The US governemnt has withdrawn its military and remaining diplomatic personnel from Yemen as the security situation has spiraled out of control over the past week. Among the forces pulled from Yemen were more than 100 military advisors who were training Yemeni counterterrorism personnel to battle al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The withdrawal of US forces from Yemen takes place just six months after President Barack Obama described the US strategy of partnering with local Yemeni forces as “one that we have successfully pursued … for years.”
The US yanked its military forces Al Anad Air Base after AQAP forces and allied tribes briefly took control of the nearby city of Houta, the capital of Lahj province, on March 20. Al Anad is located just 20 miles north of Houta. Yemeni military forces loyal to ousted President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who is based in the nearby city of Aden, regained control of Houta after AQAP fighters withdrew without a fight.
The US military has not commented on the withdrawal of its forces from Al Anad, which was a key node in the US and Yemeni governments’ fight against AQAP. But the US State Department confirmed in a press release that the US government “has temporarily relocated its remaining personnel out of Yemen.”
“We also continue to actively monitor terrorist threats emanating from Yemen and have capabilities postured in the area to address them,” State claimed. “As we have in the past, we will take action to disrupt continuing, imminent threats to the United States and our citizens.”
The US Embassy in Sana’a was evacuated at the end of February. US Marines stationed at the embassy had to disable and abandon their weapons prior to boarding a civilian flight out of the country.
AQAP’s foray into Houta was preceded by attacks from the rival Islamic State, Shia Houthi rebels, and infighting between forces loyal to President Hadi. Additionally, today Houthi forces have taken control of the city of Taiz, Yemen’s third largest and are now just 120 miles from Aden, The New York Times reported.
On March 20, the Islamic State deployed four suicide bombers at two Houthi mosques in the capital of Sana’a’, killing more than 100 worshiper. The Islamic State threatened to carry out more such attacks.
On the previous day, forces loyal to Hadi battled a rival military commander at Aden’s international airport. Thirteen people were killed before Hadi’s troops took control of the airport, Reuters reported. During the fighting, an aircraft thought to have been flown by the Houthi-led government based in Sana’a struck the presidential palace in Aden.
Hadi fled to Aden in late February after escaping house arrest in Sana’a. He was forced to resign his presidency in January after intense pressure from the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi rebels, who took control of much of northern and western Yemen late last summer. Hadi has been the US’ biggest supporter in the fight against al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. He was a vocal supporter of the unpopular drone strikes, which have targeted al Qaeda’s leaders and operatives in Yemen.
Yemen is one of several key bases for al Qaeda’s global network. Some of al Qaeda’s top leaders operate from Yemen, including Nasir al Wuhayshi, who serves as general manager in addition to AQAP’s emir. While the US has killed several key AQAP leaders since ramping up drone and air strikes in Yemen at the end of 2009, Wuhayshi and much of AQAP’s leadership cadre continue to operate. In addition to seeking to take control of Yemen, AQAP has been has been at the forefront of plotting attacks against the US and the West.
The withdrawal of US forces is a major blow to President Obama’s hands-off approach in the Middle East. On Sept. 11, 2014, Obama touted the counterterrorism strategy of US airpower working with “partner forces on the ground” in both Yemen and Somalia as “one that we have successfully pursued … for years.” [See LWJ reports, US strategy against Islamic State to mirror counterterrorism efforts in Yemen, Somalia, and President Obama’s ‘successful’ counterterrorism strategy in Yemen in limbo.]
Today, the US has few Yemeni forces left to partner with and a limited ability to do so. Whatever friendly forces that do remain are confined to limited geographical area and over the next several weeks and months will be focusing on survival.