State Department ends Yemen arms embargo
In an earlier opening to US-based military contractors and suppliers, the ITAR was revised in August 2011 to allow the export of non-lethal defense articles and services to Yemen.
In the latest ITAR update, the State Department asserted that lifting the embargo would enhance US national security and that, “Yemen has taken important steps to stabilize the country, including holding successful presidential elections in February 2012.”
The 33-year military dictatorship of Field Marshall Ali Abdullah Saleh came to an end following a year of nationwide, massive street demonstrations demanding complete regime change. Hundreds of unarmed citizens were killed and over ten thousand wounded as Yemen’s armed forces, headed by Saleh’s relatives, tried to shoot, bomb and burn the protesters into submission.
Saleh and his regime, notorious for brutality and grand corruption, received immunity under a US and Saudi sponsored deal in exchange for Saleh’s resignation. Despite ample evidence of war crimes and mass financial malfeasance prior to and during the Yemeni revolution, Saleh was neither exiled nor sanctioned. There has been no accounting for the billions stolen from the Yemeni treasury. The US maintains that Saleh is an esteemed leader, welcomed on the political scene.
With 10 million registered voters in Yemen, 6.6 million voted in February’s single candidate election for Saleh’s vice president, Abdu Mansour Hadi. As president, Hadi has achieved significant gains against al Qaeda following decades of Saleh’s appeasement and manipulation of the fanatical group.
However Saleh loyalists continue to thwart progress in Yemen administratively and through covert acts like bombing oil pipelines and a new round of al Qaeda jailbreaks. Saleh’s paid pens launched a smear campaign against the new Human Rights Minister, Hooria Mansour, prompted her boycott of cabinet meetings.
Among the many challenges Hadi faces, the most urgent is child starvation. More than one million Yemeni children are acutely malnourished and 60% suffer from chronic malnutrition, UNICEF said this week. Yemen is also facing a devastating water shortage and 70% of citizens have no access to healthcare.
Following the revolution, Yemenis remain largely fragmented and at odds, with many groups and individuals jostling to achieve narrow interests and goals. The lack of communications infrastructure and political experience means that rival groups and former opponents have yet to form a national consensus that the starving children are the nation’s top priority. Saleh’s overthrow has not yet shifted the balance of power between the citizenry and the elite, but instead instead resulted in a partial and ongoing re-shuffle of elites.
As a result, protests across the nation have continued following the election, demanding the removal of Saleh’s son Ahmed Saleh, commander of the Special Forces, and Saleh’s nephew Yahya Saleh, commander of the Central Security. The pair are the primary conduits of US counter-terror efforts and recipients of US CT funds and equipment. Ahmed Saleh is reported to own four condos in Washington, D.C. for which he paid over five million dollars, in cash.
Continuing US loyalty to Saleh’s relatives baffles and frustrates Yemenis. Nobel Laureate Tawakkol Karman recently stated, “I cannot believe the US didn’t know of Saleh’s relationship to al Qaeda.” Karman also described ousted president Ali Saleh as “the real hand” behind al Qaeda.
Judge Hamoud al Hittar was Minister of Endowments and spearheaded Yemen’s earlier efforts to reform imprisoned al Qaeda operatives through dialog and Koranic debate. He resigned the Ministry in 2011 following regime excesses during the revolution. Al Hittar recently described Ansar al Sharia, the extremist group that occupied several southern towns until Hadi’s election, as a blend of al Qaeda operatives, Saleh loyalists and those with local grievances. He also said that “some relatives of Saleh personally contacted with Al-Qaeda operatives and hampered the completion of investigation on the case of USS Cole.” Many have warned of the nexus between Saleh’s mafia and al Qaeda.
In June 2012, President Obama notified Congress of direct US military actions in Yemen, as required by the 1973 War Powers Resolution, stating “The U.S. military has also been working closely with the Yemeni government to operationally dismantle and ultimately eliminate the terrorist threat posed by al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the most active and dangerous affiliate of al-Qa’ida today. Our joint efforts have resulted in direct action against a limited number of AQAP operatives and senior leaders in that country who posed a terrorist threat to the United States and our interests.”
In addition to the State Department’s July 3 move to open the floodgates for arms and contractors, the Pentagon announced that it will resume shipments of about $112 million in weapons and equipment for counter-terrorism operations, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wrote to congressional defense committees on July 5.
Yemen received $252 million in counter-terror funding through mid 2010. Shipments were later suspended after state forces, including the Air Force and units commanded by Ahmed and Yahya Saleh, turned their weapons against protesters.
US humanitarian and development aid to Yemen is expected to top $175 million this year.
The faulty Blue Lantern
Yemeni protesters and elites and US officials all consider the restructuring of the Yemeni military and security forces as a top priority. However the phrase has differing meanings to each group. For Yemenis “restructuring” means decommissioning Saleh’s relatives; to the US it means arming them.
Additionally, many in Yemen and the US have valid concerns about the US ability to effectively monitor US military shipments to Yemen. US embassy personnel have had difficulty in conducting “Blue Lantern” spot checks on US supplied weapons as far back as 2004, according to one Wikileaks cable.
As a result, in July 2008, the first-ever bilateral agreement between the Yemeni and American armed forces was concluded. In a press release posted to the website of the US embassy in Sana’a, then Ambassador Seche said the End Use Monitoring Agreement (EUMA) for U.S-sponsored military and security assistance would prevent “the misuse or illicit transfer of these items and service.” The press release and all references to the 2008 EUMA have since been deleted from the US embassy’s website.
Despite the EUMA, in 2009 US trained counter-terror units and US supplied equipment were routinely diverted to internal armed conflicts in northern Yemen, according to diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks. “In the cables, US diplomats complain that their requests for Yemen to halt such diversions were having little effect,” Human Rights Watch remarked in calling for an investigation into counter-terrorism assistance to Yemen.
A January 2010 report issued by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations found that some weapons shipped to the Yemeni military could not be accounted for and that the Yemeni military was “likely” diverting US counter terror assistance to wage war against their own citizens in the north. The Foreign Relations Committee’s fact finding mission further expressed uncertainty that US Embassy personnel fully understood what the EUMA required. The report noted,
This potential misuse of security assistance underscores the importance of enhancing the current (2008) end-use monitoring regime for U.S.-provided equipment. Indeed, the existing end-use monitoring protocols in place have revealed discrepancies between U.S. records of security assistance and those that are in the possession of Yemeni defense forces.
At a House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting on Yemen a month later, Member Ron Klein (D-FL) noted, “The worst thing we can have for our country, and our troops, and our interests over there is to find that U.S. weapons are being used against us.”
In response, Jeffery Feltman, Assistant Secretary of State assured the committee that, “We’re very aware of the human — of a poor human rights record in Yemen. We’re very aware of the fact that the country is awash in a black — in a black market on weapons. So these factors very much play into how we do the monitoring.”
In December 2010, Human Rights Watch urged the US to “investigate Yemen’s apparent diversion of US counterterrorism assistance to an abusive military campaign unrelated to terrorist threats and suspend such aid unless the misuse has stopped.” However, US support was only curtailed in mid-2011 when such abuses occurred in the full glare of the western media attending the popular uprising against Saleh’s regime.
Fanning the fire
The impending influx of private contractors and private weapons sales to a variety of end users in Yemen permitted under the latest ITAR revision magnify concerns about the diversion of US supplied weapons onto the Yemeni black market and their use against civilians and for political ends
With the loyalty of some units in the military and security services, and vast chunks of the state bureaucracies, lying with former President Saleh and other competing commanders, President Hadi’s task of wresting control of the state from al Qaeda and private militias is daunting.
The ITAR’s revision in its policy on Yemen may arise from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s vision for a State Department that actively prevents low intensity conflicts. In a speech at a military trade show, Ms Clinton cited US intervention in Yemen as an example of her vision of a more integrated and effective nexus between foreign partners, US diplomats and Special Forces, the Danger Room reports.
The State Department has stood up a new bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, which Clinton said “is working to put into practice lessons learned over the past decade and institutionalize a civilian surge capacity to deal with crises and hotspots.” Together, Special Operations Forces and State’s new Conflict Bureau are the twin arms of an expanding institution for waging small, low-intensity shadow wars all over the world.
But rumor has it Clinton’s vision has its detractors — and that its implementation in hotspots such as Yemen and Congo has made some Special Operations Forces officers very unhappy. In Yemen, in particular, some commando officers look upon the State Department’s expanding shadow-war powers as a bureaucratic intrusion on what should be military territory. A source tells Danger Room that in Yemen State has effectively hijacked all U.S. counter-terrorism funding, requiring a labyrinthine approval process for even small expenditures. According to detractors, the funding control is a way of cementing State’s expansion into the Special Operations Forces traditional remit.
The introduction of private defense contractors and commercial weapons vendors to Yemen in an effort to stabilize the state, enhance its reach and thwart al Qaeda carries both potential risk and reward. With the US’s proven inability to keep track of prior military shipments, the revision of the ITAR has the potential to inflame low intensity conflicts already underway. Many of Yemen’s internal disputes have deep roots and long histories; others are a result of the reconfigurations that occurred during and after the 2011 Yemen Revolution.
At the same time the Yemeni military and security services are sorely in need of re-organization, training, standardized methods and modern equipment. A strong legal framework including respect for civil and human rights, and the rights of the soldiers themselves, needs be introduced from the top down and the bottom up. An impartial body in Yemen should also provide oversight and limitations on imports allowed by the revised US ITAR.
Yemeni service men and women, police and security officers, are in the cross hairs of al Qaeda with assassinations and suicide bombers targeting them nearly daily. And like other sectors of the ravaged and dysfunctional Yemen state, the military and security services could benefit from international aid and support. But the focus of the US State Department must remain on creating an effective and cohesive national force that serves all the Yemeni people and not only urgent US counter-terror interests.