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.

Yemen

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.