Washington’s attempts to maintain clout against China and Al Qaeda through the UAE is self-defeating and threatens regional stability.
Despite US President Joe Biden’s apparently firm promises to end the war in Yemen, Washington’s geopolitical concerns could override its willingness to back up these pledges.
The White House confirmed last week that a "small number" of US troops remain in Yemen to fight Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Daesh. It added that Washington is still providing "military advice and limited information" to the Saudi-led coalition for "defensive and training" purposes, with 2,742 troops stationed in Saudi Arabia.
Additionally, the White House announced that Washington is also conducting "a small number of airstrikes" against Al Shabab in Somalia, after former President Donald Trump withdrew American troops from the East African country. On June 15, the Pentagon announced its plans to send dozens of special forces to Somalia.
What’s behind the U-turn on Biden’s plans to withdraw all forces from the country?
Although Yemen’s war has attracted increasing global attention in recent years, many are still unaware of the significance of the Bab al Mandeb strait and its impact on the conflict.
This key chokepoint, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea, serves as a vital lane for international trade. According to some estimates, seven percent of global trade and 30 percent of the world's oil passes through the Bab Al Mandeb.
Traditional US policy aims to secure the strait by maintaining an American presence in Yemen and its Gulf neighbours. Aside from profiting from arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition that intervened in Yemen against the Houthis starting in March 2015, Washington has supported Riyadh so it can maintain influence in Yemen and around the Bab Al Mandeb. It has also approached Yemen through a pro-Saudi lens and ensured a Saudi and US-friendly government for this purpose.
However, the potential harmful effects of continued US operations in Yemen are clear.
On January 29, 2017, just five days after Trump assumed presidency, US Navy Seals launched a spectacularly disastrous raid on AQAP in Al Bayda province. While Al Qaeda remained unharmed, around 25 civilians were killed, including nine children, despite Washington’s claims that there were no civilian casualties.
US airstrikes also increased almost six-fold under Trump compared to the Obama administration, causing further civilian harm.
The US had previously flexed its military power to secure the strategic route during the war. In 2016, it dispatched three warships following a Houthi rebel attack on an Emirati transport ship.
Indeed, the insurgence of Iranian-backed Houthis startled Washington, particularly as the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani claimed in 2018 that the Red Sea was “no longer safe with the presence of US forces.”
The war in Yemen and Washington’s tensions with Tehran have therefore threatened the stability of the Bab Al Mandeb.
Like Yemen, Somalia has attracted the interests of regional and global powers, as it is situated on the other side of the strait. The US has wanted to curtail piracy within Somalia’s shores, which could threaten shipping, while the Al Qaeda-aligned Al Shabab later posed additional threats.
However, China’s military and economic expansion in the Horn of Africa, where it dominates other countries neighbouring the Red Sea like Djibouti, has struck fear in Washington that it could be outmuscled.
Pretext of counter-terrorism
The US’ latest campaign against Al Qaeda and Daesh in Yemen may give the impression that the extremist groups still pose a major threat. However, Al Qaeda has become marginalised following a UAE and US operation from 2017, despite its expansion during Yemen's war to become the transnational faction’s most lethal franchise.
The UAE’s “counter-terrorism” campaign does not mean it was completely against Al Qaeda’s presence. Though Abu Dhabi boasted of a military victory against the faction, it never really fought Al Qaeda significantly.
In one instance, it even paid it to retreat from its major stronghold Mukalla, according to a 2018 Associated Press investigation. The investigation also revealed that Emirati forces had even cooperated with AQAP against the Houthis.
For the UAE, Yemen is a mere pawn in the power game to secure control over the Bab Al Mandeb and bolster global maritime trade. Abu Dhabi is using the pretext of “counter-terrorism” to realise this goal. By playing the “war on terror” card to schmooze Washington, it has also guaranteed substantial US military support.
This has been a deadly pretext, however.
Not only has it prolonged Emirati war efforts in Yemen, but UAE-backed forces have operated a network of secret prisons across the south in which detainees have endured torture. Many of the detainees are ordinary civilians or critics of the UAE-backed forces.
Washington’s prolonged campaign against AQAP will therefore be a boon for Abu Dhabi, which also recently expanded its military presence on Yemen’s strategic Red Sea islands, Mayun and Socotra.
The Biden administration also announced in April that it would proceed with a $23 billion advanced weapons package to the UAE, including state-of-the-art F-35 fighter jets. Although Biden’s administration previously said it would review the Trump-sanctioned deal, it justified pursuing the transaction to maintain a “strong security partnership [with Abu Dhabi],” showing the impact of the UAE’s “counter-terrorism” narratives.
Critics warned that these weapons could fuel further Emirati violations in Yemen and elsewhere regionally.
But Washington’s stated aims of countering the faction are self-limiting: US arms sold to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have ended up in Al Qaeda’s hands.
In May, key US officials including Washington’s special envoy to Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, visited several countries including Oman and the UAE as part of the US’ peace attempts under the Biden administration.
However, as Washington is keen to uphold these strategic ties with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, such initiatives will continue to be futile. Without a genuine peace agreement, Yemen will likely remain unstable, even if the violence between Saudi-backed forces and the Houthis subsides.
Although maintaining the Bab Al Mandeb is vital for securing global trade routes, Washington could instead aid the region with more development and pro-peace measures.
The US’ current stance, however, reveals that despite Biden’s proclamation that “America is back,” his administration is manifesting this in harmful ways, largely through a continuation of Trump’s legacy.
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