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When Britain occupied Yemen

No, U.S. President Barack Obama has informed People. The United States has no interest in or plans to invade Yemen or Somalia — and nor should it. Out of curiosity, I took a look at the experience of the last western power to occupy part of Yemen: Britain. The history’s complicated. But, very briefly: last ...

No, U.S. President Barack Obama has informed People. The United States has no interest in or plans to invade Yemen or Somalia — and nor should it.

Out of curiosity, I took a look at the experience of the last western power to occupy part of Yemen: Britain. The history’s complicated. But, very briefly: last century, Britain controlled Yemeni territory at the strategic port of Aden; the western portion of the country was a kingdom. In the early 1960s, Egypt attempted to overthrow the kingdom by funding anti-royalists. Britain attempted to insulate itself by creating buffer protectorates. Still, the Aden local insurgency simmered, and boiled over when Egypt started funding it as well. In 1963, Britain declared a state of emergency and started fighting a full-on counterinsurgency.

Contemporary accounts of the conflict — known as the Aden Emergency in Britain — from Time paint an interesting picture. For one, they clearly demonstrate how racist the rhetoric was just 50 years ago. (Some of the descriptions below are, well, uncomfortable to read.) The clips also show how, despite inferior weaponry, domestic insurgencies so successfully chip away at the will and resources of occupying forces.

First, some insulting if evocative description of the Yemeni Imam from 1957:

The Imam of Yemen, who acts like a Borgia Pope, is known to have a minimum of five diseases in various stages of arrested development (rheumatism, heart trouble, bilharziasis, gastritis, syphilis), but this does not prevent him from greedily devouring huge meals consisting of nothing but Russian salad heavily splashed with mayonnaise. The Imam’s greatest trouble is psychological: he is under the impression that the British are depriving him of huge oil royalties….

A very colorful 1962 story, "Arabia Felix," describes him thus:

Ahmad governed by means of spies, subsidies and the executioner’s ax, decapitating more than a thousand enemies. He was a man of enormous appetite: he would do away with an entire roast lamb at a single sitting and then gulp down a pound of honey as a between-meals snack. He had three wives and 40 concubines, but in the last years of his life his potency declined, and he had unsuccessful recourse to rejuvenation treatments by a Swiss doctor. His luckless harem consoled itself with sorties into lesbianism and erotic gadgets sent from Japan. Like many Yemenites, Ahmad chewed qat, a narcotic shrub similar to marijuana, and switched to morphine in 1953 — heroically breaking the habit six years later.

A year later, with fighting escalating in Aden, Time overviews the conflict:

Though some scholars maintain that the Garden of Eden was in Aden, the country today seems more like purgatory than paradise. A British protectorate since 1839, Aden is a sun-scorched moonscape of thrusting volcanic mountains and rock-strewn wadies. Temperatures commonly rise to 110, and survival rations for British combat troops there include at least two gallons of water daily — for drinking, not washing. Aden is a tempting prize nonetheless.

The British primarily fought from the air, dropping leaflets and bombing villages from the sky (a strange echoing of today’s drone fights):

In the days when might was still right in the Middle East the British invented a technique for dealing with recalcitrant Arab tribesmen. The R.A.F. would drop leaflets on Arab villages demanding that they give up fugitive criminals or be bombed. Usually the trick worked, and the wanted man would be expelled from the threatened village, pursued through the desert, shot down or captured. On other occasions the population would flee the village, which the R.A.F. would then destroy.

While the guerrilla war waged on:

Sir Arthur Charles, the British Speaker of the Aden Legislative Council, was shot and killed as he was leaving his tennis club at sundown. As the incidents increased, British security forces arrested 29 suspected terrorists and imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew. Last week schools were shut down when students tried to demonstrate, and newspapers were forbidden to "carry news that might incite people." British troops patrolled the streets, exchanging occasional fire with snipers on the rooftops.

Until the British finally recognized the fight as futile, and wanted to get out:

In its rush to rid itself of the weight of empire, Britain has often bestowed independence on lands that had no business accepting it…Few lands, however, have been so ill-prepared to rule themselves as [South Yemen], which Britain announced last week will become independent by the end of November. [It] consists of the port of Aden and 17 feudal satraps whose Bedouin tribesmen eat goat meat and carry everywhere their curved djambias (daggers). Its life has been disrupted and its British-sponsored federal government destroyed by four years of terrorism and civil war.

And finally, they left:

"Farewell, Far East," headlined the London Evening Standard. In the Daily Express, Labor M.P. Desmond Donnelly called the government’s plan "the most stark military withdrawal since the Roman legions were recalled from Britain." With a mingled sense of nostalgia and relief, Britain announced that it will gradually rid itself of the most burdensome vestige of its venerable but faded oriental empire.

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