by Barkley Rosser (originally published at Econospeak)
It is becoming clear that the scale of the botch by Donald Trump in Yemen in his first effort at a foreign military action is much greater than .first reported, as reported by Juan Cole. Right from the start we heard that people in the military were complaining about poor vetting of intel and how there was more military resistance than expected, with one American dying and three getting injured. There was the embarrassment of a bunch of civilians getting killed, with the latest estimate of those now as high possibly as 30. On top of this we had the absurdity of the whole thing being decided mostly over a dinner with Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner the main parties to it, although supposedly SecDef Mattis signed off on it, followed by the bizarre business of Trump not even going to the Situation Room for this his first military outing. Maybe he thought that since there were so many pictures of Obama there, and even with Hillary, that this is not something he wanted to do.
Of course there was pushback from the Trumpisti over this, claiming that the whole thing had been planned by Obama, who had just not quite had enough time (or maybe even guts) to finally sign off on it, and furthermore that some bad leaders of the target group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), were killed. The latter may be true, although as Juan Cole reports, the main target of the raid, AQAP leader Qassim al-Rimini, was not killed and has since put out an audio publicly mocking Trump.
But now Cole further reports (as have others) that Obama had apparently not decided to do the raid. It was long planned, but it was not just a matter of waiting for more intel. They thought it was not a wise effort, and indeed it has not turned out well.
On top of that, now the Yemeni government led by Mansour Hadi that the US and Saudi Arabia support has just forbidden the US from engaging in any further ground military assaults. Oh. Cole suggests that aside from the matter of civilian casualties, there is the matter of Trump’s insulting Muslim immigration ban, which Cole reports has the leaders of this US-backed Yemeni government “disgusted.” Oh.
Before just signing off on this as an unsurprising botch by our horrendous new president, I thought it might be worth looking more closely at the Yemen situation and also the policies of Obama and earlier presidents in connection with it. This ties to what I consider to be the worst thing that Obama did during his presidency, the drone wars. Data on this is not all that available, but thebureauinvestigates has some estimates for whatever the are worth. In 2016 Yemen was second after Afghanistan for being on the receiving end of such drone strikes. There were far more in Afghanistan at 1071 to 38 in Yemen, 16 in Somalia, and only 3 in Pakistan, although back in 2009 Pakistan was the top recipient, with 2010 the top year for such strikes overall. When it comes to estimated civilian casualties, Afghanistan was up to 65-100 for 2016 and Somalia had 3-5, but there were estimated to be zero in both Yemen and Pakistan, although over the whole period since 2009 there may have been up to 100 in Yemen total.
So there we have Obama’s seriously morally questionable drone war policy causing an estimated zero civilian dead during 2016, but within two weeks of becoming president, Trump manages to have as many as up to 30 civilians killed in an operation reportedly more generally botched. No wonder the Yemeni government we are supposedly supporting does not want us around on the ground at all.
Let me add just a bit of historical background and discussion of the current situation in this troubled nation. The Yemenis claim to be the “true Arabs,” and Ptolemy called the place “Arabia Felix,” meaning “Arabia the Happy.” Home to the ancient Sabaean Kingdom that presumably produced the Queen of Sheba, it was and still is the wettest and most fertile part of the Arabian peninsula, which made it well off in the ancient world, along with being a major producer and exporter of spices. Now it has the lowest real per capita income in the Arab world, under $4000 per year and even behind pretty pathetic Sudan and Mauretania.
There are two important things that seem to have held true about Yemen over time as it slid from the best off Arab nation to the worst off economically. One is that it has long been very divided with local groups controlling their own territories, even as the place was supposedly ruled by a long string of outsiders up through the Ottomans in the early 20th century. The other has been that those outsiders wanted to control it because of its location at the southern end of the Red Sea, making it a crucial location for controlling trade between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. While the Ottomans officially ruled it from the 1500s onward (it had a brief period of independent and unified rule in the 1300s), they never controlled its highlands, and the British from 1850 on controlled the crucial seaport of Aden near the southern tip. The split between a northwestern part controlled (sort of) by the Ottomans and a southeastern part controlled by the British is pretty much where we are at now with the official capital of Sana’a in the north controlled by rebel Zaydi Shia Houthis, and Aden and the southeast mostly controlled by the official government of Mansour Hadi, backed by the US and Saudi Arabia, with Iran semi-supporting the Sana’a based regime.
The northern highlands have long been the home of the Zaydi (Zaidi) Shia, who converted in the 800s. This is the most moderate branch of Shi’ism, the closest of them to Sunnism, 8-Imam Shi’ism in contrast to Iranian 12-Iman Shi’ism. No outsiders have been able to control them, although many have tried, including the Saudis early in the 20th century, who managed to carve off part of their territory, Asir province, home of most of the 19 Saudis who participated in the 9/11 attack on the US.
After the British pulled out in the early 1970s, their former Aden protectorate became a Marxist regime. The area was traditionally Sunni of the Shafi orientation. However, the two Yemens unified in 1990 under the leadership of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had led the northern Sana’a-based nation since 1978. He was tossed out in 2012 with the support of the US as a result of Arab Spring uprisings the previous year. But then the Houthi tribe of Zaydi Shia revolted and took control of Sana’a, with the official government of Hadi retreating to Aden. Then the Saudis and the Iranians got involved, with the Saudis doing lots of destructive bombing with support from the US. Juan Cole claims that the claims of Iranian support for the Houthis by the Saudis and US are exaggerated, although one of Sean Spicer’s more flagrantly false remarks was to turn a Houthi attack on a Saudi ship into an Iranian attack on a US naval vessel, sheesh. Oh, and to top this off, Saleh is back apparently helping out the Houthi regime in Sana’a, if not quite in charge.
Then, of course, on top of all that mess we have al Qaeda, with it long argued and agreed that the Yemeni branch of it was and has been the most powerful one outside of the Afghan-Pakistani home base, and maybe more so now than there. In late 2000, while Bill Clinton was still president, they successfully attacked the USS Cole. In January, 2001, the Yemen government of Saleh launched a campaign against them. In 2009 they officially joined with the weaker Saudi branch to become AQAP as they continue to be. They long ago managed to gain control of territory in the eastern part of Yemen, which they supposedly still control. Both the Saleh and Hadi governments accepted US intervention there in the form of the drone strikes, even as later the Hadi government would get bogged down in its fight with the Houthi rebellion, which was far from where AQAP operates.
So, big surprise, this is a horrendously complicated and tragic situation, one that obviously took a lot of attention from Obama while he was president, who apparently had managed to get the civilian deaths in the drone war against AQAP down to zero even as civilian deaths in the Houthi-Hadi war have grown, with the US involved through the Saudis on the Hadi side. But now Trump has really botched it, so much so that the Hadi regime says we are not to mess there, and this is an outfit that has planned direct attacks on the US. For all of what Trump claims he wants to do, this really is a massively serious botch, far bigger than was initially reported. Will he and his team learn anything from this? I do not know, but this one will not be easily fixed anytime soon.
Day later addendum: Juan Cole has now posted more from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, who sent people into the attacked village of Yakla five days after the attack. The number of dead civilians appears to be 25, including 9 children under the age of 13 and 8 women, one of them heavily pregnant.