Thinking Aloud: Attention Deficit Disorder on Yemen?

Apr. 19, 2015 by Darius

In a rather under-reported development, fighters of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula overran a major arms dump in the region of Hadramaut, Yemen, seizing dozens of tanks as well as artillery and small arms.

Al-Qaeda in Yemen has made some impressive gains in recent weeks, of which the capture of the armory has been the crowning achievement.  The obvious reason for al-Qaeda’s surge has been the ongoing fighting between the Saleh-Houthi coalition and loyalists of the former president.  Further stirring the pot, of course, has been the Saudi intervention.  So far, the Saudi-led “coalition” has avoided targeting areas with an al-Qaeda presence.  Instead, the airstrikes have focused exclusively on the one group in Yemen that was actively waging intense military campaigns against al-Qaeda: the Houthis.

For years, US policy towards Yemen has been one of counterterrorism and only counterterrorism.  The US hasn’t been overly interested in who’s actually running Yemen – or the fact that the country is running out of water, a significant proportion of Yemen’s population suffers from food insecurity, or that Yemen ranks at 161/175 on Transparency International’s corruption index – as long as drone strikes and army campaigns against al-Qaeda continue.  In other words, the US and its allies previously focused exclusively on al-Qaeda and ignored Yemen’s other pressing problems.  Now that some of those other problems have moved to the fore in the form of the Houthis’ Ansar Allah movement, al-Qaeda is being ignored while the Saudis try to crush the Houthis.

US officials have justified support for the Saudi campaign on the grounds that years of counterterrorism operations are being wiped out by al-Qaeda’s recent gains – while somehow ignoring that the Saudi campaign is allowing al-Qaeda to grab territory and weapons.  Apparently, the US (1) wants order restored and doesn’t much care who does it or how and (2) is willing to overlook that the Saudi ineptitude is giving al-Qaeda unexpected opportunities to seize control.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula already controls swaths of territory in Yemen’s south and is expanding while everyone’s attention is focused on the Houthis.  It is worth noting that in Syria at this time last year, ISIS took advantage of nobody noticing them in a broader civil war to seize territory and cement a militarily resilient proto-state.

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