The Trump administration’s approach to Yemen—home to the world’s most dangerous Al-Qaeda franchise (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP)—is still a work in progress. But early indications suggest a militarized policy that could further complicate the devastating conflict there and give AQAP a new lease on life.
In the wake of national security advisor Michael Flynn’s resignation less than four weeks into his tenure, the appointment of a new national security advisor provides President Donald Trump with an opportunity for a much-needed course correction, including one on Yemen.
On January 29, an American commando raid against an AQAP compound in Yakla went awry, leading to the deaths of perhaps two-dozen civilians including ten children and a Navy SEAL. The mission, which Senator John McCain deemed a “failure,” cannot be blamed solely on Trump, since Pentagon planners briefed the mission up their chain of command all the way to the White House.
But the failed raid is a piece in a larger mosaic. During last year’s presidential campaign, candidate Trump famously advocated “tak[ing] out the families” of terrorists. Whereas the Obama administration urged restraint in the nearly two-year-old Saudi war in Yemen and pushed for an international settlement, the Trump administration has yet to signal interest in a renewed diplomatic initiative and is reportedly moving towards approval of weapons sales to Riyadh, which had been paused out of concern for growing civilian casualties.
There might be some temptation, too, to see Yemen as a piece in a get-tough approach to Iran. But “officially put[ting] Iran on notice,” as Flynn described it in a February 1 press release, is easier said than done. In Syria, Iran and Hezbollah have partnered with a Russia upon whose leader Trump continues to shower praise; in Iraq, Iranian-backed militias form a crucial component of the ground forces fighting the Islamic State in Mosul. Indeed, Flynn issued a second press statement just two days later referring to the Houthis—the armed organization formally known as Ansar Allah, which captured Sanaa in September 2014 prompting the Saudi-led military intervention in March 2015—as a “terrorist proxy group” of Iran, going further than either the Obama administration or the Saudi government had.
There is a problem with a simultaneous American escalation against both AQAP and the Houthis. It won’t work. Because AQAP and the Houthis are adversaries in a complex civil war, whose continuation fuels both groups, Trump’s nascent approach is likely only to further Yemen’s misery and empower America’s adversaries.
The Saudi-led campaign in Yemen has occasionally targeted AQAP, such as its dislodgement from the southeastern town of Mukallah in April 2016 by Emirati and local forces. But this has been the exception, far from the front lines, rather than the rule. Where the Houthis are entrenched, AQAP forces are more frequently embedded with the complex array of local militias fighting against them. A May 2016 U.S. Treasury designation of senior terrorist fundraisers and facilitators is evidence of this: One of the designees, a senior AQAP member named Nayif Salih Salim al-Qaysi, was the sitting governor of Al-Bayda province, appointed by Saudi-backed Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi himself.
AQAP’s expansion over the last half-decade shows the limits of a narrow military approach. The New America Foundation estimates that the American air campaign against AQAP has killed between 1,000 and 1,250 militants in Yemen since 2009. But during that same timeframe, according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group, AQAP has taken advantage of state collapse, sectarianism, and civil war to become “stronger than it has ever been,” having grown from several hundred fighters to roughly 4,000 today.
The State Department admitted as much in its most recent annual terrorism report, published last June: “AQAP benefitted during 2015 from the conflict in Yemen by significantly expanding its presence in the southern and eastern governorates. Despite losing a number of senior leaders during 2015, the group was able to increase its recruiting and expand its safe haven in Yemen. It also insinuated itself among multiple factions on the ground, which has made it more difficult to counter.”
That is not to argue against American military force against AQAP, given the organization’s so far unsuccessful high-profile attacks against the United States, such as the plan to bring down a passenger plane by the Christmas 2009 “underwear” bomber and the foiled October 2010 attempt on two FedEx cargo planes. But so long as the civil war in Yemen continues, Trump is unlikely to be more successful than his predecessor in defeating AQAP.
The Obama administration was ambivalent about the Saudi intervention and privately counseled caution. But in the end, in part to assuage Saudi concerns about the July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, Washington reluctantly went along with the campaign, providing extensive logistical and intelligence support, air-to-air refueling, plus arms sales worth more than $22 billion. This proved a costly mistake.
The United Nations estimates more than 4,000 civilians have been killed and 3 million displaced from their homes since the conflict began. According to UNICEF, 60,000 children died in 2016 of preventable causes associated with malnutrition and 2 million Yemini children suffer from acute malnutrition.
While the Yemenis have borne the brunt of this tragedy, the campaign has hardly improved Saudi Arabia’s security. After nearly two years of fighting, the threat of rockets and missiles to Saudi border towns and cities has not been eliminated. Military costs have been estimated at $200 million a day, with no end in sight. If Saudi Arabia had hoped to project strength with regard to Iran, the resulting quagmire has instead done the opposite.
After successive rounds of UN talks collapsed last August, then-secretary of state John Kerry made a late diplomatic push, including a short-lived November ceasefire between the Saudi coalition and Houthi forces. But the Hadi government rejected the Kerry initiative, presumably because it would have led to the formation of a caretaker government after the withdrawal of Houthi forces from Sanaa. With the United Nations’ efforts discredited, and the Trump administration signaling little diplomatic initiative, the prospect of a political settlement seems low.
That’s tragic, because in many ways, the conflict in Yemen appears less intractable than the Syrian killing fields. Unlike Syria’s brutal authoritarianism, Yemen has a history of political accommodation and local reconciliation. The Yemeni conflict is less complicated geopolitically and lacks the mass sectarian violence of Syria. And Washington has significant leverage stemming from the Saudi dependence upon the U.S. military for logistical and intelligence support.
As “Arab Fractures,” Carnegie’s comprehensive new report on drivers of instability in the Middle East, argued, the spread of sectarianism, radicalization, and terrorism cannot be understood—let alone countered—without understanding the catastrophic institutional failures which gave rise to them in the first place. The failure of the January 29 raid is a warning on the need for a more holistic American approach to Yemen, based on the urgent need to find a political solution that de-escalates and eventually resolves the fighting there.