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Yemen: What’s At Stake For The United States?

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On January 22, Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his cabinet resigned under pressure from Houthi rebels — a Shi’a-backed group from northern Yemen — after the group seized much of the capital as well as the presidential palace. The dissolution of the Yemeni government threw the already fragile country into deeper chaos and instability, and roused concerns that Yemen might fall into a dangerous civil war.

Less than two months later, U.S. officials have acknowledged that they are unable to account for more than $500 million in U.S. weapons, according to the Washington Post. While it is unclear these weapons have fallen into the hands of Iranian-backed rebels, al Qaeda affiliates, or other nefarious actors, the potential threat of these weapons being captured and used by those opposed to U.S. interests cannot be understated.

In response to the January unrest, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom closed their Yemen embassies. The Central Intelligence Agency also scaled back counterterrorism operations amid growing security concerns. The Pentagon acknowledged that unrest and uncertainty in the country had affected their counterterrorism efforts, and the closure of the U.S. embassy further compounded those challenges. As early as February, a U.S. defense official told The Guardian that the unrest in Yemen had “limited our ability to conduct routine end-use monitoring checks and inspections we would normally perform.”

Now, the Department of Defense (DOD) has admitted that they cannot monitor the weapons the United States has provided Yemen as part of its defense and security relationship — which includes a variety of weapons and non-lethal items — such as small arms, helicopters, patrol boats, aircraft, ammunition, night-vision goggles, body armor, and Humvees.

The United States has invested more than half a billion dollars in military and security assistance for Yemen since 2009. This also includes assistance from various Department of State and DOD accounts — such as weapons — but also assistance for training and other counterterrorism operations under the Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program (CTFP) and International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) programs, among others. The DOD’s Section 1206 “train and equip” fund represents by far the largest source of overt U.S. assistance to Yemen, accounting for more than half of all assistance provided in the past five years. While not a comprehensive list, the below chart provides a snapshot of a few key military and security assistance programs of which Yemen has been a consistent recipient.

Military & Security Assistance Programs Funding (FY09 – FY15)
Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program (CTFP) $3,305,000
Direct Commercial Sales(DCS) $58,237,322
Excess Defense Articles (EDA) $78,820
Foreign Military Financing (FMF) $119,249,000
Foreign Military Sales (FMS) $22,064,000
International Military Education and Training (IMET) $7,551,000
International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) $14,145,000
Nonproliferation, Anti-terrorism, Demining and Related Programs (NADR)* $12,850,000
Section 1206 Assistance  $369,700,000
Total $607,180,142

*NADR and INCLE programs were also provided through Overseas Contingency Operations funding

Recent events in Yemen put U.S. operations in question. Yemen has been a key actor in the United States’ effort to fight al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which U.S. officials have claimed “poses a more direct threat to the U.S. homeland than any other terrorist group.” As a result, weapons and military assistance to Yemen have flowed relatively freely over the last five years. This defense relationship has continued despite U.S. knowledge of human rights abuses, such as Yemen’s use of child soldiers in their military campaign, which the State Department has continuously identified and for which the U.S. has consistently waived prohibitions on assistance due to national security interests.

As a central part of its counterterrorism operations, the United States has also undertaken a prolonged drone campaign in Yemen. Strikes occurred after the Houthi takeover, even though the United States had relied heavily on the former Yemeni government’s intelligence, authorization, and coordination. According to the New America Foundation, there have been 106 drone strikes in Yemen since 2010, with the most recent occurring on March 2. Future strikes may be in doubt, however, as the United States will have to determine if strategic objectives are able to be met without cooperation from the Yemeni government.

Losing track of U.S. provided weapons is unfortunately not a new phenomenon for the United States. We have seen similar circumstances in Afghanistan, where the SIGAR report found that officials may have lost track of more than 43% of small arms supplied to Afghanistan security forces. More recently, in Iraq, photos of U.S. weapons in the hands of Islamic State (IS) militants reflect the situation on the ground after IS routed the Iraqi army and captured scores of U.S.-supplied weapons. As the United States considers future sales to Syrian rebels and potential lethal aid to Ukraine, the lessons of lost weapons must be recognized. With fast-changing political dynamics in these countries at risk and at war, the legacy of U.S. weapons as a potential threat to U.S. interests, soldiers, and allies poses a direct challenge to foreign policy and national security.

Follow Rachel StohlStimson’s Managing Across Boundaries initiative, and Stimson on Twitter.

Photo credit: via Ibrahem Qasim flickr

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