Earlier this month, the United States launched a raid against a suspected al-Qaeda hideout in Yemen, during which a Navy SEAL tragically lost his life. Questions have since arisen. Did President Trump order the operation too hastily? How valuable is the intelligence obtained during the operation and was it worth the costs? Were Yemeni villagers tipped off that the Americans were coming when they spied drones flying lower than usual?
The Pentagon has launched an investigation into the raid and hopefully the answers to those questions are forthcoming. But whatever happened, Donald Trump is not responsible for the morass of instability and terrorism that the United States now faces in Yemen. The culprit is his predecessor, Barack Obama, who pursued an incompetent policy designed to appease the Saudis and ended up bequeathing to Trump a disaster.
Yemen is a small littoral nation on the Arabian Peninsula south of Saudi Arabia, and the poorest in the Middle East. A civil war broke out there two years ago when the Saudis launched a military campaign against a group of Yemeni rebels called the Houthis. Riyadh claimed its goal was to stabilize Yemen and restore the government, which the Houthis had chased out of the capital, Sanaa. Beneath the surface, however, coursed the usual sectarian tensions. Saudi Arabia is the Middle East’s foremost Sunni power while the Houthis are Shias backed by the region’s preeminent Shiite state Iran. It was another intra-Islamic fight, Sunnis versus Shias, the last thing America needed to involve itself in (again).
President Obama intervened anyway. Determined to mollify the Saudis, who were aghast over his deal with Iran, he agreed that American forces would assist by refueling Saudi jets and providing Riyadh with intelligence. In doing so, he ended up stranding himself in another interminable conflict that ran counter to American interests. Yemen is home to one of our most enduring enemies in the War on Terror: al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, regarded by most analysts as a sophisticated threat to the United States. The Saudis have occasionally attacked AQAP—last year their ally the United Arab Emirates made a big show out of expelling the jihadists from the city of Mukalla—but they’ve mostly ignored it in favor of targeting the Houthis.
This is by design. Saudi Arabia considers its main nemesis to be not al-Qaeda (not at all: they’ve done much to bankroll Sunni extremism abroad), but rising Shiite power in the Middle East. Following the deposal of Saddam Hussein, Shias took over the Iraqi government; elsewhere, Shias have demanded independence in Bahrain and even grown restive in the eastern hinterlands of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, devoutly Sunni, have monitored all this fretfully, detecting Iran’s fingerprints everywhere. So when the Shiite Houthis expanded their presence in Yemen, Riyadh decided it was time to fight back, even if it came at the cost of a stronger AQAP.
It isn’t just that the Saudis have taken a relative kid-gloves policy towards AQAP; it’s that they’ve empowered them. By pummeling Yemen with clumsy munitions like cluster bombs that ensure massive civilian casualties, by instituting blockades that have left people dying of starvation, the Saudis have driven desperate Yemenis into the arms of the terrorists. This has led to something of a renaissance for AQAP. According to a new report from the International Crisis Group, whereas before the civil war al-Qaeda was a “sideshow for most Yemenis,” today it is “stronger than it has ever been.” Last year, Reuters concluded that AQAP was in control of an “economic empire.”
Why is Washington so incapable of absorbing the lessons of Iraq? How many more times do we need to learn that when we destabilize a Middle Eastern country it benefits the jihadists? Yemen was Saudi Arabia’s and President Obama’s electroshock patient: they manacled it, starved it, jolted it with endless airstrikes, and ultimately shattered it. They shouldn’t be surprised that Yemenis have responded by radicalizing. As an anti-terror strategy, it’s like pumping water into a room with one hand and trying to bucket it out with the other.
None of this is President Trump’s fault—count it among the many messes he inherited—but he does need to acknowledge just how counterproductive the Obama strategy in Yemen has been. What to do? Let’s begin by withholding further arms sales and logistic and intelligence support for the Saudis, pressuring them to end this dirty little war, and refocusing attention on the jihadists who threaten us all.