Losing Yemen

The last US special forces have been withdrawn from Yemen without exciting much notice from the US press.  Max Boot tweets: “All US SOF evacuating Yemen. Huge win for AQAP, huge defeat for US. How many foreign policy disasters can we handle?” Reuters reports, “the United States has evacuated its remaining personnel, including about 100 special operations forces, from Yemen because of the deteriorating security situation there, U.S. officials said on Saturday.”  This means that the last vestiges of what the Obama administration only recently touted as their model counter-insurgency operation are gone.  The collapse has flown largely under the media radar.


Last week Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post reported that $500 million dollars in American supplied weapons are now in the hands of “Iranian-backed rebels or al-Qaeda”.  The Islamist blitzkrieg is living off huge quantities of captured US materiel.

“We have to assume it’s completely compromised and gone,” said a legislative aide on Capitol Hill who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

U.S. military officials declined to comment for the record. A defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon, said there was no hard evidence that U.S. arms or equipment had been looted or confiscated. But the official acknowledged that the Pentagon had lost track of the items.

CBS News reported that an “Obama administration’s senior counterterrorism official acknowledged Thursday that the U.S. intelligence community was surprised by the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Yemen.”  Nobody saw it coming, but the very same people assure the public they know what is to come.  They’re in intelligence, right?

Nick Rasmussen, who directs the National Counterterrorism Center, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Yemen’s American-funded army failed to oppose advancing Houthi rebels in the same way the U.S.-supported Iraqi military refused to fight Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants last year.

What happened in Iraq with the onslaught of ISIS “happened in Yemen” on “a somewhat smaller scale,” he said. “As the Houthi advances toward Sanaa took place… they weren’t opposed in many places…. The situation deteriorated far more rapidly than we expected.”


The Associated Press reports that the Saudi sponsored government, having fallen back on Aden, may now be making its last stand. “ADEN, Yemen (AP) — This port city, perched on an extinct volcano protruding into the Arabian Sea on Yemen’s far southern edge, has become perhaps the last refuge of the country’s embattled president, and it feels like now all his enemies are bearing down on it.”

The city is visibly expecting assault, whether from the forces of Hadi’s rival, ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has allied himself with the Shite rebels, or from al-Qaida militants. Army and police forces loyal to Hadi and their allied militiamen patrol Aden’s streets and man checkpoints at key locations. Tanks guard roads leading to the city and children are largely staying home from school.

“There are great fears that plans are underway for Aden to meet the same fate as Sanaa,” Nayef al-Bakry, Aden’s deputy governor, told The Associated Press. Referring to Saleh and the Shiite rebels, “they want to extend their reach on both the ground and on the coast.”

The situation was concisely summarized by the Telegraph, which described Yemen as “a battlefield for Saudi Arabia and Iran” adding that an attack on Shi’ite Mosques by ISIS shows that the battle is fully joined. Con Coughlin, the Telegraph’s defense editor says that the Saudis may now be driven to intervene forcefully, just as they did in Bahrain when their interests were threatened. If so they will have their work cut out for them. Pakistan has declined a Saudi request to send troops to reinforce its border.


Saudi Arabia’s campaign to build a broad Sunni alliance to contain Iran has apparently suffered at least a setback from Pakistan. Islamabad has opted, at least for now, to avoid becoming entangled in the sectarian cold war between Riyadh and Tehran.

Earlier this month, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was invited to the kingdom for urgent talks with King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud and his advisers. The king met Sharif at the airport to underscore the importance of the talks. The main topic was Iranian aggression in the Arab world and the impending deadline for the P5+1 negotiations on Iran’s nuclear project. The king wanted firm assurances from Sharif that Pakistan would align itself with Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies against Iran, especially in the proxy war now underway in Yemen.

Salman specifically wanted a Pakistani military contingent to deploy to the kingdom to help defend the vulnerable southwest border with Zaydi Houthi-controlled north Yemen and serve as a trip-wire force to deter Iranian aggression. There is precedent for a Pakistani army expeditionary force in Saudi Arabia. After the Iranian Revolution, Pakistani dictator Mohammad Zia ul-Haq deployed an elite Pakistani armored brigade to the kingdom at King Fahd’s request to deter any threats to the country. In all, some 40,000 Pakistanis served in the brigade over most of a decade. Today only some Pakistani advisers and experts serve in the kingdom.

According to Pakistani sources, Sharif has reluctantly decided not to send troops to Saudi Arabia for now. Sharif promised closer counterterrorism and military cooperation but no troops for the immediate future. Pakistan also declined to move its embassy in Yemen from Sanaa to Aden as the Saudis and the Gulf Cooperation Council states have done to distance themselves from the Houthis.


There will not be much sure help from Washington either. Coughlin says that the Saudis are now doubtful of Obama’s commitment to the kingdom.

President Barack Obama is said to be keen to cut a deal with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who yesterday claimed that the talks were taking positive strides and that “there is nothing that cannot be resolved.”

But the talks are being viewed with deep scepticism by the Saudis and other countries in the region, including Israel, which fear that Mr Obama is preparing to do a deal that would allow Iran to retain the technical capability to develop nuclear weapons, even if Tehran gives commitments not to do so.

And if that is the outcome then the Saudis will want to have a nuclear deterrent of their own, with the result that a conflict that is currently being fought with proxies might one day escalate in an all-out nuclear war between Sunnis and Shias.

And if the Saudis lose Yemen?

Trying to make sense of Barack Obama’s foreign policy has become something like a branch of Kremlinology.  Opinions vary between whether the president has either cleverly set Iran against Riyadh or he has let loose all the devils in hell. Early in February, Michael Doran “a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council” wrote a long paper trying to make sense of Obama’s strategy only to reach the conclusion that the president’s objectives are secret.

Doran tried to posit a framework consistent with the administration’s puzzling actions. At the end of his long analysis, which elicited responses from Eliot Abrams and a host of other foreign policy names, Obama’s goals seemed just as much a mystery as ever.  I can hardly add to the observations of these distinguished scholars, except to suggest that the puzzle arises from the lack of any apparent numeraire, which is a fancy economic word for some means of keeping score.


There’s no score keeping system in which Obama is making points unless that scoring system is secret and we’re just too dumb to figure it out.

Losing Iraq, Libya, Yemen; being humiliated by Assad; and having the Taliban call the tune seems to matter not a whit to the president. Like the Black Knight in the Monty Python movie who can endure having his limbs lopped off, these events are apparently costless to the president, who serenely proclaims himself as “winning” every round though nobody knows what the game is; nobody that is, except him.

Did America just lose everything it gave Iraq? Everything it gave Yemen? Every effort it expended in Libya?

One gets the sense that Aden could fall to the Houthi tomorrow or Damascus be overrun the week after without shaking his confidence in the least. Whatever happens, Obama is always only one step from some final, invisible victory.  He is laboring toward some deal with Tehran, like a pilgrim stumbling toward the Throne of God yet which to unschooled eyes seems like a gewgaw in a box of Crackerjack for which he is being charged an arm and a leg by some canny ayatollahs.

There must be something there and foreign policy gurus strain their eyes and cudgel their brains trying to figure out what it is.  Yet if we cast our eyes forward, it would not be surprising if the day after his stupendous “deal” nothing whatsoever changes except that Tehran goes on cheating. The great roll of drum fanfare will have culminated a low whistle like air being let out of a balloon.

Was that it? Yup. The one thing we can be certain of is that he would take that lack of evident benefit on the day after with total equanimity, as if surprised to think anyone but rubes should want a material outcome from his diplomacy. Suppose it’s about some act of “becoming” a normal nation?  Don’t laugh. Then what? That is why Michael Doran and the rest are having such trouble figuring out the administration’s game plan. Because they think it’s about something. None of them have considered the possibility that its about nothing at all.


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