Tag Archives: imperialism

Post-Western films and the violence of capital

There has been an interesting trend in Hollywood in recent years around a new kind of Western. I’ve been calling them “post-Western”. Films in this category are set in the modern Western hinterlands, in the small towns and back-countries of states like Texas, Arizona, and Wyoming, and feature similar plots and themes as the old Westerns, like anti-heroes, lawlessness, individual valor, isolation, revenge, etc.

The main difference between the traditional Western and the post-Western is not in the actual time period (1800s vs. modern times), but rather, the portrayal of the changing position of the Western landscape within global capitalism. Westerns portrayed an area that was the dynamic edge of capital, with white settlers clearing the way for industrialization and development by chopping through Native Americans and Mexicans. It was a celebration of a civilization conquering fresh and promising new lands, sparsely inhabited by barbarians and rabble. Post-Westerns, on the other hand, examine this same region it its contemporary phase: stagnant, exploited, and decaying, whatever promises and romances the area once conjured up now revealed as a sick joke.

[Discussion/spoilers ahead for: Hell or High Water, Sicario, Wind River, No Country For Old Men, and Logan] 

Hell or High Water (2016) captures the post-Western perfectly. This film centers around two middle-aged brothers who are robbing banks across small-town Texas, in order to pay for their recently deceased mother’s mortgage — owned by the same bank they are robbing. The film also features two Texas Rangers, one white and one Native American, played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, respectively. A conversation the two partners have during a stake-out of a bank sums up the socio-economic trajectory of the West:

Hamilton: Just relax, and enjoy this little town.

Parker: You wanna live here? There’s an old hardware store that charges twice what Home Depot does; one restaurant with a rattlesnake for a waitress; and how’s anybody supposed to make a living here?

Hamilton: People have made a living here for 150 years.

Parker: People lived in caves for 150,000 years, and they don’t do that no more.

Hamilton: Well, maybe your people did…

Parker: Psh, your people did too. Long time ago, your ancestors was the Indians. ‘Till someone came along and killed them, broke them down, made you into one of them. 150 years ago, all this was my ancestors’ land. Everything you could see. Everything you saw yesterday. ‘Till the grandparents of these folks took it. And now its been taken from them. Except it ain’t no army doing it. Its those sons of bitches right there. [points at the bank]

This discussion reveals one of the cruel ironies of the West today: that the denizens of the rural and small-town West find themselves being cut down and devoured by the very same forces that their ancestors once served. It is this cannibalism by capital that infuses the background of Post-Westerns.

texas_bank

Hell or High Water was written by Taylor Sheridan, and his other scripts also fit the Post-Western genre. Sicario (2015) showcases the US-Mexico borderlands and the reach of the underground drug economy, as well as the nature of the modern national security state. In the traditional Western, lawlessness and vigilantism are shown as the consequence of the young and untamed nature of the frontier. In Sicario, we are confronted with a powerful and mature institution that is absorbing and co-opting the very criminality it is supposed to suppress, a mutation of the armed wing of the state in an opportunistic and self-serving feedback loop — which shouldn’t be surprising, given the traditional relations between American empire, various reactionary paramilitary formations, and the drug economy (see: Colombia).

Another of Sheridan’s films, Wind River (2017), is set in the Wind River reservation in Wyoming, home to the remnants of the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes (and unfortunately and inexplicably, still has two white actors as the leads). The film turns the lens back to original victims of America’s western expansion, and shows that even if capital is now crushing those whose ancestors aided in its expansion, this doesn’t mean that the crushing of Native Americans has ceased in the meantime. The film revolves around the rape and murder of a Native girl, which is ultimately tied back to white oil workers stationed at a nearby extraction site. This, of course, points to how the conquest of native territory was always about seizing control of some kind of natural resource, from fertile farming lands to mineral deposits to fossil fuels. The pillaging of the land, and the accompanying human violence, has remained a constant presence across the West since the appearance of the first white settlers.

Since it is the specter of capital lurking around the background that defines the Post-Western, it is a bit tricky to lump No Country For Old Men (2007) under the label. Despite aesthetically being some kind of Western, the overall setting doesn’t really have the same kind of characterization that it does in Sheridan’s trilogy; there isn’t much sense of history or change in the motels, ranches, and small-town stores that the actual characters move through. However, perhaps the specter of capital here is actually directly personified in the demonic antagonist, Anton Chigurh, whose philosophical nihilism is only matched by his ruthless violence against anybody who stands in the way of his mission — even those who hired him in the first place. Chigurh’s inexorable march toward victory, and the bodies he leaves behind, echoes the way the ceaseless operations of capital explicitly liquidate the small town and back-country backgrounds of Sheridan’s films.

And just what is the end-point of capital’s inexorable, ceaseless processes? For this answer, we could turn to an unlikely candidate: Logan (2017), the final installation of Marvel’s Wolverine franchise, starring Hugh Jackman. This film fits the category of post-Western, as much as it does superhero, science-fiction, and/or dystopian. Corporate paramilitary groups appear to hold dominance not just in the US-Mexico borderlands, but across the US entirely. The degenerating national security state that we saw in Sicario is either completely absent, or has mutated into something totally unrecognizable. Mutants have been wiped out, and those who are left are seen as a resource to be enslaved and harvested for bio-genetic and military R&D. Capital, left to run amok, has uprooted and disintegrated everything that may have been good in this world.

It is a deeply grim picture; and yet, the goofiest aspect of the movie is also the one that may have the most to say about the Western landscape and its past and future. Logan’s ultimate enemy in the film ends up being a cloned version of himself, young, healthy, and strong, and stripped of all the moral trappings the real Logan has gained over the years. This confrontation can reveal an allegory of the Western genres. The real Logan, like the post-Western setting, is old, ragged, and full of self-doubt. The cloned Logan, like the traditional Western setting, is young, enthusiastically violent, and completely unquestioning of its mission and purpose. The real Logan is the West at its decaying end; the cloned Logan is the West in its blood-soaked beginning.

Despite the odds, of course, real Logan — with the help of his clone-daughter and other young fugitive mutants — defeats the clone Logan, and then promptly dies, allowing the torch to be passed on to the next generation. It is here that some hope can be found, among all the bleakness and nihilism that has thus far defined the post-Western and what it shows about the dying Western hinterlands and the ever-present specter of capital. Despite its bloody, imperial origins, the modern West can still harbor resistance and rebellion, even among those whose ancestors partook in its original savagery. The key is to not look backward, toward a mythical golden era that never existed, but indeed to bury this mythology and look forward to what may still be created, against and outside of capitalism.

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Yemen’s elite factions

I recently read through Yemen Endures: Civil War, Saudi Adventurism, and the Future of Arabia (2017), an excellent journalistic and historical account of Yemeni politics in the last two decades, written by Ginny Hill, who appears to be one of the few Western/English-speaking journalists who have spent a significant amount of time in the country.  The book does much to unveil complex elite networks, and the rivalries and conflicts that have been bubbling under the surface in Yemen, which exploded into full view after the rupture of the Arab Spring and have now drawn in regional and international powers in what may end up being the most catastrophic war in decades, with tens of millions of people at risk.

Perhaps the most interest part of the book is the unpacking of the three factions that were holding together the Yemeni state prior to the 2011 Arab Spring protests.  You had Ali Abdullah Saleh, the regime leader with a vast patronage network, built over decades of rule.  Then you had Ali Mohsin, a major military figure under Saleh who had his own relatively independent support base, and much closer ties with Islah, a Islamist political party associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.  And finally, you had Sheikh Abdullah — speaker of the parliament — and his son Hamid — a powerful businessman with his fingers in every part of the economy — both of whom lead the Hashid tribal confederacy and also had ties with Islah.

The patronage network that held the regime coalition together was largely fueled by oil profits.  This worked, for a time — but Yemen’s crude oil production peaked in early 2001, meaning that as the decade dragged on, the regime elites were facing a zero-sum game over a shrinking pie.  This also seems to have been underpinned by different factions cultivating ties with various international actors.  Saleh managed to get closer to the US military apparatus after the start of the War on Terror by playing up the presence of al-Qaeda in the country, even as he played a double game and diverted funds and training to boost up his own loyalist wing of the military, the Republican Guard.  Meanwhile, Hamid’s powerful holding company, the al-Ahmar group, cultivated increasing ties with regional and international capital and steadily increased control over various parts of the Yemeni economy.

Meanwhile, Ali Mohsin was at the head of the 1st Armored Division.  The growing rivalry between Mohsin and Saleh lead to a rather chaotic situation during the Houthi insurgency in the later 2000s.  The 1st Armored Division was tasked with leading the fight against the Houthis, but kept being cut off by peace deals negotiated unilaterally by Saleh.  At some points there were even violent clashes around the northern city of Saada between the Republican Guard and the 1st Armored Division, as these intra-regime tensions began to increasingly boil over.  The Houthis, for their part, generally held their own militarily, and even successfully fought back some tepid Saudi attempts at military intervention at the northern borders.  This is some of the more recent historical context of the current war, that saw Saleh and his loyalists join forces with the Houthis to fight a full-on civil war against the post-Arab Spring regime, supported by Mohsin and Hamid and Islah.

And of course, always lurking above Yemen, is the US empire, who has in recent years stepped up their increasingly confused military actions, which appear to be carried out with little to no understanding of Yemeni politics, and yet can reverberate and shake up the entire country.  This was seen in a most dramatic fashion in May 2010, when a drone strike killed a deputy governor and powerful tribal leader, during a meeting where he was trying to negotiate a settlement between the regime and al-Qaeda.  The al-Shabwan tribe attacked oil pipelines in revenge, which lead to a shortage of fuel in the capital city of Sana’a.  To deal with the shortage, Saleh diverted fuel from the south, which lead to blackouts and fuel shortages in the southern city of Aden, provoking riots and further contributions to southern separatist sentiments.

Today, it seems that the old regime factions are becoming increasingly irrelevant, and getting picked apart by the Houthis, the Southern Movement, and al-Qaeda — movements that have an actual mass base, rather than consisting of self-interested opportunists bought off via bribes and subsidies.  Saleh is dead, killed by the Houthis after he attempted to switch sides again and make his own deal with the House of Saud.  Mohsin’s forces were humiliated by the Southern Movement as they finally began flexing their armed wing.  Much of Hamid’s business empire has been expropriated by the Houthis, and the Hashid confederacy has disintegrated.  The fate of the country is up in the air, but the one sure thing is that the old elites of Yemen are withering away into history.

Second-order imperialisms in South-East Asia and the Middle East

Viewpoint Magazine just released their latest issue, on imperialism.  One essay, “The Specificity of Imperialism” by Salar Mohandesi, critically examines Marxist definitions and analysis of imperialism. The main points revolve around moving away from the classical Marxist conception of imperialism as purely an extension of capitalism and economic dynamics, and toward viewing imperialism as an inherent quality of most nation-state formations, independent of whether they are capitalist or not.  Socialist nations have been imperialist (i.e. the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and of Afghanistan in 1979), as have Third World nations who themselves supposedly upheld anti-imperialist politics (i.e. Egyptian meddling in Syria and North Yemen in the 1950s, Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980).

To elaborate on the idea that imperialism is a product of modern states rather than of capital, the essay looks at the Third Indochina War, fought in the late 1970s mainly between three supposedly socialist states: Vietnam, Cambodia, and China.  The commentary draws mostly from the book Red Brotherhood At War: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos Since 1975 (1990).  Despite the fact that socialist politics is supposed to be transnational/internationalist, the socialist states of the time were cheerfully engaging in cynical geopolitical maneuvering on the basis of their own nation-state’s territorial integrity and security, even at the expense of other socialist states and movements.  The Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia was more interested in pursuing ethnic grievances against the Vietnamese and the restoration of the old imperial glory of the Khmer Empire, and China — extremely hostile to the USSR after the Sino-Soviet split — was allied with them as a counterweight to Soviet-backed Vietnam.  And so border conflicts between Vietnam and Cambodia escalated, as did genocidal policies within Cambodia against Vietnamese people and other minorities, and eventually Vietnam invaded Cambodia, provoking a brief Chinese invasion of Vietnam, and then many years of occupation and guerrilla warfare and sabotage.  Not a great look for states supposedly upholding the legacy of a global working class undivided by borders and nationalism.

Aside from the fact that socialist and/or anti-imperialist revolutions don’t overthrow the potential for such states to engage in imperial behaviors themselves, it is also worth expanding on the essay’s comments about the way smaller states replicate or fit into larger imperial systems.  The Middle East is a fine region to use to unpack this.  A certain kind of reductive anti-imperialist perspective will try to pin every single thing that happens in the Middle East as a consequence of US/Western imperialism, but the reality is much more complicated and interesting, and requires looking at the roles played by the regional bourgeoisie classes and their relative autonomy from the US.

The UAE, for example, is firmly meshed with US imperialism, whether you look at its banking system or its contracting with various American defense companies.  But at the same time, the UAE demonstrates an ambitious will toward a level of autonomy, with its military taking a lead on interventions in Libya and Yemen.  Indeed, the latter case demonstrates the most independence that the UAE has shown yet, with its recent actions in backing southern separatists against the Hadi regime, which is backed by the UAE’s close ally Saudi Arabia.  The separatist insurrection could very well threaten the entire Saudi project of crushing the Houthis, and so it remains to be seen how this will affect Saudi-Emirati relations.  And of course it doesn’t seem like the US is playing much of a role in this at all despite its ongoing support for the anti-Houthi coalition, similar to its lack of interest in post-Gaddafi Libya, where it also accepted a situation where regional allies fought a proxy war against one another (Egypt/UAE vs. Qatar).  The UAE has also carved out some relative autonomy in Afghanistan, which while still dependent on US military presence, is its own significant player when it comes to finance and banking.

Turkey is another example of an imperialist power that is on a lower order than that of the US.  Turkey has of course long been a junior partner to US imperialism as a key member of NATO.  But while recent policies such as the funding of various Sunni militias in Syria continued this tradition, Turkey has also clearly gone increasingly further from the US imperial orbit as it seeks to prioritize its own imperial interests, namely against Kurdish nationalism and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).  Today this pits it directly against US imperial strategy in Syria, which is to continue to oppose the Assad regime and Iran by arming the Syrian Kurds, who are largely affiliates of the PKK, and ensuring their control over northern and eastern Syria and much of the country’s agricultural and oil resources (not unlike pre-2003 US policy around Iraqi Kurdistan).

All of which is to say: don’t reduce modern geopolitics and global capitalism to be solely the product of US imperial planners!  Such a narrow view covers up the complicated reality of a terrain of many actors of varying autonomy, and more importantly, fools us into believing that all it takes to defeat imperialism (as a tendency of nations or capital) is for there to be successful national liberation or socialist revolutions.  In reality, as Mohandesi points out, what is needed is whole-scale restructuring of the nation-state form itself, in conjunction with international revolutionary socialist struggle.

Chavismo’s oily roots

In a recent essay in London Review of Books, Greg Grandin analyzes the ideological roots of Hugo Chavez and “chavismo”, and how important oil has always been for Venezeulan political economy.  The most interesting plank of his analysis is the way chavismo’s material dependence on oil, and its ideology, is traced back to efforts by Third World nationalists in the ’60s and ’70s to create the conditions for state-lead socio-economic development.  Chavez came of age in this era, when in Venezuela, profits from the oil industry were used to both consolidate a rigid two-party political system, a social-democratic system of welfare and patronage, and an unexpected commitment to anti-imperialist politics.

In 1974, the Venezuelan Congress extended ‘special powers’ to President Pérez, giving him complete discretion to legislate and spend. He nationalised industries, limited foreign influence in banking and commerce, and launched a massive programme of state-controlled industrialisation. Money flowed lavishly and unaccountably to projects that were often wishful, wasteful and venal. ‘Anyone who had the tiniest bit of power began stealing shamelessly,’ Chávez tells Ramonet. Pérez, he says, ‘presided over the greatest wave of corruption in living memory… The rich got even richer and amassed colossal fortunes, while the poor received mere crumbs from the oil money table.’ At the same time, however, Pérez was pledging to put Venezuela’s oil at the ‘service of Latin America, at the service of humanity’, in order to wipe out the ‘last traces of colonialism’ and turn socialism into a ‘planetary reality’. Venezuela’s foreign policy during these boom years called for debt relief, nuclear disarmament, an end to the arms race, access to the sea for landlocked Bolivia, lifting the US embargo on Cuba, and the creation of a Latin American Economic System that would function free of Washington’s interference. Pérez proposed using Opec as an ‘instrument of negotiation for the construction of the New International Economic Order’.

These political efforts were made by possible by the high oil prices of the ’70s and early ’80s.  But the subsequent crash unraveled Perez’s project, leading to intense social unrest and destabilizing events like the Caracazo and Chavez’s coup attempts.  After Chavez was brought into power, the major thrust of his program was apparently to reinvigorate OPEC, get oil prices back up, and fuel the Bolivarian Revolution.

Chávez knew that the best way to gain control over oil revenue was to restore the effectiveness of Opec. In early 2001, his first oil minister, Alí Rodríguez Araque, became Opec’s general secretary, and he managed to achieve a level of unity among oil-exporting nations not seen since the early 1970s. Opec nations not only agreed to a production cut, but agreed to give Rodríguez unprecedented authority to decide targets for future output as he deemed necessary, without having to consult the organisation as a whole. Mexico, not a member of Opec, committed to adhering to Opec quotas too. Oil prices began to rise, helping Chávez take control of PDVSA and beat back efforts to oust him.

Prices rose over the next decade and a half, as did the various social and economic indicators in Venezuela that the chavistas were pouring oil profits into.  And the various international projects that Chavez developed looked quite like those advocated by Perez, even beyond the central role of OPEC: a regional economic bloc autonomous from the US, oil subsidies for poorer nations, etc.  But like the Perez era, the vast wealth of oil also created and consolidated mechanisms for corruption.  It also allowed for the chavista state to avoid dealing with the harsh realities of class conflict: as Grandin notes, the accumulation of wealth by the Venezuelan bourgeoisie continued relatively unhindered throughout the Chavez years, despite the simultaneous explosion in grassroots organizing by the masses.

Now, several years into a new era of low oil prices, the Bolivarian Revolution is falling apart — again, not unlike what happened in the final years of the Perez era.  The rollback of the victories of chavismo, by the inexorable logic of basic material constraints, is apparently the price paid for not freeing the Bolivarian Revolution from its material dependence on oil.

Supply-lines for Salafi-jihadist rebel groups in Syria

In a recent episode of Radio War Nerd, the interviewee Elijah Magnier pointed out that there is a massive and ongoing logistical operation to supply Syrian rebels (most of whom are ultra-conservative sectarian Salafi militias).  In order to emphasize the scale of the operation, he pointed out that during the month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, the US had to carry out an emergency re-supply to Israeli military forces after less than two weeks; compare that to the fact that Syria has seen what is more or less a full-blown conventional war effort between standing armies for the last 6 years, with seemingly no limitations on weapons or ammo.  It is relatively clear that Iran and Russia are supplying massive and consistent arms shipments to the Assad regime’s coalition, but what must be an equally massive and consistent military logistics operation on the rebel side is barely discussed at all in the mainstream Western media.

This article published recently in The American Conservative (which, despite its name and supposed political leaning, regularly publishes fantastic critical analysis of US foreign policy) somewhat fills the void, by digging into the details of arms supply operations by the US and its regional allies in the early years of the war, and how these operations were obviously and blatantly boosting up the power of al-Qaeda and other Salafi-jihadist groups.

The level of detail drawn from what appears to be public record is quite striking.  Here is an excerpt on weapons shipments in the summer of 2012, that involved the CIA trafficking weapons from Libyan arms caches:

A declassified October 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency report revealed that the shipment in late August 2012 had included 500 sniper rifles, 100 RPG (rocket propelled grenade launchers) along with 300 RPG rounds and 400 howitzers. Each arms shipment encompassed as many as ten shipping containers, it reported, each of which held about 48,000 pounds of cargo. That suggests a total payload of up to 250 tons of weapons per shipment.

And here is an excerpt detailing part of the massive arms corridor between the Balkans and Syria that was established in early 2013, financed by Saudi Arabia and coordinated by the CIA:

One U.S. official called the new level of arms deliveries to Syrian rebels a “cataract of weaponry.” And a year-long investigation by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project revealed that the Saudis were intent on building up a powerful conventional army in Syria. The “end-use certificate” for weapons purchased from an arms company in Belgrade, Serbia, in May 2013 includes 500 Soviet-designed PG-7VR rocket launchers that can penetrate even heavily-armored tanks, along with two million rounds; 50 Konkurs anti-tank missile launchers and 500 missiles, 50 anti-aircraft guns mounted on armored vehicles, 10,000 fragmentation rounds for OG-7 rocket launchers capable of piercing heavy body armor; four truck-mounted BM-21 GRAD multiple rocket launchers, each of which fires 40 rockets at a time with a range of 12 to 19 miles, along with 20,000 GRAD rockets.

And here is an excerpt on the connect between the war in Syria and US-Saudi arms deals:

By far the most consequential single Saudi arms purchase was not from the Balkans, however, but from the United States. It was the December 2013 U.S. sale of 15,000 TOW anti-tank missiles to the Saudis at a cost of about $1 billion—the result of Obama’s decision earlier that year to reverse his ban on lethal assistance to anti-Assad armed groups. The Saudis had agreed, moreover, that those anti-tank missiles would be doled out to Syrian groups only at U.S. discretion. The TOW missiles began to arrive in Syria in 2014 and soon had a major impact on the military balance.

The entire article is excellent and worth spending time on.  Its perhaps the clearest and most well-sourced article I’ve seen on the exact nature of NATO-GCC supply lines to their local proxies.

Revolutionary internationalism in Greece

This recent story in Al-Jazeera about an Afghan migrant who joins up with anti-capitalist and anti-fascist forces in Greece is a prime example of what revolutionary internationalism can look like today.  Masoud Qahar was formerly a logistical officer for NATO in Afghanistan, a position he held for five years.  The Taliban, unsurprisingly, targeted him and his family, killing his younger sister in 2012.  NATO refused to help him or his family, so he ditched his job and began a journey via land routes to Greece in 2015.

Qahar soon linked up with local anarchist groups who were helping run refugee camps and organize demonstrations.  Now he helps them translate and joins them in anti-fascist protests, and plays a larger role in leveraging his extensive local network in the camps to help connect Greek anarchists and his fellow migrants and refugees.  Along the way, he also seems to have developed an extreme disdain for his former employers, which is no doubt pleasing to his radical friends:

He describes both NATO and the Taliban as “houses of fascism”, before adding proudly: “Now I’m an anti-fascist.”

This connection showcases the Greek anarchist movement’s larger strategy of mutual aid and dual power.  As reported in this favorable New York Times article on the matter, the sprawling complex of service centers run by anarchists across Greece includes 15 squats in Athens that house 3,000 migrants, run cooperatively and collectively, independent from state and capital.

“Refugees and solidarity activists have been protesting together against the far-right and EU policies” [Kelly Lynn Lunde/Al Jazeera]

This is absolutely the right direction for radical leftists in the West to go, insofar as revolutionary internationalism is concerned.  People caught up in the violent churn of global capitalism and imperialism continue to flee their homelands, and are forming new transnational communities.  Qahar’s journey from Afghanistan to Greece is part of a larger trend that seen over 250,000 Afghans making the same journey since early 2015.

Connecting with these communities is how internationalism can be advanced from being superficial statements of solidarity that have no impact on anything, to being a genuine material force that engages in actual, tangible organizing across borders.  And it is particularly interesting to consider how these forms of radical transnationalism can intervene in the trend where anti-imperialist politics is coopted in the Greater Middle East region by far-right religious fundamentalists.  Qahar has clearly broken from the NATO vs. Taliban dualism that afflicts mainstream media discourse about politics in Afghanistan, but in a way that has lead toward radical leftist politics as the alternative, rather than political apathy as is usually the case.  If Western radicals and new diaspora communities from the Greater Middle East continue to network and merge, there is real potential for solidarity politics to evolve into outright transnational revolutionary struggle against all “houses of fascism”, be they Western or local.

Bonus: Video from just a couple of days ago of working-class youth violently clashing with police in Nuremberg, Germany, who are attempting to detain and deport their Afghan classmate.  (Article)

AQAP in Yemen

There has been a lot of noise in recent weeks from the Trump administration about increasing US military involvement in the ongoing gang-fight in Yemen, and helping Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the Hadi regime in their war against the Saleh-Houthi alliance.  Any such escalation will very likely bolster the position of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), notwithstanding America’s own ongoing military campaign against them.

This contradiction became hilariously and horrifically apparent in the aftermath of the US special forces raid against an alleged AQAP compound back in January, shortly after the transfer of power in the US to the Trump administration.  The raid targeted important leaders of the al-Dhahab family, which is a key backer of AQAP, and is related by marriage to Anwar al-Awlaki, the infamous Yemeni-American preacher and al-Qaeda recruiter.  But the family is also closely linked with the Hadi regime; Sheikh Abdel-Raouf al-Dhahab, one of the key figures killed in the raid, had met with Hadi’s military chief of staff just a couple of days prior and had received a nice sack of money to help him and his tribal militia fight the Houthis in a nearby city.

This fits in with the larger pattern of more or less overt cooperation between the Hadi regime and AQAP — which, oddly, enough, the US government itself appears aware of, although it does not appear to be influencing the overall military strategy.  Some key connections include:

  • Nayif al-Qaysi, one of Hadi’s provincial governors, who is accused of both the US and the UN of being a senior AQAP official
  • Abdul Wahab Al-Homayqani, the head of a powerful Salafist political party and an advisor to Hadi, who is accused by the US of being an AQAP official and helping mediate financing between Saudi donors and AQAP
  • Al-Hasan Ali Abkar, a pro-Hadi militia commander who is accused by the US of funneling money and weapons to AQAP

Connections between the “official” regime in Yemen and al-Qaeda isn’t new, either.  The ex-dictator Saleh maintained links with al-Qaeda and other Salafi-jihadist groups for decades, right up until he linked up with the Houthis and went to war against Hadi, his old vice president, and his former allies among AQAP.  Saleh encouraged Salafi-jihadists to fight against his enemies in the socialist south during the 1994 Civil War, including a few prominent militants like Jamal al-Nahdi, who planned al-Qaeda’s first attack against the US, and who would go on to join Saleh’s political party and become an important member of the state security apparatus.  Saleh continued to exploit AQAP militants against political rivals (including the Houthis) even as he took in hundreds of millions of dollars from the US to fight AQAP throughout the 2000s.  Now, Saleh and his loyalists in the military have jumped sides to the Houthis, while the security establishment that Hadi took over are still deeply intertwined with AQAP and other Salafi paramilitary groups.

So what is the US plan for all of this?  Pushing the Saleh-Houthi alliance back will almost certainly mean a de-facto alliance with AQAP, which has already demonstrated its ability to take over areas “liberated” by the pro-Hadi coalition.  On the flip side, attacking AQAP means undermining the regime that the US is backing, and letting the Houthis consolidate their gains.  At this point, it seems like the US is content to simply shoot at everybody, strategy be damned.  A drone strike here, a refueling mission there, and so on, until…well, who knows.  At least the defense industry creeps will be happy.