America’s Contradictory Yemen Policies

Reuters has an investigation today of the ways in which the Saudi-led War in Yemen has empowered Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group’s local affiliate. While it’s been relatively obvious to observers for some time that AQAP had benefitted from the conflict, the extent of their newfound control and wealth as detailed in the article is fascinating.

Thanks to the seizure of the city of Mukalla, AQAP now controls Yemen’s third largest port, a position that Reuters estimates has allowed them to earn up to $2 million per day in fees and taxes. Extortion of businesses, including around $1.4 million from the state oil company, has also provided an easy revenue source, as has the far less subtle method of simply robbing the city’s banks.

Perhaps of more interest is AQAP’s approach to providing civic services and stability. While it’s untrue that Al Qaeda has never experimented with state-building before, such a strategy has more typically been associated with ISIS. As the Reuters investigation notes,  in Mukalla, Al Qaeda is trying to present themselves as a less cruel and brutal ruler than ISIS, an approach which seems to be working with some Yemeni citizens who fear a return to instability.

So entrenched is the group that it attempted to set up a formal profit-sharing deal with the national government to split oil revenues. It is even managing taxes for the citizens of Mukalla, cancelling payroll taxes and promoting various populist policies. All of this is a remarkable feat for a group which has been the focus of concerted US drone strikes and counterterrorism activities for more than a decade.

But it should not be surprising. The ongoing GCC-backed military campaign has effectively ignored AQAP in its single-minded focus on the Houthi rebels and their allies. There is even evidence that AQAP fighters have fought alongside the Saudi-backed militias.

Meanwhile, the Saudi-led campaign – designed to restore exiled President Hadi and his government – has been bloody and ineffectual. Not only has it created one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, its forces have stalled south of the capital without meeting their key objectives.

Today’s report really highlights the inherent contradictions in America’s Yemen policy. By backing the Saudi-led campaign, the U.S. is allowing Al Qaeda to accumulate wealth and territory, effectively undermining at least a decade of counterterrorism work inside Yemen. Adding another wrinkle to this is the fact that the Houthi rebels have often fought against AQAP inside Yemen.

While much criticism of the war in Yemen has focused on humanitarian issues, the sheer reactiveness of our Yemen policy and utter lack of any overarching strategy is worrying. Indeed, the effectiveness of some of those past policies, particularly drone strikes, is itself debatable. Studies actually suggest that there are only limited situations in which decapitation strikes are effective.

Yet the gains made by AQAP serve to highlight that any benefit produced by U.S. attacks on AQAP training camps or other counterterrorism work during the last decade is being rapidly undermined by our support for the current war.