Joana Cook, PhD candidate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and editor-in-chief of its peer-reviewed blog and journal, Strife.

Yemen’s security sector, much like its political system, has historically reflected the niche interests of its ruling elite, thriving on a system of patronage and corruption. It has also been used to promote personal political agendas, most significantly that of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. But the lack of independent government control over state security forces, which are now being used to advance the narrow interests of Saleh and the Houthis, is exacerbating the current conflict.

Security sector reform in Yemen is a long-term project that has not yet had the time or consensus to develop there. Historically, corruption has been rampant, particularly through the use of “ghost soldiers,” which often lined the pockets of unit commanders. Some estimates note that up to one-third of soldiers existed on paper only. There was also a lack of democratic oversight and civilian control of these forces, and units such as the Central Security Forces and the Counterterrorism Unit reported directly to the president, who would often use them to advance his own interests. Other problems included a lack of professionalization and unified command structure, a lack of separation between security agencies and political interests, and the use of the security forces to squash political dissent, as occurred during the 2011 protests.

In response to the 2011 unrest, the Gulf Cooperation Council established a Committee on Military Affairs for Achieving Security that same year. Subsequent UN Security Council resolutions, including UNSC 2014 (2011), called on the government to end the security forces’ attacks against civilians. Resolution 2051 (2012) emphasized restructuring the security and armed forces under a unified leadership, and reforming how senior appointments are made to the security sector and armed forces. The National Dialogue Conference, which commenced in March 2013, also had a working group dedicated to clarifying the role of security institutions within the state. Together, these measures emphasized a shift toward security policies that would be laid out by democratic leadership and would work in the interests of the population at large.

A number of important steps were also taken by President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi to realign security institutions with transitional concerns. In April 2012, twenty of Saleh’s relatives were removed from senior security sector positions in a move to transfer the security leadership to democratic, as opposed to familial, control. In August 2012, the Republican Guard was reduced and a new military unit, the Presidential Protective Forces, was formed from reassigned units of the Republican Guard and commanded by relatives of Saleh. The Presidential Protection Forces came under the direct jurisdiction of the presidency, and its establishment transferred a unit away from Major-General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and President Saleh’s son Ahmed—which helped to further minimize personal political control.
In December 2012, both the Republican Guard and the 1st Armored Division (Firqa) led by Ali Mohsen were fully disbanded so that forces could instead be organized on a regional basis. The Central Security Forces was renamed the Special Security Forces to try to distance itself from the previous unit, which had been controversial. An Inspector General’s Office was also established to address human rights, corruption, and police violations within the Ministry of Interior. However, renaming these institutions and replacing top leaders did not ultimately transfer troops’ and mid-level leadership’s loyalty and trust to the newly elected government. The security forces continue to be used to promote the narrow political interests of the ousted regime and its partners.

Far-reaching security sector reform—emphasizing civilian interests, policy-making control and oversight, the disengagement of security forces from personal political agendas, and the professionalization of forces—is integral to a lasting solution to Yemen’s current crisis. The draft constitution that was released in February 2015 provides a recognized framework to start from. Few other options exist for a country mired in an ongoing and bloody conflict.