Thinking Aloud: “America’s Invisible Wars,” Part II

April 18, 2016 by Darius 

[I recently saw a panel discussion at the CATO Institute on “America’s Invisible Wars.”  The discussion focused on some of America’s lesser-known interventions: Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.  The panelists who presented on each of these three countries were all excellent.  I already blogged about Moeed Yusuf of the US Institute of Peace, who discussed US involvement in Pakistan.  Today, I’ll share the remarks of Charles Schmitz of the Middle East Institute, who discussed Yemen.]

Schmitz said the US is actually conducting two “secret wars” in Yemen right now.  The first is a long-standing campaign of drone strikes against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), while the second consists of quiet US support for the Saudi coalition intervening in Yemen’s civil war.

According to Schmitz, the Yemeni civil war started because the transitional government, led by President Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi, proved itself utterly incapable of actually governing, especially in the face of a rising economic crisis.  Because of the economic situation and lack of governance, the so-called political transition process was completely divorced from the experiences of Yemenis.

At the same time, an internal power struggle within the Zaydi Shia Houthi movement led to the party’s military wing winning out.  The military wing launched a fast campaign from the movement’s northern strongholds and took Yemen’s capital, Sana’a.  For the Saudis, who don’t even consider Yemen to be a foreign country, this was unacceptable.  Schmitz described the Saudis as paranoid about even a US presence in Yemen.  The war quickly escalated.

However, when it came to the US’s campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Houthi takeover was not a bad thing.  In fact, the Houthis did aggressively go after al-Qaeda in Yemen, including in areas where the Yemeni government had been unable to.  According to Schmitz, the US did not initially have a problem with the (dubious) links between the Houthis and Iran.  However, according to Schmitz, the US allowed the Saudi intervention because (1) the US feared the further rise of ungoverned spaces and (2) the US and Iran had just agreed to a major nuclear deal which left the Saudis feeling marginalized.  Schmitz also said that when it comes to Saudi policy more broadly, personalities in the US administration shine through.  President Obama was ambivalent at best towards Saudi Arabia and felt that the US should pursue a more even-handed policy towards the region, but Secretary of State John Kerry is very pro-Saudi.

Schmitz said that as a result of the civil war and Saudi intervention in it, the fabric of Yemeni society has been absolutely ripped apart.  He said the country has been set back at least 25 or 30 years.

Looking to the future, Schmitz felt the war is heading towards a political settlement.  The Saudis have realized that not only is there no military solution to be had in Yemen but that “their” Yemenis are incapable of governing even the areas they control, much less the whole country.

For its part, al-Qaeda has taken advantage of the war to expand.  They initially positioned themselves as the defenders of Sunnis against the Houthis, then took the southern port city of Mukalla in the chaos.  The Saudis made a conscious decision not to go after al-Qaeda because al-Qaeda is anti-Houthi.  However, Schmitz said al-Qaeda has made a great deal of money from oil sales and is definitively stronger than before the war.

The US drone campaign against al-Qaeda has continued since the start of the civil war.  According to Schmitz, the campaign has been even more successful than before at taking out top al-Qaeda leaders because the capture of Mukalla apparently led some AQAP leaders to assume they were safe.  (They weren’t.)  However, the US drone campaign has failed in one important aspect: despite killing top leaders, it has not effectively degraded al-Qaeda’s capabilities in Yemen, including in the areas of money, organizing, and recruiting.  In fact, al-Qaeda is finding it easier to recruit than ever because the civil war has rendered Yemen so poor that the promise of a salary is all AQAP needs to attract recruits.

Schmitz criticized the US campaign against al-Qaeda in Yemen more generally.  He felt that although AQAP is often portrayed as the most dangerous branch of al-Qaeda, it has actually done very little and met with even less success.  In his view, the danger is overblown.  He also criticized the political need to be seen to be going after al-Qaeda.  He said that what is needed for Yemen instead is a long-term (25- to 30-year), locally nuanced strategy, and that one cannot hope to solve the complex problems that lead to the emergence of ungoverned spaces through small tactical operations and by throwing money at the problem.

Schmitz was not optimistic about Yemen’s political future.  He felt that for governance to improve, there must be a certain minimum political base.  Yemen’s Saudi-backed “government” lacks even that base.

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