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Complicit: America’s ‘Non-War’ Crimes in Yemen

Yemeni children present documents in order to receive food rations from a local charity in Sanaa, Yemen, in April. (Hani Mohammed / AP)

The “Four Famines”: That’s what aid workers call the swell of man-made humanitarian catastrophes replete with disease, hunger and civil conflict—forgotten countries few Americans could locate on a map, across an equatorial band stretching west to east through Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen.

Inhabited by brown people, Muslims mostly, none of the four receive much attention in the United States’ 24-hour news cycle. Perhaps they should; after all, in at least one case—Yemen—there’s blood on Americans’ collective hands. Only don’t expect the public to lose much sleep over the potential for millions of Yemeni deaths. There are Trumpian tweets to dissect and reality TV dramas unfolding for all to see at the helm of the crumbling republic.

For two full years now, Saudi Arabia—a petro-state of strict, Islamist, Wahhabi extremists—has dropped American-made precision guided munitions on Yemeni “rebels” and civilians alike. Saudi fighter-bombers commute daily to the slaughter zone, courtesy of in-flight refueling missions flown by the U.S. Air Force. How nice.

Almost no one knows the backstory, understands the incessant suffering or contemplates the consequences, both moral and strategic. Why should the American public care? There’s no military draft, no new taxes, no food or fuel rationing on the homefront. Besides, unless one subscribes to the BBC, there’s almost no media coverage of the shadow war in Yemen.

Predictions are always tricky, but here’s one: Americans will come to regret their government’s role in Yemen as millions perish and al-Qaida/Islamic State rise ever more powerfully, like a mythical phoenix. The late Chalmers Johnson and the CIA call it “blowback”: The empire’s proverbial chickens come home to roost.

Let us start from the beginning. What is now northwestern Yemen was, for a thousand years, a Zaydi Shia imamate. It is from this region that the Saudis’ nemeses, the Houthis—named for a prominent, local Shia family—emerged. There were two Yemens, North and South, from the fall of the imamate in the 1960s until a hasty reunification in 1990. North Yemen, the Yemen Arab Republic, boasted most of the population and nearly all of the Zaydis. South Yemen, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, arose as a Soviet client state after pushing out British imperialists in 1967 and consisted mostly of Sunni Arabs. Southern Yemen was, in fact, the ancestral home of the bin Laden family. The post-Cold War unification of Yemen proved an unhappy marriage, rife with a three-decade dictator, widespread corruption, and—occasionally—civil war.

It’s a long, complex story, but suffice it to say the Arab Spring of 2011 shattered Yemen’s unstable status quo. A strongman stepped down (but not out), a new, weaker president clung to the south, and, sensing opportunity, the disgruntled Houthis seized most of the north. It might have remained a local conflict were Yemen’s powerful northern neighbor—Saudi Arabia—not locked in a regional tug of war with Iran and its own restive Shia minority, which, coincidentally, sits atop the kingdom’s best oil fields. Instead, the high-tech Saudi Air Force quickly pummeled Houthi-occupied cities, and the Saudi Navy blockaded Yemen’s ports—this, in a country that imports much of its food and where just 2.2 percent of the land is arable.

That’s where the Americans come in. It’s an open secret that Saudi Arabia—a rigid theocracy that beheads women for “sorcery”—owes its regional military dominance to generous aid and arms sales from the United States. In return, the U.S. and its allies could long count (usually) on generous supplies of the kingdom’s liquid gold: oil. The reciprocal relationship survived the terrorist attacks of 9/11 (even though 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis), the “War on Terror,” the invasion of Iraq and the rise of Islamic State. Lest anyone doubt the durability of this devil’s bargain, President Trump spent his first overseas trip in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and announced a joint “strategic vision” and a record $110 billion arms deal.

This isn’t a Trump story, unfortunately. The Saudis launched their ferocious onslaught against north and west Yemen in 2015, under President Obama. Trump is more flagrant, of course—prone to traditional sword-dancing with robed princes—but “no-drama” Obama quietly facilitated the Saudi terror campaign for the better part of two years. Reasons abound, but mainly the U.S. government was bamboozled by a Saudi (and Israeli) propaganda machine veritably obsessed with vilifying Iran. Not that the U.S. needed much encouragement; after all, Iran was labeled a charter member of George W. Bush’s “axis of evil.”

The scam goes something like this: Iran is Shia. Iran hates Israel and, supposedly—if doubtfully—threatens to “wipe Israel off the map.” The Saudis, our friends, are Sunni. The Yemeni Houthis are Shia (though a completely separate branch from the Iranians). Thus, Iran must be behind the whole Houthi rebellion and the Houthis merely an extension of Iran’s existential threat to Israel. Saudi Arabia must, therefore, be justified in its brutal bombing campaign. Consider it a twisted use of the transitive property of equality.

It’s not true, of course. Iran has, it seems, attempted to provide limited support to the Houthis, but it certainly wasn’t behind the rebellion, which is an age-old Yemeni problem. Furthermore, in January the United Nations Panel of Experts concluded that “it had not seen sufficient evidence to confirm any direct, large-scale supply from Iran.” And, in March, the U.S. Congressional Research Service noted “many Western observers agree that Iranian aid to the Houthis does not match the scale of its commitments … in other parts of the Middle East.” Facts—who needs them? Especially when Iran is such a useful regional boogeyman and scapegoat for Israelis, Saudis and Americans alike.

That’s the rub. Yemenis are, in reality, merely pawns in a regional cold war; and, given Israeli and Saudi crimes, it is unclear the U.S. is on the right side. Now, with the hawks ascendant, the Iran nuclear deal decertified and Trump’s Iran hysteria reaching fever pitch, matters are likely only to worsen.

Take one look at the tragic, increasingly stagnant battle lines, and it becomes apparent: Yemen appears once again to be fracturing into northern and southern halves. Maybe it’s all but inevitable; maybe Americans can’t (and shouldn’t attempt to) change that. It is the same story across the Greater Middle East, at least since America’s ill-advised invasion of Iraq: fracture—regional rupture along sectarian and ethnic lines as the mirage of colonial borders finally splinters. Think Syria, think Iraq—specifically the Kurdish territories. Perhaps American intervention in the form of bombs, fuelers and plenty of cash can only aggravate a regional catastrophe. That may not harmonize with the “fight them over there or we’ll have to fight them at home” crowd, but it appears increasingly likely.

The humanitarian price of Operation Renewal of Hope—oh, the Saudis do have a flair for euphemism—is difficult to measure. Yemen remains under siege and is, thanks to our Saudi clients, a journalistic dead zone. Yet this much is certain: There are real people—mostly civilians—under all those precision bombs. And they’re dying, starving and suffering in immense numbers.

The United Nations and various nongovernmental organizations warn of Yemen’s “unprecedented humanitarian crisis.” The official count of civilian dead (10,000 in two years) is a low-ball figure, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The World Food Program estimates that 7.3 million Yemenis are in need of immediate food aid. Nearly half a million children suffer from “severe acute malnutrition.” The World Health Organization adds that 14.8 million people lack “access to basic health care,” including the country’s 2 million internally displaced persons. To make matters worse, a veritable cholera pandemic, the worst in history, has broken out. All the while, the Saudis maintain a tight noose around Yemen, a blockade that, according to the U.N., threatens to starve millions.

Think we’ll see a Trump tweet about this epic mass murder? Don’t count on it; our dear leader is still busy boasting about his victory in the 2016 election.

Undoubtedy, the suffering of Yemeni civilians is the core issue; but it’s not the only problem. America’s enabling of a Saudi terror campaign has left much of Yemen’s rugged provinces all but ungoverned. The result: al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)—once labeled the deadliest AQ franchise—and the nascent Islamic State (IS) faction have been empowered by the war. State collapse in Yemen’s eastern desert has left the jihadis in charge. Make no mistake, if a terrorist attack on the U.S. originates in Yemen (and it might), it will be AQAP or Islamic State—not the Houthis—who are responsible. Ironically, America’s “opponents,” Iran and the Houthis, loathe AQAP and IS. It’s all so counterproductive that it borders on the absurd.

The United States is failing in Yemen (and the entire Middle East, for that matter) ethically and strategically. America is complicit in the collapse of an impoverished, failed state that will undoubtedly breed generations of hopeless, displaced young men of the sort ripe for terrorist recruitment. The U.S. role in Yemen counts not only because millions may die, but because it matters how Americans are viewed on the proverbial Arab street. Even if one is loath to discuss morals or human rights, consider it this way: What if the hawkish status quo only emboldens terrorists and endangers American soldiers? By that logic, withdrawing support from Saudi aggression could save American lives. Doing right can also mean doing well. Surely even political conservatives can get behind that logic, right? Wrong. Count on a broad consensus of U.S. policymakers, Democratic and Republican, to line up behind our Saudi clients and stand by as Yemen burns.

I, for one, long ago lost my First World aptitude for dismissing the wholesale death of brown folks and foreigners. There were just too many dead babies in the Baghdad of 2007, and they looked all too human to these eyes. As the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote after seeing a child’s corpse in post-blitz London: “After the first death … there is no other.” So it is, and so it will forever be for this repentant soldier.

It matters what is done in our name—or, at least, it should.

———

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Major Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, “Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” He lives with his wife and four sons in Lawrence, Kan. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

Maj. Danny Sjursen
Maj. Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan...
Maj. Danny Sjursen

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