As Yemen further devolves and disintegrates under poverty, political instability, civil unrest and militant aggression, Washington’s going to need to review and reshape its counterterrorism approach if it’s to gain any foothold in Yemen’s fast-moving political sands.
A Houthi Shiite rebel holds his weapon while standing guard near a protest site during a demonstration n in Sanaa, Yemen.
LONDON — What a difference a few months can make! President Obama’s September assertions that Yemen is testimony to America’s success in curtailing Islamic radicalism in the Middle East have been robbed of their substance.
Directly referring to America’s so-called “war on terror” and how he envisioned moving forward against extremism throughout the world, Obama posited:
“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years. And it is consistent with the approach I outlined earlier this year: to use force against anyone who threatens America’s core interests, but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order.”
In the five months that have passed, the Yemeni Republic has all but disintegrated as a failed state in the shadow of U.S. influence. It’s burdened by crippling poverty, aggravated political instability and growing civil unrest, and al-Qaida militants have scored more advances against the state than anyone has cared to admit.
Worse yet, Yemen’s devolution toward a failed state means that Washington now finds itself without a potent ally in its fight against terror. As Washington opted to hold true to its anti-Iranian narrative, which assumes that any link to Shiite Islam entails Iranian tutelage, U.S. officials have robbed themselves of their alliance with the Houthis — the single ally in Yemen which shares U.S. sentiment regarding al-Qaida.
Though the Houthis have faced al-Qaida militants head on for several months, alone in a fight which the Yemeni government did not shoulder and head, their Shiite nature remains a rampart U.S. officials have yet to scale.
Hailing from the northern Yemeni province of Saada, the Houthis — a Zaidi faction, representing the oldest branch of Shiite Islam — rose under the banner of late Sheikh Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi in reaction to state-run oppression in 2004. Formerly shunned by tribal leaders and mainstream politicians, the Houthis, now organized as Ansarallah, burst onto Yemen’s political scene in 2011, bolstered by the Arab Spring movement and the subsequent fall of the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
“Washington’s lack of political and tactical objectivity in Yemen speaks volumes. It is almost comical that President Obama would pinpoint Yemen as a success. It was not true back in September and it’s certainly not true today,” stressed Mojtaba Mousavi, an independent political analyst and editor in chief of Iran’s View.
“President Obama’s anti-terror policy is in complete disarray. Whether it is Yemen or Syria, it is evident that America has engaged in the wrong policies, playing into dynamics which are divorced from all objectivity. There is a huge difference in between dealing with ground realities, facing problems head on, and dreaming up realities which fit one’s political sensitivities. Obama has daydreamed his way through al-Qaida and radicalism, Yemen is only one example,” he added.
Whether Obama failed to foresee the downfall of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, somewhat banking on the wrong political horse, it’s evident that whatever policies the Pentagon rolled out in Yemen will require a great amount of tweaking now that Ansarallah — the Houthis’ political arm — has staked its claim on Yemen’s power map.
With Hadi apparently on his way out since he announced his resignation on Jan. 22, Washington is running out of staunch allies in Sanaa. And while the powerful Houthis have long professed their rejection of al-Qaida, the group has also made clear it that does not condone Obama’s drone campaign in Yemen.
As new realities come to a head in Yemen, U.S. officials will likely need to review and reshape their counter-terrorism approach. Otherwise, Washington could face the possibility of being sidelined or even replaced.
Washington’s stance in Yemen
The long-standing Washington-Sanaa alliance against terror could face its greatest challenge yet. Over a decade after former President Saleh visited former President George W. Bush to pledge the Yemeni government’s efforts in opposing al-Qaida in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the two allies have come to find themselves in a political pickle.
With no official government to speak of at Yemen’s helm, America’s war on terror has hit a wall. While politicians and experts will work to assess and resolve this new political conundrum, building new bridges and brokering new political alliances amid Yemen’s fast-shifting sands, some experts have challenged not just Washington’s ability to carry on, but Obama’s self-proclaimed success.
In September, Ishaan Tharoor, foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, wrote: “In neither Somalia nor Yemen does the threat to American security interests appear close to being neutralized. U.S. actions have perhaps hemmed in militant groups, but the lack of genuine political solutions on the ground mean their sources of support and strength remain.”
A sharp critic of Obama’s strategy in the Middle East, and specifically the administration’s controversial drone campaign in Yemen, Tharoor argues, “Yemen and Somalia are examples of U.S. mission creep, not success.”
Likewise, Tony Karon, Al-Jazeera America’s senior online executive producer, assessed in a piece for Al-Jazeera in September that when Obama cited the model the U.S. has pursued in Yemen and Somalia as the model it would also adopt to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, that “comparison underscores the message that ‘ultimately is the operative word in Obama’s promise to ‘ultimately destroy’ [ISIS].”
He continued, “In both Yemen and Somalia, America’s enemy remains very much intact and active, and the U.S. approach has thus far succeeded in managing and containing the threat, but not in destroying it.”
For better or for worse, and despite much opposition from human rights groups, the Obama administration has based much of its counterterror strategy in Yemen on its drones, assuming that striking from afar would suffice to neutralize al-Qaida and still allow the U.S. to limit its military footprint in the region. But while drones have proven to be a viable war technology for the U.S., they’ve sown devastation in Yemen. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an estimated 424 to 629 civilians have died as a result of America’s drone campaign since 2002, the unknown victims of Washington’s invisible war in Yemen.
“This is where the straw has broken the camel’s back,” Mousavi told MintPress. “While Yemenis would have supported a counterterror alliance between Sanaa and Washington on the premise that it would serve their interests as much as support the global war against terror, drones have only served to reinforce mistrust and resentment toward the U.S.”
“Obama’s drone campaign essentially aborted any hope for meaningful cooperation in Yemen, as it has excluded civilians’ welfare and trampled over Yemen’s territorial sovereignty.”
While Washington has seen drones as a tactical military advantage, others, including Jeremy Scahill, have likened America’s drone warfare to murder, arguing that the reality of civilian casualties far outweighs any benefit of a limited military footprint.
In an appearance on MSNBC in March 2012, Scahill, a war correspondent and expert on Yemen, was blunt in his assessment of Obama’s policy in Yemen. Recalling a particularly bloody attack on the Yemeni village of Al Majalah, Scahill told his host:
“If you go to the village of Al-Majalah in Yemen, where I was, and you see the unexploded clusterbombs and you have the list and photographic evidence, as I do–the women and children that represented the vast majority of the deaths in this first strike that Obama authorized on Yemen–those people were murdered by President Obama, on his orders, because there was believed to be someone from Al Qaeda in that area. There’s only one person that’s been identified that had any connection to Al Qaeda there. And 21 women and 14 children were killed in that strike and the U.S. tried to cover it up, and say it was a Yemeni strike, and we know from the Wikileaks cables that David Petraeus conspired with the president of Yemen to lie to the world about who did that bombing. It’s murder–it’s mass murder–when you say, ‘We are going to bomb this area’ because we believe a terrorist is there, and you know that women and children are in the area. The United States has an obligation to not bomb that area if they believe that women and children are there. I’m sorry, that’s murder.”
Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, President of Yemen, sits after addressing the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters. Two of the Yemeni embattled president’s advisers said that the president is held captive in hands of Houthis and warned if submitted resignation in protest to Houthis power grab, to face prosecution. Photo: Jason DeCrow/AP
While outgoing President Hadi may have been eager to promote Washington’s interests in Yemen, aligning himself with the White House to reap political and financial support, Yemen’s new political order may feel less inclined to follow in those footsteps.
Rallying under the banner, “Death to America and Death to Israel,” the Houthis are not exactly Washington’s go-to partners in the region, even if the two have a mutual desire to wipe out al-Qaida.
Hussain Al-Bukhaiti, a member of Ansarallah’s political bureau, told MintPress that U.S. officials have already “reached out to Houthi/Ansarallah leadership in a tentative political and diplomatic rapprochement.”
“I’m not at liberty to discuss what was said, but it is clear that Washington is making every effort in building new relations in Sanaa. Ansarallah has asserted itself as a viable power broker, and naturally the U.S. has engaged in talks,” Al-Bukhaiti said.
On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal quoted a U.S. defense official as saying, “There are informal contacts [with the Houthis].” The official noted, “It is not uncommon for us to have communications with them, even before all this stuff happened.”
Just because the lines of communication have been opened, it doesn’t mean that any agreement was reached. Still, the Pentagon is clearly cultivating a new friendship.
“We have to take pains not to end up inflaming the situation by inadvertently firing on Houthi fighters,” the defense official said, adding, “They’re not our military objective. It’s AQAP [al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula] and we have to stay focused on that.”
Although officials both in Yemen and the U.S. remain tightlipped regarding the extent of potential Houthi-U.S. cooperation, Al-Bukhaiti told MintPress that Washington already provided “support to Houthi fighters against al-Qaida.”
“Ansarallah will always promote Yemen’s interests. If America can prove to be a viable partner for Yemen, then of course we would fully support that. We will back whatever decisions Yemenis will make. Our aim is to help build a strong democratic state, and al-Qaida has no place therein,” he stressed.
As U.S. officials align their chess pieces to mirror Yemen’s ever-evolving, ever-changing political realities, determining what the future holds has become an arduous task indeed. In the span of just a few weeks Yemen has seen a president, prime minister and several ministers resign in protest of Ansarallah.
On Jan. 22, following days of a tense political stand-off in between President Hadi and Ansarallah, Hadi tendered his resignation. Prime Minister Khaled Baha followed suit soon after.
Hadi, who served as vice president to former President Saleh for over a decade, blamed the Houthis’ control of Sanaa for hampering his two-year-long attempt to steer Yemen toward stability after years of secessionist and tribal unrest.
Although Hadi’s resignation has not yet been formally registered by parliament, “Yemen stands a republic without leadership, the epitome of a failed state,” Anthony Biswell, an external Yemen consultant and researcher with IHS Limited, a consulting services company, told MintPress.
And there lies the real danger.
As politicians and tribal leaders will surely attempt to secure their hold over the political sphere, pitting new alliances against old political friendships, al-Qaida is playing catch up in Yemen’s southern provinces, expanding its hold over the oil-rich provinces of Shabwa and Marib, taunting the state to move against its positions.
Keen to keep al-Qaida in check as Yemen figures out its next move, a U.S.-led drone strike targeted al-Qaida militants on Thursday in Marib, at the heart of Yemen’s new terror frontline, killing three suspected terrorists.
But without a clear strategy and without any meaningful cooperation, can a few strikes do more than momentarily stall al-Qaida’s progress in impoverished Yemen?
Amid so much uncertainty one painful truth stands out: Only al-Qaida benefits from unrest.