Is the Gulf coalition ready to play ball?

Photographer: MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

Saudis Consider Local Force for Yemen Fight

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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As a three-week-old air campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen struggles to blunt their advance, the Saudi-led coalition supporting ousted Yemeni president Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi is advancing plans for a possible ground force.

That strategy was dealt a blow Friday, when the Pakistani parliament rejected sending troops to aid the predominantly Sunni coalition in Yemen and instead declared that Pakistan should “maintain neutrality in the Yemen conflict,” rebuffing Saudi Arabia, a major donor to Pakistan.

But one senior Gulf diplomat has told us that the Saudi-led coalition has begun discussing how to recruit, train and equip a ground force that would be loyal to Yemen's ousted president.

This is uncharted territory. Traditionally the U.S. has taken the lead role in standing up Arab armies. But that project has faltered over the last decade. Between 2003 and 2011, the U.S. trained and underwrote an Iraqi army that melted away last June when Islamic State forces swept into Mosul and came close to taking Kirkuk. In Afghanistan, the military and police forces trained by the U.S. and its allies are struggling to keep the Taliban at bay, and by many measures don't seem sustainable in the long term.

Now, with the U.S. increasingly reluctant to intervene in the Middle East, the Gulf States that have relied on U.S. training and weapons are seeing if they can fill the U.S. role in Yemen.

The diplomat and other Arab officials we spoke to stressed that these discussions remained in the preliminary phase. As he told us, they are still focused on questions such as: "How do we protect the legitimacy of Hadi and his office? How do you create a ground force loyal to Hadi? Do we start training, recruiting and supporting units supportive of the president?" He expressed optimism that some of the military units loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has sided with the Houthis, could be cleaved away from Saleh if they could be absorbed by a pro-Hadi military.

One big concern facing the coalition is that the air war alone may be causing more problems than it's solving. The Iran-backed Houthi militias have fought from civilian positions, and Saudi air strikes have already hit plenty of non-military targets. Brig. Gen. Ahmed bin Hasan Asiri, a Saudi defense official, has been briefing reporters regularly in Riyadh about the mission. Because the Houthis often operate inside civilian populations, the Saudi coalition has bombed schools, stadiums, and municipal complexes, he said, destroying valuable infrastructure. “The coalition acknowledges that targeting Yemen’s infrastructure is not a goal of Operation Decisive Storm,” he told reporters on April 10. “However, military necessity dictates that Houthi militias cannot be permitted to use infrastructure as protection to prolong their war.”

A ground force comprised of Yemeni fighters could avoid much of these civilian casualties and begin to take back territory. Roger Carstens, a retired Green Beret who has trained Iraqi and Afghanistan soldiers as both a contractor and member of the military, told us the Saudi-led coalition could avoid the mistakes of the U.S. in building an Arab ground force.

"This could be a golden opportunity to build a force that is right-sized and right-missioned for the threats the country will face in the next ten years," he told us.

Carstens said the U.S. often tries to build conventional infantry forces for countries, when what they really need are more agile special operations teams capable of winning a fight against insurgents without necessarily using overwhelming advanced weaponry. "To take on the Houthis, who own a lot of territory, strategic towns, lines of communications and economic corridors, you need a force capable of developing intelligence networks and building up a local resistance. You need a Yemeni version of the Green Berets," he said.

QuickTake Yemen's Fault Lines

This was not the model for Iraq or Afghanistan, where the U.S. instead built up huge militaries with western-style supply chains. One of the main weaknesses of the Iraqi and Afghan militaries, said Carstens, was that they employed a "pull system" for supply lines: Local units in the field had to fill out forms and request and inventory equipment, supplies and ammunition. In Afghanistan, said Carstens, "we asked them to do inventory and request stuff from us. But most of them didn't know how to read or write. It didn't work."

Instead, Carstens said the better approach is to hire experienced military contractors and develop a "push system," where the Saudi coalition would provide the units with what they needed to fight the war. The key, argued Carstens, is to keep everything from the guns the units used to the vehicles they drove as simple as possible.

A Saudi-led coalition would not be the first time a U.S. ally filled the gap. In 2011 and 2012, the United Arab Emirates underwrote a maritime police force for the Puntland region of Somalia. Carstens embedded as an observer in much of their training for 2012. The Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF) had mixed results. At one point, one of the trainees betrayed the unit and killed a South African contractor on a mission. The incident was captured in "The Project," a documentary that tracked the force’s successes and failures. Carstens said he regarded the PMPF as a success because it was able to wipe out Somali pirate bases on the Puntland coastline with a relatively small budget. Nonetheless the force ran into problems with the United Nations group that monitored the arms embargo on Somalia, and in 2012 the emirates pulled their funding.

With U.S. special operations forces having exited Yemen in March, the only chance to train up a pro-Hadi force in Yemen would be something like what was tried in Puntland. U.S. direct aid to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen has been limited. Visiting Riyadh last week, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the U.S. government would expedite arms deliveries to the Saudi military and increase intelligence-sharing. The U.S. has now created a “joint coordination planning cell” with the Saudis and has also provided aerial refueling for coalition aircraft.

The Obama administration, however, seems unlikely to provide much more than that. This could end up being a problem, according to James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador in Iraq. Jeffrey told us that one benefit of U.S. involvement in standing up indigenous forces is that American officials can temper the expectations of the side they are helping.

"We're the adults who introduce the moderate, restrained and achievable military objectives versus the local armies that tend to have a very difficult time coordinating with each other and coming up with any goal, absent total defeat for their enemies," he told us.

In this case, Jeffrey said, outside parties fighting on behalf of Hadi would be responsible for halting the advance of the Houthis but not necessarily for restoring the former status quo. "The normal thing you do in a situation like this, is you stop the Houthis from moving forward," he told us. "We tell the Houthis, 'we won't let you win, but we are not interested in wiping you out’." Under those circumstances, said Jeffrey, the hope would be to win back momentum and legitimacy for a Hadi government in the peace talks to end the fighting.

For that scenario to unfold, however, someone would have to take on the task of backing a suitable Yemeni force. That used to be America's job. Now the task falls to Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the authors on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net