World Middle East First Look

Why did Yemen ask the US to slow down its ground troop activity?

A recent raid had tragic consequences, but the government's motives for demanding a final say go deeper.

Women walk past a graffiti mural, which denounces strikes by US drones in Yemen, painted on a wall in Sanaa, Yemen, on Feb. 6, 2017.
Khaled Abdullah/ Reuters
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The government of Yemen has requested that US forces not conduct ground operations in the country without its approval.

Its announcement came nearly two weeks after US Navy SEALs raided an Al Qaeda stronghold in southern Yemen, aiming to gather intelligence on the terrorist group’s activities in the country. The operation – prepared for months under President Obama, but given the final approval under President Trump – killed dozens of civilians, including an 8-year-old girl.

In light of this tragedy, a senior Yemeni official told Reuters that "We have not withdrawn our permission for the United States to carry out special operations ground missions. However ... we said that in the future there needs to be more coordination with Yemeni authorities before any operation and that there needs to be consideration for our sovereignty."

Yemen has long been a key partner in the war on terror, allowing the United States to carry out drone strikes and commando raids in the country since 2002. By requesting US permission for future ground operations, Yemen’s government has taken a more assertive role in this relationship, one that could serve its internal political goals.

A Yemeni official told CNN that "From the intelligence we have, conducting a raid was the wrong option and failure was written all over it."

But the government’s motives for limiting American operations go deeper than ensuring the tactical success of any particular raid. Since 2015, when Iran-backed Houthi rebels seized the country’s capital, Sanaa, the internationally recognized government led by President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi has been fighting to defeat them.

The recent raid underscored the messiness of this situation. Mr. Hadi’s government has received support from Saudi Arabia, the US, Britain, and France. But Reuters reported that a recent raid also killed "a local al Qaeda commander, Abdulraoof al-Dhahab, who was an ally of pro-government tribes fighting the Houthis."

"It was wrong to kill him and the children ... he fought the Houthis and did not have any thought of launching attacks abroad. If the government allowed this to happen, it was a mistake," one tribal leader said.

Beyond the death of this leader, the raid could discredit Mr. Hadi’s government to the benefit of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, also known as AQAP. "The use of US soldiers, high civilian casualties and disregard for local tribal and political dynamics," explains a report from the International Crisis Group, "plays into AQAP's narrative of defending Muslims against the West and could increase anti-US sentiment and with it AQAP's pool of recruits."

Together, these factors gave Yemen’s government a strong incentive to demand a final say over US ground operations in the country.

What this development means for the future of US intelligence remains unclear. One Yemeni official acknowledged that the US could press ahead with operations on its own. "The Americans have their own sources of intelligence among local informants and lower level officials so would not necessarily need the help of the government for its attacks," he told Reuters.

But going over the government’s head on future missions would only further sour Yemen’s leaders toward the US. As another unnamed official told CNN, "the green light the US had for conducting ground missions is now red."

This report contains material from Reuters.