By Nick Turse
In recent weeks, Yemeni protesters calling for an immediate end to the 32-year reign of United States-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 has not met demonstrators' demands, has yet to halt the protests or violence by the troops backing his regime.
During a demonstration 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 Barack Obama administration as part of an US$83 million military aviation aid package.
Since the beginning of 2011, under a program run by the US Department of Defense, the US 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% of all Yemenis live on less than $2 a day), high unemployment (also running at 40%), 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, 12 Yemeni Air Force pilots and 20 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 "counter-terrorism 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, benefiting 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 US 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 counter-terrorism 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 counter-terrorism 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 US 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-Central Command 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.
Not so tough talk
As Yemen's security forces have escalated their violence against demonstrators this spring, the Obama administration has offered mixed signals regarding Saleh, but has yet to issue an outright condemnation of the dictator, no less sever ties with a leader seen as crucial to the fight against al-Qaeda.
"We have had a good working relationship with President Saleh. He's been an important ally in the counter-terrorism arena," said US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on March 23. "But clearly, there's a lot of unhappiness inside Yemen. And I think we will basically just continue to watch the situation. We haven't done any post-Saleh planning, if you will."
On April 5, White House press secretary Jay Carney came out more forcefully. "The United States strongly condemns the use of violence by Yemeni government forces against demonstrators in Sana'a, Taiz and Hodeida in the past several days," he said. "The Yemeni people have a right to demonstrate peacefully, and we remind President Ali Abdullah Saleh of his responsibility to ensure the safety and security of Yemenis who are exercising their universal right to engage in political expression."
That same day, however, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell was more equivocal, justifying enduring US support for Yemen's strongman as a "prudent course of action", while including the protesters as the equals of the security forces in his condemnation of the use of force: "The protests, the demonstrations need to be non-violent. Obviously, the government needs to respond to them in a non-violent manner. So we are - we condemn the violence all around."
Morrell also sought to distance the Pentagon's aid for the country's security forces from the violence being meted out in Yemen's streets. He told reporters, "To suggest that the aid to Yemen has somehow been used against protesters I think is a leap of faith for which there is no evidence to support." Recent reports, however, suggest that Yemen's elite US-trained counter-terrorism troops have now been deployed in the capital, Sanaa, to deal with the massive ongoing protests.
Late last year, the Pentagon floated a new proposal to pump up to $1.2 billion more into Yemen's security forces over the next five years. However, with protesters in the streets week after week in vast numbers and significant elements of the military defecting from the regime, the Obama administration failed to write Saleh a check and began quietly urging him, through back-channel communications, to hand over power - assumedly to a successor likely to favor US interests.
Finally, on April 23, after Saleh seemingly agreed to an arrangement brokered by Arab mediators that would grant immunity from prosecution to his family and him, and eventually shift power to his deputy for an interim period, the Obama administration threw its support behind the plan. A spokesman characterized it as "responsive to the aspirations of the Yemeni people". Not only have many opposition protesters rejected the deal, while Saleh's troops continue to attack them, but the dictator has slowly backed away from it as well.
And yet, despite weeks of violence that have left hundreds dead or wounded, Obama has yet to publicly and unequivocally call for Saleh to step down as he did, albeit belatedly, with former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and, more recently, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Sending a message
This month, Tawakul Karman, a Yemeni human-rights activist and anti-government protest leader, told the New York Times of her anger at Obama for his failure to issue such a call. ''We feel that we have been betrayed,'' she said. Hamza Alkamaly, another prominent youth leader, echoed the same sentiments: ''We students lost our trust in the United States.''
After watching two allied autocrats fall in Tunisia and Egypt, the United States has focused on its periodic enemy, Gaddafi in Libya, and has done little of substance to advocate for, let alone facilitate, demands for democracy and social change by protesters in allied states that are more integral to its military plans in the region, including Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Instead, Washington has continued to support repressive governments to which it has provided training, weapons and other military equipment that has already been used or could be used to suppress grassroots democratic movements.
In the case of Bahrain, the US has provided millions of rounds of live ammunition, helicopters and tanks. For Saudi Arabia, it was a weapons deal worth tens of billions of dollars that will have Saudi pilots training in the US. In Iraq, the US is aiding the very units of the security forces implicated in crackdowns on the free press. And these are only a few examples of recent US efforts in the Middle East.
A survey of Yemeni adults conducted in January and February by the US-based polling firm Glevum Associates found exceptional hostility to the United States. Ninety-nine percent of those surveyed viewed the US government's relations with the Islamic world unfavorably, 82% considered US military influence in the world "somewhat bad" or "bad", 66% believed that the US hardly ever or never took into account the interests of countries like Yemen, and just 4% "somewhat" or "strongly approved" of Saleh's cooperation with the United States.
The numbers could hardly get more dismal, but anger and resentment can deepen and become even more entrenched. When protesters look to the skies over Sana'a in the days and weeks ahead, they may notice new American-made, US taxpayer-financed helicopters hovering above them. Unless the Hueys are seen ferrying the dictator away in a scene reminiscent of Saigon in 1975, Yemenis - more than two-thirds under the age of 24 - are likely to remember for a very long time which side the United States took in their freedom struggle.