*The continuing rounds of U.S. airstrikes on Houthi targets in Yemen in response to their attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, and the re-listing of the Houthis as a "specially designated global terrorist" group, are the latest in a long list of mistakes in U.S. strategy in Yemen. These miscalculations were both expected and unexpected. On the one hand, they were unexpected, given hopes that the United States—and the United Kingdom, which has taken part in some of the bombardment of Yemen—had learned crucial lessons from Yemen's protracted conflict, most of all that the Saudi-led coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015, with backing from the U.S. and the U.K., struggled to overcome the Houthi insurgency. On the other hand, these errors were expected, given the lack of any shift in strategy on the part of the American and British governments.
The Biden administration's decision to re-designate the Houthis as a terrorist group and to launch airstrikes on Yemen is a sign of the persistent neglect of any strategic considerations of the complexities of Yemen's conflict. Yemeni experts and observers have been nearly unanimous in their skepticism about the effectiveness of these airstrikes and the terrorism designation in deterring Houthi missile and drone attacks on ships in the Red Sea, which the militant group has portrayed as a campaign to defend Palestinians and force Israel to end its war in Gaza. Those doubts stem from a shared belief that the U.S., and with it the U.K., are repeating mistakes of the past in Yemen.
Since 2015, the U.S. and the U.K. have made a series of strategy errors through their support for the Saudi- and Emirati-led war against the Houthis in Yemen. They inadvertently bolstered the Houthis' military capabilities and strength on the ground, contributing to the overall instability in Yemen today. The airstrikes against the Houthis this month are seemingly a continuation of these mistakes and are unlikely to achieve their stated goal of "deterring" the Houthis in the Red Sea.
The Houthis control around half of Yemen today, thanks in part to missteps by the coalition fighting them since 2015, after they seized the capital, Sanaa. It all began when the U.S., the U.K., Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates together failed to prevent then-Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in 2016, from moving Yemen's Central Bank headquarters to Aden, where his government had fled—a move that directly facilitated the Houthi takeover of state institutions in Sanaa. The U.S. and the U.K., which were both supplying the joint Saudi-Emirati coalition with weapons and logistical support for their war, also didn't do more to stop the infighting among the Yemeni armed groups combating the Houthis on the ground, which were nominally part of that coalition. The Saudi-backed, armed wing of the Islah party, a Sunni Islamist movement, and the separatist Southern Transitional Council, backed by the Emiratis, were at war with each other more than they were fighting the Houthis.
The U.S. and U.K. also never expressed public disapproval of the UAE's role in forming Yemeni militias operating outside Yemen's internationally recognized government—which the coalition was trying to restore to power. Nor did they condemn the coalition (but most of all Saudi Arabia) for inadequately funding the Yemeni army, which weakened the Yemeni government in their fight against the Houthis. And between 2016 and 2018, the U.S. and the U.K. stood by when Saudi airstrikes targeted Yemeni army units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, to the benefit of the Houthis, whose units remained unharmed and were able to take control of the army's former bases.
As Yemeni analyst Abdulghani al-Iryani put it, this was the Saudis' "greatest gift" to the Houthis." In those years, "when frontlines were largely static, the coalition provided the Houthis the opportunity to complete their military takeover of northern Yemen and get rid of their erstwhile partner," Saleh. "Thus, Riyadh, which for close to a century had a strategic objective to degrade the Yemeni military threat, ended up facilitating the Houthis' assertion of military dominance in the north, a process that was largely completed by 2017," al-Iryani explained—just before the Houthis turned on Saleh and assassinated him.
Similarly, the U.S. and the U.K. did not take any action when the UAE, which was supposedly supporting the Yemeni army against the Houthis, killed at least 30 Yemeni soldiers in airstrikes during infighting in Aden between the army and the Southern Transitional Council's UAE-backed militia. Washington and London both ignored the Yemeni government's condemnations of the UAE for supporting the southern separatists and helping to further fragment Yemen, to the extent that Hadi reportedly described the Emirates as an occupier rather than a liberator.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and the U.K. failed to address the Houthis' diversion of international humanitarian aid for their own purposes, despite many warnings. Washington and London seemingly ignored reports from the United Nations and human rights groups that the Houthis were obstructing and seizing aid supplies and money in the areas under their control for their war effort. Houthi forces used the diverted aid, including food, to recruit soldiers from impoverished communities in Yemen, exploiting their desperation, or sold the aid for profit on the black market.
In designating the Houthis as a terrorist group, Biden, who promised to "end the war in Yemen," is following Donald Trump. The widely criticized listing of the Houthis as a "foreign terrorist organization" in Trump's last days in office—a more severe designation than "specially designated global terrorist" group—had prevented much-needed humanitarian aid from getting into Yemen. As a presidential candidate, Biden criticized the terrorism listing, and he revoked it in his first weeks as president. With Biden's reversal, the U.S. has once again failed to understand the Houthi propaganda machine.
The Houthis are leveraging perceived U.S. injustice against the Yemeni people to garner sympathy in both domestic and international public opinion. Considering the severe impact that the terrorism designation has on humanitarian efforts in Yemen, the more dire the humanitarian situation becomes, the more evidence the Houthis have to present the U.S. as an enemy of the Yemeni people and the root cause of their suffering. Such a situation makes it easier for the Houthis to attract and recruit fighters, further strengthening their military capabilities and hold on much of Yemen.
All these errors have led to the fragmentation of the Yemeni state, politically and militarily, helping the Houthis consolidate their power. And they are being repeated, despite Biden himself admitting that airstrikes won't deter the Houthis, even though that was his initial justification for them. "When you say working, are they stopping the Houthis? No," Biden said in an exchange with reporters at the White House about the military strikes. "Are they going to continue? Yes."
There has been a profound inability in Washington to understand and learn from policy failures in Yemen. A more informed and nuanced approach that empowers Yemeni partners against the Houthis, especially through diplomatic pressure, is more urgent than ever to address the complexities of Yemen, rather than falling into another cycle of ineffective bombings and airstrikes.
*This article was first written for and published in DAWN's website here.