Yemen: America's Forgotten War in the Middle East


"The shockwave of the enormous explosion in the harbour knocked over cars onshore. Two miles away, people thought there was an earthquake. A fireball rose from the waterline. The blast opened a hole forty feet by forty feet in the port side of the ship, tearing apart sailors waiting for lunch. The modern man-of-war was gaping open like a gutted animal."  

The savaging of the USS Cole on June 12, 2000 described by author Lawrence Wright in The Looming Tower when a boat laced with explosives killed seventeen U.S sailors and wounded thirty nine more in port of Aden was a watershed moment in the relationship between the United States and Yemen. The bombing occurred at a time during which attacks against U.S military and civilian targets by Al-Qa'ida were on rise before the catastrophic events of 9/11 which killed and maimed thousands of civilians on U.S soil. 

Nearly seventeen years later, the U.S military continues to hug the southern-most tip of the Arabian peninsula and the doorway to the Indian Ocean. This forgotten war, the forgotten crisis consuming Yemen, has struggled over the decades - even during the height of the 9/11 Wars -  to gain sustained scrutiny from the Western public. The current regional war entwining Iraq and Syria and stretching from the Euphrates to the cities of Tripoli and Benghazi in Libya has not helped the plight of Yemeni civilians. The USS Cole bombing marked a watershed moment in U.S involvement in Yemen, the beginning of a gradual increase in military operations inside the country. The country has had a chaotic 20th century, as 'the country was split apart by war when the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen began its rocky experience with secular socialism. The lines of this fracture were still evident in 1994, after the war.' [2] Decades of violence and instability has plauged Yemen since then, in a country where there are more guns then there are people. 

This insecurity and the socio-economic interests of Red Sea led to an increased presence of the military, a geographical point Colonel Turki Al-Anazi described as being "a Western area of interest and influence for a long time." 

"The Red Sea has been favoured with a prestigious position in American strategy as being important base for control and command of petroleum...the main artery that carries Arabian Gulf oil to Western states. Their strategic interests are basically centered on the use of the naval facilities on the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean to support military operations either in peacetime or wartime." 

With Egypt neutralised after the Yom Kippur, who had previously been enemies with Israel and whose encroachment and blockade of shipping to Israel's Red Sea port Eilat was one factor contributing to the Six Day War (1967), the U.S also used this strategic point to contain the Soviet Union. In modern times, the threat of Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and piracy in Somalia serves as a purpose which allows NATO to maintain its presence there. The rise of the Houthis in Yemen - seen as a proxy of Iran - threatens U.S political, military and economic interests. Curbing this perceived encroachment is critical to U.S and its regional allies, particularly Saudi Arabia which lies to the north of the country.

The U.S has gradually expanded it reach into Yemen since the 2000. In November, 2002, 'top Bush administration officials publicly announced a successful Predator strike against an Al-Qa'ida target', Qaeda Salim Sinan al-Harethi, suspected to have supported the operations for the USS Cole bombing. Since the first drone strike in Yemen, American involvement in Yemen has been ratcheted up by President Barack Obama and subsequently President Donald Trump on the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. If Iraq and Afghanistan was the Bush administration's debacle, Libya, Pakistan Syria, and Yemen have joined the unfinished conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and have consumed President Obama and President Trump's presidencies. While the Bush administration utilised torture, the Obama and Trump administration's utilise assassinations (de-facto extra-judicial killings), drone warfare and Joint Special Forces Operations (JSOC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to conduct raids and paramilitary operations worldwide with broad authority. 

The military footprints of counter-terrorism have shrunk yet their crudeness remains and branches such as JSOC have expanded. Yemen has become a demonstration of the fallacy of Western current policy in the Middle East as special operations, the Predator Wars and systematic cruise missile strikes in Yemen have turned its civilians against the United States and Yemen's various government which tacitly approve these strikes. According to the Drone Papers, leaked documents published by The Intercept'178 drone strikes were carried out between 2011-2015 killing 490 people, strikes which were being carried out at a rate of six strikes a week in 2012.' This was a clear escalation by the U.S involvement in the country to counter AQAP. Before President Obama took office there has been one U.S. drone strike in Yemen. 

As expanded upon by Alice Ross from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, these came with very clear costs. In al-Majala, fifty-eight people were killed including forty civilians by a cruise missile strike (December, 2009) and at Rada'a (September 2, 2012), where a drone strike killed fourteen civilians on board a mini-bus who were mistaken for an Al-Qa'ida operative, Abdelraouf al-Dahab. In the aftermath of the strike in 2009, the U.S ambassador to Yemen apparently said that the then-President Saleh was not "overly concerned" with civilian casualties while General David Petraeus (who spear-headed the U.S Surge in Iraq (which proved ineffectual in the long-term)) was reported to have said "The only civilians killed were a wife and two children of an AQAP operative." In reality, following confirmation of the existence of U.S missile fragments at the site by WikiLeaks and a Yemeni government investigation it appeared forty one civilians had died, "twelve were women, five were pregnant and twenty-two were children."

 A Predator Drone grounded at a U.S military base.

A Predator Drone grounded at a U.S military base.

As Ross asserts, "the in-depth investigation the al-Majala and Rada'a strikes received is a rarity...the toxic perception of the United States as an unaccountable force that inflict heavy civilian casualties without explanation...fuels anti-American sentiment in the country" and anger against the former government of Abdrabnuh Mansur Hadi. Most of the U.S bombings in Yemen have largely passed without investigation, been denied by U.S officials and the true extent of those killed and wounded swept under by successive administrations. 

The true cost of hell-fire missiles "incinerating victims or killing them with flying shrapnel or powerful blast waves capable of crushing internal organs and survivors often suffering painful wounds and disfiguring burns, limb amputations, vision and hearing loss" do not prompt nearly as much public outrage as conventional bombings and interventions in the Western states. The residents met by Medea Benjamin who suffer from poor sleep, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, who use anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications or in the worst case commit suicide due to the constant stress of drones buzzing overhead day and night are also forgotten in the United States war in Yemen. 

Predator Drones are sold by policymakers as a clean solution, "exceptionally surgical and precise," an alternative to boots on the ground and putting Western soldiers at direct risk in the Middle Eastern wars and specific targets are eliminated while minimising the potential civilian casualties which come with bombings. 

The current turmoil of Yemen and its people and the country's descent into revolution and civil war discards this flawed hypothesis. The Saudi Arabian military intervention in March, 2015 created a dire humanitarian crisis and exacerbated the cycle of violence which began to grip Yemen in the aftermath of its revolution following the beginning of Arab Revolutions. Thousands of innocent civilians have been indiscriminately killed and wounded by Saudi airstrikes, cluster bombs and lethal explosive devices supplied by the UK, USA, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain who, according to Amnesty International, have sold armaments to Saudi Arabia worth more than $25 billion in 2015. According to Salon, 'between 2010 to 2014, the U.S. sold more than $90 billion in weapons to the Saudi regime. In October 2015, the Obama administration approved over $11 billion more. Less than three days after the November Paris attacks, the U.S. sold another $1.3 billion of bombs to Saudi Arabia.' It has been systematically proven by numerous human rights groups and non-governmental organisations that these weapons have been used against civilians in Yemen. Direct and indirect, this is another U.S war in the Middle East. 

The increased involvement and extra-judicial killings by drones have not yielded practical results for security in Western capitals which policymakers so desire. The January 2015 ÃŽle-de-France attacks which killed 17 civilians were directly connected to Al-Qa'ida's operations in Yemen. Saïd Kouachi, one of the assailants who massacred employees at Charlie Hebdo magazine visited Yemen between 2009 and 2010 before spending several months in 2011 training with AQAP. 

In the twilight of President Obama's tenure, the escalation continued when a navy destroyer directed cruise missile strikes against three radar sites controlled by Houthi rebels on October 14-15, 2017. In the words of journalist Moustafa Bayoumi, "this attack marked the first time the U.S. fought rebels directly involved in the civil war." This occurred within the same a week of the Saudi Arabian military bombing a funeral, the results of which killed 140 civilians and wounded over 500 more using U.S military equipment. 

Under Donald Trump, U.S military involvement in Yemen has deepened. However, as Bayoumi wrote during the vicious 2016 U.S election, "the Trump show has managed to bump all the serious and necessary policy debates not just off the table but out of the room." This lack of clarity and direction on Middle Eastern policy was on display almost immediately in Yemen in February, 2017 during the Yakla raid in January.

The operation was intended to target and kill the leader of AQAP, Qasmi al-Raymi who had established an emirate along the coastline of Yemen in 2016. The manoeuvre against Yemen's economic centres along the coastline in the form of Mukalla, Shaqra, Zinjibar, Jaar and Ash Shihr produced an estimated at $2 - $5 million in revenue per day through oil smuggling, taxes and tariffs on shipping until pro-Saudi forces pushed AQAP out of the city later in 2016.

 U.S Special Forces

U.S Special Forces

The Yakla raid led by CENTCOM (U.S Central Command) and JSOC and conducted by U.S Navy Seals resulted in the death of a U.S Seal, William Owens and the injury of three other soldiers. The raid on paper reads as a terrible raid during the Vietnam in the hunt for Viet Cong guerrillas; The Bureau for Investigative Journalism investigation showed that 25-30 civilians were killed, nine of whom were children under the age of 13,  the youngest being a three-month-old baby. The villages' livestock were slaughtered and the village bombarded by US support aircraft as a fire fight broke out between Al-Qai'da militants and Special Forces. 

Following the Yakla debacle - one which remains under investigation - The Independent has noted that under the command of President Trump has struck the country with 70 airstrikes between March and April - more than twice the number for all of 2016

The war for Yemen and the fall-out of its revolution, particularly the Saudis monopolisation of trade, blockade and draconian bombing campaign, are having devastating consequences for tens of millions of Yemeni men, women and children. Geo-political rivalries and the U.S proxy war with Iran has assisted in pushing Yemen forgotten crisis to the brink. 14.3 million civilians (55 per cent of the population) are food insecure, 1 in 3 Yemeni civilians are threatened by severe acute malnutrition and 463,000 children under five face the immediate threat of death by starvation. Millions are IDPs (internally displaced persons). 

With relative impunity, Saudi airstrikes have targeted hospitals, mass protests, and critical infrastructure including roads, bridges, hospitals and food and water supplies. These actions have obliterated Yemen's economy, the most important one being agriculture. Before these events consistent political, economic and ecological marginalisation and exploitation of rural areas' in Yemen have pushed rural people into poverty and food insecurity as illustrated by Rami Zurayk and Anne Gough: 

"Spurred by the World Bank, the Yemeni government unilaterally cut subsidies for fuel and other basic necessities in 2005, despite the fact that about half the Yemeni populations lives under the poverty line and the majority of the population spends 60 per cent of their income on food. Such a measure avoided any necessary voting or passage of legislation in Parliament. Between 2009 - 2011...the number of food-insecure households doubled and child malnutrition was at almost 50 percent in 2014...75 per cent were dependent on tenant farming." (Rami Zurayk and Anne Gough, The New Middle East, 120-121)

Elites profited in Yemen and left their civilians dependent on them for subsidies. The outbreak of revolution highlighted the fallacy of these rash socio-economic policies and the onset of civil war worsened this food crisis while the Saudi-intervention provided the final push needed to assure the mass-starvation of the Yemeni people. War has acted as a catalyst as poverty, high levels of malnutrition, and food crisis prevalent in the country before revolution and conflict have inflated dramatically. 

The U.S can ill-afford to be drawn into another major Middle Eastern conflict, nor can President Donald Trump afford what would be a dismal public relations disaster if hundreds of thousands of dead Yemeni civilians dying from a potential famine start appearing on Riyadh's doorstep, courtesy of its bloody entanglement in Yemen.

The expansion of U.S counterterrorism operations inside Yemen into open conflict with the Yemeni rebels and factions on both sides of spectrum including the Houthis, AQAP and ISIS will hurt U.S security, its political and military interests and its local allies in Yemen. The drone strikes feed the propaganda machine of Al-Qai'da and ISIS and have strengthened its foothold on Yemen while the instability provoked by Saudi-led bombing and civil war has allowed the organisation to thrive in the disorder. AQAP is winning hearts and minds in Yemen while the U.S counterterrorism operations are alienating it as it bombs the very people who despise the Al-Qa'ida and ISIS sub-cells; the Houthis, Shiite rebels and, most importantly, innocent Yemeni civilians. 

Yemen, a Middle Eastern Tuscany, renowned for its delicious honey is not the first country to be on the receiving end of the United States' brutal wars across the Greater Middle East. However, war in Yemen (without contemplating the extra-judicial killings, Saudi war crimes, human rights violations, the horror of torture, and the terrorism) when examined through the lens of U.S geo-political interests appears non-sensical. War against the Houthi rebels is pushing them closer to Iran, particularly when the Western states continue to unyieldingly support Saudi policies which have destroyed the country and whose volatile and contradictory relationship with Salafi-jihādists and ultra-violent proxies in Iraq and Syria is well-known. 

Replicating this deadly blue-print and "compounding the regional chaos by blundering into little-understood Yemen, as an auxiliary of Saudi Wahhabism" will worsen regional war and the Shiite-Sunni schism engulfing the Middle East. America's forgotten war and Yemen's silent crisis will return to haunt Western policymakers. 


Matthew C.K Williams