The war against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
That leads us to the final conflict in Yemen: the fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The biggest problem with the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen is that it has distracted both the United States and its key partners—namely, the Emiratis—from the fight against AQAP, one of the few al-Qaeda franchises with the demonstrated will and capability to strike the United States, as evidenced by the group’s indefatigable ability to inconvenience airline passengers in new and inventive ways.
During the Obama administration, we were forever complaining to our Saudi and Emirati partners that their quixotic adventure in Yemen was buying time and space for AQAP to only grow stronger. And while we were not willing to help our Gulf friends bomb the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, we were more than willing to help them counter AQAP. So we attempted to ease the disappointment for our lack of support for a more aggressive campaign against the Houthis by making it clear that we would support our partners where our interests aligned, such as in the fight against Sunni extremism.
In late spring of 2016, U.S. military forces partnered with the Emiratis to seize the port city of Mukalla. The operation was successful, and U.S. planners immediately began working with their Emirati counterparts to do more. A broad concept of operations was developed and briefed to the outgoing Obama administration, which punted on a decision to support such an operation to the incoming administration. (My colleagues in the Obama White House—most notably Vice President Biden’s national security advisor—ridiculed the Trump administration’s blatantly false claim that the Obama administration had planned the raid that killed a Navy SEAL.)
It appears as if the Trump administration is poised to escalate all three of the conflicts described above. More fully backing the Saudi-led campaign carries the most risk. On the one hand, those now in the Trump administration would have noticed the way in which the Obama administration’s halfhearted support to the Saudi-led coalition pleased no one: The Saudis and Emiratis felt betrayed, and critics in the Congress and the human-rights community criticized the administration as if it had been carrying out the campaign itself. Worse, diplomatic efforts to convince the Saudis and Emiratis to climb down from their position were unsuccessful. It’s entirely possible and even reasonable that Trump administration officials have concluded the Saudis and Emiratis have to feel the administration is serious about their security needs to climb down in Yemen.
On the other hand, there were good reasons the Obama administration didn’t more forcefully support the Saudi-led coalition. The first is that many U.S. counterterrorism resources, including military and intelligence assets, are dedicated to destroying the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. It’s not as if the United States has a lot of spare capacity it can suddenly divert to helping the Saudis and Emiratis win in Yemen, not with another war to be won, and not with North Korea rattling its rusty sabers elsewhere. And second, help is what the Saudis and Emiratis will most certainly need: The Saudi military, in particular, has been exposed as a paper tiger by the Yemen conflict. Again, we rock-throwing Americans live in a glass house in this regard: Our own military, The Greatest in the World History, was humbled in both Iraq and Afghanistan by forces not much more advanced than the Houthis. But I struggle to see how the Saudi-led coalition can terminate this conflict through military means—and without some kind of embarrassing climb-down. I hope I’m wrong, and if the Trump administration thinks it’s found a way for a successful assault on Hodeida to hasten the end of the conflict, great, but I fear that if a good answer to this conflict existed, it would have been found by now.