Small Wars Journal

How the United States Can Avoid Losing a War in Yemen

Tue, 05/14/2024 - 8:05pm

How the United States Can Avoid Losing a War in Yemen

April 24, 2024

Elizabeth Turnage


On January 17th, 2024, the United States redesignated the Houthis as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT).[1] In the weeks that have followed, the United States has become increasingly active in the Gulf, shooting down Houthi drones and striking Houthi targets in Yemen.[2] Given the United States’ increasing involvement with the Houthis, this paper seeks to review the conflict to evaluate both the insurgent and counterinsurgent performance to date. In this evaluation, I argue that not only does the insurgency possess key indicators of success, but the counterinsurgency’s weaknesses debilitate the possibility for success.

To make this argument, this paper first presents the primary actors within the Houthi insurgency before presenting a concise modern history of the case. It then outlines the strengths and weaknesses of both the insurgents and counterinsurgents before concluding with an outlook for the insurgency.  


The Actors

According to U.S. counterinsurgent doctrine, there are three primary actors in any given insurgency: The state, the insurgents, and external actors.[3] This characterization holds true in the Houthi case.


The State: The Republic of Yemen

The state of Yemen is located on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, bordering Saudi Arabia to their north, Oman to their east, the Red Sea to their west, and the Gulf of Aden to their south. Within the country, Yemen contains the Asir Mountains in the west, where most of the population resides, and the large (mostly uninhabitable) Rub’ al-Khali desert in the east.[4]

The Government of Yemen (GoY) as it stands today was created in 1990, when the northern and southern sections unified as the Republic of Yemen.[5] From its inception, the GoY has had three primary actors that have engaged with the Houthis: President Ali Abdallah Saleh, who served as the president of the republic from 1990 to the Arab Spring in 2012;[6] and his successor Abdu Rabbu Mansor Hadi, who led the republic until his abdication in 2022.[7] The current president is President Rashad Mohammed Al-Alimi.[8]

While the country is majority Muslim, it contains significant religious, tribal, and political divisions within its population. The country has a large (35%) Shia minority and is composed of numerous tribes with complex loyalty and alliance structures.[9] In part due to these divides, Yemen has several non-state actors that operate within the country. In addition to the Houthis, who will be discussed momentarily, the GoY faces dissent from the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a successionist movement based in the south of the country.[10] The country has also experienced a persistent al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) presence in the southeast of the country.[11]