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The Futility of Force in Yemen

Interviewee: Barbara K. Bodine, Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service
Interviewer: Zachary Laub, Senior Copy Editor/Writer
March 13, 2017

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U.S. President Donald J. Trump has escalated counterterrorism strikes in eastern Yemen against the al-Qaeda affiliate there. But his administration is no more likely than President Barack Obama’s to be successful in degrading the group, says Barbara K. Bodine, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen. “Even when a drone takes out al-Qaeda leaders, it doesn’t dislodge the organization or affect why people support it,” Bodine says, noting al-Qaeda’s steady territorial gains. Similarly, she says, the separate Saudi-led air campaign to restore the government of Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi has little prospect of defeating Houthi rebels. There should be a new U.S.-driven effort for a political settlement to the civil war, she says, but barring that, the United States and other major international actors should consider a “humanitarian intervention of sufficient duration and size to try to forestall catastrophe.”

Man inspects the site of a Saudi-led air strike in the northwestern province of Saada, YemenA man inspects the site of a Saudi-led air strike in the northwestern province of Saada. (Naif Rahma/Reuters)

There have been more than thirty U.S. air strikes, as well as a Special Operations raid, since Trump took office. That seems a marked uptick from those that occurred under Obama. Why the change?

It’s a way for the Trump administration to show a muscular approach to counterterrorism. The media is reporting that the current uptick predates in planning whatever intelligence might have been picked up by the SEAL raid; these [plans] had been sitting on the shelf for a while. From what I understand, many of these were proposed by the military during the Obama administration but had not been greenlighted.

U.S. officials often called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) the terrorist group that posed the greatest threat to the United States. Was that true before, and is it true now?

It is a threat, but the greatest? I’m not sure how you measure that. In terms of aspiration, there was the “undie bomber,” who attempted to bomb a plane over Detroit [in 2009], and an attempt to smuggle explosives on printer cartridges [on to U.S.-bound cargo planes in 2010]. Operationally, they have not been successful at all.

“Al-Qaeda’s numbers have increased, the territory it controls has increased, and it seems to be increasingly well dug-in.”

But that’s a narrow aperture. AQ-inspired groups like al-Shabab, Boko Haram, and [al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] have focused less on Americans and the United States, but still have extraordinary lethality. We should not discount how destabilizing they can be.

AQAP is still a terrorist group, but it is taking on much more of a domestic focus. It has held significant territory for a long time, including Mukalla, the third-largest port in Yemen. That is unlike al-Qaeda and its franchises, which tend to be small groups that favor terrorist incidents rather than holding territory, trying to govern, and providing basic services.

The United States has been regularly carrying out air strikes in Yemen since 2011. Does this long campaign have results to show?

Drones are a tool, not a strategy. Do they keep al-Qaeda long-footed? Maybe. But have they deterred or diminished al-Qaeda? No. Al-Qaeda’s numbers have increased, the territory it controls has increased, and it seems to be increasingly well dug-in.

When the drone strikes were coupled with Yemeni ground forces, in 2012 to 2013, AQAP was dislodged from Abyan [province, east of the southern coastal city of Aden]—but they just moved east. Even when a drone takes out al-Qaeda leaders, it doesn’t dislodge the organization or affect why people support it. We can drive AQAP out of a village, but then no one goes in afterward to rebuild the structures destroyed and provide food and water.

Late March will mark two years since Saudi Arabia launched its campaign to restore Hadi’s government, and it seems to have hardly moved the frontlines. Does it have an endgame?

The Saudis did not have a clear idea of an endgame beyond putting the Hadi government back in charge. Securing the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia was a strategic objective, but [most of] the fighting has been in the south. What their endgame is, beyond a Yemen that doesn’t threaten its borders and isn’t controlled by Iran, is pretty unclear. There has not been any real reconstruction—political reconstruction, physical infrastructure—and there is no “day after” plan.

The Saudis went in with the hubris that given the size and sophistication of their air force and the prowess of Emirati ground troops, this would be a short war; the Houthis, a ragtag insurgency, would collapse after “shock and awe.” It has not worked out that way.

The campaign has to be seen within the context of Saudi dynastic maneuvering. The war was, by many accounts, designed to bolster the standing of the second crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman. To the extent that’s true, it makes the resolution that much more difficult, because whatever the endgame is, it cannot be a political defeat for the Saudis.

Why have these “ragtag” Houthis, as you described them, proven so resilient?

History is littered with technologically superior armies being thwarted by ragtag groups that have a survival imperative. It’s a common mistake that large armies make; our own military history is littered with that. For the Houthis, this is an existential fight.

The Houthis spent ten years fighting the Saleh government, from 2004 through about 2014, so they’re not completely untested. They’re fighting on their own territory, and against an aerial bombing campaign by an outside power. That tends to coalesce people behind them, even those who don’t like them; they are domestic defenders against an external aggressor. That levels the playing field.

How has al-Qaeda fit into this civil war?

Most of the fighting has taken place along a band that runs from the north in Saada [province, along the Saudi border,] all the way down to Aden. There hasn’t been much taking place to the east, and nobody has been shooting at al-Qaeda.

“After two years of an intense air campaign and what is essentially an air and sea blockade, the humanitarian situation has completely collapsed.”

Shortly after Hadi came in [after a negotiated political transition in 2012], AQAP was driven out of Abyan, which had been their stronghold, by [Yemeni] ground forces with U.S. air support. They moved east and have basically been there ever since.

There was the one attempt [to clear them] months ago, when the Emiratis and others came in to clear the [three hundred miles of] coastline from Aden to Mukalla. It was nominally successful. There was some fighting, but AQAP didn’t really contest Mukalla. Who controls that territory now is an open question.

Our recent campaign is focused on AQAP and ISIS, to the extent that we can identify where they are. The Houthis are implacably opposed to AQAP, so this doesn’t hurt the Houthis. And one presumes that the Saudis don’t particularly like AQAP, so this would be fine by them.

U.S. military and intelligence support has enabled the Saudi air campaign, but the Obama administration eventually said it would not give Saudi-led forces a “blank check” to target civilians, and advocated for a political settlement. What approach might the Trump administration take?

After the Saudis hit what the American press called the funeral hall [which killed more than 140 people in October 2016], there was this statement of “no blank check.” Implicit in that was that the Saudis had a blank check before that. It [didn’t mark] any substantial change in our support, but [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry, in his last month, did try to bring the civil war to a negotiated end.

Kerry worked assiduously with the UN special envoy to craft a political settlement, and in the middle of December he got much closer than was widely reported. But Kerry couldn’t bring it over the line. It was not the Houthis who balked at the peace plan, and it probably wasn’t even the Saudis. It was Hadi.

I think Hadi calculated that since President Trump, who had taken an extraordinarily tough line on Iran, was coming, he could get a much better deal than he was going to get from an Obama administration, if not more military support for a decisive victory.

Did Hadi think the Trump administration would share the Saudi view that the Houthis are an Iranian proxy?

The calculation was that the Trump administration would be more open to those arguments than the previous administration was. We were already very much on the Saudi side; we just didn’t entirely buy the argument.

There’s a great deal of debate on the degree and importance of Iranian support for the Houthis. The International Crisis Group makes a persuasive case that “the Houthis are not Hezbollah,” as a recent report is titled. That’s the view of most people who watch this part of the world, but the Saudi view is that the Houthis are part of Iran’s machinations to take over more of the Middle East and surround Saudi Arabia.

The UN called attention earlier this month to the risk of famine in Yemen.

There is a famine going on. Diseases like malaria and dengue fever are endemic. Nobody is in a position to calculate the actual numbers, but the sense is that while somewhere around ten thousand Yemenis have been killed in the fighting, far more have died or been permanently affected by the famine, disease, and other elements of the humanitarian catastrophe. The bulk of the victims are children.

Yemen was food, medicine, water, and fuel insecure before the war, and it had a fairly rudimentary infrastructure and a government that didn’t have the wherewithal to provide basic services. After two years of an intense air campaign and what is essentially an air and sea blockade, the humanitarian situation has completely collapsed. Over one hundred hospitals and clinics have been destroyed. So have the road network and water treatment plants.

Can there be any meaningful humanitarian assistance in the absence of a political settlement?

There have been some short cease-fires, but there is no longer the capacity at Hodeida port [on the Red Sea] to offload ships—the cranes have all been destroyed. Then even under good conditions you couldn’t drive humanitarian supplies several hundred miles through difficult terrain to the highlands in three days [the length of previous cease-fires]. The Saudis have blocked commercial air coming into Sana’a, so significant supplies cannot be airlifted in [to reach those areas].

“[The U.S.] focus on AQAP, which essentially ignores the civil war and the proxy war, is a sort of culpability.”

If we can’t end the fighting, we should at least try to relieve the catastrophe in the meantime. The international community should consider how to mount a credible humanitarian intervention of sufficient duration and size to try to forestall catastrophe. That might be a Berlin-like airlift into the Sana’a airport. The Saudis would have to cooperate.

Our focus on AQAP, which essentially ignores the civil war and the proxy war, is a sort of culpability. There is no military solution to this conflict. I would like to see a renewed U.S. effort on a credible peace solution, but I’m not sanguine.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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