What's Really at Stake for America in Yemen's Conflict

As the Trump administration navigates the risks of escalation, there’s a real danger it will get the calculus wrong.

Pro-government fighters gather next to a tank they use in the fighting against Houthi fighters in the southwestern city of Taiz, Yemen, on March 22, 2017.
Pro-government fighters gather next to a tank they use in the fighting against Houthi fighters in the southwestern city of Taiz, Yemen, on March 22, 2017

by Andrew Exum

What the hell is going on in Yemen?

That’s a question a lot of people have been asking themselves ever since a Navy SEAL was lost in a raid on al-Qaeda in Yemen and the Trump administration authorized a furious barrage of strikes against targets there. Now, The Washington Post reports, the Trump administration is considering further escalating U.S. involvement in the country even as the United States weighs whether additional intervention in Syria is warranted.

Because there are actually three conflicts playing out in Yemen—all of which grew out of a civil war that began in 2015—it’s easy to get confused by what the administration may be doing. First, there is the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, now in its third bloody year. Partially nested within this first conflict is the Iranian campaign in Yemen, which, according to the U.S. military, has led to the introduction of anti-ship weaponry that imperils global trade and freedom of commerce through the Bab al-Mandeb strait—which separates the Arabian peninsula from the Horn of Africa—and threatens to internationalize an already terrible situation. Finally, there is the U.S.-led campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which began to ramp up again in the last year of the Obama administration and which has gathered momentum in the first few months of the Trump administration.

I’ll spend some time on each conflict, but let me cut to the chase: I assess the Trump administration is trying to intensify its efforts to counter al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Houthi maritime threat because those efforts are in the interests of the United States. But the Trump administration will try to do so in such a way as to convince both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—the two most important U.S. partners in the Gulf—that the United States takes seriously their fears about spreading Iranian influence, and in a manner that might allow the Saudi-led coalition a path to climb down from the mess it’s gotten into in Yemen. Escalating the conflict in a way that encourages more Saudi-led offensives would be a mistake, and there’s a real danger the Trump administration gets its calculus wrong in this regard.

The Saudi Campaign in Yemen

Let’s start with the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis. This conflict has been a disaster for the people of both Yemen and southern Saudi Arabia. It shows little sign of ending soon. Saudi Arabia has not been able to translate its billions of dollars of defense expenditures into a satisfactory political outcome, which, to be fair, is a situation in which the United States has also often found itself in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia’s allies—most notably the United Arab Emirates—have nonetheless thrown themselves behind the principal author of the Saudi campaign, the deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohamed bin Salman. Prince Mohamed is very young, barely into his 30s, yet has pushed his country toward an ambitious plan to modernize both Saudi Arabia’s economy as well as its military. If Prince Mohamed is successful doing even a third of what he aspires to accomplish, he could succeed his elderly father and be the king of Saudi Arabia for half a century. Saudi Arabia’s neighbors reason King Mohamed will remember who stood with him in his moment of greatest need.

Many U.S. partners, and especially the Emiratis, who have forged a close partnership with Prince Mohamed, are also pushing the United States to invest in its relationship with him—which may help explain the red-carpet treatment he got on his visit to the United States in March. At his meeting with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis in his capacity as the Saudi minister of defense, for example, no fewer than five high-ranking White House officials were present: National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, Deputy National Security Advisor Dina Powell, and Middle East adviser Derek Harvey. I sat in on numerous meetings between former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Prince Mohamed in 2015 and 2016, and although the Obama administration is often criticized for micromanagement (with some justification), I never recall a single White House official, never mind five, sitting in on any Pentagon bilateral meetings. Part of this high-level involvement may reflect the power struggle within the White House and the feeling among the many competing centers of power there that they can’t afford to be seen missing a key meeting. But it might also reflect a persistent lobbying campaign from the Emiratis and others to persuade the Trump administration to invest early and heavily in a relationship with Prince Mohamed.

The Obama administration couldn’t make up its mind on the Saudi campaign in Yemen. On the one hand, it didn’t want to encourage what it thought to be a misguided campaign that showed little promise of decisive victory. On the other hand, it didn’t want to wreck its relationship with Saudi Arabia—or the UAE, whose pluck and military power senior Obama administration officials from the president on down admired. So the Obama administration pressed the Departments of Defense and State to continue delivering precision-guided munitions and aerial refueling to the Saudi-led coalition, while working with the Royal Saudi Air Force to adopt the same kinds of best practices the U.S. Air Force had used to minimize civilian casualties in the war against the Islamic State. The Saudis were eager students, but as we at the Pentagon often explained to our exasperated colleagues at the White House each time an errant (or deliberate) Saudi bomb killed Yemeni civilians, the deficiencies in the Royal Saudi Air Force at the operational level were glaring, and it was hard to rebuild the proverbial airplane while it was in the air.

The Obama administration couldn’t make up its mind on the Saudi campaign in Yemen.
The performance of the Saudis reflected poorly on the Department of Defense in particular: Although individual Saudi pilots had often performed well flying as part of U.S.-led coalitions, decades of U.S. training missions had not produced a Saudi military capable of independently planning and executing an effective air campaign that minimized collateral damage. And however much Saudi air forces struggled, Saudi ground forces labored even harder, trying and repeatedly failing to prevent or even counter Houthi ground excursions across the border.

In the end, no one in the Obama White House seemed able to answer whether or not we wanted to help the Saudis win their conflict in Yemen. We did just enough to earn the enmity of the human-rights community and members of Congress concerned about civilian casualties, yet not enough to enable conflict termination. Meeting after meeting chaired by the White House focused on the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Yemen—and deteriorate it surely did—while very little thought was given to the idea that the humanitarian situation was not the result of a hurricane or some other natural disaster but the result of a conflict that we ourselves could affect.

The Post now reports the Trump administration is poised to do what we in the Obama administration would not: enable the only competent force in the Saudi-led coalition—the Emiratis—to seize the port of Hodeida on Yemen’s western coast. If I had any confidence this would hasten conflict termination, I would support this, but I fear it will not.

The Houthi maritime threat

Iran takes advantage of conflicts having nothing to do with Iran to bring in capabilities and weapons that threaten Iran’s adversaries. This was true during the Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon, during which Iran built Hezbollah, and it was true after the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, when Iran built Iraqi Shia militias and engineered the infamous explosively formed projectiles that killed hundreds of U.S. servicemen.

If the conflict in Yemen started as an intra-Yemen struggle for power, Iran has apparently been only too happy to get involved, according to the U.S. military. The U.S. Navy and its coalition partners have intercepted numerous Iranian arms shipments to Yemen, and U.S. naval commanders have pointed the finger squarely at Iran for the appearance of anti-ship cruise missiles in Yemen.

There are two things going on here. First, freedom of navigation in and around the Arabian Peninsula is under threat, and this should be unacceptable to U.S. policymakers and strategists. Contrary to what you might expect, America doesn’t have a lot of vital interests in the Middle East, as I told a congressional committee a few weeks ago, but one interest around which U.S. Middle East policy has been built for decades has been access to hydrocarbon resources in the Gulf—or at least ensuring those hydrocarbon resources can make it to the market. Toward the end of the Obama administration, I thought we were much to slow to publicly reaffirm what should have been a red line for us and then act once that red line had been crossed. (I know, I know: We weren’t so hot on red lines in the Middle East.)

The second thing going on here is that whoever has been running Iran’s Yemen policy has been doing so without a lot of adult supervision. If the war in Iraq and Syria sucks up a lot of U.S. resources—both in terms of military and intelligence resources but also the time and attention of policy-makers—that has left Yemen a back-burner issue for Americans, it’s a safe bet the same is true for Iran. I personally assess the Qods Force—Iran’s primary means for mischief-making in the region—to be a pretty top-heavy organization that suffers when its commander Qassem Soleimani can’t devote his time and attention to an issue. Soleimani has been busy in Syria and Iraq, so it’s a safe bet he hasn’t paid attention to what’s been going on in Yemen.

And that’s a big problem. As much ink as has been spilled about the morass the United States or Saudi Arabia have stumbled into in Yemen, Iran is in danger is getting into an even bigger mess. The vast majority of the 1,400 commercial vessels that pass through the Bab al-Mandeb on a monthly basis coming from or going to the Suez Canal are not American: They are Asian and European. If Iran wanted to really step on its crank with the international community, a good way to start would be by having a poorly supervised Iranian proxy sink a commercial vessel in these waters.

That’s also why a U.S. military response, though, should be only a small part of the broader international response to what Iran is doing. The first thing the United States should do is pressure a broad coalition of nations with commercial interests in the Bab al-Mandeb to pound on doors in Tehran telling the regime to knock it off. If only the United States had a secretary of state who had previously served as the head of a large multinational energy company and who should intuitively recognize the dangers to U.S. interests and the global energy markets here. I mean, this problem couldn’t be any more in Rex Tillerson’s wheelhouse if he designed it himself. If he lets the United States completely militarize the solution to this of all things, he really is failing to provide his value to this president’s national security team.

The war against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

That leads us to the final conflict in Yemen: the fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The biggest problem with the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen is that it has distracted both the United States and its key partners—namely, the Emiratis—from the fight against AQAP, one of the few al-Qaeda franchises with the demonstrated will and capability to strike the United States, as evidenced by the group’s indefatigable ability to inconvenience airline passengers in new and inventive ways.

During the Obama administration, we were forever complaining to our Saudi and Emirati partners that their quixotic adventure in Yemen was buying time and space for AQAP to only grow stronger. And while we were not willing to help our Gulf friends bomb the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, we were more than willing to help them counter AQAP. So we attempted to ease the disappointment for our lack of support for a more aggressive campaign against the Houthis by making it clear that we would support our partners where our interests aligned, such as in the fight against Sunni extremism.

In late spring of 2016, U.S. military forces partnered with the Emiratis to seize the port city of Mukalla. The operation was successful, and U.S. planners immediately began working with their Emirati counterparts to do more. A broad concept of operations was developed and briefed to the outgoing Obama administration, which punted on a decision to support such an operation to the incoming administration. (My colleagues in the Obama White House—most notably Vice President Biden’s national security advisor—ridiculed later Trump administration efforts to claim the Obama administration had planned the raid that killed a Navy SEAL, which was a blatant falsehood.)

Where now?

It appears as if the Trump administration is poised to escalate all three of the conflicts described above. More fully backing the Saudi-led campaign carries the most risk. On the one hand, those now in the Trump administration would have noticed the way in which the Obama administration’s halfhearted support to the Saudi-led coalition pleased no one: The Saudis and Emiratis felt betrayed, and critics in the Congress and the human-rights community criticized the administration as if it had been carrying out the campaign itself. Worse, diplomatic efforts to convince the Saudis and Emiratis to climb down from their position were unsuccessful. It’s entirely possible and even reasonable that Trump administration officials have concluded the Saudis and Emiratis have to feel the administration is serious about their security needs to climb down in Yemen.

On the other hand, there were good reasons the Obama administration didn’t more forcefully support the Saudi-led coalition. The first is that many U.S. counterterrorism resources, including military and intelligence assets, are dedicated to destroying the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. It’s not as if the United States has a lot of spare capacity it can suddenly divert to helping the Saudis and Emiratis win in Yemen, not with another war to be won, and not with North Korea rattling its rusty sabers elsewhere. And second, help is what the Saudis and Emiratis will most certainly need: The Saudi military, in particular, has been exposed as a paper tiger by the Yemen conflict. Again, we rock-throwing Americans live in a glass house in this regard: Our own military, The Greatest in the World History, was humbled in both Iraq and Afghanistan by forces not much more advanced than the Houthis. But I struggle to see how the Saudi-led coalition can terminate this conflict through military means—and without some kind of embarrassing climb-down. I hope I’m wrong, and if the Trump administration thinks it’s found a way for a successful assault on Hodeida to hasten the end of the conflict, great, but I fear that if a good answer to this conflict existed, it would have been found by now.

If Rex Tillerson can’t pull off organizing the kind of multilateral pressure that can get the Iranians to stop moving anti-ship missiles into Yemen, though, I frankly want a refund of my tax dollars, because his salary will be a waste of them. That diplomatic effort should be paired with military activities to counter the threat to commercial and military shipping through the Bab al-Mandeb, beginning with more intrusive reconnaissance of the threat: Iran has to understand that Americans will fight—and die, if necessary—to protect freedom of navigation around the Arabian Peninsula.

Our Saudi and Emirati partners should see that we’re now taking Iran’s activities in Yemen seriously and take that as their cue to de-escalate their own campaign. During the early days of the Obama administration, Obama and his Pentagon successfully deterred Israel from taking actions to retard Iran’s nuclear program: “We’ve got this,” was the message. (And we did, in fact, have this.) That same message should now be given to our closest Gulf partners regarding Iran. After the nuclear deal with Iran, we in the Obama administration no longer had the credibility to deliver it—an annoying fact given the 35,000 American troops who currently sit in or offshore Sunni Arab Gulf states protecting them from Iran. The Trump administration can. But it will have to do so in a way that doesn’t suck the United States in further to a hopeless war that has already brought far too much suffering to the people of the region.


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