Yemen’s Double Game

The WikiLeaks cables show clearly that the Yemeni government diverted U.S. and British counterterrorism funding to fight its domestic rebels.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

BEIRUT—Yemen’s government repeatedly diverted U.S.- and British-supported counterterrorism fighters from their intended use against al Qaeda to fight a purely domestic opposition group, taking the Yemeni commandos away from their mission against al Qaeda for months at a time, according to WikiLeaks cables that show the former U.S. ambassador to Yemen vainly protesting the apparent misuse of U.S. military support.

Despite also receiving reports in 2009 that Yemen was deploying U.S.-supplied armored vehicles and Humvees against domestic rebels, the United States — anxious for Yemen to crack down on al Qaeda — has only increased shipments of weapons, night-vision goggles, helicopters, and other war gear to Yemen in 2010.

Years of U.S. diplomatic cables show Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, unswervingly determined to get more war materiel and cash from the United States. In some meetings, Saleh pushes the United States to join the fight against Yemen’s northern Houthi rebels directly with gifts of helicopters, aircraft, and armored vehicles; in others, Saleh asks for specific weapons but pledges not to use them against the Houthis.

"We won’t use the helicopters in Sa’ada, I promise. Only against al-Qaeda," Saleh told U.S. Gen. David Petraeus in a January 2009 meeting. Saleh made his pledge, apparently unsolicited, in reference to a northern Yemen city that is the base of a regional rebellion led by the country’s Houthi Shiite dissidents.

In a September 2009 session with White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, Saleh, frustrated, presses the United States to give armored vehicles, airplanes, and ambulances specifically to his campaign against the Houthi rebels. "The Houthis are your enemies too," Saleh tells Brennan.

Brennan deflects that request. "The USG [U.S. government] is prohibited by law from providing military support to the [Yemeni government] to be used against the Houthis since the USG considers the group a domestic insurgency," he is quoted telling Saleh.

At that time, however, Saleh and his military chiefs were already diverting the U.S.-supported counterterrorism unit — a commando group funded, trained, and equipped by the United States and Britain from 2002 on to take a lead role fighting al Qaeda in Yemen — as well as possibly U.S. armored vehicles and Humvees, against the Houthis, then-U.S. Ambassador Stephen Seche notes in another cable. Seche uses the term ROYG to refer to the Republic of Yemen government, and CTU and CT to refer to the counterterrorism unit.

"The ROYG, desperate to defeat the Houthis at any cost, has largely ignored USG concerns regarding deployment of the CTU to Sa’ada,” Seche wrote in December 2009. "The CTU has been unable to go after genuine terrorist targets like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) while it has been tied down in Sa’ada."

The United States this year more than doubled its military aid to Yemen in a push to encourage Saleh’s government to do more against what many President Barack Obama’s administration see as the world’s most aggressive branch of al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a Yemen-based union of Saudi and Yemeni al Qaeda groups, has been linked to the failed December 2009 attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound jet and the recent printer-cartridge bombs, among several other successful and unsuccessful attacks targeting Americans and their allies.

The Yemeni Army and other regular forces are ill-trained, ill-equipped, and riven by corruption that has tens of thousands of "ghost soldiers" on the payrolls so that commanders, tribal leaders, and others can draw the salaries of the nonexistent soldiers and sell their gear on the black market, according to a 2006 assessment by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

As a result, the United States and Britain have focused on trying to build up Yemeni commando units — commanded by Saleh’s son and nephew — in hopes Yemen will use them against al Qaeda. As one cable notes, the United States since 2002 has spent more than $115 million equipping Yemeni counterterrorism forces, including $5 million in training in 2009 alone.

In Seche’s December 2009 cable, named and unnamed Yemeni military officials confirm that Yemen has diverted the counterterrorism unit in particular to fight Yemeni rebels. They shrug off U.S. protests that the commandos were meant to fight al Qaeda.

"The war against the Houthis is not a distraction from the CT fight. It is the CT fight," a Yemeni colonel insisted to U.S. Embassy political officers in December 2009.

The Houthis are a family-led insurrection of Zaidi Shiites who began fighting Yemeni forces in 2004. The Houthis say they seek greater sovereignty for northern Yemen. The war has now gone through six rounds; though the conflict is currently frozen, no one is confident that it is over. At least 200,000 people remain displaced by the fighting.

Despite Saleh’s frequent claims that they are linked to both al Qaeda and Iran, no such evidence has surfaced against the Houthis. It is unlikely that al Qaeda — a Sunni Muslim group that sees Shiite Muslims as takfiri, or nonbelievers, to be killed — would ally long-term with a Shiite group. U.S. officials are seen elsewhere in the cables denying that Iran is supplying the Houthis.

International rights groups and civilians from the area of the rebellion accuse Saleh’s government of using heavy-handed tactics that inflict heavy civilian casualties, including deploying helicopter gunships and warplanes to bomb and rocket civilian neighborhoods in the north. Saleh’s government has barred journalists from most travel to Saada.

Saleh is also facing growing insurrection in Yemen’s south. Both southern and northern Yemenis say Saleh’s more than 30-year-old regime discriminates against their regions when it comes to jobs and development.

While the Houthis have used anti-Israeli and anti-American slogans, they are not known to have pursued any attacks outside Yemen. The United States for years has refused Yemen’s requests to classify the Houthis as a terrorist group.

While Saleh has allegedly bombed towns harboring Houthi rebels, for most of the past decade he has been far more tolerant of al Qaeda leaders in Yemen, pursuing a strategy of trying to co-opt rather than kill them. At lunch with a U.S. envoy in 2007, he blandly recounted having gotten together for a chat two weeks earlier with Jamal al-Badawi, the architect of al Qaeda’s 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 people. Saleh promised the U.S. envoy that Badawi — freed by Yemen despite his conviction in the Cole bombing — was under "house arrest" and "under my microscope." Badawi ‘s whereabouts today are unclear, however.

In his cable, Seche notes that the U.S.-trained force is said to be taking "heavy casualties" in the fighting against the northern rebels because U.S. special-operations forces helped train the commandos for lightning raids rather than sustained fighting.

One source, whose name is redacted in the cable, says that the Yemenis want to adapt the counterterrorism unit’s training to a style more like that of the Americans in Afghanistan, "suggesting the CTU expects to continue to use its forces in Sa’ada," Seche writes.

"While U.S. concerns over diversion of troops and equipment have been acknowledged, they have clearly not resulted in a significant change of ROYG focus from the Houthis to AQAP," the U.S. diplomat says.

Yemeni critics of Saleh’s government have long warned that Saleh’s security forces would likely turn any U.S. military aid against southern separatists and northern rebels rather than al Qaeda.

U.S. military sources in 2009 privately cited repeated rumors out of Saada that Americans themselves have been spotted in the northern war zone — though it’s easily conceivable that Yemenis could mistake a well-armed Yemeni commando for an American.

In an August interview in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, a leading Yemeni arms dealer told me that U.S.-made rifles and Humvees were showing up in the Houthi-government fight in Saada. U.S. and British diplomats played down that possibility, stressing in public comments in a November forum on Yemen in London that their governments were working hard to track the end use of Western-donated military aid in Yemen.

As Seche’s comments showed, however, U.S. diplomats already knew at the time that Saleh and his security forces were diverting U.S. training, funding, and, likely, equipment, against the northern rebels.

U.S. diplomats are generally refusing to comment on specific WikiLeaks cables. The U.S. Embassy in Sana’a didn’t respond to an email asking whether anything had changed to keep Yemen from using U.S. training, funding, and equipment against its domestic opposition in the future.

It’s unclear whether it’s illegal for the United States to continue tolerating Yemen’s diversion of U.S. training, funding, and, possibly, equipment, as Brennan suggested. Hurst Hannum, a professor of international law at Tufts University, said the United States likely would violate international law only if it contributed U.S. troops directly to Yemen’s fight against its rebels. U.S. law on the issue is "filled with ambiguity, loopholes, and executive waivers," Michael J. Glennon, also a Tufts professor of international law, said.

If not illegal, it certainly seems unwise. Allowing Yemen to draw the United States into standing a mercenary army for Saleh against his domestic opponents, while hoping he uses it against al Qaeda as well, implies a triumph of wishful thinking over experience.

And though the Houthi conflict was long one of the world’s most obscure conflicts, and rightfully so, it grows less so by the year. Saudi Arabia — which may become a proxy conduit for more advanced U.S. military help for Yemen — entered the conflict last year, using its warplanes to bomb Houthi positions inside Yemen (as the cables confirm).

U.S. diplomats worried then about Iran entering the conflict on the side of the Shiite rebels. Iran, by all evidence, wisely refrained. The United States, needing neither a third war zone nor a regional Middle East war, should be so disciplined.

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