There has been a lot of controversy over Trump’s recent special operations raid in Yemen against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Predictably, the liberal reaction is one soaked in moralism and superficial analysis, more rooted in anti-Trump partisanship than any serious interest in Yemen. Not that the killing of dozens of civilians and an eight-year old girl (whose older brother and father were killed by Obama) isn’t horrifying — just that the reaction doesn’t do a good job of conveying just how complex and catastrophic (and fascinating) the situation on the ground in Yemen is.
The US has been conducting military operations in Yemen against AQAP for quite a while now, mostly via drone strikes, but has also been playing a very important role in the civil war by providing logistical and intelligence support to the military forces of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who are backing up the regime of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi against Houthi rebels and loyalists of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the old dictator. The Hadi regime and the Saudi-lead coalition also maintains an opportunistic relationship with AQAP; sometimes it fights them, sometimes it fights alongside them. And then there is the Southern Movement, a secessionist movement in the south-west of the country with roots in the old revolutionary leftism of the region, which has its own militias and is currently in a tense alliance with the Hadi regime.
What’s truly hilarious in all this is that Saleh is now fighting against the very people that supported him in his 33-year reign. But this is expected; as Andrew Cockburn put it in a Radio War Nerd interview on Yemen, Saleh is “a man of no fixed principles whatsoever”, a true gangster.
The Hadi regime’s opportunistic stance toward AQAP is merely a reflection of Saleh’s own masterful double-game, during which he raked in hundreds of millions of dollars from the US to fight AQAP even as he kept militants on the payroll and used them against political opponents. And Saleh’s current alliance with the Houthis belies the fact that he killed the movement’s founder and fought a brutal and ineffectual counter-insurgency campaign against them between 2004 and 2010. But after the Arab Spring, Saleh was forced to step down in favor of his old defense minister and vice-president, and he and his many loyalists (or rather, clients and employees) found their power threatened — so why not ring up the Houthis, who had also been sidelined by the GCC-brokered transition deal, and shoot your way back in together?
It is into this utter mess of shifting alliances and power-politics that The Donald is now looking to wade in to. Trump is looking to escalate the war against the Houthi-Saleh alliance as a way to push against Iran, but how might this sit with a simultaneous anti-AQAP strategy? Swinging matters back to the violent melee between AQAP and US Navy Seals on the night of January 29th, as discussed toward the end of the Reuters article:
Though al Qaeda claimed one of the dead, Abdulraoof al-Dhahab, as one of their “martyrs”, some officials on the government side denied that and said he was an important partner with local tribes in battles against the Houthis. “Trump must have launched the raid without enough information – Abdulraoof was a good, honest man, not with al Qaeda. He fought the Houthis,” a local tribal leader and security official told Reuters.
Now, Mr. al-Dhahab could very well have been both an AQAP leader and a respected ally of the Hadi regime — which is an excellent illustration at how the new administration is likely to inflame tensions across the board with its flailing and incoherent strategy, supporting and angering every faction at the same time. Sit back and much on the popcorn — unless you’re in Yemen, in which case good luck with dealing with a horrific humanitarian crisis which is likely to get much worse.