Friday, January 30, 2015

Yemen and the Houthis: The Afghan Model and US Policy Implications

     The Arab Gulf region is reeling from the meteoric rise of the separatist Houthi group that has taken control of Yemen’s capital and caused President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to resign.  The United States is watching closely as Yemen has been an important partner in counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), thought to be the most active and dangerous of the al-Qaeda franchises.  With reports of an apparent security vacuum caused by the resignation of President Hadi, fears of greater AQAP influence could soon be realized.  The group already enjoys freedom of movement in remote regions of Yemen.  The next steps are critical for US foreign policy in terms of continued counterterrorism operations against AQAP (which the Houthi’s bitterly despise as well) and political stability in the region.

     The United States is no stranger to regime change or, a more unattractive term, nation building.  The U.S. played a role in the transition in Yemen that led to President Hadi’s rule after the Arab Spring protests in 2012.  The US also ousted the Taliban’s authoritative and repressive rule in Afghanistan following the 2001 invasion in retaliation of the 9/11 attacks.  Some parallels can be drawn from the rise and rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan to the situation in Yemen.  There have already been comparisons between the two nations that “Yemen could become another Afghanistan—a failed state dominated by warlords and extremists.”  This dire vision has not yet been realized but it could pose drastic problems for the US and its allies.  To better understand how the situation in Yemen could play out, it is important to examine Afghanistan and the Taliban’s near decade rule. 

The Taliban


     Afghanistan was thrust into a state of unrest and uncertainty following the war with the Communist Soviet Union.  A Soviet brokered agreement left Najibullah Ahmedzai in charge of the nation.  Najibullah, as he was known, was a former member of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, a communist ruling party established in the mid-1960s.  Najibuallah was thought of as a weak leader and his power began to erode when Soviet funds declined to a minimum.  In 1992, he stepped down, which initiated a major rift with several ethnic groups hungry for power.

     An agreement was struck in 1992 and Burhannudin Rabbani, the leader of a Tajik-dominated party called the Islamic Society, became the president of Afghanistan.  Rabbani, under the deal, would only rule until 1994.  Rabbani did not step down in 1994 citing that without a clear successor, the nation would tail-spin into unrest.

     Simultaneously, during Rabbani’s rule, the Taliban Movement began.  During 1993-1994, members and scholars of the mujahideen or “holy warriors” who, backed by the U.S., viciously fought the Soviet invasion, began to study at Islamic institutions in Pakistan.  The Taliban, largely ethnic Pashtuns, opposed the regime of Rabbani and viewed him as corrupt and a threat to Pashtuns.  Between civil strife in Afghanistan from 1992-1996, the Taliban garnered a great deal of support against the Rabbani government.  In 1996, they took over the capital of Kabul forcing Rabbani to withdraw.  Wielding their new-found power, Taliban members entered the United Nations facility in Kabul where former president Najibuallah was seeking refuge and in an exhibition of brutality hanged him along with his family and aides.

     The Taliban inflicted their harsh interpretations of Islamic or Sharia law across Afghanistan from September 1996 until 2001 when the U.S. invasion forced senior Taliban leaders to flee to neighboring Pakistan.  During their rule, the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, granted safe-haven to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, under the condition they refrain from external operations.  Despite bin Laden’s disobedience to Mullah Omar’s conditions, Omar, who is considered “Commander of the Faithful” to whom bin Laden and his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri pledged fealty, refused to extradite bin Laden to the U.S. following the African Embassy bombings.

     The U.S. government refused to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government in Afghanistan (in fact, only Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan recognized the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan).  Diplomatic efforts failed and financial and economic sanctions were levied on the group exert political pressure.

     It soon became clear that the safe-haven the Taliban provided al-Qaeda was a danger to U.S. security and its interests.  However, the Taliban, unlike al-Qaeda and its Pakistani sister organization, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, was and still is inward-looking and not concerned with external operations.  According to a recent report released by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, “As recently as July 2014, Mullah [Omar] made very clear that the goal of his organization was limited in terms of expanding outside of the borders of Afghanistan: ‘We assure the world and the neighbors as we assured them in the past that our struggles are aimed only at forming an independent Islamic regime and obtaining independence of [Afghanistan]. We are not intending to interfere in the [internal] affairs of the region and the countries of the world, nor do we want to harm them.’”  Despite this fact, the Taliban’s sanctuary offering, combined with their century’s old authoritative rule, made them a U.S. national security concern. 

Yemen and the Houthis


     As described above, the Houthis have taken over Yemen’s capital and are intent on exerting their influence over the nation, though the Congressional Research Service notes, “in practical terms, [they] would be unable to effectively control all of Yemen.”  The Houthi family are separatists who have mobilized an entire movement, now referred to collectively as the Houthis, based on their perceived disenfranchisement by the central government in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.  The Houthis practice Zaydi Shiism, placing them at odds with the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia.  The Saudis staged cross border attacks in Yemen in 2009 to quell burgeoning influence by the Houthis.  Saudi Arabia views the Houthis as heretics who serve as a proxy for Shia Iran in the decades-long Gulf struggle between the Saudis and the Ayatollahs of Iran.

     Similar to Afghanistan, Yemen has maintained a history of unrest rife with political transitions.  In modern history, the nation was split between the north and the south.  During the 1960’s both North and South Yemen faced civil wars and clashed with each other as well.  It was not until 1990 that the two sections unified and became one nation.  North Yemen’s leader since 1978, Ali Abdullah Saleh, became the president of the new unification.

     Yemen under Saleh faced extreme levels of poverty, corruption and nepotism.  Saleh eventually stepped down following mass protests associated with the broader “Arab Spring” movement.  Following his departure, the Gulf Cooperation Council developed a transition plan, which garnered the support of the U.S. and UN.  Yemen held democratic elections and elected then-vice president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.  Following the election, a National Dialogue Conference (NDC) was to take place to address key concerns facing various ethnic groups and constituencies, one being those in the south who had long felt like second class citizens after the unification process.  Another purpose of the NDC was to consider power sharing options because, “no one group, including the central government, has a monopoly on armed force; various actors can act as ‘spoilers’ to disrupt the system in pursuit of their own interests.”
     The NDC was not successful as several parameters had yet to be addressed including drafting a constitution.  The Houthis began to increase the intensity of their attacks against the central government following the failure of the NDC.  Houthis believe that President Hadi has been ineffective as a leader to curb corruption and rule inclusively. 


     There are clear parallels between the uprisings in Yemen and Afghanistan that led to regimes or groups in charge whom the U.S. views as adversaries (a common chant or motto of the Houtis is “Death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory to Islam.”)  The situation is still playing out day by day in Yemen and the future of governance there is uncertain.

     However, if the Houthis are poised to take authoritative of the capital, there will be widespread bloodshed.  The Afghanistan paradigm differs from the current strife in Yemen in two distinct manners – AQAP and Saudi Arabia.

     AQAP, despite enjoying sanctuary in various regions of Yemen, has sought for greater control of territory and influence in Yemen.  They have constantly clashed with Houthi militants during the Houthis' recent charge.  In fact, Houthis began to enter into AQAP controlled regions signaling they may be willing to confront the group head-on.  AQAP will create serious problems for the Houthis in the future and governing, for any group currently, will be a nearly insurmountable task considering the high militia concentration.

     Saudi Arabia views the Houthis as a direct threat to their regime.  Despite accusations that the Houthis are receiving tactical support and command from Iran, their leaders deny such claims.  The New York Times reported, “The Saudis, who have long been Yemen’s economic lifeline, pumping in more than $4 billion since 2012, say they would rather allow the Houthis to take the blame for the approaching economic collapse than provide aid to an Iranian client.”  Unlike the inward focused Taliban in Afghanistan, the Houthis had previously fought Saudi Arabia.  It is not clear yet if the Saudis will authorize military operations against the Houthis but the Houthi success certainly ups the ante on the regional struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia.      

U.S. Policy and Concerns


     For the United States, ensuring counterterrorism operations against AQAP can continue uninterrupted.  President Obama held Yemen up as a model when he first authorized force against the Islamic State group in Syria.  President Hadi is thought to be a key ally in the global counterterrorism fight.  Robert Baer, former CIA officer stated on CNN, "If we were forced to close down in Sanaa, the embassy, this would be a major foreign policy defeat…We need a government in that country to crack down on al Qaeda. You cannot do this from the air, or the National Security Agency [cannot just] intercept intelligence…We need a strong central government -- whether it is a Houthi one or an independent one."

     There have been some reports that the U.S. is open to working with the Houthis, though, given the Houthis’ rhetoric (“Death to America”), this prospect seems unlikely.

     Looking back to U.S. policy against the Taliban, one could infer the first order to counter Houthis is economic sanctions.  The U.S. has already sanctioned two top Houthi leaders and ex-president Saleh for his alleged role in fomenting the unrest.

     The United States has not officially designated the Houthis as a terrorist group.  The Afghan Taliban has not been designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization under the State Department's definitions but that does not mean the U.S. does not consider them terrorists.  The U.S. has placed the Taliban on a separate list called the Specially Designated Global Terrorists and blocked financial assistance to many of its operatives.  It is unclear what action the U.S. will take against the Houthis in this vein but it all depends on how threatening the Houthis are to the U.S. and its interests.  Again, the Taliban was not an outward-looking organization, but their governance and those to whom they granted sanctuary were problematic.


     The international community will continue to monitor the situation in Yemen.  The instability has regional and global implications far more intricate than what meets the eye.  Considering that Saudi Arabia and other major U.S. Arab partners oppose the Houthi movement (including AQAP), they are likely to face more resistance than did the Taliban in the mid-1990s.  It is important to look back on history and learn from previous missteps or familiar trends.  Afghanistan provides a similar model and the U.S. must be sure to prevent Yemen from becoming “another Afghanistan—a failed state dominated by warlords and extremists.”  The U.S. is nearing the end of that road and does not want to revisit it. 

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