Is US Aid Suppressing Yemen's Freedom Struggle?
This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
In recent weeks, Yemeni protesters calling for an immediate end to the thirty-two-year reign of US-backed President Ali Abdullah Saleh have been met with increasing violence at the hands of state security forces. A recent pledge by Saleh to step down, one of many that haven’t met demonstrators’ demands, has yet to halt the protests or violence by the troops backing his regime. During a demonstration earlier this month in the city of Taiz, protesters marching down a central street were confronted by security forces and Saleh supporters, while government helicopters flew overhead. “The thugs and the security forces fired on us with live gunfire,” Mahmud al-Shaobi, one of the protesters told the New York Times. “Many people were shot.”
In the days since, more demonstrators have been attacked by government forces—with the death toll now estimated to exceed 130. Witnesses have also been reporting the increased use of military helicopters in the crackdown. Some of those aircraft may be recent additions to Saleh’s arsenal, provided courtesy of the Obama administration as part of an $83 million military aviation aid package.
Since the beginning of 2011, under a program run by the US Department of Defense, the United States has overseen the delivery of several new Bell UH-1Hs, or “Huey II” helicopters, current models of the iconic Huey that served as America’s primary gunship and troop transport during the Vietnam War. Although these helicopters are only the latest additions to a sizeable arsenal that the Pentagon has provided to Yemen in recent years, they call attention to how US weapons and assistance support regimes actively suppressing democratic uprisings across the Middle East.
How to Arm a Dictator
Last December, 26-year-old Tunisian fruit-seller Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a local municipal office, touching off popular protests that continue to sweep across the Middle East and North Africa. By the end of January 2011, the country’s US-backed dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had fled and demonstrations, which would eventually also topple corrupt autocrat and long-time US ally Hosni Mubarak, had broken out in Egypt. In Yemen, as is the case elsewhere in the region, anger at government corruption, rampant poverty (40 percent of all Yemenis live on less than $2 a day), high unemployment (also running at 40 percent) and decades of harsh rule by an authoritarian strongman brought tens of thousands into the streets.
In January, as freedom struggles were spreading across the region, President Barack Obama publicly avowed support for “certain core values that we believe in as Americans[,] that we believe are universal: freedom of speech, freedom of expression, people being able to use social networking or any other mechanisms to communicate with each other and express their concerns.” Just days earlier, however, his government had transferred military equipment to the security forces of Yemen’s so-called president for life.
Under the terms of a $27 million contract between the Pentagon and Bell Helicopter, Yemen received four Huey IIs. Prior to this, twelve Yemeni Air Force pilots and twenty maintenance personnel were trained to fly and service the aircraft at Bell’s flight instruction facility in Alliance, Texas. "The swift execution of the Yemen Huey II program demonstrates that the military departments—in this case the US Army—can quickly deliver defense articles and services to US partners with the cooperation of US industry," said Brandon Denecke of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the branch of the Pentagon that coordinates sales and transfers of military equipment to allies.
The recent helicopter deal is just the latest example of Pentagon support for the forces of the Yemeni dictator through its so-called “1206 program,” a Congressionally authorized arrangement that “allows the executive branch to rapidly provide foreign partners with military equipment and training.” Named for section 1206 of the 2006 National Defense Authorization Act, the program allows the Pentagon to enhance the capabilities of foreign military forces for “counterterrorism and stability operations.”
Since 2006, more than $1.3 billion worth of equipment has been allocated under the 1206 program and Yemen has been the largest recipient worldwide, benefitting from about one-fifth of the funding or approximately $253 million through 2010. This assistance, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, has provided Yemeni security forces with light airplanes, helicopters, small arms, ammunition, light tactical vehicles, trucks, radios, surveillance cameras, computers, body armor, patrol boats and helicopter parts, among other materiel.
Since 2000, the Pentagon has also transferred weapons and equipment directly from US stockpiles to Yemen’s security forces. These items include armored personnel carriers, M-60 machine guns, 2.5-ton military trucks, radios and motorboats, according to an analysis of Defense Department documents by TomDispatch. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency did not respond to repeated requests for further information.
All told, over the past five years, the United States has provided more than $300 million in aid to Yemen’s security forces, with the dollars escalating precipitously under the Obama administration. In 2008, under President George W. Bush, Yemen received $17.2 million in baseline military assistance (which does not include counterterrorism or humanitarian funding). In 2010, that number had risen to $72.3 million while, overall, Yemen received $155.3 million in US aid that year, including a “$34.5 million special operations force counterterrorism enhancement package.” These funds have provided Yemen’s security forces with helicopters, Humvees, weapons, ammunition, radio systems and night-vision goggles.
Additionally, US special operations troops (along with British and Saudi military personnel) have been supporting, advising and conducting training missions with some of Yemen’s elite forces—including the Republican Guard, Special Operations Forces and the National Security Bureau—which are commanded and staffed by Saleh’s sons and other close relatives.
As his part of the bargain, Saleh allowed the United States to launch missile strikes against suspected Al Qaeda camps in Yemen while instructing his government to take credit for the attacks (for fear that if their American origins were made clear, there might be an anti-American backlash in Yemen and the larger Arab world), according to classified State Department documents released last year by the whistleblower group Wikileaks. “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Saleh told then–CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus following strikes in December 2009.
The Yemeni government also came up with a cover story for, and even excused, the deaths of civilians in those strikes. Rashad al-Alimi, a deputy prime minister, claimed that the Yemeni citizens killed in an attack were “acting in collusion with the terrorists and benefiting financially” when, in reality, they were likely Bedouin families involved in little more than peddling food.