How the United States Can Avoid Losing a War in Yemen

The Houthi insurgency has demonstrated numerous indicators of success, while the counterinsurgency efforts have faltered. This paper reviews the conflict, evaluates the performance of each side, and offers an outlook for the insurgency.

The paper first presents an overview of the actors in the conflict. In review, the Republic of Yemen has faced the Houthi insurgency, a Zayid Shia movement based in the northwest of the country. The Yemeni government has alternated between Presidents Saleh and Hadi, with the government facing continued pressure from the Houthis, a southern secessionist movement, and a persistent al-Qaeda presence. The Houthi movement has received support from Iran and Hezbollah, and emerged as a proxy force in the power vacuum following the Arab Spring.

The paper then outlines the historical eras of the Houthi insurgency. Beginning with the increase in opposition following 9/11, the paper details the Sa'ada Wars where the Houthis established military capabilities and tribal alliances. With the Arab Spring removing President Saleh from power, the Houthis were able to expand and ultimately seize control of the government, resulting in the Yemen Civil War. During this conflict, the Houthis have capitalized on alliances and gained control of territory, while counterinsurgent forces have struggled to halt the insurgency. Most recently, the Houthis have projected power on a global scale, threatening international shipping routes and prompting a larger international response.

Through review, it becomes clear that the Houthi insurgency possesses several indicators of success. First, the group has established a variety of tactical, military, and political alliances that have helped provide shelter and supporters for the group. Second, the group has demonstrated resilience by surviving arrests, a coup, and civil war to ultimately become emboldened and take control of large swaths of territory. Third, the group has maintained consistent objectives since its inception, only modifying their tactics as circumstances have necessitated. Fourth, the group has demonstrated capacity for adaptation, adjusting to the removal of a leader, growing opposition, and an evolving operational environment.

On the counterinsurgent side, the paper highlights numerous indicators of failure. First, the Yemeni government has alternated between Presidents, and faces consistent political instability. Second, the Saudi-led coalition has alternated between partnering with and opposing the Yemeni government, with little consistent support. Third, the Yemeni government has struggled with integrating local militias, allowing the Houthis to consolidate power. Fourth, the Houthi insurgency has benefitted from international sympathy, while Saudi Arabia has largely been viewed as the aggressor.

Ultimately, the paper concludes that the Houthi insurgency will continue to pose a threat to Yemen and the greater region. With indications of sympathy among the local population, the group has capitalized on divisions to gain control over territory and govern parts of the population. With a relative lack of international opposition, the group seems to be emboldened to take further offensive actions. As the Houthis become emboldened, it seems unlikely that the group will be willing to negotiate a peace, and the insurgency may metastasize further.

Read more