The State Department ordered some US embassy workers to leave the country today, following this weekend’s Houthi takeover of the capital. Adam Baron says the events in Sana’a reveal the myth of the so-called “Yemen model,” which he describes as “a general steamroller of a narrative casting the United States’ intervention in the country as a multifaceted success”:
Yemen’s internationally-brokered transition, we were told, was a model for a region in post-Arab Spring upheaval; the Obama administrations cooperation with the Yemeni government, Obama trumpeted roughly two weeks ago, had lead unparalleled progress in the battle against the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Both narratives have come to a head with an increasingly disparate reality as of late, as rebel fighters belonging to the Zaidi Shi’a lead Houthi movement managed to seize virtual control of Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, with little resistance from the Yemeni military, raising immediate questions regarding the utility of hundreds of millions of dollars in US military aid and a US-sponsored program of military restructuring, to say nothing of the viability of Yemen’s already fraught transition. …
Regardless of the ultimate fallout – which remains unclear – the fact remains that such issues as the battle against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) cannot be dealt with as separate issues from the larger challenge facing Yemen at the moment:
the establishment of inclusive, accountable governance and the shoring up of state authority – which, at the moment, verges on nonexistent – across the country. As the US-supplied military equipment currently being paraded in the streets of Sanaa by jubilant Houthi militants demonstrates, a counter-terrorism centered policy risks missing the forests for the trees.
The UN humanitarian news agency IRIN suggests the turmoil in Sana’a will have “significant” consequences for the Yemeni government’s fight against AQAP:
In recent months the group, the virulent local franchise of the extremist organization, has been stepping up its activities and rhetoric, with at least 20 people killed in attacks on military outposts by the group in August. Earlier this year the military launched a major campaign against AQAP, but it has struggled to make gains; the offensive has not been able to significantly weaken the group, which has even expanded its presence in the eastern province of Hadramawt.
There are also fears that the Houthis’ power play could encourage the Sunni Islam AQAP to increase violence in Sana’a as they seek to fight back against the Shia group.In mid-September a regional leader of Ansar al-Sharia, an AQAP offshoot which does much of its work on the ground, announced that the group was increasing its presence in Sana’a in preparation for a fight with the Houthis. Government officials say the standoff and fighting with the Houthi rebels distracted the military – which is both weak and divided – from the fight. “I think the Salafists and Al Qaeda will use the opportunity to strengthen their presence in Sana’a; that would be logical for them,” said a senior government official. “Al Qaeda are attacking the army and the PSO [intelligence agency] … This is a good environment for Al Qaeda.”
Meanwhile, a reader responds to our previous post with some personal history:
How fitting that this week of turmoil and chaos in Yemen is also the 52nd anniversary of the Great Revolution. Well, there have been government changes, and coups d’etat, and uprisings since then, but this one was the most significant, since it ended the centuries long monarchy and propelled Yemen into a Republican state. There have been subsequent Great Revolutions, and not many of the young people know much about the one in 1962.
The monarch, Imam Ahmad, died Sept 18, 1962, and his son Muhammed al-Badr assumed power. My family arrived in Taiz on September 23, where my father would take up his new post as political officer in the US Embassy. Communication in those olden days meant that, between the time we left Washington, DC (which was in the throes of the Cuban Missle Crisis), then sailed across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean to Athens, from whence we flew to Cairo, and then to Aden (then a British Colony), and then drove a jeep up the rough unpaved roads to the mountain lair of Taiz, a whole revolution had occurred.
Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser, wishing to set up a puppet government that he could control in his conflicts with Saudi Arabia, appointed a Yemeni Army Colonel named Sallal to head the government. The heir Muhammed al-Badr could not get the support of Yemeni Army officers, so he disappeared from Sanaa and escaped to the northeast, near the Saudi border, where his tribal supporters gathered. I heard rumors that al-Badr couldn’t get enough support from tribes because he was believed to be a homosexual, but I’ve found very little documentation to that effect, outside of my own late mother passing along gossip, and the beliefs of Arabists who knew all of the monarchs in the 1950s and 1960s.
That Revolution ended up being a disaster for Yemen and even moreso for Egypt, which was committing 50,000 soldiers a year for the conflict, plus it was very expensive. It was subsequently known as “Egypt’s Vietnam”, since there was never any real resolution, despite the presence of UN Peacekeeping forces.
Sadly, things just got worse for Yemen. The new dictators, especially Saleh, were really mediocre rulers, only interested in extracting graft for their relatives. The Saudi oil boom from the 1970s on meant that working-age Yemeni men were leaving in huge numbers to work all over the kingdom, as well as in the Gulf States, which meant that Yemen’s former excellent agricultural infrastructure collapsed, and farmers resorted to growing more khat and less food. The birth rate was, at one point in the past 20 years, the highest in the world. Urbanization, overcrowding, political chaos, religious chaos, and then add jihad on top of it, and it’s a really sad country.
I’m so sorry to see it deteriorate even further. The Yemenis were the kindest, most pleasant nationality I encountered in my life as the daughter of a Foreign Service Officer, and Yemen had a special place in my heart. It’s devastating to realize that the people of this country are living among such violence and chaos, and there is no end to it in sight.
(Photo: Yemeni girls scouts salute as they take part in a parade marking the 1962 revolution that established the Yemeni republic, in the capital Sanaa on September 25, 2014. President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi warned earlier this week of “civil war” in Sunni-majority Yemen, vowing to restore state authority, as Shiite rebels cried victory over their apparent seizure of much of the capital. By Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images)