Washington’s support for the Saudi Arabia-led intervention in Yemen is arguably its most forgotten war, barely registering in most Americans’ political consciousness let alone the national conversation.
It may also be the United States’ most muddled foreign policy: As new comments from U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) reveal, the Pentagon doesn’t know how much jet fuel it is supplying to the Saudi coalition or what operations in the Yemeni civil war that fuel makes possible. This dangerous information deficit is representative of all that is wrong with an oft-ignored war in which America has no cause for involvement.
First, a little background. Yemen’s civil war is, as modern Mideast conflicts are wont to be, a proxy fight in the regional power struggle between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. This is the same contest that undergirds much of the concurrent chaos in Syria and Iraq. In the words of a senior Iranian official to Reuters, “winning the battle in Yemen will help define the balance of power in the Middle East.”
On one side are Houthi rebels drawn from Yemen’s Shia Muslim minority. The Houthi are believed to be backed by Iran, though Tehran does not have boots on the ground or planes in the air. On the other side is the Yemeni government, led by President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and mostly supported by the Sunni majority. Hadi’s side is backed by the Saudi-led coalition, which has conducted a brutal air war that has been credibly accused of war crimes.
It is this latter side Washington has elected to support, and that support is directly responsible for the scale and duration of the Saudi intervention. “In recent years,” notes Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in an op-ed on the subject, “there hasn’t been a military action taken in Yemen by Saudi Arabia that doesn’t have America’s fingerprints all over it.”
Coalition troops fight with weapons supplied by Washington, enforce the blockade responsible for Yemen’s man-made famine with the help of U.S. ships, and make tactical decisions with advice from American intelligence agencies. And, crucially, the Saudi-led air campaign is made possible by U.S. fuel—the very fuel CENTCOM has not tracked.
The result of this three-year conflict is massive instability and suffering in Yemen. The power vacuum civil war has wrought has permitted al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), often deemed the most dangerous branch of the terrorist organization, to flourish, laying claim to small but significant chunks of Yemeni territory. Furthermore, as Paul writes, repercussions “from [Yemeni] civilian deaths will be generations of hatred and likely more terrorism,” an all-too-common result of our government’s “habit of arming foreign nations, only to discover that these supposed allies may be creating more enemies for America than they are killing.” Meanwhile, the vast majority of Yemeni civilians are struggling to access food, medicine, and clean water while grappling with a major cholera epidemic.
Washington’s role in facilitating this counterproductive chaos is as tragic and costly as it is unnecessary. The United States has no vital interests at stake in Yemen, which is perhaps why two consecutive administrations have not attempted to justify this intervention to the public—or to Congress, as required by the Constitution. That unquantified jet fuel is supplied to uncertain allies at unknown costs to American taxpayers, furthering unaccountable U.S. involvement in an unauthorized war, and sponsoring unidentified missions in an unproductive conflict that fosters instability in a region already dripping with chaos. Americans are paying a pretty (and pretty unknown) penny for a project which is fueling a civil war in a distant land that adds nothing to our security. This admission from CENTCOM reiterates that Washington does not know what it’s doing in Yemen or why, and that withdrawing U.S. support for the Saudi intervention is long overdue.