The Marib offensive, three weeks in

On the surrounding rocky hills some four kilometers to the west of Marib City, pro-Houthi forces have been holding positions since early this month, while the Saudi-led coalition’s own forces along with local tribal fighters fight to sweep them out of the way to the capital, Sanʻa. The coalition’s ground offensive in the oil-rich governorate of Marib, in central Yemen, is part of a larger strategy to take control of Sanʻa, some 175 km to the west of the governorate. The ongoing battle in Marib, though, seems to have produced a standoff so far, two weeks after the ground offensive officially began on September 13, hours after the exiled President Hadi and his government in Riyadh backed out of UN-sponsored talks to end the months-long conflict in Yemen.

According to several sources in Marib, however, clashes between tribal fighters and pro-Houthi forces were already taking place more than a week earlier. The coalition-trained Maribi fighters and coalition armed forces were “sent as reinforcements.”

“The fighting broke out late in August in Sirwah district [northwest of Marib], when the Houthis attempted to make a push toward Marib City,” a tribal elder in the city told the YPP via telephone, indicating that the clashes between the warring parties were escalating day by day.

Coalition forces based in the Safer area, to the east of Marib City, have been reportedly preparing to mount a ground offensive as part of their larger campaign to “liberate” Houthi-controlled Sanʻa, in what was allegedly dubbed “Operation Sweeping Current.”

Meanwhile, pro-Houthi forces were able to advance on the rocky hills outside Marib, after fierce clashes along three fronts there killed dozens on both sides, according to local tribal and military sources.

On September 4, Houthis also fired a short-range ballistic missile from Bayhan district of the neighboring Shabwah province, killing 67 Emirati, Saudi, Bahraini soldiers as well as an unknown number of local tribal fighters at a camp in Safer.

By September 8, four days after the ballistic missile attack, hundreds of trained tribal fighters along with a number of coalition’s own forces were seen heading for Marib city, coming from Safer.

“At least 700 local fighters, who were trained in Saudi Arabia along with troops from the coalition forces, have arrived in the headquarters of the 3rd Military Region and a military base in Sahn al-Jin area,” military sources in Marib told the YPP, pointing out that the military base in the area is used as a training camp for the local fighters.

The military sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that these allied troops were “sent as reinforcements on Tuesday [September 8],” after the pro-Houthi forces took control of three positions near the rocky hills.

Despite those reinforcements, the pro-Houthi forces “started to carry out heavy missile attacks using Katyusha and Uragan BM-27 rocket launchers, targeting both the HQ of the 3rd Military Region and the training camp,” said the sources, adding that several coalition troops were killed, and a number of armored vehicles destroyed.

On that day, the UAE government officially stated that one Emirati soldier was killed in the Marib fighting. There had been no official comments from the other Gulf States participating in the current ground offensive, but Houthi-affiliated media outlets claimed that two Qatari soldiers were killed, and that a score of armored vehicles were totally destroyed. Those figures could not be confirmed independently.

In response, the tribal fighters fought their way back to the western areas of al-Jufaina, Edat al-Raa’ and Tabbat al-Masaryah, where pro-Houthi forces are holding their positions. Coalition fighter jets and Apache helicopters provided the Maribi fighters with air support, according to both military sources.

On September 12, the Saudi-led coalition officially announced the ground offensive in Marib, hours after the exiled government in Riyadh announced it would not participate in the UN-backed peace talks, which were expected to be held in few days later.

On Friday, September 25, at least 1,000 local fighters, who had been trained in Saudi Arabia, crossed through the town of al-Abr in Hadhramawt governorate, and headed for Marib aboard military armored vehicles and tanks.

The military sources said that these troops arrived at the HQ of the 3rd Military Region and the military base in Sahn al-Jin area. “But this time, the troops advanced under an air cover and after heavy airstrikes” on Houthi positions. According to several tribal sources in Marib, the fighters aboard military armored trucks pushed into the western fronts under heavy aerial cover on Saturday, indicating that al-Jufaina and Tabbat al-Masaryah fronts have seen the most brutal fighting.

On Sunday, a weapons depot in Tabbat al-Masaryah was bombed by airstrikes and flames were seen rising above this rocky hill front, according to the sources. The airstrikes have also targeted a Houthi checkpoint in Harib area of Shabwah, on the border with Marib, killing a number of Houthi fighters including their leader, who was identified as Abo Malek al-Khawlani.

On Monday, the tribal fighters closed in on the pro-Houthi forces at the Tabbat al-Masaryah front in the northwest, and were poised to drive them out from two positions, said a local tribal source, indicating that the push uphill was preceded with the heaviest airstrikes and the artillery shells yet seen. However, the Houthi-affiliated TV channel al-Masira said that Houthi forces were making "a tactical retreat," and that "the aggressors were using internationally banned missiles".

The fighting is not over yet in Marib; on Sunday the convoy of one of the Yemeni military commanders in charge of “liberating” Marib, Brigadier al-Qumayri, hit a landmine planted by the pro-Houthi forces. Four of al-Qumayri's body guards were killed, including his son, Hamza, and several others were injured, while he survived the bombing unscathed, according to a tribal source.

Update: Yemen Press reported on Tuesday that tribal and coalition forces had gained full control of Marib Dam, as well as Tabbat al-Masaryah. The YPP's sources confirmed those reports.

Military restructuring: unraveling a tangled web

Since 2011 the international community has feared a total breakdown of the Yemeni military establishment, fragmenting the armed forces to a degree where major conflict would erupt leading to a civil war. This scenario developed in April after a number of government officials defected from the government on March 21, 2011 and declared their protection of civilian protesters. Beginning in April, Yemenwitnessed a number of proxy battles between government supporters and armed militias ʻAligned to Gen. ʻAli Muhsin and the al-Islah party. This fear of total fragmentation then led to the initial GCC-led initiative for political transition in April. The back and forth game that ensued inYemen, on whether to sign the GCC initiative or not, allowed both sides to strengthen their own positions. The periphery was soon lost, or abandoned, and handed over to a number of tribal or militant groups in areas such as al-Jawf in the north, Ma’rib and Hadhramawt in the East and Abyan in the south. The province of Saʻdah, bordering Saudi Arabia, continues to remain under control of Huthi rebels under the leadership of ʻAbd al-Malik al-Huthi. This group, at war with the central government since 2006, represents a major security threat to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and stability along the border continues to depend on a delicate agreement placing renowned arms dealer Faris Manʻa as governor of the province of Saʻdah. Contacts with the rebels has prevented cross-border incursions since 2011, but has not decreased the threat to Saudi Arabia.

Obstacles for Institutional Restructuring

Fears among regional and international actors led to a re-drafting of the GCC Initiative for political transition, signed on 23 November 2011 in Riyadh, wherein priorities where set beyond the handing over of power by ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh to his Vice President Hadi. The top priority set to strengthen the political transition became the orderly demilitarization of cities and restructuring of the entire armed forces, not just the army. This is set to be followed by the start of a comprehensive National Dialogue process. The framework established to administer demilitarization and restructuring of the armed was organized within a military commission with equal numbers of officers from units which defected in March 2011 and those still under the control of Ministry of Defense.

The first move to implement one of the “pillars” of the GCC Initiative was the removal of General ʻAbdullah Qayran in Taʻiz and Mahdi al-Maqwalah (of Sanhan), chief of the Southern Command based in ʻAden, in January and March respectively. While General Qayran’s removal was cause for much jubilation inside Freedom Square in Taʻiz, Maqwalah’s departure left a sour taste after Ansar al-Shariʻah escalated their activity in Abyan and caused more people to flee the province to neighboring ʻAden. It has been clear to many that President Hadi and his advisors are carefully calculating their moves, amidst mounting pressure from Western governments, in order to minimize consequences from such an unpredictable balancing of personalities within the armed forces. The incident that followed the sudden announcement Saturday morning April 7th by President Hadi replacing Air Force Chief Muhammad Saleh al-Ahmar (half brother of ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh) is a perfect example of the difficult task. Sanʻa International Airport was closed the entire day as result of fighting within the property, which also serves as the main runway for the Air Force located in the southern area of the civilian airport. Accusations flew back and forth between loyalists to General  Muhammad Saleh, who was then appointed Deputy Minister of Defense, and airport officials. The airport re-opened on Sunday. General Saleh appears to have accepted President Hadi’s order and on 16 April he left his post and traveled to Sanhan. But the issue remains unresolved as of 21 April.

In her most recent opinion piece, Ginny Hill indicated many of the obstacles to restructuring the armed forces were anchored on continued regime competition. That is, in the context of the equation that pins ousted President ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh, his long-time confidant General ʻAli Muhsin (Firqahh Commander) and the al-Ahmar family on a confrontation for survival in a transitional period. Much of this competition is indeed obstructing the restructuring, but observers are also missing much of the larger picture. The military has not only been a family dominion, it forms part of the principle instrument of patronage inYemen since 1962 in the north and 1967 in the south. It would be a colossal mistake to assume that Saleh’s relatives and their regime competitors where the only ones standing in the way of a comprehensive restructuring of the armed forces. Elites from the north and south are fully dependent on the military and intelligence services for the own survival. In addition, the most difficult obstacle to overcome will be the deeply rooted tribal interests that overlay the armed forces.

Hashid and Sanhan

In this situation we must first consider the struggle for survival within the Hashid tribal confederation. Shaykh Sadiq ibn ʻAbdullah al-Ahmar, brother of Hamid al-Ahmar, is the paramount shaykh of Hashid, to which the village of Sanhan belongs by means of tribal alliance. Many attribute the rise of ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh and his 33 years of rule to a “deal” from 1978 between Shaykh ʻAbdullah al-Ahmar, ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh, and ʻAli Muhsin. This deal would protect the longstanding position of Hashid and its tribal members within the political structure of the Republic. It is then no mystery as to why Shaykh Hamid al-Ahmar has been one of the principle supporters of the ‘Youth Revolution’ of 2011. Primarily, the al-Ahmar family began to feel threatened by changes in the relationship with Saleh in the past ten years, when it was decided to prepare Ahmad ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh to succeed his father as president of Yemen.

This move to select Ahmad ʻAli as successor was not in itself a threat, but rather the restructuring of political relations that aimed at alienating Bayt al-Ahmar from the decision making process. Hamid began to see new blood at the presidential palace, a new patronage network that threatened his own. Such moves were also reflected in the repositioning of the Republican Guard, in particular, vis-à-vis ʻAli Muhsin’s Firqahh. During the six wars against Huthi rebels in the north the struggle between Ahmad ʻAli and ʻAli Muhsin deepened to direct conflict within al-Urdhi (headquarters for the Armed Forces) and the office of the Chiefs of Staff. The internal conflict also began to affect tribal relations. Interests of various shaykhs were threatened when some tribal areas were protected by the government while others were neglected during the war against Huthi rebels. These tribal leaders not only had interests in areas in ʻAmran and Saʻdah, but also their tribesmen were being killed without any retribution. Many shaykhs were requested to send troops to fight Huthis only to be underpaid or under equipped. While Sanhan believes to be the center of power over the past 33 years, it is Hashid who claims primacy and aims to prevent southerners from taking over a unified Republic, and its resources.

Tribal Patronage

Underneath the surface then lie the mid-level shaykhs of Hashid and Bakil (the second-most powerful tribal confederation). Many of these tribal leaders, allied to the house of Shaykhs al-Shayf and ʻAbu Ras, for example, in addition to Bayt al-Ahmar, believe that restructuring of the armed forces is a direct threat to their own individual survival. Northern shaykhs are inherently linked to an extensive patronage network with origins at the end of the northern civil war of 1962-1970. They are not just part of Saleh’s or ʻAli Muhsin’s patronage, they are part and parcel of the Republic’s patronage legacy. Many leaders may not be in government of Parliament, but they and their tribes have been vital keepers of the Republic, and if their patron is removed then they will lose all privileges, most importantly income and weapons as result of their conscripts within the various branches of the military. A comprehensive restructuring of the armed forces, beyond the removal of Saleh’s, ʻAli Muhsin’s and al-Ahmar’s relatives would also require addressing the presence of many tribal elements loyal to one side or the other. President Hadi must first calculate the consequences from removing personnel from one side quicker then the other, or removing a larger contingency from one side as oppose to the other.

President Hadi must surely be asking himself, which side do I remove first? Which will pose the least challenges? What will the one side do when elements from the other are removed? If a tribal leader with interests in the armed forces begins to feel his patron will lose in the process, they may recall their tribesmen and withdraw to their local area. This will strengthen their position in the periphery and deprive the government of authority within their territory. By withdrawing their men, they will not hold loyalty to any one until it is renegotiated, at a high price indeed. The men will withdraw with their weapons, since no one at this time is powerful enough to prevent them from doing so. How many shaykhs will opt for this choice? We don’t know. If one side is removed before the other, in proportion or otherwise, it may be clear to both patron and client that a fight against the President as proxy or against the other side directly will be in their best interest. President Hadi has everything to lose in this scenario.

At a time of deep economic crisis across the country, ignored by all sides, tribal leaders must protect their own interests in order to prevent further unemployment and deeper discontent among local populations. Patronage is not only a tool for wealth creation in Yemen, it is a way to remain relevant vis-à-vis local tribal populations and retain the prestige of hereditary titles. Reports of widespread famine in Yemenoften focus on urban populations, which suffer tremendously as result of sky-rocketing inflation, but it is in the mountain and dessert villages where hunger is merely satisfied with bread and water, or wheat (‘azid) and yogurt. Shaykhs may not spread the wealth around as evenly as people would want, but at minimum they do provide some relief to people in their villages. It is not in their own interests to allow people to starve, for they will lose the foundation of their own reputation and status. Shaykhs do not only have a dozen or so tribesmen as guards for their own protection in the public sphere, this is a way to provide ‘employment’ to tribesmen and also to strengthen their own patronage networks.

A Careful Balancing Act

As one tribal figure put it, and as much as I tried to avoid the cliché, there are three main concentric circles when dealing with restructuring of the armed forces. The first circle includes Saleh and his family, ʻAli Muhsin and Bayt al-Ahmar, in essence, Hashid and Sanhan. The second circle is referred to as the circle of corruption. This is where the patronage network extends to relatives, business associates and tribal elements. The third circle is what many refer to as the circle of hope, where many of the officers capable of constructing a modern, professional military lay. Tribal elements in the military and mature officers do see a light at the end of the tunnel, but they realize it’s a long tunnel. The GCC initiative was meant to primarily prevent a civil war in theArabian Peninsula. It managed to stave off much of the tension mounting through 2011. But the GCC deal was mainly a deal between the elite, Saleh and ʻAli Muhsin, Saleh and al-Ahmar, and Saleh and al-Islah. It failed to address the people’s demands, and left a window of opportunity for whoever can rescue those hopes for change.

At the moment al-Islah seems to be gaining ground on this front. Although protest squares are now occupied by a solid majority of supporters of al-Islah, Friday prayers continue to attract a large number of independents. This portion of society is no longer interested in the permanent, physical presence at Change Square (Sanʻa) or Freedom Square (Taʻiz), but rather makes itself available to the rally calls to protest each week. This is a great asset for al-Islah, ʻAli Muhsin and bayt al-Ahmar. They have proven their resolve and to a certain degree, their public support. In real terms, it may not mean much since Friday prayer demands are no longer based on issues espoused by large crowds in 2011. Yet, this still keeps President Hadi thinking of what the intent is and what may be the options available to Islah’s side, and to ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh on the other hand.

President Hadi has yet to make his mark in the public sphere, but he has moved cautiously to strengthen his position in the face of mounting pressures from all sides. The president still has much to accomplish in the short term, while his options still remain open and potentially leading to change in real terms. The relationship between Prime Minister Muhammad Salem BaSundwah and President Hadi may not be a match made in heaven, but it is not a destructive one either. Outside influences on the Prime Minister are obvious, as he is the spokesperson for the opposition group the Joint Meeting Party (JMP), as part of the transition government. Everyone understands that although the JMP is fragmented at the moment, half of the ministers in government must protect the group in order to protect themselves. It still remains a difficult task to convince cabinet members to accept losses on their side of the camp. Whether the losses are on the civilian side, such as governors, or the military, neither the General People’s Congress (GPC) nor the JMP can accept huge losses at any one time. At the moment, reality points to all losses being one sided, and even though Gen. ʻAli Muhsin promises to resign and retire from government service, the GPC sees no movement against the opposition on the part of President Hadi, who is in fact the leader of the GPC as its Secretary General.

All of this balancing comes in the backdrop of demands by all sides to engage the process for National Dialogue. As prescribed by the GCC Initiative, the Dialogue process is meant to reconcile all sides, in particular the Southern Secessionist movement and the Huthi rebels in the north. Most in the opposition claim dialogue is moot without military restructuring, aimed at removing all influence from former president ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh and his relatives. But some, in diplomatic circles and within the party in majority in parliament (GPC) claim there cannot be any restructuring until the dialogue begins. We are back to square one, what comes first, the chicken or the egg? It seems even the United States has realized restructuring of the armed forces will take longer than expected, and this has led officials visiting Sanʻa to announce their support for the start of the Dialogue process even though the military is still relatively intact. If work is to be done inYemen, under relative stability, it will continue at a slow pace. As of April 11 President Hadi initiated new military operations against Ansar al-Shariʻah in the south (some units have refused the order). This will lead to further clashes around the country that have to be contained, at minimum, before the president’s next move regarding the armed forces or the National Dialogue. BaSundwah’s visit to Doha from April 9-11 may lead to further support from regional neighbors, but unfortunately his first announcement focused on support for the National Dialogue, not the economy or further pressure to be exerted on personalities on the list to leave the country. Further patience will be required if deeper fracturing of the armed forces is to be avoided, which could once again threatened a civil war scenario.

San‘a Bulletin #5

The fifth guest post by our anonymous friend in San‘a, this update focuses on the potential for an Islah hijacking of the protest movement. I'll share my own thoughts on this and other issues later this week. This past week we have witnessed events develop almost by the hour here in Sanaa (events in Aden, Amran, Hodeida and Taiz have also developed very rapidly).  The protests continue strong even after Shaykh Abd al-Majid az-Zindani’s intervention on Friday 1 March.  The rumors still abound concerning the conflicting relation between the original organizers of protests at Sana’a University’s main gate since the evening of 3 February.  The talk of the town is whether Islah has taken full control of the protests in Aden, Sana’a and Taiz through its Muslim Brotherhood wing.  Many in Sana’a comment on the differences between this group and the organization active in Egypt, where in Yemen the MB simply represents the right wing of the religious conservatives within Islah who represent policies such as the continued defense of early child marriage led by people like Shaykh Abdullah Satter. Many youth began to promise their withdrawal if demonstrations fell under stronger control of Islah, which has not officially announced any type of party policy aiming to control the protests in Sana’a or elsewhere.  But increasing presence of Islahi students and students from al-Iman University since Zindani’s speech gives everyone plenty to worry about.

Mobilizing Islahi members or sympathizers is a double edge sword for the original group.  On the one hand, Zindani’s weight brought in huge numbers at a vital point since 3 February, which helped increase pressure on Saleh.  The crowd mobilized by Islah was composed of Sana’a University students (mainly through the Student Association), al-Iman University (headed by Zindani) and tribal elements from the northern regions.  The direct involvement of Islahi students from Sana’a represents a direct challenge to the original group, many of whom are students at Sana’a University, so the hierarchy started to dominate.  Then students from al-Iman University, who have more experience and training (as some observers have mentioned) began to control the security perimeter set up from day one.  This is not a concern of decreased security for protesters, but rather more vigilance over who comes in to the area and what activities are engaged.  The main incident distinguishing Islah control of security over the original group was an incident last week where a young female activist and her male journalist friend were interrogated at the ‘security tent’ by Islahi students. The questioning concerned a survey distributed by the young activist.  As more information surfaced on this incident, some people indicated the survey was actually prepared by the president’s Information Advisor, Sufi, but it still remains unclear.

The main impact of Islahi influence is seen on the main stage.  It is now mostly controlled by Islahis to the point where music, for example, is now coordinated by them.  There is no more tribal music, which could primarily be credited with the lively spirit we witnessed all day long before Zindani’s speech. Now, most music is organized from groups with links to Suhail channel.  The newly set up Socialist corner, with pictures of Jar’allah Omar (assassinated Secretary General of Yemen’s Socialist Party), still tries to maintain Yemeni traditional music and poetry.

Adding to such fog, we now read about the increasing number of ruling party members resigning in protest against the president. Up until 4 March, when MP Ali A. al-Amrani (Baydha) announced his resignation on stage at Sana’a University, observers indicate many of the resignations were clearly genuine an with no other political agenda.  Most MPs resigning prior to al-Amrani were ordinary MPs truly concerned with issues of importance to the masses. But, in addition to such resignations, we now see a media myopic reporting on the number of government employees and MPs related to Shaykh Hamid Abdullah al-Ahmar.  Hamid’s brothers began to follow Hymiar’s (Dpty Speaker of Parliament) example as Hussain (between Sadeq and Hamid) resigned his post in the GPC and gave a strong speech before a huge crowd in Amran, then followed Hashid (Min. of Youth and Sport) and then their cousin Sam b. Yahya b. Hussain al-Ahmar ( Min. of Culture).  These resignations included others like Nabil al-Khamiri (married to Saba, Hamid’s sister) and the oil businessman Fat’hi Tawfeek AbdoRaheem (married to Anissa, Hamid’s sister).

Observers are disgusted by the media’s obsession with such personalities rather than focusing on the protests around the country.  Some people say the focus on al-Ahmar might have some positive consequences for the president.  If the media focus on the family then people will gain insight to their political aims, which do not carry much support south, west or east of Sana’a. The political game engaged by Bayt al-Ahmar might back fire, including the theatrics of canceling a press conference with Sadeq al-Ahmar and Zindani at the last minute.  Not only are the number of al-Ahmar family members involved in the regime on the surface and making the family look more a part of the regime, but also people begin to realize the individual ambitions within Bayt al-Ahmar and the distance from aims of masses on the streets.

According to observers…..

Why is Yemen like Egypt and Tunisia….?

  • the three decade old presence of a head of state
  • role of president’s family members within government and the economic
  • the presence of a dominant ruling party. The GPC becoming a ‘burden’ on the president

Why is Yemen not Egypt or Tunisia…?

  • Yemen is part of the Emerging Democracies Group.
  • Security forces maintained a mixed image in the north, but hated in the south (prior to protests)
  • The army is fragmented, unlike in Egypt or Tunisia, and therefore not a primary agent of change

War without a face

If you read the international papers, you've surely noticed that a day no longer goes by without a story of "suspected US drone strikes" in Afghanistan and Pakistan. These strikes are always "suspected" because, even though everyone in the world knows about them, they are the work of the CIA's "clandestine" services, and thus officially secret. September was an especially busy time for the drones, with over 20 separate attacks reported in the media. Occasionally the US or Pakistani authorities will announce the death of a major militant figure in such a strike, but more often, it seems, America's robotic killers take innocent lives. Jason Ditz at puts it this way:

President Obama has made the drone strikes the centerpiece of his foreign policy, and has killed well over a thousand people inside Pakistan since taking office. The vast majority of those killed have turned out to be innocent civilians, while large numbers of others remain unidentified but classified as “suspects.”

Obviously, with so many victims to its credit, the impact of these clandestine weapons is only too visible to most Pakistanis and Afghans. But in the United States, drone warfare seems immune to the kinds of scrutiny and criticism that other elements of the president's military policy have faced. Politicians and generals in this country have long understood that the public will stand in their way if American lives are at stake; as long as the only people dying are foreign nationals, we as a people will keep quiet. This sense of safety, even from their enemies in the Republican Party, has allowed the Obama administration to develop a severe addiction to robotic warfare.

Given all of that, it should be obvious why I'm writing about AfPak policy in a blog about Yemen. Obama has already increased US military aid to President Saleh's government, and sent more covert CIA and Special Forces operatives to Yemen; the drones cannot be far behind. Right now, the American public knows almost nothing about Yemen, and is willing to believe anything about it. Aside from a few hardcore pacifists and Yemen-philes like us, Americans seem to be completely at ease with the expansion of the "War on Terror" to a new front. What this means is that Yemen will be an ideal killing ground for Obama's Predators and Reapers. American apathy, if left unchecked, will ensure that thousands of Yemenis are added to the civilian death toll that the US government touts as progress.

Obviously, the Yemen Peace Project opposes the use of drones in Yemen, just as we oppose all American military action in the country. But as the American presence grows and becomes more and more costly for the Yemeni people, we must increase our efforts to bring their suffering to the attention of the world. We'll want the help of our readers and friends, as well, to make sure that every death is counted, that the American public that funds and encourages this pointless war is forced to reckon with the true cost of their decisions.

Stay tuned for updates on this subject, and on our efforts to change America's policy toward Yemen.

With friends like these…

"It is important to make sure that we strengthen the capacity of the government so that you don't see the same vacuum develop in Yemen that has developed in Somalia....We'll continue to help Yemen in terms of its dialogue with its own population in both north and south."

These two gems come from US State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley's press briefing yesterday, in which he gave us the upshot of last Friday's "Friends of Yemen" meeting in New York. The first sentence is, of course, the exact opposite what the Yemen Peace Project and Human Rights Watch both urged prior to the meeting. We implored the US, UK, Saudi Arabia, and other members of the Friends of Yemen group not to rely on a policy of "strengthening the capacity" of President Saleh's government, a government that has abandoned democracy and due process in favor of its own survival. If the US and its allies continue to "strengthen the capacity" of this regime, the people of Yemen will face more and more hardship, repression, and violence.

As we pointed out in our open letter to the Friends of Yemen, the US is also directly responsible for killing dozens of Yemeni civilians. Saudi Arabia -- which chaired last Friday's conference along with Yemen and the UK -- has racked up a far larger Yemeni body count, having bombed several villages out of existence during the last phase of the Sa'dah war. The US recently announced a massive deal to supply new jets and helicopters to the Saudi military, thus ensuring the Kingdom's ability to kill even more Yemenis the next time around. For the leaders of these two countries to talk about "dialogue" and development is disingenuous at best. Does the State Department expect Yemenis to buy this double-talk? Does it seriously expect Yemenis to choose Saleh and his "Friends" over the various opposition movements currently at work in Yemen?

In his remarks to the press, Crowley also claimed that US Undersecretary William Burns led the Friends of Yemen conference, although, as noted above, this dubious honor in fact fell to the UK and Saudi Arabia. Clearly the US wants to be seen -- or wants to see itself -- as leading the effort to fix Yemen. But the truth is that US humanitarian aid is already vastly overshadowed by military assistance to Saleh's regime, and now the Obama administration is considering a huge, multi-year package that will augment Saleh's capacity for violence several-fold, even though critics within the administration and Department of Defense argue that the new weapons and training will be used against Saleh's political enemies rather than al-Qa'idah (it's almost as if they'd been reading the news).

This week Secretary of State Clinton told the United Nations that the US would not "sacrifice human rights" to fight terrorism. Clinton told the world that the way to end terrorism is to provide hope to those vulnerable to the "allure" of extremism. To be honest, I'm surprised Hilary Clinton -- or any other State Department official -- can gather the nerve to speak to the world, knowing as we all do the humiliating fact that they are almost completely irrelevant to American foreign policy. I give Clinton credit: her words to the General Assembly weren't hollow rhetoric. The State Department has been producing papers for a long time now pushing the agenda of long-term, systemic solutions in places like Yemen. But the US hasn't shown Yemen any long-term solutions, only the immediate destructive power of the American war machine. For many Yemenis and other victims of American violence around the world, the "choice" between Yemen's "Friends" and al-Qa'idah isn't so simple.

Response to New York Times article

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times ran this article about the "covert war" that the United States is currently waging in Yemen and around the world. The Yemen Peace Project responded to the article with an op-ed piece, which the Times declined to publish. Here, for our friends and visitors, is the text of the piece we submitted:

In the August 14 piece “Secret Assault on Terrorism Widens on Two Continents,” the Times exposes important details of the Obama administration’s covert war against Al Qaeda in Yemen. But the article fails to adequately examine the tactical shortcomings of the campaign, and dismisses the inexcusable suffering US-Yemeni policies have visited upon the Yemeni people.

The article quotes Deputy National Security Advisor John O. Brennan as likening the current US campaign in Yemen to a “scalpel” rather than a “hammer.” America’s supposedly scalpel-esque operations include cruise missile and drone strikes, as well as covert actions by small Special Operations and CIA teams. But the label Brennan applies – and the Times accepts – is misleading

Since 2009, American ordnance has killed or injured hundreds of Yemeni civilians and incited additional terrorist attacks. For example, the Times article reports that a cruise missile strike against a “makeshift Qaeda camp” on December 17, 2009 killed “at least 41” Yemeni civilians. Estimates in Yemeni papers at the time were much higher. But the Times cites no evidence – and none has been presented by either American or Yemeni officials – that any enemy operatives were killed in the attack, or that a Qaeda camp was even present. Nor have US or Yemeni officials justified the decision to launch a missile packed with cluster munitions into a populated area.

It is common to see Yemen portrayed in the press as lawless and inaccessible. If these descriptors can accurately be applied to any part of Yemen, the particular district where the December 17 strike occurred is not such a place. There is no sensible reason why a criminal target in this area could not have been dealt with by Yemeni police or counter-terrorism forces. More to the point, cluster munitions are the literal opposite of a scalpel, and the use of such weapons in populated, civilian areas is unjustifiable. For the administration to describe such tactics as “surgical” is perverse. For a journalistic institution like the Times to relay such descriptions as fact is irresponsible.

The Times article does a better job of questioning the strategic rationale behind this campaign. Many of Mr. Obama’s top counter-terrorism advisors are veterans of the CIA’s Afghan campaign of the 1980s, in which attrition was the goal. But the reality, expressed admirably by former US Ambassador to Yemen Edmund Hull, is that a strategy of killing terrorists will not protect US interests or destroy Al Qaeda. Rather, all available evidence suggests that US and Yemeni counter-terrorism policies have in fact led to an increased entrenchment of Al Qaeda in Yemen. Once a pariah in Yemeni society, the organization now voices the grievances of the people, while the reckless disregard for civilian safety demonstrated by the US and Yemeni governments reinforces the idea that the Yemeni people have nowhere else to turn.

But a kind of victory is still possible, if the Obama administration is willing to listen to its better angels. Ambassador Hull hits close to the mark in saying that counter-terrorism must not be limited to the military and intelligence sectors, but must also include “political, social and economic forces.” In fact, State Department officials have already released several documents emphasizing the need to address Yemen’s systemic problems of corruption, unemployment, an extreme water shortage, and other crises of capacity. Secretary Clinton and her deputies have consistently said that a secure and peaceful Yemen can only be achieved through development and humanitarian aid. If given the necessary resources, a State Department-led effort could make a significant difference, for the people of Yemen and for the United States.

At present, the Obama administration is touting a humanitarian aid package that amounts to just over two dollars per Yemeni, while spending millions on military operations. Only if this calculus is reversed will the US have a chance at weakening Al Qaeda in Yemen and elsewhere. In the meantime, media institutions like the Times need to scrutinize the facts, and not allow Defense Department and CIA rhetoric to cloud their reporting of this very un-surgical and costly war.