Failed state: The US counterinsurgency strategy in Yemen

Since 9/11, US foreign policy in Yemen has focused exclusively on eradicating the threat of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

July 14, 2015 21:52
3 minute read.
Sanaa Yemen

A worker searches through the rubble after Saudi-led strikes targeted the old city of Sanaa, Yemen. (photo credit: MOHAMMED HUWAIS/ AFP PHOTO)


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For decades, Yemen has been on the brink of economic and political collapse. Today, with no functioning government, a severely crippled economy and a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Yemen is a failed state. Since 9/11, US foreign policy in Yemen has focused exclusively on eradicating the threat of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the deadliest branches of the terrorist organization. The result? The beleaguered country increasingly resembles Somalia, including internal armed conflicts among rival factions and a major humanitarian crisis.

Four years earlier, millions of Yemenis took to the streets of major cities throughout the country demanding an end to poverty, protesting political repression, the neglect of public services, and social exclusion. Led by the country’s most disenfranchised groups, women and youth, the uprising resulted in the overthrow of president Ali Abdullah Saleh, a dictator who during his 33-year rule had amassed billions of dollars in wealth skimmed from Yemen’s oil revenues while the majority of Yemenis continued to live in abject poverty.

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Once Saleh stepped down, a two-year transition plan developed by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the regional grouping of Arabian Gulf states, was launched providing the country with a strategy for democratic reform. The transition plan, which included the long-awaited National Dialogue on constitutional reform, and preparations for a presidential election in 2015, was a model for the Middle East as most countries in the region following the Arab Spring struggled with democratic transition and consolidation.

As post-revolution Yemen continued to face daunting challenges such as a separatist movement in the south, the expansion of AQAP within its borders and the decade-long Houthi insurgency, there were promising developments such as the completion of the National Dialogue Conference with recommendations for reforming state institutions and addressing social justice and policy issues. Even though there remained questions about state structure and the future status of southern Yemen, the National Dialogue marked a critical step for the fledgling democracy.
Despite the positive changes in Yemen, the US continued implementing the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy. The American government spent millions of dollars in efforts to bolster the credibility of the government of Yemen, beginning in 2010 with president Saleh, despite his corrupt and despotic rule, and train Yemeni troops to capture and kill AQAP militants while the US carried out drone attacks. There was simply no way to counter insurgents in Yemen based on the COIN model with a government that lacked legitimacy and was not supported by the majority of citizens.

Even following the revolution when Yemen embraced democracy, rather than support the difficult transition the COIN model proved ineffective in eradicating AQAP and may have created an additional burden for a government struggling with a myriad of economic, political and social issues. But the failure of the COIN strategy in Yemen should have not have come as a surprise given its negligible results in Iraq and Afghanistan. Good governance simply cannot be achieved within 24 months, which was the timeframe laid out in the COIN strategy in Yemen.

When the Houthis carried out a coup d’etat in January, the US stood by as Saudi Arabia, a country ruled by an autocratic regime with a dismal human rights record and very little interest in seeing democracy flourish in the region, launched in late March what has proven to be a disastrous air war that has killed more than 3,000 civilians. The Saudi-led bombing campaign has done little to weaken the Houthis and is instead creating a severe humanitarian crisis with millions of Yemenis facing food insecurity and displacement. AQAP has taken advantage of the security vacuum, capturing towns, freeing jailed members and looting banks.

Throughout the Middle East, the US missed the opportunity during the Arab Spring to champion human rights and support reform based on the democratic aspirations of the people, which is unfortunate given that it is exactly the kind of counter narrative the region needs to stop the growing influence of violent extremism and terrorism.

The author is the executive director of a women’s rights organization in New York and worked on US government-funded development programs in Yemen from 2008 to 2013.

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