Obama’s Yemen: From ‘success model’ to a terrorism nightmare
Washington - I f US former President George W. Bush’s most infamous gaffe was in complimenting his former staffer Michael Brown for doing “a heck of a job, Brownie” in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Barack Obama’s was last September in citing Yemen as a “success model” for his counter-terrorism strategy.
Ever since Obama’s statement, Yemen has been on a rapid downward spiral as the Houthis took over Sana’a last September, dissolving the country’s government, dismissing its draft constitution, forcing President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi out of his residence and expanding their reach from the traditional stronghold of Saada to the gates of Aden.
The Houthis’ expansion, the breakdown of the central government and the near-collapse of the military was an ideal recipe for chaos, according to a senior US official who spoke to The Arab Weekly. It not only eroded the country’s central government but also fuelled the resurgence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and invited the spectre of the Islamic State (ISIS) a new foothold on the Red Sea.
The events of last eight months have created a nightmare for the Obama administration, forcing it to close the embassy in Sana’a in February and evacuate its special forces unit in March. Such measures throw a wrench into US counter-terrorism efforts in a country that harboured Anwar Awlaki and trained scores of jihadists, some of whom took part in the Paris attack in January.
Yemen’s collapse triggered “Operation Decisive Storm”, led by nine Arab countries and supported logistically by the United States. The intervention, in the form of air strikes, was “expected,” according to the US official. The Houthis, he said, “overreached by going to Aden and Saudi Arabia has to protect its long border”.
For Washington, supporting the Saudi-led intervention is its last hope at avoiding a total collapse in Yemen that would split the country between the Houthis, AQAP and separatists. Washington hopes the Arab intervention will pressure the factions into a political solution and protect strategic security assets, such as the Bab el Mandeb strait and US drone operations over Yemen.
The departure of US special forces creates a dangerous intelligence void for the United States in Yemen, prompting the House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas), to warn, “We will have no intelligence footprint or capabilities to monitor what AQAP and ISIS and the Shiite militants are doing in the region.”
The chaos around the Houthis’ advance caused Washington to lose track of more than $500 million worth of military aid it had provided the Yemeni government; some of which may have ended up in the hands of AQAP. The rebels also looted files on US spy operations and AQAP freed 300 prisoners from a prison in Hadramoot. If the status quo continues, the chaos in Yemen will only compound US losses in a key battle front against al-Qaeda.
By supporting Operation Decisive Storm, the Obama administration is seeking to both reassure its Arab allies and prioritise its security goals in Yemen. While announcing the operation on March 25th, Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir emphasised the close consultations with and support from the Obama administration.
The White House promptly authorised “the provision of logistical and intelligence support to GCC-led military operations”, and Obama has called Saudi King Salman twice. In addition, the Obama administration restored full military aid to Egypt, including F-16 fighter jet deliveries that had been put on hold for two years, and Obama discussed the Yemen situation with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al- Sisi in an hour-long telephone call.
A US expert with close ties to the administration tells The Arab Weekly, on condition of anonymity, that the decision to release the F-16s to Egypt was meant as a boost for Cairo’s role in regional stability in both Yemen and Libya. As Obama eyes a lighter military footprint in the region, his strategy is more dependent on US allies in protecting mutual interests in Yemen and other trouble spots.
Nevertheless, officials in Washington remain deeply concerned about events in Yemen. The senior US official warned Yemen cannot be allowed to become another Somalia or Afghanistan and said that for the military operations to succeed they have to be complemented with a political strategy under the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) initiative “with changes to dates and deadlines” as they roll back the Houthis advances.
For now, all eyes in the Obama administration are on the Saudi-led military operation and whether it can be a model of success.