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.