Yemen as Vietnam or Afghanistan

With U.S. intelligence help, Saudi Arabia has launched air strikes into Yemen and wants Egypt and Pakistan to invade, threatening to turn a long-simmering civil war into a regional conflict, a scenario that reminded retired U.S. diplomat William R. Polk of his work for President Kennedy on an earlier Yemeni war.

By William R. Polk

As the events unfold with the Saudi and Egyptian engagement in Yemen, I was reminded of my discussion with Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser on “his” Yemen war, sometimes called the North Yemen Civil War that began in 1962, became a stalemate and finally ended in 1970. As Mark Twain may have said, “history doesn’t repeat but sometimes it rhymes.” The rhymes, at least, seem unmistakable.

In the course of our first lengthy talk on Yemen, Nasser (rather angrily) replied to one of my comments, “you don’t think I will win the war, do you?”

A scene from the North Yemen Civil War of the 1960s.

A scene from the North Yemen Civil War of the 1960s.

“No, Mr. President,” I replied, “I don’t.”

“Well, you would be surprised to know that I have acquired your [America’s] secret analyses of guerrilla warfare.”

“Oh, Mr. President,” I shook my head, “I know the people who wrote those reports. They are rubbish. I would throw them away if I were you.”

He just looked at me, even more angrily, thinking I suppose, that having pulled off an intelligence coup, I was trying to trick him by claiming that it was really not a coup but a mistake. Then he said, “I know how to use helicopters, too.”  (Their use was then being touted by our military as our great weapon against the Viet Minh fighters in Vietnam.)

“And you lost one yesterday, didn’t you?”  I jibed.

“How did you find out about that?”

“Well, Mr. President, we spend a lot of money on the CIA finding out about such things and one way or another they usually do. That is what the CIA is supposed to do  They don’t always succeed but sometimes they do.”

“Well,” Nasser retorted, “you American’s think you know all about everything, and you don’t even have any of your people in Sanaa and none up in the north where the fighting is going on. You don’t know anything about Yemen.” Then, without thinking of the implication, I suppose, he said, ” You should go see.”

“Mr. President,” I quickly said. “I regard that as an invitation.” Impolitely, I then stood up. He looked at me with narrow, angry eyes. He obviously had not meant what I had inferred.

“All right, go see,” he said. “I will give instructions that you can go anywhere you want, talk to anyone you want, see everything..”

“But, of course, I cannot even get there without your help,” I said.

“You can have my plane.”

Rather off-handedly and not warmly, we shook hands. I said goodbye and rushed back to our embassy and wrote an “eyes only” message to  President John Kennedy. I did not want it scattered around our government so I prevailed upon the CIA station chief to send it by his rather more restricted route. It was encrypted and sent in three batches. Before the second batch got sent, a reply came back: “go.”

Off to Yemen

So I went, and Nasser was as good as his word. I spent hours with his military commander, Abdul Hakim Amr who gleefully unfolded the huge map of showing the planned Egyptian sweep of the mountains to the east (while Anwar Sadat, then rather on the fringes of the Egyptian Establishment, angrily protested against Amr’s indiscretion with a foreigner. He never forgave me for being there).

I went up to the supposed battle zone, near Saada, went out to all the villages where the war was, according to the CIA and British intelligence, being fought,  met with the new Yemeni Leader Sallal and all the new Yemeni leaders, and then flew back to Cairo.

Disclosure (as they like to say in the media): I was bribed. As a going-away present, I was given 500 pounds of Yemeni coffee. Nothing so welcome to a traveler as 500 pounds of anything! But thanks to me, our Cairo embassy was “in coffee” for years!

I did not see President Nasser on my return but sent him a message through the Governor of Cairo, Salah Dessouki, that I hoped to go down to the Saudi-Yemen frontier to meet with the guerrilla leaders, and somewhat jokingly I said to my friend Salah, “I want to be very sure that President Nasser knows exactly where I am going. And,Salah, please tell the President not to do anything silly.”

Salah burst out laughing and said, “Bill, I certainly will not say that to the President!”

So I flew to Riyadh and, with the permission of then Crown Prince Faisal, with whom I had a rather close relationship, I took the American ambassador’s airplane and flew down to Najran where I spent an evening with a group of the guerrilla leaders.

As we sat around a campfire, outside of Najran, we drank tea, ate a lamb roast and then, in a fairly typical desert encounter, we had a poetry duel. By pure luck, I happened to know the poem being recited and I capped the verse of one of the men. In their terms, that was like a passport for me. And we could then have a serious and frank  discussion on the war, the strengths and weaknesses of the royalist forces and what might bring the war to a conclusion.

Our talk went on almost all night. Finally, just at first light, I had barely gotten to sleep when the first of four Egyptian but Russian-piloted TU 16 jet bombers arrived overhead from Luxor. They dropped 15 200 kg bombs on the oasis and on us. My pilot was just worried about his plane. The rest of us had other worries!

The biggest danger, in fact, was from the shrapnel falling from the anti-aircraft cannon. They were totally ineffective against the TU 16s as they could not reach them. (One of my aides, an Air Force colonel informed me that the TU-16s were at about 23,000 feet and the 90 mm cannon would reach about 18,000 feet.)

But a few people around us were killed. Another of my aides, a Marine Colonel, presented me with a wicked looking piece of one of the bombs. It had fallen or been blown not far from the place I was lying.

On our return flight to Riyadh, I wrote Nasser a “thank you” note, saying “Mr. President, I am most grateful for your kind hospitality in Egypt and Yemen, but I don’t think you needed to entertain me in other countries.”

Our ambassador, my good and old friend, John Badeau, was not amused. He said, “Bill, just say thank you and, please, don’t hurry back!”

It was a few months later when I next saw President Nasser. We had a long  and very frank talk then about Yemen. I compared it to Vietnam which I was already sure would be a disaster. I pointed to the huge cost to us of Vietnam, how it disrupted all our domestic social goals and how it poisoned Americans trust in one another. I warned that in my opinion, Yemen might do the same to Egypt, disrupting what Nasser was trying to do to uplift his people and end their tragic poverty.

In our talk, Nasser said, “I certainly didn’t agree with you, Bill, but I knew you would tell me the truth as you saw it.” Somehow, the Israelis found out about this and later the chief of Prime Minister Golda Meir’s cabinet, Mordachai Gazit told me, “We know that President Nasser trusts you.”

As I was leaving, Nasser took me out to my car and even opened the car door for me. His guards were as astonished as I was, Apparently, he had never before done this. As we shook hands, he said, “Well, Bill, where are you off to this time?”

“This time, Mr. President, I am not going to tell you!”

He burst out laughing as did I. We did not meet again but our frankness and respect later enabled me to work out the 1970 ceasefire on Suez with him shortly before his death.

It is hard to believe that history now seems to be repeating with Egypt and Saudi Arabia again engaged in a counter-guerrilla war in Yemen! For Nasser, it was Egypt’s Vietnam. Will the new Yemen war be Egypt’s (and Saudi Arabia’s) Afghanistan? I think it is very likely. All of the signs point in that direction.

And, as I have laid out in numerous essays on Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Mali and Algeria, and in my little book Violent Politics, guerrilla wars are almost never “won” but usually drain the supposedly dominant power of its wealth, moral position and political unity.

William R. Polk is a veteran foreign policy consultant, author and professor who taught Middle Eastern studies at Harvard. President John F. Kennedy appointed Polk to the State Department’s Policy Planning Council where he served during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His books include: Violent Politics: Insurgency and Terrorism; Understanding Iraq; Understanding Iran; Personal History: Living in Interesting Times; Distant Thunder: Reflections on the Dangers of Our Times; and Humpty Dumpty: The Fate of Regime Change.

6 comments for “Yemen as Vietnam or Afghanistan

  1. April 2, 2015 at 15:11

    This is even more interesting than is stated.

    Kennedy decided to back Nasser in Yemen as a reversal of Dulles/Eisenhower. They had decided to pull out of Aswan because of Nasser’s pan Arab ambitions and refusal to join the Bagdad Pact.

    When Kennedy took office he told McGeorge Bundy that he wanted to mend relations with Nasser. He also did not like the monarchy in Saudi Arabia. So his tilting toward Egypt in the Yemen civil war was part of that overall policy. Because that war was fought a lot with proxy troops from Egypt on one side and Saudi Arabia on the other. This is all in Chapter 6 of Philip Muehlenbeck’s fine book “Betting on the Africans”. Which is now in paperback.

    More than one commentator has said that probably the biggest mistake America made in the Middle East after WW 2 was favoring Saudi Arabia over Egypt. Once Kennedy was killed, it went back the other way toward the Dulles policy.

  2. Brad Owen
    April 2, 2015 at 05:17

    I can’t help but think these disastrous wars are planned by a vengeful, sidelined, Ancient Regime to undermine young Republics, to foil their plans to prove their worth by attending to the General Welfare, and win back a turn at the “steering wheel” of The Realm. USA, Vietnam, Egypt, Aden; all “once-upon-a-time” colonies of Britain or France. I sometimes think WWII was planned to foil FDR’s New Deal, and his CCC/WPA/TVA progress, to steer its’ “energy” back into old fashioned war-making activities suitable to the Ancient Regime. I’ve read where WWII was SUPPOSED to be The Colonial Empires (Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, Belgium, new-comers Italy, Germany, Japan) VS USA, USSR, China Young Republics-en-potentia, and Germany was supposed to wear itself out, in subduing USSR. Hitler knew this, and he didn’t follow the script. He struck West first, to prove who would be “Top Dog” among the Colonial Powers, Franco said “No Thanks, we’re exhausted”, Petain didn’t succeed in dragging France over to the Fascist Column, The Brits, republican Free French, Dutch and Belgians were pissed off at Hitler’s invasion.

  3. incontinent reader
    April 2, 2015 at 00:57

    Mr. Polk has been right on the money on Iraq, Iran, Syria and Afghanistan, etc., time and time again. Why has the Administration not been listening?

    • Finn
      April 2, 2015 at 03:34

      “Why has the Administration not been listening?”

      Why was the previous administration not listening? Same question for several other administrations in recent history? Perhaps we have a systemic problem. A problem that is quite independent of political parties and individual presidents.
      Also, the problem is not limited to the US. According to Mr Polk, you find similar problems with historical actions of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Given apparent superiority of modern weapons deployed against uneducated, untrained opponents with inferior weapons, it is an easy mistake to make. US presidents are committed for only 4 or 8 years. Guerilla leaders are committed until death – and then they are easily replaced with the next guy in line.
      It is like the old joke about your breakfast ham and eggs. Who is more committed: The pig or the chicken?

  4. April 2, 2015 at 00:55

    Guerrilla warfare is guerrilla warfare, and it is always the same, whether or not one side, either or both sides or neither side, is the guerrilla or the “Army.”

    Brecher said “Guerrilla warfare is not over until the guerrillas win.” He failed to note the alternative exception; “or until every last guerrilla man, woman, child, descendant, and survivor, or interested and sympathetic party of the guerrillas is dead, dead, dead and long forgotten.”

    As long a single one survives, the war continues.

    If he or she has nothing but a rock, he will throw it through the barracks window. If he has a pint of petrol, he will put in it a bottle, light it and throw it through the barracks window.

    A guerrilla will never stop until he is dead, dead, dead. A guerrilla is a guerrilla, regardless of who he is, where he comes from and in which direction he prays.

    Middle East political analyst Sharmine Narwani writes in the New York Times: In Yemen, and Middle East, U.S. Needs to Learn When to Quit. At the rate the Saudis are escalating, any full-on war in Yemen will cripple the entire Arabian Peninsula, and that would be a disaster for all key U.S. policy interests in the region. Read more:

  5. Zachary Smith
    April 1, 2015 at 16:27

    Fascinating story!

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