The War in Yemen: How We Got Here and Why It Must End
The Biden Administration faced serious heat as our twenty year war in Afghanistan came to a tragic, but predictable end. In the face of an enormous pressure campaign from across the media landscape, they’ve stood strong and resisted societal pressures in order to bring the war to an end. And they should be proud about that.
However, all of those speeches and press releases, while spot on in their reasons for ending the war, are hard to take at face value as we continue to engage in similar missions around the globe.
The most pressing example is Yemen.
Yemen was home to one of the most active branches of Al-Qaeda, known as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This is the group that bombed the USS Cole, sent the Underwear Bomber to the United States, and sent gunmen to the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
In 2002, early in the war on terror, the U.S. conducted a drone strike on a car carrying AQAP members. But afterwards, they left the fight against the terrorists in the hands of Yemeni dictator, and friend of the U.S. government, Abdullah Saleh.
But the group remained active with numerous terrorist plots, some successful others not, against the West. Early in his first term, Obama launched a covert drone war against AQAP, paying Saleh to let him do it and keep the U.S. role a secret.
Saleh turned around and used the new cash he was getting to attack a group to the north called the Houthis. This was roughly the status-quo until the Arab Spring broke out in 2011. As anti-government protests spread across Yemen, Saleh’s American “friends” decided it was time for him to go.
The U.S. dumped Saleh and propped up his Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Famously, an election was organized where Hadi’s name was the only to appear on the entire ballot.
Saleh fled to the North where he ended up allying with the Houthis, the very group he had just been fighting. And Hadi decided his “election” was enough of the whole democracy thing and suspended further elections. This along with economic problems led Yemenis to revolt.
Hadi fled the country and the Houthis took control. At first, the U.S. was pleased with this outcome because the Houthis were sworn enemies of AQAP. They shared intelligence with the U.S. as it conducted it’s brutal drone war against the jihadists.
Loads of innocent Yemenis were killed in these drone strikes, which undoubtedly helped AQAP with recruiting. That is to say the war was counterproductive before the U.S. switched sides.
There are a number of reasons why Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s neighbor to the north, launched their war on the Houthis in March of 2015. On one hand there was immediate tension with the Sunni Kingdom not wanting a potentially hostile Shia government to its south.
But the war also seems to have served the personal interests of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) as he climbed into power.
The Saudis must have known they could only go to war with support from the United States. The Obama Administration was essentially guilted into supporting the war after the Saudis grew upset with the Iran Nuclear Deal. Famously, Obama said the purpose of the war was to “placate the Saudis.”
That is how the war began in 2015. Six years later the country is devastated. 18,000 innocent people have been hurt or killed in airstrikes. Well over 100,000 have died from indirect causes. A quarter of civilians killed were children.
From the beginning, the Saudi-American strategy has involved the targeting of civilian infrastructure, presumably to maximize pain to those living in Houthi controlled areas. American-made laser guided bombs have been dropped on grain silos, grazing livestock, horses in their stables, wedding parties, and even the subsequent funerals. These actions are what motivate terrorist attacks against us. Not empty spaces in Afghanistan.
Water treatment plants were also targeted, resulting in a deadly and preventable outbreak of cholera. Before the war, almost all of Yemen’s food was imported. That’s been cut off from Houthi controlled areas. Famine has followed — not due to a natural disaster, but a consequence of policy.
In early February 2021, President Biden announced an end to all support for offensive operations in Yemen. A lack of U.S. support would have put a quick end to the somewhat unpopular but mostly unheard of war. But eight months later the support continues.
The House recently passed two amendments to the AUMF that would withdraw support for the war. But both face numerous hurdles ahead.
What’s needed now is the same vocal, widespread opposition to the war that has led to a successful Afghanistan withdrawal. This Administration is trying to capitalize off the optics of ending forever wars. Let’s see if they’re serious.