Tag Archives: military intervention

The Yemen Catastrophe: Beset by Contradictions of Will and Intellect

28 Sep

[Prefatory Note: This post modifies an article published in Middle East Eye on September 21, 2015, with title, “Yemen pays the price for Saudis’ sectarian paranoia.” Whether the Saudis are being paranoid about political developments in their neighbors (Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen) or prudent in view of regional threats to the stability of the Kingdom is difficult to ascertain. However this issue is resolved, portraying what has gone wrong as a consequence of sectarianism or an expansionist Iran, evades the real challenges being posed in Yemen, in Syria, and elsewhere in the region. Only in Iraq, where American occupation policy injected

a self-defeating sectarianism as the centerpiece of its post-Saddam Hussein state-building project, does this optic misused when applied to Middle East conflict seem to explain the course of developments, including the alignment of Iraq’s current leaders with Iran rather than with their supposed liberators from the West!]

 

 

 

Yemen Catastrophe: Beset by Contradictions of Will and Intellect

 

Any attempt to provide a coherent account of the political strife afflicting Yemen is bound to fail. The country is crucible of contradictions that defy normal categories of rational analysis. If we look beyond the political fog that envelops the conflict the tragic circumstances of acute suffering imposed on the civilian population do emerge with stark clarity. Long before the outbreak of civil warfare, Yemen was known to be the poorest country in the region, faced with looming food and water scarcities. The UN estimates 80% of the population is in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, 40% live on less than $2 per day. Further there are high risks of mass famine and epidemic outbreaks of disease will occur, while continuing chaos is a near certainty, with the prospect of yet another wave of desperate migrants swept ashore in Europe.

 

Against this background, the UN Security Council seems shockingly supportive of a major Saudi military intervention via sustained air attacks that started in March 2015, severely aggravating the overall situation by unanimously adopting a one-sided anti-Houthi Resolution 2216. This Saudi use of force is contrary to international law, violates the core principle of the UN Charter, and magnifies the violent disruption of Yemeni society. The success of the Houthi insurgency from the north that swept the Yemeni leadership from power, taking over the capital city of Sanaa, was perversely treated by the Security Council as a military coup somehow justifying the intervention by a Saudi led coalition of Gulf countries pledged to restore the ‘legitimate’ government to power. To grasp the geopolitics at play it is clarifying to recall that the 2013 blatant military coup in Egypt, with much bloodier reprisals against the displaced elected rulers, aroused not a murmur of protest in the halls of the UN. Once more the primacy of geopolitics is showcased in the Middle East. It’s not what you do, but who does it, that matters when it comes to a UN response.

 

What makes it even more difficult to make sense of developments in Yemen is the geopolitical tendency, as abetted by the media, to reduce incredibly complex national histories and the interplay of multiple contending forces to a simplistic story of Sunni versus Shia rivalry for the control of the country. Such a prism of interpretation, above all, allows Saudi Arabia to portray once again the strife in Yemen as another theater of the wider region proxy war pitting Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies against Iran, which is a guaranteed way of securing U.S. and Israeli backing. The same rationale has served the Kingdom well (and the world badly) in explaining why it supports anti-Assad forces in Syria during the last several years. It also was the pretext for intervening in Bahrain in 2011 to crush a popular pro-democracy uprising. If considered more objectively we begin to understand that this sectarian optic obscures more than it reveals, and not accidentally.

 

For instance, when it came to Egypt, however, the sectarian template was completely discarded, and the Saudis immediately used their financial muscle to help the anti-Muslim Brotherhood coup in 2012 led by General Sisi to consolidate its control over the country. Even when Israel attacked Gaza a year ago, seeking to destroy Hamas, a Sunni Islamic version of the Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia made no secret of the startling fact that it gave Tel Aviv a green light. What emerges, then, is not a regional politics based on sectarian priorities, but rather a pathological preoccupation with regime stability in the Saudi monarchy, with anxieties arising whenever political tendencies emerge in the region that elude its control, and are perceived as threatening. Part of the truer explanation of Saudi pattern of behavior also has to do with the Faustian Bargain struck with the powerful Wahabi establishment, which has allowed the Saud royal clan to flourish at home while spending billions to spread the most repressive version of Islam far and wide to madrassas throughout Asia. The fact that the application of Wahabism at home, including more than 100 beheadings already this year and confinement of women to an extent that makes the Islamic Republic of Iran appear liberal by comparison, is a further sign that international clamor of human rights is selective to put it mildly.

 

The people of Yemen are paying a huge price for this brand of Saudi violent security politics. Whether it is paranoia at work or a healthy respect for the mass unpopularity of its policies, or some mixture, is difficult to assess. Yet what seems clear is that much of the world is lulled to sleep, not taking the trouble to peer below this sectarian cover story. Only scant account taken of the fact that the real threats to regional order in Yemen do not come from a reasonable Houthi insistence on power-sharing political arrangements, but mainly arise from the presence in Yemen of Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS that have been long targeted by American drones as part of the war of the terror ever since 2007. So while the West supports the Saudi fight against the Shia Houthis at the same time it does its best to weaken their most formidable domestic opposition, and in the process further alienates the Yemeni civilian population by its military tactics, which recruits more extremists committed to fighting against this second form of external intervention that finds no basis in international law and enjoys the tacit support of the UN Security Council.

 

If this was not enough to make the Yemeni crystal ball opaque, there is the internal alignment of forces. On the one side, the 2012 successor regime to the corrupt dictatorial rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh that is headed by its equally corrupt former vice president, Abd Rabbaah Mansour Hadi, now apparently ‘governing’ from exile, although rumored to be seeking a return to Aden. On the anti-regime side, in addition to the Houthis, are the main military and police forces that still respond to the authority of the ousted leader, Saleh, who has returned to the Yemen struggle to oppose the Saudi intervention and have helped turn the tide of battle on the ground against the Hadi-led government. Despite this adverse battlefield reality, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Adel al-Jubeir, was quoted as saying “We will do whatever it takes to protect the legitimate government of Yemen from falling.” Tragically, what this seems to mean, is reducing the country to a shambles that brings starvation and disease to the population, and possibly escalating at some future point of frustration by the launch of a ground offensive. There are confirmed reports of a massing of Saudi troops close to the Yemen border.

 

At this point, it is difficult to know what would bring some kind of peace and stability to Yemen. What we do know is that both the sectarian optic, Saudi intervention, and American drone warfare are dead end options. The beginning of a constructive approach is to take root causes of the current conflict into account. Several need to be considered. There is a long experience of division in the country between the north and the south, and this means that any unity government for the whole of Yemen can only be sustained by an iron-fisted dictator like Saleh or through a genuine power-sharing federalist kind of arrangement based on decentralized autonomy and a weak central governmental structure. Beyond this, the country bears the scars of Ottoman rule intermixed with a British presence in Aden and the surrounding area, vital to earlier colonial priorities of controlling the Suez and the trade routes to the East.

 

Additionally, and often forgotten and ignored, Yemen remains a composite of tribes that still command the major loyalty of people and reign supreme in many locales. The modern European insistence on sovereign states in the Middle East never succeeded in overcoming the primacy of Yemeni tribal identities. Any possibility of political stability requires subsidizing and respecting Yemen’s tribes as Saudi Arabia did during Saleh’s dictatorship (1990-2012) or creating a multi-colored quilt of autonomous tribal polities. When the background of the north/south split and persisting tribalism are taken into account recourse to the Shia/Sunni divide or the Riyadh/Tehran rivalry as an explanation of Yemen’s strife-ridden country is more than a simplistic evasion of a far more complicated reality. It is a cruel and futile fantasy.

 

What should be done, given this overall situation? One potential key to achieving some kind of peace in Yemen is held by policymakers in Washington. So long as the U.S. Government remains beholden to the rulers in Saudi monarchy, to the extremists running Israel, and insistent on striking at AQAP targets with drone missiles, this key is unusable. This combination of factors is what makes the wider political turmoil in the Middle East stuck on a lethal fast moving treadmill. How to get off the treadmill, that is the question for which there answers, but as yet no relevant political will.

 

There are two obvious moves, neither ideal, but with the modest goal of a first step in creating a new political order: first, negotiate a ceasefire that includes an end to the Saudi intervention; secondly, establish a more credible revival of the National Dialogue Conference that two years ago made a failed attempt at Gulf initiative in Sanaa to find a power-sharing arrangement. It did not help matters then that two successive Houthi representatives at the diplomatic discussions were assassinated on their way to participate. What is needed is establishing a political transition sensitive both to the north/south split and the strength of Yemeni tribes coupled with massive economic assistance from outside, as well as the establishment of a UN peacekeeping presence tasked with implementation and the termination of all forms of external armed intervention. Nothing less has any chance of working.

 

Such a rational path is currently blocked, especially by the intense militancy of the aggressive Saudi leadership of King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, and his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Secretary of Defense, the apparent champion of military intervention. The United States, with its special relationship to Israel, its strong ties to Saudi Arabia, and faith in drone led counterterrorism seems to be swallowing the central contradiction between opposing both its real adversaries, AQAP and ISIS, and its implicit ally, the Houthis. Instead of treating the enemy of their enemy as a friend, Washington has reversed the proverb. This Gordian Knot is strangling the people of Yemen. Cutting it will require a drastic break with current policy. The way forward is evident, but how to get there is not, in the meantime the bodies pile up in what has long been considered the poorest country in the region severely stressed by the prospect of severe water scarcities.

  

Why Foreign Military Intervention Usually Fails in the 21st Century

1 Nov

 

 

When Nehru was taking a train on his return to India after studying abroad when he read of the Japanese victory over Russia in the 1904-05 Russo Japanese War. At that moment he had an epiphany, realizing the hitherto unthinkable, that the British Empire was vulnerable to Indian nationalism. An earlier understanding of the colonial reality by native peoples generally subscribed to the postulates of hard power primacy making it futile or worse to challenge a colonial master, although throughout history there were always pockets of resistance. This soft power attribute of colonial hard power by way of intimidation and a façade of invincibility is what made colonialism efficient and profitable for so long at the great expense of colonized peoples.

 

A traditional colonial occupation assumes that the foreign domineering presence, while oppressive and exploitative, refrains from ethnic cleansing or genocide in relation to the indigenous population. When settler versions of colonialism emerged in relation to the Western Hemisphere and regions occupied by traditional peoples that were without either population density or some kind of industrial capability, the occupier managed to achieve enduring control typically relying on brutal means to establish its state-building claim via some form of dispossession that successfully superseded indigenous identities. Thus the indigenous identity is marginalized or extinguished, and the settler identity is legitimized as the ‘true’ identity.

 

There is still a mysterious connection between military inferiority and political victory. It seems to defy common sense and the pragmatic wisdom of political elites that believe in the historical agency of hard power long after the empirical record casts severe doubt on such ‘realist’ claims. Of course, and it should not be overlooked, if an occupied people mistakenly chooses to risk its future by militarily challenging the occupier on the battlefield it is likely to lose, and may suffer extreme losses. Military resistance is possible, but it needs to be calibrated to the interplay of unequal capabilities and take advantage of elements of conflict that favor the militarily weaker side.

 

As Tolstoy portrays in War and Peace the extraordinary Russian resilience displayed in defeating and expeling the superior military forces of Napoleon’s France, it was a matter of tactically retreating to the point that French supply lines were stretched beyond their capacities to maintain their alien and foreign presence, especially given the rigors of the Russian winter; Hitler’s war machine experienced a similar devastating defeat at the hands of the outgunned Soviet defensive forces who also understood the benefits of withdrawal. In effect, there are tactical, geographical, ideological, normative dimensions of conflict that when intelligently activated can neutralize the seemingly decisive advantages of the militarily superior side that has the best weaponry. The history of imperial decline also illustrates the eventual neutralization of the sharp realist edge that had been earlier achieved through battlefield dominance.

 

The architects of colonial expansion made ideological claims that were able to give their economic and political ambitions a kind of moral justification. It was Europe’s moral hubris to insist upon an imperial entitlement premised on the supposed civilizational and racial superiority of Western peoples. Such a rationale for conquest and occupation put forward an apparent normative claim to govern backward peoples, and additionally argued that more advanced industrial practice make more efficient use of resources than did the native population.

 

In the period since World War II, considering the weakening of the European colonial powers, a determined drive for nationalist self-empowerment spread to all of Asia and Africa. Each situation was different, and in some the colonial power left more or less willingly after a period of struggle, as in India, while in others long wars ensued as in Indochina and Algeria. The wave of anti-colonial successes politically transformed world order, creating dozens of new states that reshaped the political landscape of the United Nations. The anti-colonial movement enjoyed extraordinary success in achieving formal independence for colonized people, but it did not end the role of hierarchy in structuring international relations and the world economy. The geopolitical ascendancy of the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as the capitalist world economy sustained on a material basis the exploitative and dominant relationship of the West to the non-West.

 

During the Cold War, geopolitical rivalry and American efforts at counter-revolution directed at left-oriented political developments, led to military interventions designed to impose limits on the exercise of the right of self-determination. The Soviet interventions in East Europe, such as Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 were emblematic of such a pattern within the state socialist bloc of countries. The United States relied on covert interventions whenever possible (as in Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954), and resorted to military interventions when necessary to uphold its strategic and ideological interests. The Vietnam War was the most important example of a full-fledged intervention designed to prevent the emergence of a left-leaning government that would strengthen Communist influence in South Asia.

 

The United States enjoyed complete military dominance in Vietnam throughout the decade long war, having mastery of air, sea, and land, yet proved vulnerable to certain defensive tactics of guerrilla warfare. The war was lost by the United States in the end because its political system lost patience with its inability to establish stability in support of a Vietnamese leadership that was anti-Communist and dependent on the West. Some militarists contend that the war was lost on TV in American living rooms (seeing the body bags of Americans killed in Vietnam swayed public opinion) or because the military presence that reached a half million relied on conscripted troops that gave rise to a student led anti-war movement. In other words, the war was lost politically, not militarily.

 

Such an understanding is partly true, but it overlooks the role of national resistance in Vietnam, and attributes the outcome to the faltering political will of the intervening side. The great advantage of those national forces seeking to expel foreign occupation, even if indirect as in Vietnam where the United States was nominally supporting one side in a civil war, is its familiarity with the terrain and its far greater stake in the outcome. Henry Kissinger made the apt observation that in a counterinsurgency war if the counterinsurgent side doesn’t win, it loses, while if the insurgent side doesn’t lose, it wins. Such a statement, not surprisingly considering its source, overlooks the role of people, especially the greater steadfastness of those fighting for the independence of their country as compared with those seeking to impose an alien or foreign solution on a conflict. The foreign intervener calculates whether it is worth the cost, and in a democratic society, the mixture of casualties and the absence of a timely victory, gradually undermines the popular enthusiasm that may have accompanied the earliest expressions of support. Patience among the citizenry runs out when the foreign war does not seem to be closely connected with the defense of the national homeland. This became especially clear in the United States during the latter stages of the Vietnam War when the American public began to perceive a ‘credibility gap’ between the government’s claim that it was winning the war and a more sober account of a stalemate without a victorious end in sight. For the Vietnamese, this was not a matter of whether to give up or not, but how to continue their struggle despite their material inferiority and the adversities associated with the devastation of their country. The Vietnamese leadership was prepared for every eventuality, including a 50-year retreat to mountainous regions, being convinced that at some point the foreigners would tire of the conflict and go home.

 

The United States as global hegemon is incapable of learning such lessons or accepting the ethos of self-determination that has such salience in the post-colonial world. Instead it tries over and over again to reinvent counterinsurgency warfare, hoping finally to discover the path leading to victory. The American strategic community believed the lessons of Vietnam were to build better support at home for the war effort, embark on war with sufficient force to achieve victory quickly, and abandon the drafting of its military personnel from among its youth. The warmakers also tried to design weaponry and tactics so as minimize casualties in these one-sided wars for the intervening side. At first, the adjustments seemed to work as the adversary was foolish enough to meet the foreign challenge on the battlefield as in the 1991 Iraq War or where the military intervention was itself seeking to remove Serbian foreign rule as in Kosovo in 1999. There was enthusiasm in the Washington think tanks for what were thought to be a new triumphal era of ‘zero casualty wars.’ Of course, there were zero (or very low) casualties, as in these two wars, but only for the foreign intervener; the society being attacked from the air endured heavy casualties, and much devastation, as well as the demoralizing experience of total helplessness.

 

In the post-9/11 atmosphere of ‘a global war on terrorism’ this same geopolitical logic applies. The violence is carried to wherever on the planet a threat is perceived, and the victims are not only those who are perceived, whether rightly or wrongly as posing the threat, but also to the innocent civilians that happen to be living in the same vicinity. There is no deference to the sovereignty of other countries or to civilian innocence, and a unilateral right of preemptive attack is claimed in a manner that would be refused to any adversary of the West. The weaponry is designed to minimize political friction at home, exemplified by the growing reliance on attack drones that can inflict strikes without ever risking casualties for the attacker. Such weaponry allows war to persist almost permanently, especially as it serves both bureaucratic and private sector interests, and produces an almost enveloping securitization of the political atmosphere, destroying democratic freedoms in the process.

 

As the outcomes in Afghanistan and Iraq show, despite the enormous military and economic effort by the United States, the political outcome was disappointing, if not yet clearly a defeat. And the results are strategically worse from an American perspective than the original provocation and goals.Putting the point provocatively, many in the Washington policymaking world would be secretly glad if there occurred a second coming in Iraq of Saddam Hussein who alone could restore unity and order to the country. The American version of a civilizing mission was ‘democracy promotion,’ which proved just as unpalatable to the population being attacked and occupied as were the earlier moral claims of outright colonial administrations. Indirect adverse consequences from a U.S. perspective of these failed intervention included the intensification of Sunni/Shi’ia sectarian tensions throughout the region and the establishment of fertile breeding grounds for anti-Western political extremism.

 

The West also builds support for its militarist approaches to contemporary forms of conflict by demonizing its adversary, ignoring their grievances, whether legitimate or not. The politics of demonization that fits so neatly with ascribing terrorist behavior to the other also has the effect of rejecting diplomacy and compromise. Yet interestingly, there is a willingness to regard yesterday’s demon as today’s ally. This shuffling of ‘the enemy’ has been happening constantly in the setting of Iraq and Syria. The abrupt entry of IS on the scene is the most spectacular example of such a shuffling of alignments, having the effect of suspending the anti-Assad efforts of the United States and Europe.

 

There is more to these unlearned lessons than strategic failures, and being on the wrong side of history. These venture cause millions of ordinary people in distant countries to bear the terrifying brunt of modern weaponry that kills, wounds, displaces, and traumatizes. For the intervener the outcome is at worst a regrettable or even tragic mistake, but the society back home persists in its complacent affluence; but for the target societies, in contrast, the experience of such foreign military encroachment is experienced as swallowing a massive dose of criminality in a global setting in which the criminals scandalously enjoy total impunity.

 

Given the way elites think and militarism is structured into the bloodstream of major states, foreign military intervention is intrinsic to the war system. We must work now as hard to eliminate war as earlier centuries worked to eliminate slavery. Nothing less will suffice to rescue the planet from free fall to disaster.

 

In the end, we have reached a stage in the political development of life on the planet where civilizational and species survival itself depends on the urgency of building an effective movement against the war system that remains indispensable to sustain hierarchy and exploitation, wastes huge amounts of resources, and dangerously diverts problem-solving priorities from climate change and the elimination of nuclear weaponry. Unless such a radical transformation of the way life on the planet is undertaken in the decades ahead, two intertwined developments are likely to make the future inhospitable to human habitation even if the worst catastrophes can be avoided: globalization morphing into various forms of authoritarian and oppressive political leadership intertwined with extremist movements of resistance that have no vision beyond that of striking back at the oppressors. How to evade such a dark future is what should be everywhere preoccupying persons of good will.