by James Spencer
Of all the many failings of the Invasion of Iraq, the most egregious must surely have been the failure to plan properly for what followed the inevitable military victory. A toxic combination of airstrikes and 10 years of sanctions came up against a spiralling demand for goods and services once the fighting stopped. Yet due to dogma, the occupying authority never developed any plan for such a worst-case scenario. The result was—and continues to be—utterly tragic: a generation of Iraqis has been blighted.
A similar dynamic is developing in Yemen, where the US is assisting the Saudi-led coalition. Much of the operational planning was hurried—possibly due to the unexpectedly rapid rate of the Houthis’ advance—and thus the belligerents likely gave little thought to post-conflict rehabilitation. Further, the lack of Saudi (or allied) forces on the ground may hamper, if not prevent, a rapid aid effort.
And yet the need is great, according to the UN:
‘More than 21 million people – that’s 80 per cent of the population – now need humanitarian assistance. Health facilities report that over 2,800 people have been killed and 13,000 injured since the violence escalated in March. At least 1,400 civilians have lost their lives; these numbers are likely to be significant underestimates. […] “The parties to this conflict show an utter disregard for human life, repeatedly attacking civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, power stations and water installations,” deplored the Under-Secretary-General.’
If the civilian population of Yemen is not to fall prey to the manipulations of Islamist revolutionaries through the provision of aid, the international community must act and rapidly so, to move emergency supplies and long-term recovery materials toward Yemen.
Given the destruction of much infrastructure, and Yemen’s well-known existing problems, it would be more efficient to make a virtue of necessity and not merely refurbish, but improve the infrastructure, so that future problems—most notably around water and demography—can be pre-empted or mitigated before they occur. As the Agha Khan among others has shown, Yemenis must take the lead in rebuilding their country so that they become stakeholders and partners, not chronically dependant beneficiaries.
The immediate need is for emergency shelter, water, and sanitation as well as medical supplies. Those can be relatively easily stored in various locations near Yemen, so that they may be deployed as soon as combat operations are completed: Djibouti, northern Somalia, and Oman all lend themselves to such operations. A close second in urgency is adequate education facilities—including teachers—so that Yemen’s future is not disadvantaged more than necessary by current events.
In the longer term, Yemenis must decide for themselves without external interference how they wish Yemen to be governed, whether unity or federation, and indeed, whether one state or two. Once that decision is made, then the orientation of any new infrastructure can be shaped accordingly. Should Yemen remain as a single entity—whether a federation of states or a unitarian model—it is sensible, if sad, for the capital to move from Sana’a, due to the falling water table and extortionate costs of moving water up to the city’s 7,300-foot elevation. Although Hodeidah on the Red Sea might be an option, the best solution is for Aden to become the capital, with ready access to the open ocean for dilute seawater to desalinate. Aden also has a harbor, which would make it ideally situated to compete for low-skill manufacturing jobs initially, while the submarine internet cables which run nearby would make Aden ideal subsequently for internet commerce.
All forms of infrastructure have been targeted by the Saudi-led air campaign: bridges, roads, telecoms, television, harbors, and airports. These are relatively simple to replace (and will provide honest work for unemployed Yemenis), with modular construction such as Bailey bridges (and their equivalents in other fields), enabling rapid recovery.
Housing, too, can be repaired, as can water and electrical supplies. Yet here advances can be made: rather than replacing like for like, more energy-efficient buildings can be built. Traditional adobe architecture is thermally superb, as well as having a limited carbon footprint. To add to this, cheap solar panels can be installed, and simple systems of drinking water sterilization (using UV from sunlight) can be fitted. Neither expensive nor experimental, these components have worked in other developing countries, most notably Kenya. They can reduce the difficulty and the cost of living on Yemeni families, leading to healthier, better educated children, and thus less of an aid burden in years to come.
Just as physical infrastructure can mitigate future problems so, too, can procedural infrastructure. One major issue in Yemen is corruption, over which previous Western rule-of-law programs have had limited success. Yet systems pioneered in the developing world—such as India’s www.Ipaidabribe.com or Pakistan’s Citizen Feedback Monitoring Program—have had excellent results. A UN counter-corruption program in Guatemala has enabled even elites to be held to account, a program that might be beneficially instituted in Yemen.
With a little logistic anticipation and a mindset to mitigate nascent problems, the international community could not only stabilize Yemen now but also for the future. Fail to plan; plan to fail. It’s past time to start planning in Yemen, now and for the future.
Image of Humpty Dumpty courtesy of Alan Turkus via Flickr
James Spencer is a retired British infantry commander who specialized in low-intensity conflict. He is an independent strategic analyst on political, security and trade issues of the Middle East and North Africa and a specialist on Yemen.