OP-ED

A Demoralized Military Cannot Protect Yemeni Security

Fragile Security in a Desensitized Society

Nearly two years into the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) sponsored transition, Yemen’s military remains divided and suffering from chronic low morale.

Once Interim President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi took office in February 2012, local analysts insisted that the overwhelming emphasis on marginalizing family members of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and his rival, and long time right hand man, General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar had led to worsening economic and morale conditions for ordinary troops.

As President Hadi began to move forward with the transition mandate after taking office, he instantly confronted a high degree of resistance from all parties involved.  The first example was Air Force Commander Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, Ali Abdullah Saleh’s half brother.  As Hadi moved to re-assign Mohammed Saleh as advisor within the Ministry of Defence, the Air Force commander initially refused to hand over command of the al-Dhailami air base, situated next to Sana’a International Airport.  The political conflict led to a series of threats and mutiny by airmen disobeying their new commander, often interrupting operations at Sana’a Airport.

In April of this year, president Hadi issued a decree appointing Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, former commander of the Republican Guard, ambassador to Abu Dhabi and Gen. Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, former commander of the First Armored Division, special presidential advisor for military affairs.  Their civilian appointments, along with the decree disbanding both the Republican Guard and the First Armored Division, were the climax within the restructuring process designed to marginalize the political elite.  The international community and Yemenis nationwide were elated over the lack of violence in response to such changes.  Both Ahmed Ali and Ali Muhsin took on their new posts in May.

Consequences from Elite Conflicts

Most international observers have reported on the success of the shake-up within Yemen’s armed forces, but have merely focused on the impact within the ongoing elite conflict.   Some analysts have commented on the need to expand efforts to include institutional reform across the security establishment.  Such  views also fail to introduce short-term solutions to improve the quality of life of ordinary soldiers.

A former high-ranking security officer recently commented on the widespread low morale among security and military units.  A number of soldiers in Sana’a echoed this view, some indicating that low morale was due to a number of issues, including disappointment among troops as salaries and bonuses dwindle; the fact that units are now made up of forces that faced off against each other during the 2011 political crisis; resentment of the recruitment of new troops along partisan lines without addressing the economic woes of existing troops; disillusionment among troops serving as mere sentries at Yemen’s myriad check points in cities and interstate roads.

Salaries within the military are frozen at around YR30,000 (US$140), said a military officer, while salaries of members of the Counter-Terrorism Unit/Special Forces stand at YR35,000 (US$160).  This was further confirmed by National Dialogue delegate and member of the Transitional Justice Committee Bara’a Shiban, who said that salaries may be as low as YR21,000 (US$100) in some cases as a result of corruption among military officers and tribal leaders.  Bonuses of up to YR10,000 (US$50) for CTU/Special Forces members have been eliminated, according to a source. Entire platoons (about 150 soldiers) assigned to check-points are expected to share YR1 million (US$5,000) amongst themselves each month, if the funds are available.

Military sources in Sana’a and Aden also indicated that many officers and soldiers are so disillusioned and fearful for their lives that they have decided to remain at home, only visiting their post to collect salaries each month.

The salaries received by ordinary soldiers are merely sufficient to cover rent for their families.  “Soldiers often have to take on a second job”, said Shiban.  More so, the lack of employment opportunities elsewhere has made the military a primary source of survival for many in recent year. In some cases, more than one member of the family is forced to join the military, because that US$100 that can mean the difference between a family eating or starving.

Deteriorating living conditions of ordinary soldiers assigned to posts like checkpoints has led to permanent physical presence of some soldiers at their post, seven days a week throughout each month.  Soldiers manning check-points build their own living quarters next to their vehicles, where they eat, chew qat, and sleep, rain or shine, each day.  Many simply remain in their barracks in order to secure meals each day and save their entire salaries to use on the needs of their families.

Demoralized and Desensitized

Bara’a Shiban also indicated that the quality of life of ordinary soldiers is directly affected “by a corrupt system granting priority to military procurement” rather than improving the morale among the armed forces.  The government continues to engage international partners to gain financial support for equipping the military to strengthen its position and to pursue destabilizing elements nationwide.

Standard Yemeni soldiers, however, are not interested in new weapons or military transport vehicles; they are concerned primarily with their own economic conditions and the welfare of their families at home.  Their situation is further exacerbated by information related to a letter reportedly sent by the Ministry of Defence to the Presidential Office in August addressing diminishing financial reserves available to the military through the end of this year.  As Defence Minister Mohammed Nasser visits Saudi Arabia, a source familiar with the issue indicated the Ministry of Defence believes it will not be able to meet its financial obligations by early 2014.  Another source familiar with government finances indicated the deficit for 2013 has grown to over US$4 billion, while the Central Bank only holds less than US$5 billion in foreign reserves.  Government officials indicated Yemen’s crisis will worsen as neighbour governments hesitate to provide further financial assistance to sustain the Yemeni Rial and the growing deficit.

Comments by Prince Turki bin Faisal in Washington the week of October 24 exacerbated such fears when he announced the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was re-examining aid to Yemen.  The announcement came as Yemen faces mounting challenges in southern provinces from expanding activity by al-Qaeda affiliate groups, in addition to week-old armed clashes between Salafi militias and Houthi rebels in Sa’dah province, bordering Saudi Arabia.

Deepening low morale among soldiers contributes to contribute to the worsening security environment in Yemen.  Troops see no direct benefit to their lives for serving during the political transition process.  This affects the weak security environment in cities and rural areas as soldiers continue to challenge deployment orders or simply fail to go beyond physical presence at check-points, without enforcing the mission to address the carrying of weapons and inspect suspicious vehicles.

The permanent military presence in and around cities has desensitized the population over the past two years to a degree that no one respects the authority of security personnel.  Whether it is a group of armed tribesmen at a check-point without permits, or motorcycle and bus drivers that simply manage to overcome the bottlenecks and pass check-points without inspection, or ordinary civilians that fail to heed orders from soldiers, the troops simply are not respected by anyone anywhere.  And yet, they are expected to put their lives on the line to fend off well-trained militants for a salary of $130 per month.

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