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Into the Snake Pit: The US and Restructuring the Military in Yemen

The closest thing the US has to a “Yemen Czar” is John Brennan, President Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser, and so when he speaks on Yemen – as he did recently – it is a good idea to pay attention.

On Monday, the eve of Yemen’s one-man elections, Brennan was in Sanaa, and during his time there he sat down with some journalists, and the US Embassy has since published the transcript of his roundtable.

Brennan has a lot to say, and I would encourage everyone to read his full remarks, but one of the things that stood out to me was Brennan’s comments on military restructuring. 

Obviously military restructuring is going to be one of the most important and most controversial processes of the post-Salih era in Yemen.  Salih’s relatives and fellow tribesmen have a stranglehold on much of the military and security apparatus in Yemen.  Salih spent more than 33 years building this network, and dismantling it is going to require a great deal of patience, effort and knowledge. 

Imagine the security services like a giant Jenga tower and you get some idea of the problem: the US wants to remove some key blocks, without seeing the whole thing tumble down.

From the beginning protesters in Yemen have been calling for the removal of Salih’s relatives, after all what good is a change in presidents if the old one can still project power through his family’s control of the military?

Brennan appears to suggest in his comments, that the US is only going to support those generals in Yemen who are “professional.” 

The former CIA station chief in Riyadh leaves little doubt as to who he has in mind, describing General al-Ashwal as “an impressive and professional military officer.”

On the flip side is General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, the commander of the 1st Armored Division and one of the most powerful men in the country.  Brennan addressed the breakaway general in his remarks, saying:

So I call upon the various generals, such as General Ali Mohsen, to set aside their political agendas, and to do what’s in the best interest of the Yemeni people, and that the time has come for the Yemeni military to be able to be a unified, disciplined, and professional organization.”

You don’t get a greater dichotomy than that; juxtaposing the two is, in my opinion, asking for trouble.  And just to make sure that General Ali Muhsin got the message, the US ambassador to Yemen, Gerald Feierstein, repeated Brennan’s warning – albeit in slightly gentler language – in an interview with Tom Finn, who has helpfully posted the transcript online.

Again, like Brennan, Feierstein mentioned General al-Ashwal by name, citing him as someone the US anticipates working with.

To me, this all sounds incredibly dangerous on the part of the US, backing particular generals against their rivals within the Yemeni military is a dangerous game with little room for mistakes.  The military restructuring of Yemen’s military is, as I mentioned in this interview, going to be a tricky undertaking that touches on tribes and patronage – no one is going to like being ousted from a position that they have manipulated to make themselves and their family wealthy.  

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To really be successful in something like this requires an encyclopedic knowledge of the tribes and personalities involved, and nothing I have seen from the US suggests that it has even close to this amount of knowledge.

Also, its important to remember that the US is the only one who will have pet generals in Yemen – who are the Saudis going to favor? What about the Qataris?  Both of these countries will put more money into Yemen than will the US, so what makes Brennan and Feierstein confident that the US can successfully manage this process when they’ll have less money and less knowledge than other outside powers?

I tweeted something like this the other day, and sure enough I wasn’t the only one paying attention to what Brennan and Feierstein said.  Today, Mareb Press has an article suggesting (Ar.) that General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar and Ahmad, Salih’s eldest sons would both keep their positions following any military restructuring, although other relatives would likely be out. 

Such a delicate operation has the potential to get messy quickly with disastrous consequences not only for Yemen, but also for US counter-terrorism goals: who does the US think is going to go after AQAP and Ansar al-Shariah if the generals are playing some shadowy game of brinkmanship for their livelihoods?  Or, and potentially worse, tying US aid and support so closely to the pursuit of AQAP may incentivize a much broader war than the US would like, creating more enemies than there are at the moment due to military overreaching. 

Salih liked to say ruling Yemen was like dancing on the heads of snakes, well if that is true, the US is about to descend into the snake pit ill-equipped and under-prepared for what it will find when it starts playing generals off against one another.   


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