Yemen's Double Game

The WikiLeaks cables show clearly that the Yemeni government diverted U.S. and British counterterrorism funding to fight its domestic rebels.

BEIRUT—Yemen's government repeatedly diverted U.S.- and British-supported counterterrorism fighters from their intended use against al Qaeda to fight a purely domestic opposition group, taking the Yemeni commandos away from their mission against al Qaeda for months at a time, according to WikiLeaks cables that show the former U.S. ambassador to Yemen vainly protesting the apparent misuse of U.S. military support.

Despite also receiving reports in 2009 that Yemen was deploying U.S.-supplied armored vehicles and Humvees against domestic rebels, the United States -- anxious for Yemen to crack down on al Qaeda -- has only increased shipments of weapons, night-vision goggles, helicopters, and other war gear to Yemen in 2010.

Years of U.S. diplomatic cables show Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, unswervingly determined to get more war materiel and cash from the United States. In some meetings, Saleh pushes the United States to join the fight against Yemen's northern Houthi rebels directly with gifts of helicopters, aircraft, and armored vehicles; in others, Saleh asks for specific weapons but pledges not to use them against the Houthis.

"We won't use the helicopters in Sa'ada, I promise. Only against al-Qaeda," Saleh told U.S. Gen. David Petraeus in a January 2009 meeting. Saleh made his pledge, apparently unsolicited, in reference to a northern Yemen city that is the base of a regional rebellion led by the country's Houthi Shiite dissidents.

In a September 2009 session with White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, Saleh, frustrated, presses the United States to give armored vehicles, airplanes, and ambulances specifically to his campaign against the Houthi rebels. "The Houthis are your enemies too," Saleh tells Brennan.

Brennan deflects that request. "The USG [U.S. government] is prohibited by law from providing military support to the [Yemeni government] to be used against the Houthis since the USG considers the group a domestic insurgency," he is quoted telling Saleh.

At that time, however, Saleh and his military chiefs were already diverting the U.S.-supported counterterrorism unit -- a commando group funded, trained, and equipped by the United States and Britain from 2002 on to take a lead role fighting al Qaeda in Yemen -- as well as possibly U.S. armored vehicles and Humvees, against the Houthis, then-U.S. Ambassador Stephen Seche notes in another cable. Seche uses the term ROYG to refer to the Republic of Yemen government, and CTU and CT to refer to the counterterrorism unit.

"The ROYG, desperate to defeat the Houthis at any cost, has largely ignored USG concerns regarding deployment of the CTU to Sa'ada,'' Seche wrote in December 2009. "The CTU has been unable to go after genuine terrorist targets like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) while it has been tied down in Sa'ada."

The United States this year more than doubled its military aid to Yemen in a push to encourage Saleh's government to do more against what many President Barack Obama's administration see as the world's most aggressive branch of al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a Yemen-based union of Saudi and Yemeni al Qaeda groups, has been linked to the failed December 2009 attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound jet and the recent printer-cartridge bombs, among several other successful and unsuccessful attacks targeting Americans and their allies.

The Yemeni Army and other regular forces are ill-trained, ill-equipped, and riven by corruption that has tens of thousands of "ghost soldiers" on the payrolls so that commanders, tribal leaders, and others can draw the salaries of the nonexistent soldiers and sell their gear on the black market, according to a 2006 assessment by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

As a result, the United States and Britain have focused on trying to build up Yemeni commando units -- commanded by Saleh's son and nephew -- in hopes Yemen will use them against al Qaeda. As one cable notes, the United States since 2002 has spent more than $115 million equipping Yemeni counterterrorism forces, including $5 million in training in 2009 alone.

In Seche's December 2009 cable, named and unnamed Yemeni military officials confirm that Yemen has diverted the counterterrorism unit in particular to fight Yemeni rebels. They shrug off U.S. protests that the commandos were meant to fight al Qaeda.

"The war against the Houthis is not a distraction from the CT fight. It is the CT fight," a Yemeni colonel insisted to U.S. Embassy political officers in December 2009.

The Houthis are a family-led insurrection of Zaidi Shiites who began fighting Yemeni forces in 2004. The Houthis say they seek greater sovereignty for northern Yemen. The war has now gone through six rounds; though the conflict is currently frozen, no one is confident that it is over. At least 200,000 people remain displaced by the fighting.

Despite Saleh's frequent claims that they are linked to both al Qaeda and Iran, no such evidence has surfaced against the Houthis. It is unlikely that al Qaeda -- a Sunni Muslim group that sees Shiite Muslims as takfiri, or nonbelievers, to be killed -- would ally long-term with a Shiite group. U.S. officials are seen elsewhere in the cables denying that Iran is supplying the Houthis.

International rights groups and civilians from the area of the rebellion accuse Saleh's government of using heavy-handed tactics that inflict heavy civilian casualties, including deploying helicopter gunships and warplanes to bomb and rocket civilian neighborhoods in the north. Saleh's government has barred journalists from most travel to Saada.

Saleh is also facing growing insurrection in Yemen's south. Both southern and northern Yemenis say Saleh's more than 30-year-old regime discriminates against their regions when it comes to jobs and development.

While the Houthis have used anti-Israeli and anti-American slogans, they are not known to have pursued any attacks outside Yemen. The United States for years has refused Yemen's requests to classify the Houthis as a terrorist group.

While Saleh has allegedly bombed towns harboring Houthi rebels, for most of the past decade he has been far more tolerant of al Qaeda leaders in Yemen, pursuing a strategy of trying to co-opt rather than kill them. At lunch with a U.S. envoy in 2007, he blandly recounted having gotten together for a chat two weeks earlier with Jamal al-Badawi, the architect of al Qaeda's 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 people. Saleh promised the U.S. envoy that Badawi -- freed by Yemen despite his conviction in the Cole bombing -- was under "house arrest" and "under my microscope." Badawi 's whereabouts today are unclear, however.

In his cable, Seche notes that the U.S.-trained force is said to be taking "heavy casualties" in the fighting against the northern rebels because U.S. special-operations forces helped train the commandos for lightning raids rather than sustained fighting.

One source, whose name is redacted in the cable, says that the Yemenis want to adapt the counterterrorism unit's training to a style more like that of the Americans in Afghanistan, "suggesting the CTU expects to continue to use its forces in Sa'ada," Seche writes.

"While U.S. concerns over diversion of troops and equipment have been acknowledged, they have clearly not resulted in a significant change of ROYG focus from the Houthis to AQAP," the U.S. diplomat says.

Yemeni critics of Saleh's government have long warned that Saleh's security forces would likely turn any U.S. military aid against southern separatists and northern rebels rather than al Qaeda.

U.S. military sources in 2009 privately cited repeated rumors out of Saada that Americans themselves have been spotted in the northern war zone -- though it's easily conceivable that Yemenis could mistake a well-armed Yemeni commando for an American.

In an August interview in Sanaa, Yemen's capital, a leading Yemeni arms dealer told me that U.S.-made rifles and Humvees were showing up in the Houthi-government fight in Saada. U.S. and British diplomats played down that possibility, stressing in public comments in a November forum on Yemen in London that their governments were working hard to track the end use of Western-donated military aid in Yemen.

As Seche's comments showed, however, U.S. diplomats already knew at the time that Saleh and his security forces were diverting U.S. training, funding, and, likely, equipment, against the northern rebels.

U.S. diplomats are generally refusing to comment on specific WikiLeaks cables. The U.S. Embassy in Sana'a didn't respond to an email asking whether anything had changed to keep Yemen from using U.S. training, funding, and equipment against its domestic opposition in the future.

It's unclear whether it's illegal for the United States to continue tolerating Yemen's diversion of U.S. training, funding, and, possibly, equipment, as Brennan suggested. Hurst Hannum, a professor of international law at Tufts University, said the United States likely would violate international law only if it contributed U.S. troops directly to Yemen's fight against its rebels. U.S. law on the issue is "filled with ambiguity, loopholes, and executive waivers," Michael J. Glennon, also a Tufts professor of international law, said.

If not illegal, it certainly seems unwise. Allowing Yemen to draw the United States into standing a mercenary army for Saleh against his domestic opponents, while hoping he uses it against al Qaeda as well, implies a triumph of wishful thinking over experience.

And though the Houthi conflict was long one of the world's most obscure conflicts, and rightfully so, it grows less so by the year. Saudi Arabia -- which may become a proxy conduit for more advanced U.S. military help for Yemen -- entered the conflict last year, using its warplanes to bomb Houthi positions inside Yemen (as the cables confirm).

U.S. diplomats worried then about Iran entering the conflict on the side of the Shiite rebels. Iran, by all evidence, wisely refrained. The United States, needing neither a third war zone nor a regional Middle East war, should be so disciplined.

AFP/Getty Images


Do Ask, Must Tell

Turkey's military doesn't just discriminate against gays -- it humiliates them.

ISTANBUL — As the United States considers repealing the ban on gays serving in the military, they might want to consider consulting their allies in NATO with whom they serve in Afghanistan and Iraq. The vast majority of the organization's 28-member states allow gays to serve openly. But Turkey offers an instructive, and extreme, contrast.

Where the U.S. "don't ask, don't tell" policy has been the subject of fierce political debate since it was launched by Bill Clinton's administration two decades ago, Turkey's ban has seen few public challenges. When Turkey's minister for women's and family affairs, Selma Aliye Kavaf, declared this March that homosexuality is a "disease that needs treatment," she wasn't just pandering to popular belief; she was repeating the official stance of the Turkish armed forces. Indeed, Turkey's gay conscripts are routinely forced to endure humiliation and abuse at the hands of their country's military authorities.

What makes that fate especially terrible is that it's practically impossible for Turkish men to avoid exposure to military life, and the burden is on them to prove they are unfit for service. Every man between 20 and 41 years old is required to serve at least six months. Exemptions are granted only under two conditions: a mental or physical disability, and homosexuality. Turkey does not recognize the right to conscientious objection.

Fearing rejection by relatives and discrimination by potential employers, many gay men have chosen to lie to army doctors about their sexual orientation. "Because you're asked at every job interview to say whether you've completed your military service, and to explain why not, the decision to get an exemption brands you for life," says S., a gay draftee in his mid-20s, over coffee at a restaurant in Istanbul. "Some people decide to deny their homosexuality and enter the army instead." (To protect the identities of certain people interviewed for this article, their names have been abbreviated with their first initial.)

Many gays also conceal their sexual orientation to avoid the humiliation of having to prove it. According to the official commentary to the army's health regulation, for a homosexual to be exempted from service, "documentary evidence must prove that the defects in sexual behavior are obvious and would create problems when revealed in a military context." In the military's understanding, says L., a psychiatrist with experience on military health panels, "If a man is gay, it's not a problem as long as he is not behaving that way." According to S., "You have to prove that your homosexuality prevents you from being a soldier, from holding a gun, that it makes you effeminate, that it might affect your safety and make you vulnerable, and that it might endanger the unity of the military." 

To seek exemption, therefore, many gay men have to endure pseudo-scientific tests designed to appraise both their homosexuality and the extent to which it might render them "unfit" for service. "Parts of the test I took included having to draw a picture of a tree, a house, and a person," says S. "You're given a lot of crayons, and then you have to answer why you drew things the way you did." Other gay conscripts report having been asked whether they liked playing with dolls as children or enjoyed wearing women's clothing. Military psychiatrists who know better have to pretend that there is a scientific value to such examinations, says L., "because it's in the regulations."

Astoundingly, some gays also report that they were asked to produce photographs showing them as participants in anal intercourse. Even then, Turkish authorities are said to apply special criteria. According to the military, and Turkish society at large, penetrating another man does not necessarily qualify as a homosexual act; only being penetrated is undisputedly homosexual. Hence the unwritten rule when it comes to such photos: "The man should be in the passive position, receiving from behind," L. explains, "and looking at the camera. Preferably while smiling."

K., a gay man in his mid 20s who works at an NGO, was called up to the military this year. "The first time I went for a medical examination," he recalls, "I told the psychiatrist in charge I was gay, but he claimed that I was pretending." K. was forced to spend a night in a military psychiatric hospital where, he says, another doctor asked him to provide pictures documenting his homosexuality. K. then asked a friend to take photos as he and his boyfriend had sex in their apartment. At his next meeting with military doctors, K. handed over the prints. The first doctor's assessment was overturned: K. was declared gay and, as such, ineligible for service. "Mine is not an isolated case," he says. "I know of many other gays who have been asked for photos." 

The army flatly denies such claims. In a statement issued recently to Gazeteport, a Turkish news website, the Turkish General Staff's information office asserted that the military "absolutely does not ask for photo or video footage from those who say they are gay. Even if a person brings photos or video footage, they are not considered during the process."

Granted, the army's health-requirement regulation makes no specific mention of photographic evidence. The problem, says L., arises because army psychiatrists are often excessively on guard against men who pretend to be gay. (Given the army's refusal to recognize the right to conscientious objection, this is often the only recourse, aside from faking a physical disability, for straight men seeking to avoid conscription.) "These doctors are afraid that some people who desperately want to avoid military service will lie to them. If you give some guy a report saying that he has a psychosexual disorder and then he gets married, you will be in trouble," says L. For what it's worth, the process also embarrasses psychiatrists, who don't want to be in the position of diagnosing unscientific sexual pathologies. "It should be the political leaders who decide whether homosexuals can serve in the military or not. With the army regulation, the decision is left to the psychiatrist," says L. "And military psychiatrists, they just don't know what to do."

But even if authorities don't demand photographs, the process can be harrowing. V., in his early 30s, had to spend weeks at four military psychiatric hospitals before he could gain an exemption -- this, over the space of three years. "At the first hospital, despite the fact I told them I was gay, I was declared eligible for service," he told me at an Istanbul bar. "At the second, I was declared ineligible. At the third, the psychiatrist in charge acknowledged I was gay, but 'not effeminate enough' to receive an ineligibility report. Still, to help me out, he gave me a report that said I was neurotic."

The fourth hospital was the worst. "I stayed there for almost two weeks straight, without any possibility of leaving," says V. One of the doctors, a surgeon, decided to subject V. to a rectal examination. "The guy put his finger in my ass to check for any deformations," says V. "'Ooh, it's very tight,' he joked. 'You'll be a very good soldier.' His finger was still inside." It was only after the military doctors requested testimony from a family member -- V.'s sister confirmed that he had been a homosexual as long as she could remember -- that V. was released and declared unfit for service.

So far, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the ruling power since 2002, has not taken any steps to remove the ban. Although it has significantly curbed the army's influence in politics (no small feat, given that the army has forcefully unseated four governments over the past 50 years), the AKP, born from the ashes of an Islamist party, appears unlikely to confront the generals over the issue of gay draftees. Since its first electoral victory eight years ago, the government has passed no new laws to protect sexual minorities. Likewise, it has turned a deaf ear to pleas from the country's LGBT community that the Turkish Constitution be amended to provide for equality before the law regardless of sexual orientation. Although there are no laws banning homosexuality in Turkey, in 2008 the country refused to sign an EU-backed text calling for its decriminalization worldwide. Public attitudes are also a problem. In a country whose laws and politics have undergone a huge transformation over the past decade, taboos on homosexuality remain firmly in place. In a 2006 study, 23 percent of urban gays or bisexuals reported having been subjected to physical harassment. In a May 2009 poll, 87 percent of Turks said they would not want a homosexual as a neighbor.

But the allegation that gays lack the courage to serve is undermined by conscripts like Mehmet Tarhan. Tarhan, a Kurd and a gay man, chose not to don a military uniform, but he refused to allow his fate to be determined on the basis of his sexual orientation. "I am an anti-militarist," he explains in a telephone interview. "It was an issue of conscience." In making that declaration at a public news conference in October 2001, Tarhan, 23 at the time, was willfully courting punishment. In April 2005, he was arrested for refusing military orders. Released from jail after two months, he was called up to serve again, and again refused. Charged with insubordination, he was sentenced to four years in prison in August 2005. He was released in March 2006, having allegedly faced beatings and death threats by other inmates.

Although the army has allegedly encouraged him to do so, Tarhan has refused to apply for an exemption on the basis of his homosexuality. What other see as a vicious cycle of recrimination, Tarhan sees as a necessary battle for justice. It is a fight that he refuses to back down from. "There is nothing foreseen in the laws that this process will elapse as a result of time or age," he acknowledges. Like all conscientious objectors in Turkey, Tarhan continues to face the risk of being sent to prison each time he refuses to report for service. The cycle, he says, "can go on till death."

The army's discrimination against gays, or what it regards as gays, extends not only to candidates for conscription, but to serving soldiers. Regardless of how much loyalty or bravery they show in uniform, gay soldiers have to live with the anxiety, says L., that they "will be diagnosed as having a psychosexual disorder and kicked out of the army." And so instead of honoring courage in their ranks, the Turkish armed forces have made a policy of instilling fear.

Adam Altan/AFP