You have to scroll a long way down the list of countries before you get to Yemen. So most people don’t bother, unless they already have a relationship with the country, and are therefore better informed to begin with about what is going on.
Arab Spring? Islamic terrorism? US military intervention? Civil War? Yemen ticks all these boxes, but plenty of other countries also do. Unless something different happens which grabs the headlines, Yemen just gets lumped in with other countries where the same things are happening, and the Yemen situation is assumed to be the same.
This is why Yemen has become the Middle East’s version of Georgia. One reason the little republic in the Caucasus became the regional dirty tricks capital is that people don’t know where it is, and if you point out that you are referring to the former Soviet country rather than the US state they lose interest. With nobody interested in the place, or knowledgeable about it, a lot of things which would be noticed elsewhere go long undetected due to Western public apathy.
Yemen is a long way down the alphabetical list, was two separate countries until recently and has no distinguishing feature for the general news reader. Other more notorious or glamorous countries take the headlines. So as in Georgia, the Western powers can get away with what they like because no one will notice what they do there, assuming it is merely similar to what happens in other countries.
However that may be about to change. In late March the Houthi rebels, who control the capital Sana’a and much of the rest of the country, seized a cache of files. The US claims that
these contain details of CIA operations and the names of agents. It also says they have been handed over to Iran, which is known to back the Houthi forces fighting the US-backed government.
As few people care about Yemen, exposure of agents there is not going to embarrass the US for more than a couple of days. It could have let this incident pass without comment, or denied it had taken place, and the effect on public opinion, and on the ground, would have been the same. Instead, it has responded by trying to get every US soldier and diplomat out of Yemen as quickly as possible, so fearful is it of what is in those files.
The US doesn’t mention Iran, the pantomime villain of the Western world, unless it is scared. It is scared that this story will make the world take notice of Yemen, and undermine the reason for the US being there. There is something in those files which could make Yemen famous: and based on what we already know, but few care about, there is one obvious thing it could be.
Too little oversight to be true
Last year Barack Obama hailed the CIA’s work in Yemen as a “model” counter-terrorism operation. His intelligence network had worked with the Hadi government to target Al Qaeda operatives in the country, and was boasting considerable success.
We are all aware the Al Qaeda was created by the US and Saudi intelligence to pursue its policy in Afghanistan, and that it formed the blueprint for several other terrorist groups inserted into countries the West had an interest in. We have seen the trails of arms and personnel supplied to such groups, and frequently seen such influential US figures as former president Ronald Reagan and Senator John McCain openly meeting with them and supporting their cause, for as long as it suits the US.
So if any country knows who the terrorists are, where they are and what they are doing it is the US. But the looting of the documents has not only led to the closure of the US Embassy in Yemen, President Hadi having already fled to Aden, but the withdrawal of the last Special Operations forces in the country. These same forces have been there throughout the civil war which followed the Arab Spring, but now feel so compromised they have to leave for their own safety.
The real reason for the troops’ departure has been suggested by the Pentagon itself. As soon as the US Embassy closed it was announced that over $500 million worth of “counter-terrorism” equipment in Yemen has disappeared, including helicopters, drones and jeeps.
This is a very familiar scenario to anyone who has followed other US military projects. The Georgia-Russia War of 2008 was a good example of a conflict in which a large quantity of US-supplied weaponry mysteriously disappeared. This was actually because most of these weapons were never used in combat, never even arrived to Georgia. They had already been sold on to terrorist groups in deals brokered by the US, as a recent article in this journal, amongst many others, demonstrated.
The US supplied similar military aid to Iraq, but far larger in quantity. Its prolonged involvement in that country to “make this aid work” via training and support became a severe domestic embarrassment. None of this support prevented the rise of ISIS, funded by oil sold on the US market and armed and staffed by US trainees moved around from hotspot to hotspot on fake Georgian passports.
The US has remained in Yemen whilst a civil war is going on. Despite all its alleged successes against terrorists, the same Yemeni Army it trained and supplied, and its own Special Operations forces. But they have been unable to stop the Houthi advance. Could this be because it did not have the weapons to do it? Could it be that the looted files will name the same suppliers and “consultants” who have supplied weapons to Ukraine, Syria and Georgia?
Bad guy, good guy
The US has been in Yemen until now because it supported the local version of the Arab Spring revolts. According to sources who were on the ground at the time, even then it was supplying large quantities of small arms to combatants in a country already awash with them, who needed political support rather than weapons.
The outcome of the Arab Spring was a US takeover. The president the people were supposedly protesting against, Ali Abdullah Saleh was replaced by his Vice-President, equally responsible for the crimes of his regime. This solution did not give the people what they wanted, hence the civil war which has forced that Vice-President into internal exile. But it was arranged by Washington, and we can expect that the usual paybacks were involved.
The official line now is that the missing weapons were looted by Yemeni Army units still loyal to Saleh, who have joined the Houthi out of nationalist motives. The story goes that he is using the Houthi to take power again, despite the Houthi allegedly being motivated by a desire to destroy any Sunni-dominated government, such as that led by Saleh.
Nationalist motives are claimed by every organisation regarded as “terrorist.” These claims are ignored until the groups concerned are successful, or win US-backing. Only then do they become nationalists, freedom fighters but not terrorists. We can recall Chad in 1982, when the terrorist FAN became the legitimate nationalist government defending the country against the “Libyan-backed” deposed president within a week of talking over, and the Taliban suddenly being treated as a political force when the Afghan government, at US urging, began negotiating with them.
If the accusation of Saleh looting is being made with the word “nationalist” attached the deposed president is being given credibility, implying he will be rehabilitated or even reinstalled. This would answer the question of where the weapons have gone. With regret, the US will have to accept the inevitable restoration of Saleh due to the sheer numbers of arms he has at his disposal. The fact that there is, as yet, no evidence that he has stolen any arms at all is a small inconvenience the US will forget to mention.
All eggs in the wrong basket
Further evidence that the US took over Yemen to smuggle arms to terrorists is provided by the manner in which it has conducted the “counter-terrorism” campaign it has waged to justify that presence. Increasingly, it has used a single weapon – the drone strike – to attack local Islamic State and Al Qaeda affiliates, rather than pursuing the range of military options the scale of the equipment supplied would give it.
In January 2015 Obama was forced to defend the use of drones, saying that the alternative was committing US troops to the area. He did not however mention that all the arms and equipment supplied, much of which is now apparently missing, was supplied so that the Yemeni Army would do what the US troops would be doing if deployed there.
US commanders have confirmed that Yemenis are perfectly capable of handling these weapons themselves, but political decisions are preventing them doing so. Have we not heard that many times before? The implication of this is that the army command contains many Houthi sympathisers or Saleh supporters, despite a purge carried out since Saleh’s removal, which successfully replaced anyone with such sympathies and can be repeated at any time.
The drone campaign has undoubtedly claimed many civilian lives. It has been condemned by the UN and many European politicians, and even the Yemeni parliament, whose members owe their livelihoods to giving no more than constructive criticism to President Hadi, eventually ordered a halt to the strikes in defiance of him. In at least some cases they are also contrary to the US’s own policy on targeted killings, as Human Rights Watch has pointed out.
The US is now saying that its pullout will leave it without the connections to conduct its counter-terrorism campaign. Therefore all that missing military hardware will be lost or rendered useless. However it insists it will still attack targets within Yemen from outside the country. This will, most conveniently, make drone attacks the only option, and legitimise the previous practice by the back door, now that other weapons, including all the missing ones, can no longer be used.
The US knew when it entered Yemen that the two modern states whose merger formed it had only come into existence as a result of nationalist uprisings against colonial powers: the British in the south, the former Aden Protectorate, and the Ottomans, and subsequently the Saudis who supported the native monarchy, in the north. It also knew that the primary reason these had taken place was the attitude of the colonial powers, whose only interest in Yemen was in using it as a staging post to protect other, more important interests, not those of Yemenis themselves.
If the US ever wanted out, this history would give it every excuse. The locals were revolting against foreign domination again. Of course they were, there could not be another reason, it was as inevitable as the Manifest Destiny the US claimed was its own when it destroyed its own native population.
But the US has stayed in Yemen through an ongoing war, its client government fleeing the capital and the American embassy closed. None of these factors have made it leave. When the rebels get hold of its intelligence documents however it shuts up shop, though few would have cared about the seizure if the US itself hadn’t drawn attention to it.
If these documents are released we will finally have proof from within US intelligence of what has so far only been proven or alleged by other sources. Then Yemen will become famous as the place the US took over just to supply arms to terrorists it was supposed to be fighting. Then many politicians in many countries in which this has happened, and many US arms manufacturers and dealers, will compete to sacrifice each other to save themselves.
Wouldn’t you run away if you were the one on the ground, in the firing line of any investigation? When those who have just left Yemen have no choice but to talk themselves, we might just find the world becomes a better place, at least for a while.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.