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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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”