Yemen as Vietnam or Afghanistan

From the Archive: With U.S. weapons, Saudi Arabia is waging a brutal air war on impoverished Yemen, turning a long-simmering civil war into a proxy fight with regional rival Iran, a scenario that reminded retired U.S. emissary William R. Polk of his work for President Kennedy on an earlier Yemeni war.

By William R. Polk (Originally published on April 1, 2015)

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?”


“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. J'hon Doe II
    January 27, 2016 at 10:43

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  2. Bob Van Noy
    January 26, 2016 at 10:08

    What a remarkable story Mr. Polk, thank you so very much for showing us what statesmanship is all about. With great examples like you have described above; I have faith that we will soon be able to return to diplomacy practiced with both good humor and honor.
    Thank you.

  3. Erik
    January 25, 2016 at 20:58

    A fascinating story.

    Indeed, the US revolutionary war was substantially a guerilla war, as the British forces were always massed targets, often opposed by more flexible local militias. They decided that they could not win, even if they did not lose a major battle, and had the sense to make peace after the loss at Yorktown, which was substantially the result of the French fleet holding off the British fleet during Washington’s surprise attack. One wonders how long it would have taken them to resign the fight without a major loss to excuse the right wing back home. At some point an insurgency costs more to fight than the territory is worth to a colonial power.

    England made a similar decision in the US civil war, that the North could never defeat the South even if it became more successful on the battlefield (as it did). But the South had fixed territory and logistics, and with it’s major defeats, Sherman’s destructive march to the sea, and its disrupted plantation economy, it was not able to melt away and regroup as guerillas would, and the North was close enough to dominate and reconstruct its postwar economy.

    • Brad Owen
      January 26, 2016 at 20:39

      The Revolutionary War was a small side-theater conflict ensconced within what now-a-days would be called a World War. It was the British Empire, with some German Princely States, like the Hessian mercenaries (presumably from the Holy Roman Empire), VS. the French Empire, Spanish Empire, and the Empire of the Dutch Republic (on the Venetian model; a Plutocratic Republic). Counterbalancing these adversaries were the League of Armed Neutrality of Empress Catherine the Great of the Russian Empire (Kingdoms of Sweden and Denmark, Austro-Hungarian Empire I think, and the Portuguese Empire, and some others I believe). Our puny attempts at Independence wouldn’t have succeeded without the French Army and Navy. Also, the Russian Empire favored U.S. independence from the British Empire, because the Brits were always “effing” with the Russian Empire and this fight distracted the Brits from Russia. Also, France wanted some serious payback for losing North America to the Brits in The Seven Years War; another World War (our French and Indian War; the poor Indian Nations were always allying themselves with one European Empire or another, to get rid of “the settlers”, not realizing that [at least the northern] colonies had a grudge-match-to-the-death ongoing with the Brit Empire, due to the English Civil War, and ANY friend of our ENEMY was destined to be OUR enemy too). The Southern Colonies were more acquiescent to the Mother Country and British Empire, so their “clearance program” of natives was just Imperial “business-as-usual”. English policy towards the U.S.A. can be called “The Hundred Years War”, from 1763 to 1865. The Brits were deeply involved (still are, via Synarchy Movement for Empire, SME) in our politics. In short, we were the mouse that roared, and had a lot of really big help in pulling off the Independence Movement, for reasons entirely unrelated to ours. Anyway, this is what I concluded from my readings.

  4. David Smith
    January 25, 2016 at 16:45

    Mr. Polk, you must be one of those “Arabists” that were once such an essential part of our Department Of State. Every word of your article was a subtle lesson in how understanding and respect for Arab culture can get things done for America. I liked your anectdote of the “Poetry Duel”, superb diplomacy on your part. I learn about these Poetry Battles from my Lebanese Druse friend Lutfi Kamal Eid ( don’t forget the Kamal). These ” poetry battles” are also popular entertainment, with three or more poets on stage at once “trading licks” so to speak with the audience deciding the winner. Lutfi once said, with regret, if he had stayed in Lebanon he would have become a Poet and a Militia Fighter. I tried to understand as much of Arab culture as I could from Lutfi, and I found this helped greatly in our personal dealings, how much more so in international relations. I learned to distinguish the “filigreed” Egyptian style Arabic from the incisive minimal Lebanese style Arabic. It took a lot of practice to learn how, with eating “meze”, to, from the large communal piece of flat bread, with one hand(right hand only) tear of a piece without touching the rest of the flat bread. Your conversations, as you recount them, are subtle and profound lessons on speaking with an Arab. An American, such as yourself, who is in consonance with Arab culture, can easily achieve the ” frankness and respect” which I find indigenous to Arab culture and which is essential to diplomacy. I am also sure you spoke in excellent Arabic. It was sad, and absurd, when the Arabists in the State Dept. were elbowed out we need them back.

  5. Kemal
    January 25, 2016 at 14:40

    You are right in most of your statements except ” guerrilla wars are almost never ” won” but usually….. ” . There is one guerrilla group who won, that is the EPLF who won the Eritrean Independence in 1991 which was endorsed by the UN after the 1993 referendum.
    Peace !!!

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