The flight from Dubai to Sana’a was a quiet one. Our team was travelling in the dead of night, partly for operational security concerns, partly to get the cheapest fare and save the Pentagon a few dollars. The plane was half empty and those on board were sleeping to the hum of the engines.
Below me was the pitch-black desolation of the Rub al-Khali, the massive desert encompassing the southern portion of Saudi Arabia that forms the natural border between the kingdom and her southern neighbors, Yemen and Oman. It was an ocean of sand with nothing for hundreds of miles in every direction. As I sat there, exhausted but unable to sleep, I had no idea how this mission would tie into the catalyst that would lead to my resignation from the U.S. government in frustration and disgust.
It was the summer of 2010, during a lull in the violence between the latest Houthi war and what was to become the Arab Spring. I was tasked with helping to develop and manage a military aid program to Yemen that had increased dramatically in response to the rise of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, better known as the “underwear bomber,” had tried to detonate explosives in his underwear aboard a U.S. flight on Christmas Day, 2009. Evidence traced both his conversion to extremism and the type of explosive back to Yemen. This evidence elicited the typical two-step Congressional response: “do something” and “here’s money.” Having just left the State Department for the Pentagon, I was eager to get on the ground with my new portfolio. Little did I understand that I would be unwittingly contributing to the further militarization of U.S. foreign policy in the process.
On arrival, tired and haggard as I approached what passes for customs in such a place, I locked eyes with a little man in a rumpled uniform behind the kiosk. I gauged from his expression that he might try to give me a hard time, but when he saw my orders, he knew I was there at the behest of Yemen’s military and was not to be trifled with. A grudging nod later, I was off to the exit. By now it was daylight, and we met the Office of Military Cooperation (OMC) contact who was to be our handler for our time in the country. An overworked and over-caffeinated Air Force officer, he fit the ugly American stereotype to a T. He was loud, conspicuous, and seemingly unaware of his surroundings.
As we headed from the airport, he gave us a bit of a tour of the city. There was the gate to the Old City. There was the Silah, a cobblestone road around the city that becomes a river when it rains. There was the spot where a suicide bomber just a few weeks prior had blown himself up as the British ambassador’s convoy sped by. Burnt blood was still visible on the wall. As a result, our accommodations had changed. We were not staying at a hotel as previously planned, but at a compound far from the diplomatic quarter. Recently acquired by the U.S. government to accommodate the increasing American footprint, its best security feature was the fact that nobody knew we were there. It was posh by Yemeni standards, and we rolled up just in time for breakfast. It was the weekend, so we had a day to acclimate. Someone had brought in a Virginia ham via diplomatic pouch (there is something to be said for ham and eggs in a land of no swine).
A day of introductions and informal briefings ended early, as the staff needed some down time before a very busy week. That night, I could not sleep, so I made myself a cup of coffee and strolled up to the rooftop of our compound as dawn approached. As I drew slowly on a cigarette, I basked in the history of one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth. Surrounded by mountains shrouded in pre-dawn darkness, the muezzin’s calls to prayer began to echo eerily throughout the city. I remember thinking that it was sort of like the Middle East version of dueling banjos—except here, it was who could out-pray whom.
Day broke and we made our way to the embassy to meet with the ambassador and brief our agenda. Congress had just authorized over $150 million of assistance through section 1206 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that year. This program, unlike traditional military aid that is handed to other nations for them to spend, is completely administered by the U.S. government. It was an expiring authority, meaning that the funds had to be obligated within a year or they were gone. It was intended to speed up what has traditionally been (and still is) a sluggish foreign military sales (FMS) process. Customers and Congress have complained for years about the slow pace of arms sales from the United States. One of many ironies in this story is that the delays in the process are a direct result of Congress tacking on more laws and White House higher-ups tacking on more regulations in a vain attempt to put a clean veneer on what is invariably a dirty business.
Our first stop was the Yemeni Ministry of Defense headquarters. We passed slowly by pickup trucks bearing 12.7mm “dushka” machine guns, a remnant of past Soviet influence. Manning the gun trucks were bleary-eyed guards with giant qat wads in their cheeks. Prevalent in Yemen, qat is a leaf that, when chewed, acts as a mild narcotic stimulant. It gave them the look (almost) of tiny Arab baseball players.
As we arrived, we were treated to a formal military reception by Yemeni standards. Although we were not senior in rank, we came bearing money. The ornate decor inside the ministry was a stark contrast to life outside its walls, which was a huge indicator of why the regime had only tenuous control of the country to begin with. The government, as is the case with many Middle Eastern regimes, relied on bribes and tribal intrigue to maintain power. Our counterpart was congenial and our meeting was a typical Arab affair—small talk, strong coffee, no structure, constant interruptions.
As we tried to stay on message, we found ourselves batting away increasingly outlandish requests for advanced equipment. It was as if the defense industry had been their previous meeting and left them product brochures (and in fact, that turned out to be the case). You see, the Yemenis (and the defense industry) were not stupid. They saw the Uncle Sam gravy train coming and wanted to see what they could get. After all, these generals headed fiefdoms, and fiefdoms stay loyal via “bakshish” or bribes. Everyone needed their piece to satisfy their constituencies. It was even hinted, not unreasonably, that strongman President Ali Abdullah Saleh was playing up the threat so as to garner more largesse from the United States.
The problem with this approach was that what Yemen wanted did not marry up with what the U.S. government thought they needed to prosecute a counterterrorism campaign. It was obvious to anyone that had spent a little time in-country that the Yemenis were not concerned about al-Qaeda as much as they were about the Shia rebel Houthis, Iranian influence, and Saudi meddling. A widely dispersed group of terrorists who were focused abroad had no particular animus toward the Saleh regime, and by virtue of its very existence, brought free American arms—not necessarily a bad thing.
As I took meetings with top Yemeni officials and visited their military installations, I saw an almost comical concoction of “solutions” that only Washington could conjure up. The United States had provided trucks that were of limited use because they were too big to traverse narrow mountain roads, and there were almost no Yemenis trained in proper maintenance. Poorly maintained aircraft were piloted by men who could not read the cockpit displays written in English. Military units, on a good day, would have only about half of their troops muster for duty. Coast Guard personnel couldn’t swim, yet we were working to provide advanced patrol boats (which were later almost sunk during initial training).
All of these signs pointed to a Yemeni military that was incapable of absorbing or employing what we were giving them. Providing first-rate gear to a third-world military, coupled with Yemen’s tepid desire to go after AQAP struck me as a tremendous waste of taxpayer dollars. Back in Washington, I reported what I had found to my superiors, but to no avail. Congress and the higher echelons of the Obama administration did not care. After all, the White House could continue to state how tough it was on terrorism and further propagate the illusion of control in a region that is perpetually out of control.
And because this aid program was administered almost entirely within the U.S. government with no recipient nation input, Congress theoretically had more ability to influence the process, i.e., press for platforms that were conveniently produced in their districts, without pesky interference from those for whom it was meant. The defense industry and the Yemenis weren’t going to complain; they were getting free money and free stuff. All anybody wanted to see was a memo that platform A went to unit B and they were capably using it to fight the bad guys.
For two years, I did this dance. Requests would come from the country for helicopters, cargo aircraft, vehicles, weapons, boats, ammunition, bombs, spare parts, and we would put together what we thought we could sell to Congress. It would go into a black hole that was the upper echelons of the Pentagon, State, and the White House, and disappear. For months, bigger bureaucrats than I would re-prioritize aid packages based on the crisis du jour as reported by our 24-hour news networks. Operational paralysis eventually gave way to aid packages that seldom resembled what we had initially submitted, frustrating the U.S personnel in the host country and the rest of us inside the beltway that actually had to execute the programs.
Rand Paul, Hillary Clinton, and Libya
It was in late 2012 that, in an attempt to break up the Sisyphean monotony of delivering what the country team didn’t want to a customer that couldn’t maintain or employ it, I applied for and was accepted to a fellowship that placed me on Capitol Hill for a year. I landed with Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky. He had recently been assigned to the Foreign Relations Committee and my skill set was a perfect fit.
Having just come off the infamous Clinton “What difference does it make?!” Benghazi hearing, Senator Paul was eager to learn more about our foreign policy in the Middle East, and particularly about the arms trade. He had asked Secretary Clinton about the possibility of illicit arms flows out of Libya to the rest of the region, specifically about whether they were being diverted to so-called “moderate” rebels in Syria in the fight to topple President Bashar al-Assad, and whether the facility in Benghazi had anything to do with it. While Clinton was dismissive in the hearing, it was later determined through press reports that weapons had been making their way from Libya into the hands of Syrian rebels.
Senator Paul and I had discussed on more than one occasion the abject stupidity of toppling Qaddhafi in 2011, prior to the Benghazi incident, with no plan for what came next. On top of the flawed responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine used as justification for military action in Libya, it was known to many analysts that a preponderance of foreign fighters attacking U.S. troops in Iraq during the height of the war there in 2006-07 were coming out of eastern Libya—the very “rats and dogs” Qaddhafi was going to attack. By stopping him with our laser-guided “help,” we were actually aiding the extremists that were intent on attacking us and already had American blood on their hands.
Coup in Egypt, chemical weapons in Syria
During my tenure in Senator Paul’s office, there were two major developments in the Middle East that would highlight the hypocrisy of this administration and further justify my eventual decision to leave government: the coup in Egypt and the push for military action in Syria. In July 2013, the disastrous rule of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood (MB) came to an end as General Abdel Fatah al-Sissi wrested power from Mohamed Morsi. The Obama administration was now forced to deal with the real-world ramifications of hashtag diplomacy.
In the name of “doing something,” this White House, notorious for micromanaging military operations through a bloated and centralized National Security Council (NSC), chimed in and actively pressed for Mubarak to step down at the height of the Arab Spring in 2011. Policy experts knew the only group poised to benefit from the ensuing power vacuum was the Muslim Brotherhood. Consequently, our government would now be supporting with voluminous arms the ascension of an anti-American and anti-Israel government in Egypt while simultaneously undercutting our standing with other Gulf allies—and my past work—in the region.
Additionally, U.S. law states that we suspend military aid to any country that has a coup until such time that a democratically elected government comes to power. But because the Egypt military aid program is so big and complicated, it would be too onerous and expensive to shut it off. So when the Obama administration engaged in verbal gymnastics to side-step the law and just not call what happened a coup, I felt more confused about how I could uphold other laws that my leadership might work around anyway. Nothing is more damaging to U.S. soft power and prestige than preaching rule of law around the world, only to skirt it ourselves.
The second development was Assad’s use of chemical weapons in August, 2013. President Obama had unwisely boxed himself in by calling for Assad to go before it was clear he could be ousted, and then setting the “red line” that was the use of chemical weapons. Assad had called his bluff. The choices were to get involved in another Middle Eastern morass, one with far larger strategic consequences than Libya, or risk American prestige and standing. Obama, Secretary Kerry, and UN Ambassador Samantha Power all pressed for action, but fundamentally misread the mood of the American people.
Fortunately, Senator Paul’s clout was on the ascent, given his recent filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination to head the CIA and emergence onto the national political stage. He led the charge against another foolhardy misadventure in the region and put the White House in the awkward position of pressing for a war resolution that had a good chance of losing in a bipartisan vote. What struck me as the most disturbing aspect of the whole ordeal was that the White House had hinted it was ready to go to war without the approval of Congress, dismissive not only of our founding documents, but of the will of the people themselves. In fact, we see today the mission creep in Syria with nary a sniff from the traditionally anti-war left.
Arming Syrian rebels
I returned to the Pentagon in the spring of 2014 and took up none other than the Jordan and Syria portfolios. It was during a three-day conference on the Levant that I realized there was absolutely no leadership coming from the White House. In the room were the highest-ranking diplomats, military personnel, and folks from the intelligence community—a very knowledgeable bunch to say the least. In walked Philip Gordon, Middle East director at the NSC to open the meetings with a call to come up with a solution to these intractable problems. As the discussion progressed, I saw various policy experts asking what the strategy was that the White House wanted the policy community to execute. The retort was akin to, “Just come up with some options, then we’ll give you the strategy.” Disconcerting to say the least.
Soon after, interagency discussions began on arming “moderate” Syrian rebels, but this was a farce. A combination of intelligence reports, regional experience, and common sense made it evident that there was no way to reliably vet the folks we would be sending weapons to, nor keep track of what was sent. Further, the items that were being suggested would have limited battlefield utility against Assad’s superior forces. As Syria began to consume more of my day, I told my boss that my work on Jordan, which receives about $300 million in U.S. military aid annually, would preclude me from dedicating the necessary attention to the Syria program. I asked that it be transferred to someone else. While this was not entirely untrue, in reality, I wanted nothing to do with arming Syrian rebels.
A visit to Amman that fall validated my concerns. Although I was not cleared for all the details of the overall training program (portions of which were technically still classified but were reported in the press), off-hand comments and overheard conversations alluded to a training regimen that was half hearted and aimed at recruits we did not trust. The special operators and folks from the intelligence community responsible for such training, many of whom had spent time in Afghanistan, were wary of “green-on-blue” attacks from “vetted” partners. It was obvious that what American political leadership was asking for was seen as an impossible task by the operators that had to execute the program.
Upon my return to the states, I was dejected, and my desire to continue my job was fast waning. The last straw came early this year when my colleague, who had taken over the Yemen program upon my departure to Capitol Hill at the end of 2012, showed me some pictures of an airport hangar that had been bombed by the Saudi Air Force during the opening stages of their intervention against the Houthis who had taken over the country. In it were the charred remnants of a brand new cargo aircraft and helicopters that I had worked diligently to acquire for Yemen via the 1206 program from a few years back. The Saudis wanted to prevent them from falling into Houthi hands. They had not been in-country very long, and their usage had been limited, but there they were. A burnt end to a fool’s errand bought and paid for by you, the U.S. taxpayer. I quit a couple weeks later.
Guest post by Greg Archetto who is a former State Department and Defense Department official who specializes in security cooperation issues in the Middle East. He has a BA in Political Science from Rowan University, a Masters of Public Administration from Rutgers University, and a Masters of National Security/Strategic Studies from the US Naval War College. He quit the arms business when he discovered there was more sand and fewer women than in the movies and is now an independent consultant with One World Consortium LLC. You can find more of his writings at http://humanevents.com/search/
(Featured image courtesy of NPR.org)