Doubling down on war in Yemen

It’s shocking how easily American Presidents make foreign policy decisions involving intervention in countries where Congress hasn’t declared war.

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If the botched raid and the dozens of airstrikes throughout Yemen that came after it are any indication of the new U.S. Administration’s approach to the Greater Middle East, it appears they may be willing to engage in reckless behavior against opponents they dismiss as weak.

The idea is probably to rack up what can be called wins against groups like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the relatively new ISIS affiliate, as well as Houthi forces that we are told are proxies of Iran.

That Yemen has similar terrain and could be an even more complicated battlefield culturally than Afghanistan, where the U.S. and its allies are still at war after more than 15 years, doesn’t seem to have occurred to him when he and top advisors gave the go ahead to the raid over dinner in late January.

On paper, the idea of more cooperation with the Saudi-led coalition pummeling the country probably made some sense. This is especially true if Trump, as reported by multiple outlets, doesn’t like briefings over one page in length and demands these shortened papers contain maps and graphs. He was likely informed that Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East and has been cut off from the outside world for just over two years, its people facing a major famine.

The President and those advising him may not be aware that most Yemenis take immense pride in their reputation as warriors. Tribes in the country have beaten back invaders from ancient Rome to modern Egypt, exacting a heavy price in blood for these interventions.

The ill-advised raid

As members of Seal Team 6 found during the January 29th assault on the small town of al Ghayil, forces inserted into the country will not only face resistance from militants but also from local people who fear attack from different factions and are prepared to fight to protect themselves and their families.

Oddly, as reported by Iona Craig, one of the few Western journalists with deep connections in Yemen, having been The London Times correspondent there from 2010-2015, the town itself and the Governate of Al Bayda that contains it, are the territory of the Qayfa tribe who have been among the most effective forces in fighting the Houthis and allied army deserters loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

In fact, one of the main figures killed in the raid was Sheikh Abdel-Raouf al-Dhahad, “a tribal leader who was allied to the country’s U.S. -and Saudi-backed president and had been enlisted to fight Yemen’s Shia rebels, according to military officials, tribal figures and relatives.”

The Seal Team members reportedly approached the town from low ground under the noise created by air support. This alerted residents there and in nearby towns to their presence. The Seals were then pinned down by fire from above, with one killed and four wounded, two seriously.

Speaking to local people after the raid, Craig also found that while many in the area were ambivalent about the United States before their relatives, including unarmed women and children, were killed and those left alive were forced to flee as drones and helicopters returned to pound the town with guns and missile fire in the following days, the remaining townspeople now view the United States as an enemy.

After the raid ended in embarrassment, the Administration claimed to have gotten a large trove of actionable intelligence. However, all we’ve seen so far is a ten-year-old video that was already widely available online.

Facing criticism, the U.S. government later announced new rules issued by the Department of Homeland Security that will come into effect on March 25th for people flying from ten countries, essentially banning laptops, tablets and some other electronic devices indefinitely from these flights due to a perceived threat from AQAP.

While most of the media critique everything the new President does, they were strangely credulous about this story. I thought after watching and reading some of this coverage that it felt familiar.

A quick investigation of the public record brought up a long piece published in 2014 by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, an insider think tank founded by, among others, Martin Indyk, a former deputy director of the lobbying group AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), about the Khorasan group, an organization we have heard nothing from before or since but who were breathlessly described at the time as being in an alliance with reputed AQAP bomb maker Ibrahim al-Asiri, who had reportedly made his way to Syria.

In the article entitled ”The Khorasan Group Should Scare Us”, Matthew Levitt wrote, “In fact, it was intelligence that Asiri was involved with this network that prompted the Transportation Security Administration to ban uncharged mobile phones and laptops on flights coming to the United States from Europe or the Middle East, a decision that was widely mocked at the time.” Unsurprisingly, I could find no mention of this or the seemingly mythological Khorasan Group in current mainstream reporting.

Although many experts believe the war is at a stalemate, with front lines that haven’t moved in months, Saudi Arabia and its partners continue their operation. This has resulted in what they claim are accidents but others call war crimes, which have destroyed civilian infrastructure including markets, schools, mosques and hospitals.

The Pentagon also seems to have been calling for a more aggressive approach to the country and may have found a neophyte President eager to take their advice if it would make him look tough. As related by the Washington Post in February, “The military has also been seeking other authorities for operations in Yemen, including the ability to conduct sustained airstrikes in parts of Yemen and to take part in raids with elite forces from the United Arab Emirates that are assigned to Yemen.”

A complicated conflict

Yemen, according to a decade-old Small Arms Survey, was only outpaced by the U.S. in terms of gun ownership, with slightly more than one gun for every two people. Unlike the United States, there are no rules regulating automatic or other heavy weapons.

In the case of the Houthis, who have been joined by heavily armed elements of the military loyal to former President Saleh, there is no need to seek aid from the Islamic Republic of Iran despite repeated claims of this in the mainstream press in the U.S. and other Western countries.

Besides widespread local access to weapons, the land, sea and air blockade against the country would make it both very difficult and politically untenable for Iran to offer much more than the rhetorical support they have given to the Houthis.

It’s also important to realize that, while the Houthis are often called Iranian proxies, they’re fiercely independent and practice a very different, some might say austere, form of Shiism called Zaidism, than that practiced by most Iranians. The facile argument that Houthis must be working for Iran because they are Shia would be offensive in another context, say if Pentecostals and Methodists were lumped together because they’re both ‘Protestants’.

Heightening the absurdity of Saudi propaganda, after a meeting with President Trump, a senior advisor to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is in charge of the Kingdom’s army, released a statement that read in part, “Iran’s support of terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Isis and others along with its obstructing of any deal to settle the Palestinian issue, as a form of exporting its issues abroad, are nothing but another attempt to gain the legitimacy it lacks among Muslims.”

The statement contains three lies in quick succession, Iran is not a proven supporter of either al-Qaeda or Isis, who have killed more of their allies in Iraq and Syria than any other group and, although it’s supportive of Palestinian self-determination, the Islamic Republic doesn’t have the power to obstruct any deal between them and Israel.

As I routinely write every few months, not only the United States but the entire international community have a moral obligation to end the bleeding of Yemen. Any settlement that won’t see a quick return to hostilities will likely require some decentralization of power in the country and a return to rule of law with an emphasis on achieving basic rights for all citizens. Nominally a republic, the country’s winner take all politics leaves too many outliers and invites destabilization. Although the Houthis are receiving all the blame, this is ultimately a battle between two Presidents.

As for the United States’ increasing role, it’s actually shocking how easily American Presidents now make foreign policy decisions involving intervention in countries where Congress hasn’t declared war. We can’t blame this on Trump, as it has become ever more common since the turn of the century, but an argument can be made that it has become much more dangerous under such an incurious and occasionally erratic chief executive.

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