It took the departure of a dictator, but the U.S. military is once again hooking up Yemen’s military with special ops hardware, ostensibly to fight al-Qaida’s local branch.
Documents obtained by the Washington Post and Bloomberg News show the Pentagon has ended its hiatus on training Yemen’s security forces. A “few dozen” American trainers have returned to Yemen, and they come bearing gifts: “two small troop-transport aircraft, 100 night-vision devices, five small ‘raiding’ boats for commandos as well as more small arms and ammunition.” And that’s not all. Small Raven surveillance drones, .50 caliber sniper rifles, laser targeting devices, M4 rifles and Glocks — all that is heading to Yemen.
The military aid totals $112 million, Bloomberg reports. That’s almost as much, in one lump sum, as the $115 million in military hardware the U.S. had given to Yemen by 2010, which took years to accumulate.
And it’s a return to form. The Pentagon has long given gear to its Yemeni counterparts so they could fight al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. But when Ali Abdullah Saleh, the longtime “president” of Yemen, began violently suppressing his own people as the Arab Spring spread to Sana’a, the United States felt compelled to dial back its support.
That set up one of the starkest clashes between U.S. interests and American values of the entire Arab Spring. Al-Qaida’s Yemen bureau has grown to become the terrorist network’s most active branch, and it quickly stepped into the vacuum that Saleh’s weakness created. Before Saleh began shooting protesters, the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command had created hunting teams to find and target al-Qaida. That effort expanded, even as the United States paused training to the Yemeni military, to a war in everything but name, often waged by killer drones.
Saleh effectively abdicated power in January, although much of his regime’s repressive security apparatus remains in place. The Obama administration has interpreted Saleh’s departure as a signal to resume open cooperation with Yemeni security forces. And they are finding the new boss to be awfully cooperative in battling the local jihadists. But there’s irony at work.
Yemen isn’t just important to America as a staging ground for attacks on al-Qaida. It’s a stepping stone for the expanding shadow wars in east Africa. Drones and commando aircraft launched from Yemen take aim at suspected extremists in Somalia and elsewhere, alongside newer U.S. airbases on the continent.
In other words, the money the United States is sending to Yemeni soldiers is only partially an investment in their capabilities. It’s mostly an insurance policy to keep Yemen hospitable to America’s counterterrorist shadow wars. And the cash and the tech are about to flow freely.