This article was first published in The eXile on November 13, 2002.
Reading the leaks from Washington, you can tell we’re gearing up to do something in Yemen. A little regime-change action maybe, a sideshow to the big production number in Iraq. Hitting Yemen makes sense–a lot more sense than occupying Iraq.
Nobody in DC really believes that Saddam and his two million mustache-clone slaves could really threaten a nest of ants, much less America.
They peddle that stuff to the suckers, but they don’t believe it themselves. They don’t believe the crap they throw out about Iraq as a haven for terrorists, either. No Arab militant would be seen dead with Saddam; they hate him as much as we do. Saddam couldn’t even persuade Abu Nidal to work for him, for Christ’s sake! Abu died in Baghdad last month, and by all accounts he was offed on Saddam’s orders, because he wouldn’t set up the agent networks Saddam wanted. When a dictator can’t make Abu Nidal start up terror networks, folks, then that dictator is just not a competent manager of “human resources,” as my asshole Christian boss would say. I think it’s pretty clear by now that ol’ Saddam is about the worst personnel manager since Jeffrey Dahmer started trying to figure out how to make his tricks stay the night. Fact is, Saddam as terror-monger is a joke. If Iraq is a threat to America’s big cities, then I’m a 29″ waist.
But Yemen…that’s a different story. The Yemen connection to Al Qaeda is for real. The attack on the USS Cole in Yemeni waters was just a small sample of the scary stuff waiting for anyone who tries to take Yemen. Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, is full of soldiers, spies and recruiters for every Jihad from Kashmir to Algeria. Bin Laden himself is Yemeni. The bin Laden clan were typical Yemenis: energetic, hardworking, a lot tougher and smarter than the average Arab. Bin Laden’s father did a Jed Clampitt: loaded up the truck an’ headed for the big money, building big public projects in Riyadh. The Saudis were always happy to let their poor Yemeni cousins do the work.
The Saudis are mixed up in Yemen right up to their noses. Typically for them, the goddamn morons, they were a lot better at stirring up Islamic crazies than controlling them once they were riled up. Saudi Arabia has been trying to keep Yemen off-balance for most of the twentieth century. The last thing they want to see is a strong, united Yemen on their southern borders. They’re afraid of the Yemenis-and for good reason. The Saudis have every hi-tech weapon money can buy, but they don’t have any soldiers worth a damn. The Yemenis are fiercer, smarter, and quicker by far. They’ve been warring against each other for decades. They’d go through the fat, phony Saudi Army like a mongoose through a dairy cow.
And that’s why trying to pull off a “regime change” in Yemen won’t be easy. These people can fight. More importantly, they can fight without getting orders from a central source, unlike the Iraqis. And they can handle any amount of chaos we throw at them. They thrive on it. And as for setting up a “regime change” — there ain’t no “regime” in Yemen in the first place! As my high-school guidance counselor used to say, “That’s the root of the whole problem!” The big vacuum where a state would be is what makes Yemen the preferred destination for every Arab radical on the run.
The history of Yemen is uncommonly fucked-up, even by the standards of the Arabian Peninsula. And that’s sayin’ somethin’!
I mean, where do you want to begin? Pick any date you want; it’s going to be the same. Here’s a simplified Yemeni history timescale:
2000 BC: Yemen ruled by Queen of Sheba, who’s actually mentioned in the Bible. High point of Yemeni development. It’s all downhill from here.
1999 BC to 1838 AD.: Anarchy, chaos. Slavetaking and pillage. Tribes controlled by petty chieftains joined in shifting alliances with frequent betrayals.
1838 AD: The British land and claim Aden and South Yemen for the Crown.
The British grabbed a piece of the Yemen coast on the off-chance it might come in handy someday. They weren’t shy back then, before “Imperialism” was a dirty word. If they saw a shoreline that looked inhabitable, they rowed ashore and planted a Union Jack. They held onto Yemen for decades, but it wasn’t until the Suez Canal was finished in 1870 that they finally realized what they’d wanted Yemen for. By God, it commanded the entry to the Red Sea!
While the British were occupying South Yemen, the part facing the Indian Ocean, the Ottomans held onto Northern Yemen, the part that faces the Red Sea. Both empires settled for forts along the coasts. Nobody much wanted to explore inland, where the tribes still ruled themselves. Those tribes didn’t take kindly to surprise visitors (and still don’t). So the borders of Yemen start out at the coasts with big strong dark lines, then fade into nothing as they head inland. Nobody really knows where the borders are once you head inland. It’s the Rub-al-Khali, “The Empty Quarter” — the nastiest, driest and blankest part of the whole stinking Arabian peninsula. Until they found oil up there, nobody but the tribes gave a damn who owned it. (Since then, the Saudis, the big hogs, have started working up a nice little border war with the Yemenis.)
In 1918 the Ottoman Empire — one of the biggest, oldest empires in the world — just crumbled. Northern Yemen, which used to be Ottoman territory, was suddenly independent, whether it wanted to be or not. The British held onto South Yemen, though. The North tried forcing the British to pull out of the South so they could set up a united Yemeni state. The British sent more troops. Yemenis fought a small but deadly little guerrilla war against the British right through to 1967, when the British finally pulled out.
That’s when Yemeni history gets REALLY confusing and messed-up. To oversimplify: the British withdrawal in 1967 left a power vacuum in South Yemen. It filled up fast with the “Pan-Arab” schemes which were all the rage among early-sixties towelheads. In 1962, North Yemen had joined the “United Arab Republic,” a big pan-Arab scheme run out of Egypt. That was a disaster, but it gave the Egyptian intelligence services a foot in the Yemeni door. A coup against the Yemeni ruling family that year gave all the local powers a chance to interfere: the Saudis backed the Yemeni Royals, the Egyptians supported the rebels. But it wasn’t really ideological. Nothing ever is in countries like Yemen. It was the old clan-vs-clan warfare, just gussied up with fancy foreign words about “democracy” and “socialism.” That was exactly what happened in 1967, when South Yemen, newly independent, renamed itself “The People’s Republic of South Yemen.” That set the next, inevitable war: this time a civil war between the royalist North and the Communist South.
It was Vietnam reversed; alone among Third World conflicts, the South were the evil commies, and the North were the good anti-commies. Most freedom-loving folks were used to rooting on the South of any Third World civil war against the North: South Vietnam, South Korea… It was so confusing that it just never made the papers.
That war got off the ground in 1972 and ran, off and on, right up to 1990. In that time there were dozens of peace treaties, coups, unions, declarations, promises and commissions. It’s impossible to say how bloody the war was – more like a long-running feud. As far as I can tell,
none of the treaties and declarations made a damn bit of difference.
Weirdly enough, there was apparently something actually resembling peace in Yemen for a couple of years in the early ’90s. Somebody tell Dan Akroyd! He should’ve put this on his Strange Impossible Paranormal Events series: peace in Yemen!
The locals were so embarrassed at this “peace” thing that they got to work and started up the good ol’ North vs. South Civil War again in 1994. This time it was the South saying it wanted out of United Yemen. (You can’t blame them. If I had a family like this, I’d be down at the courthouse with a petition for a name-change first thing on Monday morning.) The new war was going very nicely, with the Saudis sniffing around the borders looking to make a little extra trouble without actually having to fight, like the overfed jackals they are.
If this all sounds completely insane, that’s because it is. Fact is, Yemen doesn’t have a “history” like some nice European country. What’s the history of a gangfight? We’re talking about the Horn of Africa, for God’s sake! Somalia is just across the straits! Small-scale war (or big-time banditry, if you prefer) is a way of life in those parts. There are inland zones in Yemen where kidnapping for profit is still the big local industry. The power of the government, if any, never really made it into these “tribal areas like Hawdramawt, which is a permanent no-go zone for government troops. If you have the money or the right connections, you’re welcome in the “Tribal Areas.” The backwoods Yemenis are kind of like backwoods people anywhere: they don’t trust the gummin’t, not even a little, and they have a soft spot for outlaws on the run. If anybody from the Yemeni government tried to come in and take out a “guest,” they’d be violating those “age-old laws of hospitality” you always hear about these savages having. These tribal hosts resent that. And they express their feelings with AKs and RPGs.
Last year we found out just how seriously they resent it. The US prodded the Yemenis to send troops into one of the “tribal areas” to flush out some Al Qaeda suspects sheltering with the locals. It was not what you would call an unqualified success: 18 government soldiers died, versus three local “tribal fighters.” I’d say the locals won that one. I’d say somebody got himself ambushed. And I’d say that if I were a Yemeni soldier, I’d report sick on the day they sent the next patrol into that neighborhood.
The most obvious lesson from Yemen’s incredibly fucked-up history is that these people are good guerrilla fighters. They’ve been at it long enough, damn it — they should be good at it by now. So it would be a big mistake to treat Yemen like Iraq. The invasion of Iraq is going to be a cakewalk, militarily. I mean, Jeez — remember Sam Kinison’s bit on the Iraqi Army? “They were surrendering to video cameras! ‘Put your hands up or I’ll zoom! I’ll do it! Don’t make me zoom you!”
Yemenis are a different breed. They fight back. And they fight dirty.
But hey, so do we. We fight dirty with the best of ‘em. There was a truly glorious kill last week in Yemen, when a Hellfire launched from a CIA Predator RPV managed to vaporize a half-dozen Al Qaeda guys who were driving around Yemen in their SUV. I wonder if any of the surviving relatives tried to collect on the insurance. “Sorry guys, Toyota Landcruisers are not warranted against the impact of a Hellfire missile.” The Hellfire warhead was designed to penetrate the turret armor of a 55-ton tank, so you can imagine what an easy time it had annihilating an SUV.
Did you see the pictures of the kill-scene? That’s my idea of good porn. There was just a smudge on the ground where the SUV had been. You’d've needed dental records to decide what make and model it was. Quincy, M.D.: “The molars look Toyota, but the bicuspids are Honda…”
As for the occupants, there were no body-parts left at all. This was one accident where even my Driver’s Ed teacher, who was totally insane on the subject of seatbelts, would’ve had to admit that buckling up wouldn’t've made much difference. Even driver-side airbags wouldn’t have helped these fuckers.
It’s nice to see the Hellfire getting a little action, because it’s one of the real success stories of US weapons design. It was developed to provide attack helicopters, specifically the AH 64 (“Apache”) with a standoff weapon which could kill all Soviet armored vehicles. The name stands for “Helicopter-launched Fire-and-Forget” missile. But “Hellfire” makes the point pretty nicely on its own. The missile acquires the target before it’s fired. Once the helicopter enters the target data, it can fire the missile and immediately take evasive action. The missile guides itself to the target.
The idea was that Hellfire would allow AH 64 pilots the chance to attack Soviet convoys and get out of sight quickly, before the ZSU-23 quad AA vehicles that traveled with all Soviet convoys could bring their guns to bear. The Apache would track the Soviet convoy, in tandem with smaller scout choppers, then pop up out of the forest (they were imagining a Central European NATO/Warsaw Pact scenario), launch its Hellfires, then zoom off low and fast.
The Israelis appreciated the Hellfire before anybody else. They have a good eye for the American weapons that really work. Hellfires have been weapon of choice in the strikes Israel’s been making on Hamas leaders travelling in their cars. The Israelis were also the big pioneers in using RPVs in combat. So you can see that this CIA strike in Yemen, using a Hellfire fired from an RPV, has IDF/Mossad influence written all over it.
The whole notion of assassinating your enemies on their home ground is a big Israeli tradition too, of course. Mossad and Shin Beth have a rep that they will track you down anywhere, no matter what it costs or how long it takes. The CIA doesn’t have that kind of reputation. I hate to say it, but they used to be kind of a joke when it came to assassinations. I remember a joke I heard from one of my quasi-spook net friends: “In 1964 there was an attempt to assassinate Sukarno. Everybody knew immediately that the CIA was behind it, because the bomb killed every single person in a crowded room EXCEPT Sukarno.”
But the CIA did it right this time. And durn, they were proud of themselves. Whatever happened to the “cloak of secrecy”? Everybody at CIA was on the phone, calling reporters, faxing graphic shots of the vaporized SUV to the wire services. I mean I appreciate a good kill shot-we get way too few in this war-but it doesn’t make me respect them.
If we stick to firing Hellfires from RPVs, we may be able to do the job in Yemen — kill the people who need killing without losing anybody of our own. We might even be able to bribe some locals to kidnap the people we want. All that tribal “hospitality” crap tends to evaporate when you offer some lice-ridden sheik a million bucks to hand over his “guest.” A few deals like that, and we can bring the people we want to Gauntanamo for one of those special US Marine Corps makeovers, with blindfolds and earplugs, manacles and white noise-the whole “Welcome to the World of Consequences” treatment.
That would be the smart way to do it. But it’s not like we just found out about Yemen. The Cole got blown up in October, 2000 — and all we heard for two years was bitch-fights from every agency in DC about whose fault it was. It’s a classic matchup: Yemen vs. the USA — a dirt-poor little country with no government at all vs. a big rich superpower with so much government it can’t seem to get anything done.
This article was first published in The eXile on November 13, 2002.
Gary Brecher is the author of the War Nerd. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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