain nonviolent discipline, even in the face of government snipers and other provocations which led to the deaths of hundreds of unarmed protesters.

These ongoing nonviolent protests, combined with shifting alliances between competing elites and armed factions, made President Saleh’s continued hold on power increasingly untenable. Saleh was eventually forced to resign, but it wasn’t long before conflict returned. Backed by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the United States, Saleh’s vice president, Major General Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi took over as the head of state, over the objections of civil society and the masses that had ousted the former president.

The new Hadi government was unpopular, lacked credibility, and was widely perceived as inept and corrupt. These factors, combined with the mass resignation of the cabinet, controversial proposals for constitutional change, and support from armed groups allied with the former Saleh dictatorship led to a power vacuum that enabled the Huthi militia (despite representing only the Zaidi minority in the north of the country) to emerge as the most potent military force in Yemen.

Popular resistance to the Huthi takeover

Despite having participated in various forms of nonviolent action in previous years, the Huthi militia made a decision to begin engaging in violence, and on July 10, 2014 they attacked the city of Amran, overrunning a military base, seizing a large array of weaponry, and killing dozens of soldiers and civilians in the process. While the Hadi government was unpopular, the Huthi attack was also summarily rejected by many Yemenis, and the following day massive protests took place in Amran, Sana, Taiz, Ibb, Hadramout, Dhamar, Al Bayda, and Ad-Dhale’e, condemning the Huthi attack (along with Israel’s military campaign in Gaza), demanding investigations of the incident and a return of the stolen weapons.

In August 2014, the Huthi’s surprised the world by seizing the capital of Sana’a, which led to a new round of anti-Huthi protests in September, with hundreds of thousands marching in Taiz against what they called “threats of royalists” along with calls to resist the violent groups that were trying to impose their control by force.

Major student protests swept the country throughout the fall, primarily in Hodaidah, Ibb and Baydha. On November 2, hundreds of students and employees of the Sana’a University formed a silent chain around their campus, raising signs with slogans condemning the control of their campus by the Huthis. Protests were continuous, with students insisting they would not stop until the “Huthi occupation” ended. As a result of ongoing protests, Huthi forces finally withdrew from the university on December 10.

In addition to demonstrations, a wave of strikes took place across the country targeting a variety of sectors where the Huthis attempted to assert their control: in addition to universities and high schools, the military academy in Sana’a, the judiciary in several cities, and fuel production facilities in Shabwa were shut down. Hundreds of prisoners held captive by the Huthis went on hunger strike, as did President Hadi while under house arrest prior to his escape. Scores of prominent Yemenis have resigned from their posts in protest, including governors, police chiefs, senior military officials, and top administrators in transportation, medicine, communications, and other sectors.

Young activists, many taking advantage of social media networking, have played a role in resisting the Huthi armed advance and have tried to emphasize the need for national unity and nonviolent means of settling differences. A September 28 protest in front of the Ministry of Youth and Sports in Sana’a incorporated national songs and dances in order to emphasize Yemenis’ commonalities and to condemn the presence of armed groups. Protesters chanted such slogans as “Dear my country, rise and shine, no weapons after today” and “Altogether for a capital without weapons.” Similar themes were stressed in a December 13 demonstration calling for national unity and nonviolent action with protesters marching from Change Square to the president’s house. The largest protests during this period took place on January 26, 2015 in response to the Huthi consolidation of their takeover, in which tens of thousands took the streets in Sana’a despite violent repression by the Huthis.

By the end of January, a number of tribal groups and other associations declared they would no longer comply with orders, military or otherwise, coming from the Huthi-dominated government in Sana’a. The Huthis began recognizing that control of government buildings in the capital did not necessarily mean control of the country, even in areas where their forces were present.

A series of mass protests took place in response to the detention of anti-Huthi activists, the most significant of which took place in Ibb on February 15. Thousands of nonviolent protesters who took to the streets were met with gunfire, with armed forces trying to separate the mass demonstration into smaller more controllable units. The protesters not only held their ground, but were able to seize a number of armed Huthis. As these citizens maintained nonviolent discipline and refused to disperse, Huthi-led security forces then refused commands by their superiors to continue firing on the crowd, calling it “deliberate repression of peaceful demonstrators.”

Remarkably, even with the dramatic escalation in fighting last month with the Huthi advance southward and the subsequent Saudi military intervention, nonviolent resistance has continued. The most impressive episodes took place in Taiz, located between Sana’a and the strategic port city of Aden. On March 19, Huthi militiamen seized the important Yemeni Special Forces camp on its outskirts and were expected to shortly take over the entire city, no longer defended by Yemeni government troops, who had fled or defected. However, largely youthful demonstrators massed outside gates of the captured base, raising banners rejecting the Houthis’ armed presence, and remained encamped to physically block additional militiamen from entering the area. The region’s governor, Shawki Ahmed Hayel, called on all Taizis to join the sit-ins and remain in place until the Huthis left the city.

On March 21, armed Huthis militiamen attempted to break up the “human wall” surrounding the base with teargas and gunfire, killing several unarmed demonstrators. This resulted in a public backlash, with hundreds of thousands marching the following day from the center of the city demanding that the Huthis withdraw their gunmen from Taiz. By March 24, a general strike was in effect to demand Huthi withdrawal from city. Taiz effectively shut down and the mostly youthful protesters set up roadblocks preventing access to the city by Huthi reinforcements. Despite additional casualties among the protesters, the Huthis — who just days earlier were presumed to have been preparing to occupy the entire city — were forced to withdraw from the captured base and surrounding areas.

Conclusion

The recent military intervention by Saudi Arabia has resulted in a mixed response. Popular anger at the Huthi aggression has led many Yemenis to support the Saudi air strikes, with rallies in support of the bombing taking place in Ibb, Hodeidah, and Taiz. Larger rallies in opposition have taken place in Sana’a and Amran. Even among those who oppose the Huthis, there is widespread suspicion regarding Saudi intentions and actions due to their previous interventions in Yemen’s internal affairs, their support for authoritarian and extremist elements, their maltreatment of Yemeni guest workers, and their ultra-conservative Salafi brand of Islam.

The Saudi role in creating conditions for the current crisis by marginalizing civil society elements in supporting Hadi’s takeover of the presidency and their overall aspirations in the Arabian Peninsula have led many Yemenis to fear that once again they seek to usurp nonviolent nationalist pro-democracy forces. In addition, there has been widespread outrage at the large-scale civilian casualties resulting from the Saudi air assault.

It was the sidelining of civil society and leaders of the 2011 nonviolent pro-democracy struggles by the Saudis, GCC states, and the US which helped create the current crisis. It would therefore behove the international community not to similarly ignore the hundreds of thousands of Yemenis who, in the midst of the current chaos and violence, have again taken to the streets in unarmed civil resistance.

The history and ongoing manifestations of nonviolent action in Yemen is greater than is generally perceived by the outside world, which has long dismissed the country as “primitive,” “violent,” “tribal,” “chaotic,” and incapable of handling its own affairs. The most effective means of ensuring stability and resisting the Huthis, Al-Qaeda, or other armed extremists comes not from backing allied strongmen, but from allowing civil society to take the lead in developing broad-based democratic institutions without the use of arms.

Yet it is in this history of civil resistance that lies the country’s greatest hope. The power of Yemenis of various and even competing tendencies to wage their struggles nonviolently is something that should be acknowledged and encouraged, not undermined in pursuit of military solutions to complex political problems.

Yemen on the Edge

Since Obama came to office in January 2009, U.S. security assistance to the Yemeni regime has gone up 20-fold. Despite such large-scale unconditional support, however, the 32-year reign of autocratic President Ali Abdullah Saleh may finally be coming to an end. Yet the Obama administration has been ambivalent in its support for a democratic transition in this impoverished but strategically important country.

Saleh’s behavior has gotten increasingly bizarre. He has begun claiming that an unlikely coalition of Israel and Qatar has incited and financed the pro-democracy struggle, and that women in leadership positions in the pro-democracy struggle and even men and women protesting in the streets together is somehow “un-Islamic.”

Efforts by Saudi Arabia and other regional monarchies to negotiate Saleh’s resignation, despite showing some initial promise, have failed both as a result of the dictator’s obstinacy and the protesters’ demands for a genuine democratic transition. Saleh continues to lose support despite his corrupt system of patronage. This policy of “bribe a tribe” appears to be failing as tribal leaders, top military officers, and other formal allies have joined the protesters in demanding that the increasingly repressive and eccentric U.S.-backed dictator to step down.

Rising Protests

Yemen is a desperately poor country, with high unemployment, and a long history of division and instability. Sheila Carapico, a professor at the University of Richmond, has described

the grotesque enrichment of regime cronies at the expense of the many; deteriorating standards of living; obscenely bad schools, hospitals and roads; the skyrocketing price of meat, staples and even clean water; the lack of jobs for college and high-school graduates. … Grandiose pageants of presidential power, half-truths in the official media, indignities at military checkpoints, arbitrary arrests and imprisonments — these and other daily insults feed popular alienation, despair and frustration, most notably among the youth. While a privileged few cool off in swimming pools in their luxury compounds, the water table has fallen, decimating the farm economy that remains the livelihood of the rural majority. Farmers and ranchers facing starvation have flocked to the cities where water supplies and social services are swamped. Misery has become the new normal; millions barely survive on the equivalent of a dollar or two per day.

The United States has sent plenty of money, but it’s almost all been military assistance. The small amounts of economic aid have mostly gone through corrupt government channels.

Until the pro-democracy struggle emerged as a major nationwide challenge to the regime, the attention of the U.S. media and the Obama administration had almost exclusively been on al-Qaeda cells operating in the country and Shiite Houthi tribesmen fighting in a remote northern region. There was a sense that the people of Yemen were too poor or too tribal or too “backward” to engage in a nonviolent civil insurrection against their dictator. However, as other unarmed pro-democracy uprisings in the region have demonstrated, the desire of human freedom and the willingness face down the tanks, machine guns, tear gas, and truncheons to defend basic rights is indeed universal.

As with Tunisia and Egypt, young people make up the majority of the protesters, though people of all ages have taken to the streets in more than a dozen cities across the country. As with similar pro-democracy protests, there has been a strong cultural dimension, including street theater, music, dancing, and other performance art. Protesters have used tactics that illustrate the unity of the movement, such as 50,000 hands being clasped above the crowd.

Yemen is the most heavily armed countries in the world in terms of individual gun ownership, with some estimates as high as three weapons per person. The fact that the millions of Yemenis who have taken to the streets have consciously left them at home and largely maintained a strict nonviolent discipline is nothing short of remarkable. At a recent demonstration in the tribal al-Bayda region, men brought guns only to throw them down on the ground shouting “silmiyya!” (“peacefully!”), a common chant of the protests. Indeed, the extent of the pro-democracy struggle and its commitment to nonviolence is comparable to the recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and earlier unarmed insurrections in Serbia, Czechoslovakia, the Philippines, Chile, and elsewhere.

Washington Flat-Footed

Despite diplomatic cables going back as far as 2005 indicating that Saleh could potentially face a popular pro-democracy uprising, the Obama administration appears to have been caught completely off-guard. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged that Washington had not planned for an era without Saleh. As one former ambassador to Yemen put it in back in March, “For right now, he’s our guy.”

Since then, the Obama administration has belatedly joined its European allies in encouraging Saleh to step aside. At the same time, the United States has not been very supportive of the pro-democracy protests either. For example, following government attacks on peaceful pro-democracy protesters two weeks ago, which killed a dozen protesters and injured hundreds of others, the U.S. embassy called on the Yemenis to cooperate with the rather dubious Saudi-led negotiations for a transition by “avoiding all provocative demonstrations, marches and speeches in the coming days.”

Recently released Wikileaks cables have also demonstrated that U.S. military assistance increased despite evidence that Saleh was using U.S.-supplied weapons not against al-Qaeda as promised but against domestic opposition to his increasingly repressive rule. As a result of the popular protests, Washington has frozen the more than $1 billion in military aid currently in the pipeline. But Washington has acted more out of concern over Saleh’s successor than genuine outrage at the dramatically increased repression.

It’s time for the United States to recognize that the future of the Middle East is not in the hands of aging autocrats like Saleh or even traditional elite oppositionists, but in civil society. Ultimately power comes not from well-armed people at the top but from the consent of the people.

http://www.fpif.org/articles/yemen_on_the_edge

60 Second Expert: The U.S. in Yemen

Much attention has recently been focused on the poverty-stricken country of Yemen. The planning of the Christmas Day bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight by al-Qaeda members in Yemen and other incidents have revealed that al-Qaeda cells in Yemen represents a genuine threat. However, if the U.S. yet seeks a military solution to a complex political, social and economic situation, however, it could prove disastrous to both Yemen and U.S. security interests.

Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world. Forty percent of Yemenis are unemployed and live on a per capita income of $600 per year. As a result, though there is much need for sustainable economic development in the country, most U.S. aid has been military particularly since the growing prominence of al-Qaeda in the country.

As Washington contemplates whether or not to increase its military role in Yemen, it must keep in mind that Yemen is one of the most complex societies in the world with considerable tribal divisions and political rivalries, including two other major insurgencies unrelated to al-Qaeda. Thus, sending U.S. forces or increasing the number of U.S. drone strikes carries serious risks. Such actions could result in the expansion of armed resistance, and the strengthening of Islamist militants and anti-American sentiment.

Any military action against al-Qaeda and Islamists should be Yemeni-led. Washington should also press Yemen’s increasingly autocratic government to become more democratic and less corrupt. There should also be a significant increase in development aid for the poorest rural communities that have essentially served as havens for radical Islamists and the growth of al -Qaeda’s presence in Yemen.

http://www.fpif.org/articles/US_in_Yemen

Yemen: The Latest U.S. Battleground

The United States may be on the verge of involvement in yet another counterinsurgency war which, as is the case in Iraq and Afghanistan, may make a bad situation even worse. The attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight by a Nigerian man was apparently planned in Yemen. There were alleged ties between the perpetrator of the Ft. Hood massacre and a radical Yemeni cleric, and an ongoing U.S.-backed Yemeni military offensive against al-Qaeda have all focused U.S. attention on that country.

Yemen has almost as large a population as Saudi Arabia, but differently lacks much in the way of natural resources. What little oil the country has is rapidly being depleted. Indeed, Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per-capita income of less than $600 per year. More than 40 percent of the population is unemployed and the economic situation is increasingly deteriorating for most Yemenis as a result of a U.S.-backed structural adjustment program imposed by the International Monetary Fund.

The county is desperate for assistance in sustainable economic development. The vast majority of U.S. aid delivered to the country, however, has been in the form of military assets. The limited economic assistance made available has been of dubious effectiveness and has largely gone through corrupt government channels.

Al-Qaeda’s Rise

The United States has long been concerned about the presence of al-Qaeda operatives within Yemen’s porous borders, particularly since the recent unification of the Yemeni and Saudi branches of the terrorist network. Thousands of Yemenis participated in the U.S.-supported anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan during the 1980s, becoming radicalized by the experience and developing links with Osama bin Laden, a Saudi whose father comes from a Yemeni family. Various tribal loyalties to bin Laden’s family have led to some support within Yemen for the exiled al-Qaeda leader, even among those who do not necessarily support his reactionary interpretation of Islam or his terrorist tactics. Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis have served as migrant laborers in neighboring Saudi Arabia. There, exposure to the hardline Wahhabi interpretation of Islam dominant in that country combined with widespread repression and discrimination has led to further radicalization.

In October 2000, al-Qaeda terrorists attacked the U.S. Navy ship Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 American sailors. This led to increased cooperation between U.S. and Yemeni military and intelligence, including a series of U.S. missile attacks against suspected al-Qaeda operatives.

Currently, hardcore al-Qaeda terrorists in Yemen — many of whom are foreigners — probably number no more than 200. But they are joined by roughly 2,000 battle-hardened Yemeni militants who have served time in Iraq fighting U.S. occupation forces. The swelling of al-Qaeda’s ranks by veterans of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Iraqi insurgency has led to the rise of a substantially larger and more extreme generation of fighters, who have ended the uneasy truce between Islamic militants and the Yemeni government.

Opponents of the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq correctly predicted that the inevitable insurgency would create a new generation of radical jihadists, comparable to the one that emerged following the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the Bush administration and its congressional supporters — including then-senators Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton — believed that a U.S. takeover of Iraq was more important than avoiding the risk of creating of a hotbed of anti-American terrorism. Ironically, President Obama is relying on Biden and Clinton — as well as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, another supporter of the U.S. invasion and occupation — to help us get out of this mess they helped create.

Not a Failed State

Yemen is one of the most complex societies in the world, and any kind of overreaction by the United States — particularly one that includes a strong military component — could be disastrous. Bringing in U.S. forces or increasing the number of U.S. missile strikes would likely strengthen the size and radicalization of extremist elements. Instead of recognizing the strong and longstanding Yemeni tradition of respecting tribal autonomy, U.S. officials appear to be misinterpreting this lack of central government control as evidence of a “failed state.” The U.S. approach has been to impose central control by force, through a large-scale counterinsurgency strategy.

Such a military response could result in an ever-wider insurgency, however. Indeed, such overreach by the government is what largely prompted the Houthi rebellion in the northern part of the country, led by adherents of the Zaydi branch of Shia Islam. The United States has backed a brutal crackdown by Yemeni and Saudi forces in the Houthi region, largely accepting exaggerated claims of Iranian support for the rebellion. There is also a renewal of secessionist activity in the formerly independent south. These twin threats are largely responsible for the delay in the Yemeni government’s response to the growing al-Qaeda presence in their country.

With the United States threatening more direct military intervention in Yemen to root out al-Qaeda, the Yemeni government’s crackdown may be less a matter of hoping for something in return for its cooperation than a fear of what may happen if it does not. The Yemeni government is in a difficult bind, however. If it doesn’t break up the terrorist cells, the likely U.S. military intervention would probably result in a greatly expanded armed resistance. If the government casts too wide a net, however, it risks tribal rebellion and other civil unrest for what will be seen as unjustifiable repression at the behest of a Western power. Either way, it would likely increase support for extremist elements, which both the U.S. and Yemeni governments want destroyed.

For this reason, most Western experts on Yemen agree that increased U.S. intervention carries serious risks. This would not only result in a widespread armed backlash within Yemen. Such military intervention by the United States in yet another Islamic country in the name of “anti-terrorism” would likely strengthen Islamist militants elsewhere as well.

Cold War Pawn

As with previous U.S. military interventions, most Americans have little understanding of the targeted country or its history.

Yemen was divided for most of the 20th century. South Yemen, which received its independence from Great Britain in 1967 after years of armed anti-colonial resistance, resulted from a merger between the British colony of Aden and the British protectorate of South Arabia. Declaring itself the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, it became the Arab world’s only Marxist-Leninist state and developed close ties with the Soviet Union. As many as 300,000 South Yemenis fled to the north in the years following independence.

North Yemen, independent since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, became embroiled in a bloody civil war during the 1960s between Saudi-backed royalist forces and Egyptian-backed republican forces. The republican forces eventually triumphed, though political instability, military coups, assassinations, and periodic armed uprisings continued.

In both countries, ancient tribal and modern ideological divisions have made control of these disparate armed forces virtually impossible. Major segments of the national armies would periodically disintegrate, with soldiers bringing their weapons home with them. Lawlessness and chaos have been common for decades, with tribes regularly shifting loyalties in both their internal feuds and their alliances with their governments. Many tribes have been in a permanent state of war for years, and almost every male adolescent and adult routinely carries a rifle.

In 1979, in one of the more absurd episodes of the Cold War, a minor upsurge in fighting along the former border led to a major U.S. military mobilization in response to what the Carter administration called a Soviet-sponsored act of international aggression. In March of that year, South Yemeni forces, in support of some North Yemeni guerrillas, shelled some North Yemeni government positions. In response, Carter ordered the aircraft carrier Constellation and a flotilla of warships to the Arabian Sea as a show of force. Bypassing congressional approval, the administration rushed nearly $499 million worth of modern weaponry to North Yemen, including 64 M-60 tanks, 70 armored personnel carriers, and 12 F-5E aircraft. Included were an estimated 400 American advisers and 80 Taiwanese pilots for the sophisticated warplanes that no Yemeni knew how to fly.

This gross overreaction to a local conflict led to widespread international criticism. Indeed, the Soviets were apparently unaware of the border clashes and the fighting died down within a couple of weeks. Development groups were particularly critical of this U.S. attempt to send such expensive high-tech weaponry to a country with some of the highest rates of infant mortality, chronic disease, and illiteracy in the world.

The communist regime in South Yemen collapsed in the 1980s, when rival factions of the Politburo and Central Committee killed each other and their supporters by the thousands. With the southern leadership decimated, the two countries merged in May 1990. The newly united country’s democratic constitution gave Yemen one of the most genuinely representative governments in the region.

Later in 1990, when serving as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, Yemen voted against the U.S.-led effort to authorize the use of force against Iraq to drive its occupation forces from Kuwait. A U.S. representative was overheard declaring to the Yemeni ambassador, “That was the most expensive ‘no’ vote you ever cast.” The United States immediately withdrew $70 million in foreign aid to Yemen while dramatically increasing aid to neighboring dictatorships that supported the U.S.-led war effort. Over the next several years, apparently upset with the dangerous precedent of a democratic Arab neighbor, the U.S.-backed regime in Saudi Arabia engaged in a series of attacks against Yemen along its disputed border.

Renewed Violence and Repression

In 1994, ideological and regional clan-based rivalries led to a brief civil war, with the south temporarily seceding and the government mobilizing some of the jihadist veterans of the Afghan war to fight the leftist rebellion.

After crushing the southern secessionists, the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh became increasingly authoritarian. U.S. support resumed and aid increased. Unlike most U.S. allies in the region, direct elections for the president and parliament have continued, but they have hardly been free or fair. Saleh officially received an unlikely 94 percent of the vote in the 1999 election. And in the most recently election, in 2006, government and police were openly pushing for Saleh’s re-election amid widespread allegations of voter intimidation, ballot-rigging, vote-buying, and registration fraud. Just two days before the vote, Saleh announced the arrest on “terrorism” charges a campaign official of his leading opponent. Since that time, human rights abuses and political repression — including unprecedented attacks on independent media — have increased dramatically.

Obama was elected president as the candidate who promised change, including a shift away from the foreign policy that had led to such disastrous policies in Iraq and elsewhere. In Yemen, his administration appears to be pursuing the same short-sighted tactics as its predecessors: support of a repressive and autocratic regime, pursuit of military solutions to complex social and political conflicts, and reliance on failed counterinsurgency doctrines.

Al-Qaeda in Yemen represents a genuine threat. However, any military action should be Yemeni-led and targeted only at the most dangerous terrorist cells. We must also press the Yemeni government to become more democratic and less corrupt, in order to gain the support needed to suppress dangerous armed elements. In the long term, the United States should significantly increase desperately needed development aid for the poorest rural communities that have served as havens for radical Islamists. Such a strategy would be far more effective than drone attacks, arms transfers, and counterinsurgency.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stephen-zunes/yemen-the-latest-us-battl_b_416314.html