Varieties of Intervention

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Nate Christensen

HAW conference panel, "Varieties of Intervention," April 6, 2013

Foreign Military Intervention in Yemen: The 1960s Civil War and Post-2001 US ‘War on Terror’


What I want to prompt us to think about in this presentation are the new “Faces of US War,” and in which ways we can speak of the American-led “War on Terror,” in Yemen in particular, as a radical break with former strategies of intervention (military occupation, boots on the ground, vs. drone warfare, etc.). As “Historians Against the War”, what can our academic expertise and activist experiences bring to bear in organizing against American drone strikes in Yemen, for example? What impact have the new faces of US policy and intervention had on Yemen? But I also think it’s important to think through the “War on Terror” historically; in other words, What precedents exist to US intervention in Yemen? and What are the continuities of US policy in the region? It is by looking at, for instance, the United State’s drone program in Yemen alongside America’s long-standing support of the Gulf monarchies, in particular Saudi Arabia, or in comparison with North Yemen’s 1962 civil war and its long-term effects on Yemeni society and on regional politics, that we can begin to map the contours of US intervention in Yemen and develop strategies for resisting the new faces of war along with the old.

In what follows I hope to talk briefly about North Yemen’s 1962 civil war to highlight the fact that much of modern Yemeni politics have been forged, as it were, in the blood and fire of foreign military intervention. The authoritarian, tribally dominated regime that came to power after 1970 and the series of pro-Saudi military governments that have ruled Yemen up to the present day are the direct result of military intervention in Yemen carried out in the name of countering communist influence in the Arab world. In the post-9/11 world of the “War on Terror,” communism has been replaced by “terrorism” as the object of intervention for endless warfare, and Yemen has once again become the site of foreign intervention on a massive scale. I will spend the larger part of my presentation tracing the history of US intervention in Yemen, highlighting the global arms trade in the Gulf, America’s support for the Gulf monarchies and the role of direct US intervention in Yemen as key to understanding US intervention and developing strategies of resistance.

North Yemen Civil War: 1962-70

At once a civil war between local Republican and Royalist forces and a front in the Cold War that saw Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Britain, and the Soviet Union intervene in South Arabia, North Yemen’s 1962-70 Civil War had a deep impact on both Yemen and the region. In short, on September 26, 1967 a group of junior army officers, many of them self-proclaimed Nasserists, staged a coup against the Imamate in Yemen which had ruled a nascent state in the North since the Ottoman Empire’s exit after WWI. Officers surrounded the royal palace and shelled it with tanks. They claimed to have killed Imam al-Badr and announced the formation of the Yemen Arab Republic. In fact, al-Badr was not killed. He escaped to the mountains and rallied those tribes loyal to the Imamate to wage war, with Saudi, Jordanian and British backing, against the new republic. Egyptian soldiers arrived in Yemen immediately after the coup and by 1963 there were fifteen thousand troops stationed in Yemen. Six months later there were double that number and, as it became increasingly obvious that the war would not be finished in three months as many originally predicted, Egypt continued to increase its troop levels, reaching sixty to seventy thousand by 1965.

The Egyptian occupation forces dominated the new republic strategically and executively, virtually excluding Yemenis from all important decisions. In every office of North Yemen’s nascent bureaucracy there was an Egyptian advisor, without whom no decision could be made. Political control was enforced through expulsion, detention and often execution. A bureaucratic police state was established in Sana'a that served as an extension of Cairo policy. As the war came to a close, the regime enacted a policy of crushing all opposition to Egyptian policy within the Republican camp, including left-leaning militias and those supporting non-capitulation to Saudi Arabia. It was deliberate Egyptian policy to undermine a central, independent republic in the North by funding northern tribes over a unified North Yemeni state, strengthening tribal sheikhs within the hierarchy of the tribal system while simultaneously undermining the formation of a centralized government or army. It was just these tribal sheikhs, who were often only nominally allied with the Republicans for no other reason than to procure arms and cash, who pushed for and benefited from the eventual Saudi-backed peace deal in 1970 which established a pro-Saudi, tribally dominated, conservative regime in North Yemen. The role of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, which has come to dominate Yemeni politics and economic development since the war, was greatly increased through its relationship with the northern tribes as provider of guns and money. In all negotiations throughout the war, Egypt and Saudi Arabia excluded the Yemenis from the negotiating table, a practice quite reminiscent of the recent Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative that essentially saw Saudi Arabia and the United States negotiate an end Yemen’s democratic uprisings. In 1970 as well, it was Saudi Arabia who would dictate the terms of peace after Egypt's departure in 1967. With the Saudis having successfully de-revolutionized the Republic, they continued after 1970 to provide subsidies to the northern tribes in the amount of $60 to $80 million per year and also began providing massive foreign aid to the YAR. The strong state of northern tribes in Yemen’s post-war government and its inability to raise revenue through taxes thus significantly increased Saudi Arabia's influence within a government and tribal structure for which it was and still is the main source of revenue.

As for the Americans’ part, on October 1962, just as Egypt was beginning to move its troops into Yemen, US President John F. Kennedy agreed to provide Egypt with $431.8 million worth of food aid from 1963 to 1965. Kennedy, unlike President Eisenhower before him, saw Nasser and the forces of Arab nationalism as a possible bulwark against Soviet influence in the Middle East. The Kennedy administration recognized the Yemen Arab Republic and continued to support Nasser, albeit with reservations, until Kennedy's assassination in 1963. Nasser viewed the Kennedy administration's support as a green light to pacify Republican resistance to Egypt's occupation of Yemen and to escalate military confrontation with the Royalists. At the same time, in March 1963, Egyptian bombing of Royalist strongholds in Saudi Arabia and internal dissent in Saudi’s military ranks led the Kennedy administration to carry out Operation Hard Surface, sending US planes and warships to support the Kingdom. After Kennedy’s death, the Lyndon Johnson administration was more than willing to continue pursuing plans for the long-term support of the Saudi military. By 1963, the Saudis had already spent $15 million to equip royalist tribes, hire hundreds of European mercenaries, and establish their own radio station. But in 1965, the US authorized an agreement with the Corps of Engineers to supervise the construction of military facilities in the Kingdom and in 1966 it sponsored a $100 million program which provided the Saudi forces with combat vehicles. This is not to imply that the North Yemen Civil War was primarily driven by US support first for Egypt and then Saudi Arabia, but to highlight the beginnings of what would become a long-term US relationship with Yemen primarily defined by the militarized logic of providing for the security of oil-rich Gulf monarchies no matter the cost to Yemeni society .1

The British for their part allowed convoys of arms to flow through their allies in Northern Yemen who were protected by the British colonial administration in Aden. British military planes conducted night operations to resupply royalist forces. The MI6 used the services of a private company belonging to Colonel David Stirling, founder of the Special Air Service, who recruited dozens of former SAS men as advisors to the royalists. Most importantly for our purposes going forward, however, was Britain eventual participation in a $400 million British air defense program for Saudi Arabia.

Thus, the civil war had the effect of grounding Yemen in a dependent relationship with the American client state of Saudi Arabia, saw the beginning of massive western arms deals in the Gulf and the establishment of a series of military regimes that have ruled Yemen up until today. Keeping the effects of the 1962 war in view, I will spend the rest of my paper discussing the post-9/11 “War on Terror” Yemen, carried out by direct US military intervention and by proxy through Saudi Arabia, as well as through massive military funding by the United States and Saudi Arabia for so-called “security initiatives” in Yemen.

US-Led “War on Terror”

Massive arms deals between the UK, US and Saudi Arabia, begun in earnest during and in the wake of the Yemeni Civil War, have continued unabated since. With the closure of British bases throughout the Gulf during the 1970s, the United States began to step up its military commitments to the region. In his 1980 State of the Union address, President Jimmy Carter assured Soviet forces in Afghanistan that: “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” Carter’s vision has continued to guide US strategists long since the Soviet Union’s dissolution, with the United States pursuing regional security and protecting American-friendly oil producers through the massive militarization of the Persian Gulf. It’s been estimated that between 1976 and 2007 the total cost of maintaining the U.S. military in the Persian Gulf was about $7 trillion, not including the costs of the most recent Iraq War. The US military has in fact used its withdrawal from Iraq to further strengthen its relationship with the Gulf monarchies, stationing 15,000 troops in Kuwait and pushing for more naval and air patrols of the region. Despite Congressional opposition, the Obama administration continued to sell weapons to Bahrain throughout its own domestic uprisings. Since the beginning of 2012 the US has positioned the USS Ponce, a large floating base, in the Gulf, moved a squadron of F-22 fighters to the UAE, doubled its minesweeping presence and deployed the Sea Fox undersea drone to ensure Iran cannot mine the strait of Hormuz. Most importantly for this presentation, in late 2011, the US announced an agreement to sell 84 F-15 fighter jets valued at nearly $30 billion to the Royal Saudi Air Force (along with the modernization of 70 existing aircraft as well as munitions, spare parts, training and maintenance), continuing an approach to regional commerce and the war on terror consistent with 60 years of US policy.2

Which brings us to Yemen. The United States has since the 1970s driven to militarize the Gulf in an effort to protect oil, oil producers, and the flow of oil. Increasingly the rhetoric and practice surrounding such protection has focused on checking the perceived rise of a troublesome Iran, but also on shoring up the Gulf regimes against domestic and regional opposition, including in Yemen, a key theater in the US- and Saudi-led “War on Terror.” Although Saudi Arabia’s support in suppressing popular uprisings in Bahrain through direct military intervention was well covered by the US media, journalists and even anti-war activists in the West have been slow to criticize the Kingdom’s role as a US client state in Yemen. After sitting on the story for two years due to so-called “security concerns,” the New York Times and Washington Post this year finally revealed the presence of a secret military base in Saudi Arabia from which the United States has deployed drones to kill numerous people in Yemen, including US citizen Anwar Awlaki and, two weeks later, his 16-year-old American son Abdulrahman.3

In North Yemen, where the Saudis wreaked havoc in 1962 to make sure a revolutionary regime did not emerge in the Arabian Gulf, the Kingdom now sees an Iranian hand, rather than an Egyptian one, trying to threaten their status quo. Despite a serious lack of evidence, the US and Saudi Arabia have been keen to push the claim that Iran is supporting shi’ite Houthi rebels in Yemen’s north, a region that has been in rebellion against Sana’a since 2004. The sectarian card, played alongside the specter of terrorism and the Iranian threat, has been a useful tool in extending US and Saudi hegemony into Yemen. Wikileaks releases of US embassy cables reveal that US arms deals with Yemen under former president Ali Abdullah Saleh fueled the 2004-11 war against the Houthi rebels, aiding the government in massive attacks on densely populated civilian areas during Yemen’s Operation Scorched Earth, attacks that US-provided Saudi bombers also participated in. The aptly named operation did exactly as advertised, indiscriminately bombing the civilian infrastructure of Sa’dah, a key city in Yemen’s north, and laying waste to the region’s vibrant agricultural economy, displacing in the process thousands of Yemenis and helping make Yemen a country with one of the highest registered populations of Internally Displaced Peoples (IDP) in the world, with estimates reaching close to half a million displaced. Yemen’s IDP problem was further exacerbated in the recent Abyan War against Al-Qaeda affiliated groups that expanded their presence in south Yemen as Yemeni forces loyal to former president and US-stooge Ali Abdullah Saleh withdrew from strategic areas in the South to protect his falling regime against a rising protest movement and armed struggle in the capital. The final push of the Abyan War was backed by US drone strikes and Saudi bombing runs and, as is a running theme here, destroyed much of the civilian infrastructure in key southern cities such as Zinjibar.4

This direct American intervention in the form of drone strikes, what we might call the US-led Dirty War in Yemen, has been ongoing since 2001. Having lost virtually all US aid by voting “no” to the UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to remove Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait in 1990 (a decision that also led to Saudi Arabia expelling one million Yemeni workers out of the Kingdom, the beginning of widespread poverty and unemployment in Yemen), former president Saleh was quick to announce his support for the US “War on Terror” in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The US in turn was quick to renew its foreign aid to Yemen and to push Saleh to crack down on Al-Qaeda cells in the country. At America’s behest, Saleh threw hundreds of (mostly innocent) Yemenis into overcrowded jails where many were kept without charge, in solitary confinement and tortured, a tried and true strategy of the “War on Terror” from Abu Ghraib to Guantánamo Bay, from CIA black sites to the Occupied Palestinian Territories and beyond.5

As of today, there are few if any rules in the Yemeni theater of operations for the “War on Terror,” with suspicious patterns of behavior seen as probable cause for so-called “signature” US drone strikes that do not in any real sense distinguish fighters from women and children and especially not from men of “fighting age” (those posthumously defined as enemy combatants in Obama’s personalized “rules of engagement”). Only a handful of high-profile al-Qaeda operatives have been successfully eliminated in Yemen, the United State’s erroneous claims as to American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki’s centrality to Al-Qaeda’s leadership aside. For the most part, some nameless armed men, assorted family members and innocent civilians have been those liquidated by US Hellfire missiles. The United State’s first drone strike was launched in November 2002 against suspects of the 2000 USS Cole bombing in Aden, the former capital of South Yemen. Most strikes, however, have been carried out in the last few years. At the end of 2009, Obama authorized a cruise-missile strike that left at least 20 children and a dozen women dead in the southern town of al-Majala, along with one militant, a strike that would understandably prove a major propaganda boon for Al-Qaeda’s recruiting efforts in Yemen. In May of 2010, a US drone strike intended to kill an Al-Qaeda operative in Marib province instead killed one of his distant relatives, ironically the deputy governor of the province tasked with negotiating the peaceful surrender of Islamist militants in the region. Massive protests and tribal attacks on the key power plant in Marib following the strike crippled the electricity flow across the country, leading to rolling blackouts throughout the country in the middle of a scorching hot summer and undoubtedly proving to be, again, a major boon to Al-Qaeda's recruitment efforts. Later, in October 2011, the previously mentioned American-born Anwar al-Awlaqi, a preacher suspected (and I think we should insist on this) of inspiring the perpetrator of the Fort Hood shootings and the failed “crotch bombing” aboard a Detroit-bound commercial airliner at Christmas 2009, was killed; weeks later, so was his teenaged son in a strike on a public, open air restaurant, shredding what was left of the Sixth Amendment of the US constitution in the process.6

The vast majority of the 50 recorded air strikes in Yemen last year were launched by Americans, including a September 2 strike near Rada’ that exterminated three children and nine other civilians. In Yemen’s south and around towns such as Rada’ the maddening overhead buzz of drones is a persistent token of American surveillance. The effects of drone surveillance on targeted communities in Pakistan beyond death and physical injury was highlighted in a recent study by NYU and Standford Law schools and I believe is worth quoting at length here:
Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves...The US practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims. Some community members shy away from gathering in groups, including important tribal dispute-resolution bodies, out of fear that they may attract the attention of drone operators. Some parents choose to keep their children home, and children injured or traumatized by strikes have dropped out of school. Waziris told our researchers that the strikes have undermined cultural and religious practices related to burial, and made family members afraid to attend funerals. In addition, families who lost loved ones or their homes in drone strikes now struggle to support themselves.”7
Yet despite its intensifying involvement in Yemen, the United States has not formulated a genuinely diplomatic mission there, instead choosings to keep Saudi dominance of the region while pursuing what has come to be known as the “Af-Pak strategy” of endless drone warfare in Yemen. Current US ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein was tapped more for his counter-terrorism credentials than his vast diplomatic experience. During the protracted negotiations under the Saudi-led initiative of the Gulf Cooperation Council to facilitate a transition from the rule of Saleh to the presidency of his deputy ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, Washington’s envoy was the current director of the CIA, John Brennan, rather than someone with a State Department pedigree or Hillary Clinton’s ear. Rather than providing systematic humanitarian aid and support for civil society initiatives, American measures in Yemen include providing Sana’a with light aircraft, armed vehicles, gadgetry and training; direct military cooperation with and command-and-control backing for Yemeni forces; cheerleading for the new president’s restructuring of Yemen’s military command; and the establishment of what Sheila Carapico has called a “Green Zone” in the capital, comprised of the highly militarized US embassy and the recently acquired Sheraton Hotel as a fortified extension of the embassy consisting of “a complex of barriers, set-backs, reception areas, offices, sports facilities, ambassador’s residence, dormitories, high-tech security and ecologically improbable lawns to accommodate American consultants and experts,” “a major step toward a full-fledged US imperial presence in Yemen.”8

In a time when Sana’a is slated to become the first word capital to run out of water, electricity fails daily, humanitarian organizations register alarm over catastrophic malnutrition, and the fallout of the US “War on Terror” continues to affect millions of Yemenis, what is to be done? On the one hand, recent efforts in the wake of the 2011 uprisings in Yemen provide a possible path forward. The dictates of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative have pushed Ali Abdullah Saleh out of power and, in theory at least, will provide in 2014 for democratic parliamentary and presidential elections and have already led to noteworthy institutional reforms of the army, the police, the judiciary and other state bodies that served as Saleh’s power base in the US-led war on terror. US support for the recent Friends of Yemen meeting of international donors in London demonstrates a (albeit slight) shift in discourse over US policy in Yemen, with international humanitarian aid for once taking precedence over militarizing every institution of the Yemeni state.

Yet on the other hand, when we take into account the longer historical trajectory of imperial ambitions in Yemen and broaden our analysis to include the Gulf, it becomes obvious that the GCC Initiative does little in the way of challenging regional (and by extension, international) power arrangements, with Sana’a continuing to work within the framework of a Saudi- and American-dominated regional system of which it has been a marginalized part at least since the end of the North Yemen Civil War in 1970. Even if US drone strikes were to end, Yemenis would still be subject to the dictates of a highly militarized Saudi Arabia functioning as a US client state. Despite US humanitarian efforts and encouragement for the restructuring of Yemen’s army, it has been precisely Saudi’s man in Sanaa, General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar and his First Armored Division, who has provided the biggest obstacle to democratic transition to date, ensuring that Saudi Arabia will have a military presence in Yemen for years to come. As my discussant Roger has pointed out, criticism of the "War on Terror" must go further than simply criticizing abusive practices to fundamentally questioning America’s long-standing self-appointment as world policeman.

In this light, Yemenis have long been subject to Saudi Arabia and America’s policing activities in Yemen, rooted in the politics of regional “stability.” Much like the agreement that brought to an end the North Yemen Civil War, the GCC Initiative suggests a future of authoritarian rule for Yemen and, in the context of the post-9/11 world, endless “War on Terror” in the region driven by US and Saudi interests. How do we as US activists combat these older faces of war, consistent with US military strategy in the Gulf for the last 60 years? I don’t really have the answer, but I think it will take a larger questioning of things such as the global arms trade and its centrality to the US economy. While a vibrant anti-war movement has unfortunately been lacking in the US for quite some time, other opponents of US militarism abroad, such as Students for Justice in Palestine, have flourished. In which ways could a broader anti-war coalition build on the important activist networks already established by SJP chapters across the country and engage the SJP movement in a broader critique of US imperialism? I think it’s also important to question the centrality of oil to the US economy and, as historian Toby Jones contends, to recognize 1) “the ways oil and oil producers have long been militarized [and 2)] the role oil has played in regional confrontation [in the Gulf] for almost four decades.” Recent efforts by the environmental activist group to bring US universities, cities, states, and other institutions to divest from fossil fuel companies might be fertile grounds for anti-war activists to organize around, considering the obvious connections between environmental degrigation, the oil based economy and endless warfare. Hopefully we here at Historians Against the War can think through these crucial issues and begin to organize and develop domestic strategies of resistance US imperialism in Yemen. Thanks.



Toby Jones Article







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