Yemeni supporters of the Shia Huthi movement carry the coffins of comrades who died during recent fighting, Sanaa, 26 September. PHOTO: GETTY
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War without end: 12 years of US drone strikes in Yemen

The “Yemen model” is one of perpetual violence. The limits of what can be done in the name of “counterterrorist” action often appear boundless.

Salem al-Taysi’s big brown eyes stared straight through me. I was trying to ask him about his father, who had been killed six days earlier in a US drone strike that had rocked this barren hillside in remote central Yemen. But Salem did not say a word. The boy, who appeared to be about ten years old, just gazed intently into the middle distance as his younger siblings huddled around him.

It is hard to forget Salem’s eyes. Every time the White House claimed that the 12 civilians, including his father, who were killed in a wedding procession on 12 December were al-Qaeda militants, I thought of him. I remember his brothers and sisters and the 17 other children I met that day who had lost their fathers. I think of the scores of people in the village, living without any support from the government, without electricity or running water, who had lost their main breadwinner.

This is the grim reality of the “Yemen model” touted again last month by the US president, Barack Obama, as he outlined his strategy for tackling the threat of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

It is 12 years since the first US missile strikes hit Yemen. The “Yemen model” is one of perpetual violence, war without end. It is an opaque conflict in which no one knows what qualifies an individual to become a target for US drones, for Yemeni, Saudi or US fighter jets, or for US-trained Yemeni counterterrorism groups. The limits of what can be done in the name of “counterterrorist” action often appear boundless.

Without American boots on the ground, Washington can maintain this never-ending war while facing few questions from the public at home. A YouGov survey on 4 September showed that only 16 per cent of Americans were aware that their government had carried out bomb attacks on Yemen in the previous six months. Washington never claims responsibility for its air or naval strikes. Under the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemeni politicians even lied to their parliament on behalf of Washington and claimed responsibility for US bombings.

In two years’ time, the problem of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap) will pass on to another US president. Obama has managed to stave off an attack by Aqap on the US, though he came close to failure in 2009 when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up a passenger jet. Had the explosives planted in his underwear detonated as planned, the Yemen model as we now know it might have looked very different, though undoubtedly the US focus would still be purely military.

Preoccupied by missile strikes and the training of counterterrorism troops, Washington has failed to tackle the underlying causes of al-Qaeda’s rise in Yemen. In the past five years, the number of al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia supporters and militants has grown.

It is no coincidence that al-Qaeda was able to garner support from local people when it took control of towns in the southern province of Abyan in 2011. In a secessionist area, already hostile towards a northern government perceived as oppressive, residents of the town of Ja’ar (militants renamed it the Islamic Emirate of Waqar) welcomed the insurgents’ ability to maintain the electricity supply and provide security and a justice system where the state had failed.

As Samir al-Mushari, a farmer who was severely burned in an apparent US drone strike on the town, told me in May 2012: “Ansar al-Sharia solved many problems for us that the government hadn’t managed to do for 20 years.” Life was better for many under al-Qaeda until the US-backed campaign to remove the Islamists began in 2012.

Almost three years after the de facto ousting of President Saleh, the transitional government’s limited credibility has been eroded by the worsening humanitarian situation and the lack of security or law and order. A UN-backed political transition process, formulated in 2011, has flagged. The last parliamentary elections were held in 2003 and the social contract has expired. On 21 September, Houthi fighters (the Houthis are a Shia clan) took control of the capital, Sana’a, forcing an agreement that included the dissolution of the government.

Anti-US sentiment has soared in the four years since I first arrived in Yemen. The numbers of Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia fighters have grown. They are spreading across the country and the volume and scope of their attacks have increased. There is still no visible end for the “Yemen model”. For Obama, the endgame will come when he leaves office in 2017. But when will it end for Yemen? 

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood