Report says that U.S. gave Yemen drones, helicopters, planes, humvees, and light weaponry; much of it is currently unaccounted for

The Washington Post published a disturbing report last week, entitled "Pentagon loses track of $500 million in weapons, equipment given to Yemen."

I. Fast and the Furious Hits the Middle East?

According to the piece, between 2007 and 2014 the Obama administration's Pentagon supplied $500M USD to the friendly government of Yemen, in an effort to beat back growing military threats from various rebel groups.  Among the highlights of the shipped hardware include over 100 Humvee armored vehicles, several AeroVironment, Inc. (AVAV) Raven drones, four Huey II helicopters (a Vietnam War era chopper still in use, produced by Textron Inc (TXT) subsidiary Bell Helicopter), and three large cargo airplanes.

The U.S. Congress has been pressing the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to try to account for what pieces of the half billion dollar U.S. taxpayer-funded military equipment in Yemen have gone missing from the caches at U.S. and central government facilities across Yemen.

Yemen Location

Speaking anonymously to The Washington Post, Pentagon officials said they had no evidence that their equipment had fallen in militant hands, but they acknowledge that the department had lost track of some of the weapons given to Yemen amidst the local chaos.  The official is quoted as saying:

Even in the best-case scenario in an unstable country, we never have 100 percent accountability.

A legislative aide had a grimmer assessment.  Speaking to The Washington Post, they stated:

We have to assume it’s completely compromised and gone.

Yemen weapons
The U.S. has shipped a half billion dollars worst of weapons -- most humvees, guns, and ammo -- to Yemen.  Those weapons may now be lost to hostile forces. [Image Source: The Washington Post]

Both Congressional and Pentagon officials agree that the more serious threat is that some of the weaponry could have fallen in to the hands of al-Qaeda, a militant group that has committed terorrist attacks against U.S., including the terrible attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.  But officials are also concerned about Iranian-backed rebels in northern Yemen seizing U.S.-supplied weapons caches in the capital city of Sana'a, which American forces once used as their base of operations.

II. An Unstable Ally

Situated along the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, the nation of Yemen for decades had been under the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Shia Muslim, who first took office in 1978.  Until the 1990s Yemen had been divided into the Soviet-backed communist "South Yemen" (The People's Democratic Republic of Yemen) and the western-backed "North Yemen" (Yemen Arab Republic) when President Saleh ruled.

Yemen President
Yemenese President Ali Abdullah Saleh held an iron grip over at least part of Yemen for three and a half decades. [Image Source: Reuters]

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, two two halves of Yemen saw civil war in 1994.  The western-backed North triumphed and the unified nation of Yemen was born.  At the helm was president Saleh.

However, the nation remained deeply divided along religious lines.  

Yemen religious divides
Yemen is divided by religion, with Shia Muslims dominating the central/northern regions and Sunnis dominating the southern/southeastern regions. [Image Source: CIA]

In recent years the Sunni extremist group al-Qaeda gained a powerful presence in the south and southeastern parts of Yemen.  The U.S. subsequently worked with the Yemenese government to carry out a series of drone strikes to try to weaken the militant terrorist group.  These included controversial drone death strikes which claimed the lives of American citizens.

But operations in the region would soon become far more difficult.  In the winter and spring months of 2011 -- a period of unrest in the Middle East known as the "Arab Spring" -- Yemen saw protests give way to widespread revolt.  The secular regime of President Saleh was accused of being a corrupt military dictatorship masquerading as a republic.

Yemen territory
Shia Houthi rebels in the north (purple) and Sunni al-Qaeda rebels in the south (pink) seized large parts of Yemen over the past several years. [Image Source: Wikimedia Commons/GeoEvan]

During the Arab Spring President Saleh found his rule contested by two powerful factions.  In the south the Sunni al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia milias united to challenge his rule, looking to create a Sunni Sharia-ruled state.  Meanwhile in the north, the Iran-backed Houthi militia looked to put the state under Shia Sharia-rule.

President Saleh narrowly survived an assasination attempt in 2011.  Subsequently he tried to quell the rebels by passing off the Presidency to Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, a Sunni official who had served as Vice President from 1994 to 2012.  The U.S. endorsed President Hadi's regime as the legitimate central government, but tellingly pulled U.S. troops out of facilities in the capital city of Sana'a which they had been using to coorrdinate drone strikes.

President Hadi
President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, seen here in a Sept. 2012 meeting with President Barack Obama in New York City, took control of the country in 2012.  While he gained American support, his regime is on the brink of being overrun by rebels who have conquered large parts of Yemen.
[Image Source: The White House]

The new president, President Hadi, briefly gained in popularity in 2013.  He brokered a deal with the Obama administration to bring U.S. troops back to Yemen, where they coordinated anti-terorrism efforts and worked to train an elite group of anti-insurgency commandos within the central government's fighting force, the Republican Guard.

However, not everyone was happy about the U.S. standing behind the new leader.  A report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) criticized the new efforts, stating that the Pentagon had no way of determining the success of its strategy in the wartorn state.  Military officials acknowledged that even when Yemen was stable, it was hard to convince the central gov't to launch commando raids on al-Qaeda strongholds in the country.  Commented one official to The Washington Post:

They could fight with it and were fairly competent, but we couldn’t get them engaged.

And aside from the legitimacy of the aid in general, there were serious questions about whether it was being wasted via botched supply strategies.  The GAO in particular criticized that the Pentagon spent money on sending humvee armored vehicles to the central government, but then left the vehicles broken down when it refused to share replacement parts with the central government.  

GAO Report
A report by the U.S. GAO shows this humvee broken down in Yemen.  The Pentagon has refused to provide Yemen's central government with parts to repair the vehicles, according to the GAO.
[Image Source: GAO via The Washington Post]

Likewise the legimacy of sharing the Huey II helicopters and replacement parts for them was subject to rancorous debate between the Pentagon and GAO.

III. Crumbling Central Government Leaves Pentagon-Backed Efforts in Chaos

But the new central government of Yemen fell under fresh allegations of corruption in 2014.  Public support waned.  Both the Sunni hardliners (led by the al Qaeda militias) and Shia rebels in the north (led by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi) stepped up military efforts to capitalize on the regime's weakness and seize more territory.

In Sept. 2014, the Shia Houthi rebels seized the capital city of Sana'a, but stopped short of attacking the local residence of President Hadi.  At the time things were still looking hopeful for some sort of compromise between the central government of Yemen and the Iran-backed Shia rebels, both of whom shared common enemies.  The hope was that a unified state might resist al Qaeda and DAESH (aka. "ISIS") -- radical Sunni militias known for their terorrism efforts.

Yemen -- Houthi rebels
Houthi rebels celebrate the conquest of the capital city of Sana'a. [Image Source: Reuters]

That month President Obama went as far as to label Yemen as an example of a success for his foreign policy strategy, which involved training and arming local militaries to resist militants.

But this "success story" quickly devolved into a failure.  In January, Houthi forces came under fire over claims that they were backed by President Saleh.  The Houthi militia pushed back blasting these claims and breaking their brief armistice with the central government.  In the aftermath they captured the presidential palace in Sana'a and placing President Hadi under house arrest.

The takeover has left the Pentagon without a base to carry out drone strikes against al-Qaeda in the region.  In the aftermath, the Obama administration has been reduced to watching and waiting for the local unrest to play out.

A familiar face may be behind this mess -- a former ally in fact.  Increasingly the Pentagon is being faced with evidence that the Iran-supported Shia Houthi rebels also are being steered by its former ally President Saleh (Saleh denies these claims, saying he's still recovering from his wounds from the assasination attempt).  A recent UN report suggested that via "corrupt practices" the former president reaped $32-60B USD in oil profits and is now using that money to support the Houthi rebels in a collusive bid to regain control of the central government in Yemen.

Yemen control
As of March, Houthi forces, backed by Iran and (reportedly) former President Saleh, have captured a large amount of territory in Yemen's northwest. [Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has scrambled to avoid more weapons from falling into Houthi hands, freezing $125M USD worth of taxpayer-funded shipments to Yemen.  Among the items that had been scheduled to be deployed, but which never reached the region, included ScanEagle surveillance drones from Boeing Comp. (BA) and lightly armored military Jeeps.

He subsequently resigned this January.  But in late February after escaping the capital city and reaching his hometown of Aden in the south, he reversed his resignation, claiming he was coerced.  Yemen is now divided amongst three major power brokers.

President Hadi's secular gov't in the south (which is now somewhat Sunni-aligned), the Iran-backed Sunni Houthi militants in the north, and the al-Qaeda Sunni hardliner militias in the southeast.  A fourth group -- a pro-communist faction know as the Southern Movement also has taken control over small swashes of territory in the South.

IV. But Who Has the Guns?

So that leaves at least one pressing question -- "Who has the weapons the U.S. sent? "

The answer is likely "it depends."

Some of the weapons likely remain under control of the central government.  According to the Pentagon, most of the elite Republican Guard units who had received American training and control American-supplied weapons were under the control of family members of President Saleh.  After his resignation most of these family members reliquished control.  Their weapons were likely at least partially evacuated to regions controlled by the central government as militias began to drive government forces out of central Yemen.

But a UN report also reveals that the former President's son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, looted weapons from the Republican Guard facilities in Sana'a.  Those looted weapons stocks -- which are now controlled by the Iran-backed Houthi faction -- may include American weapons, although that has not been confirmed.  The UN report indicates that hundreds of Glock pistols, thousands of M-16 machine guns, dozens of Humvees supplied by the U.S. may have been among the weaponry looted from the central government facilities by the former President's son.

The sort of good news is that while a half billion in U.S. taxpayer money may have been effectively wasted, the weaponry it was used to purchase won't necessarily empower militant groups.

Yemen m16s

A GAO report shows M-16 machine guns (left) and shotguns (right) preparing to ship to Yemen as aid, prior to last year. [Image Source: GAO]

Yemen has one of the world's highest rates of gun ownership, behind only the U.S. and Serbia [source].  Hence, while the thousands of lost pistols and machine guns may be clerical concern from the perspective of wasteful federal spending, they're not expected to empower terrorism or shift the balance of power in Yemen, as they're only a drop in the bucket, so to speak.

The good news is that the Obama administration's refusal to give the Yemeni governments -- first the Saleh regime from 2008-2010, then the Hadi regime from 2012-2014 -- heavy weaponry like tanks or fighter jets, ultimately not only vastly cut the losses, but also avoided a potentially disastrous loss of dangerous weaponry into 
hostile hands.

Thus the possible loss of a half billion dollars in weapons in Syria raises somewhat contradictory questions.  First it raises the question of whether weapons should be sent to the region in the first place, given that in both Iraq and Yemen, U.S. weapons troves have fallen into militant hands after weak local militaries lost control of stockpiles.

Yemen protesters
The U.S. now has no viable base of operations in Yemen, marking a failure of the Obama administration's "minimalist" strategy.  (Houthi rebels in Taiz in southwest Yemen are pictured.
[Image Source: Reuters]

Secondly, though, it raises the question of whether the "minimalist" strategy in Yemen was truly superior to the alternative strategy in Iraq which involved sending heavy weaponry (tanks, etc.) and spending far more ($25B+ USD in military aid).  It appears that neither the minimalist, nor the spending-intensive strategies in the region had worked well for the Obama administration.

In some regards this serves as a validation of the strategies of the previous Bush administration, which believed that the only two successful strategies were to keep out of the regional conflicts (as was done in 2000 and 2011, pre-9/11) or to commit to a large embedded American military presence in the region (as was done post 9/11). Then again, those strategies were hardly resounding successes, as well.

Source: The Washington Post

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