Yemen's military shake-up: Saleh cronies get the boot

Article Highlights

  • @AEI's @Criticalthreats shows the latest power structure of Yemen’s Armed Forces down to brigade level

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  • A Yemeni 'brigade' is much smaller than the U.S. equivalent and is estimated to include about 1,500 troops

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  • Without audits in Yemen's military, brigade commanders who distributed salaries to their soldiers, often exaggerated brigade sizes

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American counterterrorism strategy in Yemen relies on the local military to contain Ansar al Sharia, an insurgent wing of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). But Yemen is losing ground to Ansar al Sharia, which has expanded its foothold in southern Yemen. Newly-elected President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi must unify the fractured armed forces under his command; he has begun to do so by dismissing select commanders loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The extent of military defections over the period of protest can be seen in the Critical Threats Project’s Yemen Order of Battle (ORBAT). Hadi’s success or failure in restructuring the Yemeni military will have dangerous implications for the country’s ability to prevail against Ansar al Sharia and AQAP, thought to be al Qaeda’s most dangerous branch, and thereby America’s ability to effect its security interests in the region.

Yemen Order of Battle, April 2012

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President Hadi released a list of military and political appointments on April 6, 2012 that strikes at Saleh’s patronage network. Some of the holdover military commanders had reportedly acted to handicap the fight against Ansar al Sharia and destabilize the Hadi government. The decrees removed Saleh’s half-brother and nephew from command positions and rearranged leadership in the Army and Navy. But Saleh figures remain in positions of power, most notably Saleh’s son Ahmed, head of the elite Republican Guard.

Restructuring the military is a pillar of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) deal of November 2011, which dictates that the government must “integrate the armed forces under unified, national and professional leadership.” The GCC announced its support for the appointments the day after their issue, saying that they complied with the terms of the GCC deal.

The backlash from Saleh’s men has already affected the military. Mohammed Saleh al Ahmar, dismissed commander of the Air Force, threatened to shoot down planes at Sana’a airport. Armed men loyal to Saleh shut down the Sana’a airport for a day. Rumors of other commanders refusing the changes have surfaced since the decrees. It is unclear how the military will weather this unrest; its strength has already been sapped by a year of defections and mutiny. It is crucial to U.S. interests that Hadi bring the armed forces to bear, because without a unified Yemeni military, the fight against AQAP will fail.

Read the daily Gulf of Aden Security Review from AEI's Critical Threats Project.

Read the latest Yemen Crisis Situation Update from AEI's Critical Threats Project.

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About the Author

 

Katherine
Zimmerman

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