Yemen was an early victim of the US led war on terror. The first targeted assassination by a US drone occurred there in November 2002. Yemen’s mountains and deserts were where the US developed and tested its flawed drone-centric counter-terrorism strategy. A combination of indifference, faulty intelligence, and incompetence has led to the deaths of hundreds of Yemeni civilians.
As tragic as these deaths are, they pale in comparison with the death and destruction unleashed by the current war in Yemen, a war that US foreign and counter-terrorism policies are partially responsible for.
As in most parts of the world where the US has waged its war on terror, the supposed targets—terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State—are the primary beneficiaries.
These organizations exploit and feed off the chaotic and divisive environments that arise from short-sighted and uninformed “whack a mole” counter-terrorism strategies. Such an outcome is perfectly acceptable to the thriving military-industrial complex that drives and profits from US foreign policy.
Yemen is one of the countries where the disastrous consequences of the war on terror are most evident and potentially most consequential. Yemen’s strategic location across from the Bab al-Mandeb—a critical shipping corridor—and its long border with Saudi Arabia ensure that the chaos that has engulfed the country will not be easily contained.
The war has already spread across Saudi Arabia’s southern border where Houthi forces and elements of the Yemeni Army have repeatedly attacked military targets deep within Saudi territory. The same forces have reportedly launched anti-ship missiles—which the Yemeni Armed Forces have in their inventory—at ships belonging to the Saudi Navy.
Much of southern Yemen, which includes areas that Saudi Arabia and its allies claim to have “liberated,” is being infiltrated by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State. Parts of Aden—Yemen’s major port city—are now under the control of AQAP and allied bands of militant Salafis who are enforcing their version of Sharia law on the once cosmopolitan and relatively liberal city.
Yemen’s internationally recognized government—most of whose members remain in their villas in Saudi Arabia—has been unable to assert its authority in the liberated areas. As one of the better organized forces in the country, AQAP is filling the void. This is undoubtedly being facilitated by Saudi Arabia and its allies who view AQAP and militant Salafis as useful proxies. Just as they view groups like al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front in Syria as allies in their war against the government of Bashar al-Assad.
So how have US foreign policy and its counter-terrorism strategies contributed to the chaos that has engulfed Yemen?
In the wake of September 11th, then Yemeni President Saleh—a wily political survivor—recognized that the US’ war on terror was going to be a gift to corrupt governments like his. Saleh promised to be an ally in what he knew would be a war without end against organizations that are easily manipulated by intelligence services.
Thanks to the generosity of US tax payers, weapons and US Special Forces trainers poured into Yemen. There was little effective oversight of how the weapons and newly trained soldiers would be used. Rather than targeting al-Qaeda—an organization that the security services of Saleh’s government had already thoroughly penetrated—Saleh used his US supplied and trained special and counter-terrorism forces against his real enemies: namely the Houthis and those in south Yemen who opposed Saleh’s corrupt northerner dominated government.
In exchange for weapons and training, Saleh also agreed to let US drones hunt down and kill Yemeni citizens. It mattered little to him that the strikes strengthened AQAP. AQAP benefited from the cycles of revenge that resulted from the deaths of what were most often civilians. The drone strikes also weakened and de-legitimized tribal authority, one of the few constraints on the growth of AQAP and Saleh’s corrupt government.
US policies in Yemen—which were narrowly focused on killing the “bad guys” in the parlance of George W. Bush—altered the balance of power and helped set in motion the country’s rapid descent into chaos. With support from the US, Saleh was emboldened and rather than falling back on negotiations and patronage, which are long-established traditions in Yemen, he pursued his enemies. However, he and his forces were not powerful enough to prevail. Saleh, who is a student of Yemeni history, forgot that there are few periods when one man or a government has exercised control over the entirety of the country.
Rather than being defeated, Yemen’s Houthi rebels fought back and in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring” in Yemen, they took over a large part of northwest Yemen. In the south, southern separatists, who were routinely imprisoned and disappeared by the security services and “counter-terrorism” forces, were further radicalized. Now, in southern Yemen, the flag of a unified Yemen is nowhere to be seen. It has been replaced by the flag of the formerly independent south Yemen and the black flags of al-Qaeda.
The US has spent billions of dollars—the actual amount is unknown—on its war on terror in Yemen. It is worth contemplating what the political situation in Yemen would look like if even a fraction of that money had been spent on programs that tackled the real issues that drive instability in Yemen like water shortages, government corruption, a lack of schools and medical facilities, and food insecurity. And what if this aid had been linked to meaningful reform within government institutions?
While it is of course unlikely that Yemen would be a bastion of stability and transparent government, it is just as unlikely that the country would be mired in a brutal civil war that has drawn in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Unfortunately, US policy makers have learned nothing from fourteen years of trillion dollar failures in Afghanistan and Iraq and now Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Rather than rethinking its policies in Yemen and pushing for a negotiated end to hostilities, the US is aiding and enabling Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the war in Yemen. This war has killed thousands, impoverished millions, and effectively ceded control of large parts of Yemen to AQAP and other militant Salafi organizations.
The US’ war on terror in Yemen has done nothing but increase instability, embolden terrorist organizations, and ensure years—likely decades—of healthy profits for the companies that make up the military-industrial complex. These companies—not the American or Yemeni people—are reaping the fruits of a war without end.