Yemen is engaged in a process of military reform aimed at unifying the command of its divided and demoralized military and building a more professional force that can help stabilize the country. The nine-month-old government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi is trying to get a handle on a vast and powerful network of forces that has had a grip on the country for decades.
The reforms are part and parcel of the Gulf Initiative, a Gulf Cooperation Council and United Nations political settlement package that accompanied the resignation of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The package also includes the establishment of a two-year transitional National Consensus Government, which held its first cabinet meeting on December 10, 2011, and a widely inclusive national dialogue conference to pave the way for constitutional reforms and new elections to be held by February 2014.
The outcome of these reforms will strongly influence the country’s political transition. Success will mark a major step in Yemen’s road to recovery following the Arab Spring. Failure will push the country, already torn apart by multiple violent conflicts, toward implosion, with grave consequences for regional and international security. In the end, it will come down to whether the post-Saleh central government in Sanaa can break the military’s deep-seated ties to powerful tribal networks and bolster the state’s economy.
That is because, in contrast to the perceptions and expectations of Yemen’s revolutionary forces, reforming the military is far more complex than quickly removing a few individuals and sending units that are currently spread throughout Yemen’s capital and main cities back to their barracks. Yemen’s process of military reforms will be a long operation that goes hand in hand with progress on the national economy and with a shift away from a reliance on management through conflict, which has been Yemen’s approach over the last three decades to the politics of reconciliation and state building.
Hadi Moves to Take Control
Since Saleh’s symbolic departure from office in February 2012, there has been growing concern among his opponents that without the removal of his relatives and other loyalists from their senior positions, the former regime will continue to exert influence behind the scenes. Indeed, some fear that Saleh may even use his tightly knit family and clan network inside the military to spearhead a counterrevolution.
In April, Hadi made an attempt to consolidate control over this vast network. Twenty of Saleh’s relatives and loyalists, including one nephew and two half brothers, were removed from their leadership posts inside the military by presidential decree. But opposition parties and revolutionary forces remain focused on the removal of two particular family members. The first is Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, a brigadier who heads Yemen’s most powerful military force, the Republican Guard. The second is Saleh’s nephew, Yahya, who is also a brigadier and the chief of staff of the Central Security Forces, a paramilitary force that includes a counterterrorism unit.
A few months later, in August, Hadi moved to restructure the forces. He issued presidential decrees numbers 32 and 33, ordering the downsizing of the number of Republican Guard brigades. This came in response to continuous pressure from the main opposition groups—the Joint Meeting Parties and Yemen’s Revolutionary Forces—which announced their reluctance to participate in the planned national dialogue conference unless the transitional government took tangible steps to restructure the military.
President Hadi also ordered the formation of a new military force that would be under his direct control, the Presidential Protective Forces. According to Hadi’s decree 32, the new force will be comprised of three brigades taken away from Ahmed Ali’s Republican Guard and one brigade from the First Armored Division, led by General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar.
President Hadi’s decrees fall short of the core demand of the opposition to remove the son and nephew of former president Saleh. But this is a tactful and well-calculated move. It weakens the former regime’s grip on the military without causing too many waves. Still, both the opposition and the government must realize that reform must go much further than simply reshuffling the top leadership positions.
The Brigadier and the General
Part of the complexity of the situation on the ground stems from the competition between two powerful military men—Brigadier Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh at the helm of the Republican Guard and General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who commands the troops of the First Armored Division. These two men are locked in a power struggle that is unfolding outside of government control. They are able to bypass the Ministry of Defense and enjoy full independent control over all the affairs of their units. The post–Arab Spring settling of accounts and the intensification of the clash of interests between the two influential military men ossified their relationship into a zero-sum strategy that leaves little room for maneuver.
One aspect of this struggle is the fight for the most strategic positions for their troops. That is, the physical location of the military’s barracks impacts the amount of authority the military leader has. And in this case, Brigadier Ahmed Ali has the upper hand.
He commands a formidable force of Republican Guard and Special Forces. By all standards, these forces are the best-trained and best-equipped elite units of Yemen’s military. The approximately 80,000-strong force possesses a massive arsenal of weapons and combines a unique mixture of military skills and structures acquired from the Iraqi Republican Guard during the era of Saddam Hussein, the Jordanian Special Forces, and U.S. counterinsurgency and counterterrorism advanced operational and logistical training during the last decade.
Unlike other military units, which are confined to particular fixed barracks in limited geographical zones, the Republican Guard is spread over most of Yemen’s 21 governorates. Its forces not only control the four main access points to Sanaa—Nehm, Jabal al-Taweel, Samaha of Arhab, and al-Sabaha—but also occupy the strategic mountaintops overlooking the capital.
Vying with Brigadier Ahmed Ali for military power is General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the iron fist of the Saleh regime who defected in March 2011 and deployed his troops to protect the antigovernment protesters. The forces of General Mohsen’s First Armored Division are weaker in terms of quantity and quality of firepower and offensive techniques than those of Ahmed Ali’s Republican Guard.
But Mohsen’s strength lies far beyond the camps of his military division. The powerful general has an extensive nationwide network of support within Yemen’s strong Islamist segment, which is the country’s largest and best-funded, -armed, and -mobilized opposition camp.
The State and the Soldiers
Clearly, the roots of Yemen’s issues with the military go beyond generals and brigadiers. The top military leaders are not the main holders and distributors of power and resources in the political arena.
In fact, throughout its modern history, the central authority in Yemen has seen its power limited by its military weakness. Yemen is a fragile and underdeveloped political entity—by all standards, it is the weakest state in the Middle East. It lacks the capacity and willingness to exercise control over society and fulfill core functions.
Meanwhile, the armed strength of the tribes has only grown over time. In order for the military to become a modernizing agent and bolster the state, the central government must take full control over the forces and create a new organizational and political culture inside the military.
But that is complicated by the strong links between the soldiers and the powerful tribal networks. Since the military victory of the northern regime over the southern regime in the 1994 civil war, Yemen’s channel of political communication between state and society has been constantly blocked by a military-tribal complex of patron-client relationships.
Yemen’s military is the country’s largest store of tribal power. The overwhelming majority of soldiers and officers in the military are soldiers by day, tribesmen by night. Superior commanders of the various units in the country’s armed forces are not influential unless they are bolstered by tribal power or close familial ties with the ruling regime. In Yemen’s military, persona, not rank, figures prominently.
The Yemeni mode of governance is marked by a delicate equilibrium of power and interests between the political authority in the capital city and the sheikhs of powerful clans and tribes of the northern Zaydi highlands. The majority of soldiers and officers in Yemen’s military are from clans and tribes of the country’s northern highlands, and throughout Yemen’s modern history, tribes of the northern highlands have provided Yemeni rulers with forces. So a colonel with affiliations in the Hashid tribal confederation in the northern highlands, for instance, may enjoy more influence and power inside and outside the military than a general with family roots in a village or town in the central, coastal, or southern provinces of the country.
Complicating matters further is the military’s lack of regimentation and discipline. Some senior officers, for instance, are both sheikhs of their clans and businessmen. This demonstrates a lack of control inside the military, underlying the difficulties the central government faces in gaining authority over a unified force. In addition, Yemen’s military is the largest employer in the country. The defense budget is estimated to be approximately 40–45 percent of the total government budget.
The Road Ahead
Over the last twenty months, the prolonged increase in volume, intensity, and diversity of nationwide violent unrest in Yemen has compounded this complex web of forces. The domestic political playing field has been further manipulated by the former regime, external actors, and a plethora of domestic armed nonstate actors. This has fed not only the divisions within the various forces of the military but also the atomization of power and authority in the vast tribal and rural areas of the country, where more than 70 percent of Yemenis live. Local communities outside the country’s major cities have become so politically polarized that dividing lines now cut sharply through each family, clan, tribe, confederation, organization, sect, and institution.
The situation is reaching a head. The central government, revolutionary forces, and international actors must grasp the complex dynamics surrounding Yemen’s military and avoid supporting measures that can further complicate the situation.
For instance, substantial downsizing of the military would be disastrous. Adding thousands of angry individuals with military training to Yemen’s huge unemployment lines may ignite serious unrest. It could also form a potential pool of recruits for militant jihadists, tribal militias, rebels, and criminal networks.
Rather, the key to successful military reform in Yemen is shoring up the country’s economy. Doing so will provide more employment options for potential military recruits. Once the military is no longer the primary source of employment for many of the country’s disenfranchised tribal people, the military-tribal complex will lose much of its power.
Furthermore, a positive transformation of state-solider relations can help bring an end to the old politically motivated marriage between Yemen’s military and the northern tribes of the highlands. One step that Yemen could take in this direction is ensuring that key military posts and promotions are no longer reserved, as they have traditionally been, for members of a particular clan, tribe, or confederation. The state could also invest in creating job opportunities for the youth in the northern and eastern tribal provinces of the country to weaken the draw of the military.
And to calm the ongoing power struggle within the military that prevents the central government from truly unifying the force, the state must address the positioning of military forces within the country. The locations of military barracks must be changed in such a way that they do not provide particular units with more power and control than the others. No force must be in a better strategic position than another. Troops that are scattered throughout the country, militarizing public life, must be sent back to the new barracks outside the capital.
Yemen’s opposition parties and revolutionary forces should be aware that restructuring and reforming the military is not a one-way street. Civilian authority over the military requires strong, effective, and responsive civilian institutions that are capable of limiting the role of the military to the sphere of protecting the state against threats to national security.
Khaled Fattah is a guest lecturer at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. He holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of St. Andrews.