A girl stands by jerrycans on a street where a charity tanker truck delivers free drinking water, amid a cholera outbreak, in Sanaa, Yemen, July 10, 2017. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

August 24, 2017

Losing Wars: Terrorism and Disease in Yemen

Originally published in AEIdeas

Cholera has infected over half a million Yemenis in less than four months, killing more than 2,000 people, a third of them children. Yemen’s millions of internally displaced and over 20 million people in desperate need of humanitarian assistance are especially vulnerable to the outbreak. For a sense of the calamity, check out this Critical Threats Project graphic and the accompanying New York Times piece.

The key, however, is to understand that in reality there are two diseases, cholera and Salafi-jihadism, that are at once killing people in Yemen and threatening Americans from Yemen.

First, the disease. Conflict in Yemen has weakened state institutions, and limited outsiders’ ability to mitigate the health crisis. A preventable disease like cholera is spreading and will claim more lives. Starvation and malnutrition will claim others. Fighting around the port of al Hudaydah and the Saudi-led coalition’s air and naval blockade has meant that relief is slow to arrive. The al Houthis’ convoluted process for imports created logjams for what little does arrive. Almost one-in-four people in Yemen rely entirely on external assistance to eat.

Second, the terrorists. A complex battle space exploited by Iran and Salafi-jihadis has drawn in both the U.S. military and Saudi and Emirati forces. But those efforts have only generated temporary setbacks for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The group has been quick to exploit the suffering on the ground, even when it loses: AQAP pointed to a recent offensive that pushed it out of one of Yemen’s eastern governorates as an example of how it prioritizes the local population by sparing it from a bloody fight. The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) is also resurging in central Yemen where it fights alongside Sunni tribal and AQAP militias against the Iranian-backed al Houthis.

 As Katherine Zimmerman detailed in a larger report, Salafi-jihadi groups are still expanding in Yemen despite over a decade of counterterrorism operations largely because the US has misdefined the enemy and how to fight it. The US must focus on severing the Salafi-jihadi movement’s relationship with Sunni populations and limit the grievances (like rampant disease) that drive the relationship, rather than focusing only on how to find and kill al Qaeda and ISIS leaders.

The US must revitalize its diplomatic efforts to achieve a lasting political settlement in order to end Yemen’s spiraling humanitarian crisis and set Salafi-jihadism in Yemen on a course to defeat. The current UN-led peace process, which the US backs, has failed. Current aid efforts, which are struggling to reach Yemen’s most vulnerable populations due to the conditions of the conflict, are only a band-aid on a gushing wound. An elite-brokered deal currently in the works does not include measures to address the underlying grievances that drive Yemen’s instability. An inclusive political settlement to the conflict will allow the international community and the Yemeni state to address grievances that feed the Salafi-jihadi insurgency in a lasting way. Failing to do so will allow Salafi-jihadi groups to consolidate safe havens in Yemen, which they will use as a base to plan attacks against the US and its allies.