By Daniel DePetris
On October 30, during a Middle East security conference in Bahrain, Defense Secretary James Mattis implored the parties in Yemen’s civil war to stop shooting at one another and to start talking about peace. His comment, one of the strongest from a U.S. official on the conflict since it began more than three years ago, was followed shortly thereafter by a written statement from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling for a nationwide ceasefire. “The time is now for the cessation of hostilities,” Pompeo wrote. Days later, the combatants have not only ignored Washington’s calls—they have outright defied them.
In one week, over 150 people were killed in and around Hudaydah, a port city where roughly 75 percent of Yemen’s food, fuel, and medical imports pass. Tens of thousands of civilians are unable to move as UAE airstrikes intensified and Houthi militiamen turned homes into military outposts. If the UAE’s suspension of offensive operations is revoked, the humanitarian situation in the city will worsen as time goes by.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have demonstrated through their actions that neither take Washington’s calls seriously. Both Gulf Arab states remain confident of U.S. military and intelligence support regardless of their behavior. It is far past time for the United States to see Yemen’s conflict for what it is: a brutal and bloody contest for power that the U.S. needs to extricate from.
Washington entered the war on the side of the Saudi-led Arab coalition in March 2015, the moment Riyadh began bombing Houthi positions. At the time, the Saudis confidently predicted that the air war would be over in a matter of weeks. Eventually, the logic went, the outgunned Houthis would be driven out of the cities, towards the northern highlands. Whether or not the Obama administration agreed with this assessment, it chose to provide the coalition with valuable military aid—from the sale of munitions and intelligence coordination, to midair refueling of Saudi and Emirati combat jets. The White House explained that U.S. involvement was sending an important message to the Houthis: it cannot overthrow a legitimate government by force.
What U.S. officials past and present have failed to explain is why they Yemen’s internal political conflict is such a national security threat to the American people that the U.S. military assets should be deployed. The unadulterated truth is that American military involvement in Yemen’s civil war does not in anyway make the U.S. homeland safer—in fact, our involvement has threatened our security interests by strengthening AQAP.
If the U.S. has any objective in Yemen, it is protecting the American people from AQAP, a terrorist group that has attempted to strike the U.S. in the past. Unfortunately, Yemen’s civil war —and Washington’s involvement in it—has only made AQAP a more lethal, wealthy, and versatile organization.
Unfortunately, Yemen’s war will continue to drag on for as long as the combatants on all sides believe that they can gain more from continued fighting than they can at peace talks. The United States, however, does not—and indeed should not - be a part of it. As demonstrated on the Senate floor last week, an increasing number of lawmakers are beginning to come to that conclusion.
Al-Qaeda has expanded in both breadth and depth, ingraining itself into Yemen’s social fabric, capitalizing on the domestic turmoil, and presenting itself as a defender of Yemen’s Sunni population. The jihadists captured $100 million alone from the Mukalla central bank while looting arms depots left deserted by Yemeni troops. In fact, according to an AP investigation conducted in August 2018, Al-Qaeda militants have proven so resilient that the UAE would rather cut tactical evacuation deals rather than confront them on the battlefield.
While the Houthis may be a threat to Saudi Arabia given Riyadh’s geography, the group is not a transnational terrorist organization plotting attacks against the U.S. homeland like AQAP. The Houthis have one paramount objective: overthrow a government it regards as illegitimate and become Yemen’s most dominant political power. Washington has ignored reality at its own peril, choosing instead to help Saudi Arabia and the UAE defeat an organization that poses no security danger to the American people—and one, coincidentally, that shares a common enemy in the jihadists of Al-Qaeda.
As horrid and unforgiving as Yemen’s situation currently is, the events of the past three and a half years have shined a light on two Gulf states—Saudi Arabia and the UAE—that continue to believe they are entitled to unflinching U.S. support, yet nevertheless treat the advice of senior American officials with contempt. The U.S. foreign policy establishment must undergo a reassessment of Washington’s relationships with both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, viewing them less as the antidote for the region’s systemic security problems and more as the transactional arrangements they have been for decades.
The U.S. military should only be deployed when it is required to defend the American people from an adversary that directly threatens their security and their way of life. Yemen’s gruesome conflict simply does not qualify.
Throughout his presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump committed to removing the U.S. from costly and unnecessary conflicts that didn’t serve our interests. If the president wants to meet one of his most significant campaign promises, he can start by withdrawing from an Obama-era conflict that Washington should not have intervened in to begin with.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on December 3, 2018. Read more HERE.