The United Kingdom has been engaged in capacity building operations across Yemen's police, military and intelligence agencies between 2004 and 2015, a new 43-page report by the Oxford Research Group reveals.
The report provides a critical review of UK "training and assistance" programmes in Yemen, successes, causes of failure and lessons for future missions. It notes that British trainers "were on the ground for a long time" and were able to make changes to Yemeni units, including making Yemen's first female military units, and facilitating effective intelligence sharing across the Yemeni government.
In 2004, both the UK and the United States set up a joint training team to support a newly created Yemeni Counterterrorism Unit (CTU). Short courses on navigation and small arms drills were dished out, although they "did little to develop the Coast Guard's operational capabilities". Training on military activities was well attended, although courses on medical and safety were not. At the time, it didn't matter as the primary objective was to take out Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – which had a high success rate according to the report.
"British success in Yemen were the result of sustained engagement, a willingness to develop training objectives in collaboration with Yemeni colleagues, and the integration of efforts with several institutions," the report said. But the British trainers entered Yemen and taught in Yemeni institutions in a British way, which completely failed to cater for the "very different cultural and political context". The British failure led to reduced effectiveness in training and promoted counterproductive techniques.
The capacity building projects in Yemen were highly secret as they involved deploying "small and vulnerable groups of soldiers into dangerous environments". Publicity around these activities would apparently place a risk to their security. "But secrecy also inhibits the evaluation of programmes. While individual government departments will review the success or failure of a mission in relation to narrow objectives, often tied to short-term funding cycles, such programmes are rarely assessed in their entirety."
The report argues that emphasis should be given to post training and assistance programmes, to ensure that troops and entities in Yemen continue to go on forming a solid governance structure or risk becoming an obstacle to peace and security.
Yemen is currently enduring a civil conflict which began in late 2014. It intensified when a Saudi-led coalition was invited to launch a military air campaign in March 2015. Since then, Yemen has remained in a stalemate with the Houthi group controlling large swathes of territory from Sana'a to Saada governorate. More than 10,000 Yemenis have been killed according to the United Nations, and civilians remain trapped in the middle of the crossfire.
The UK government continues to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, despite concerns by human rights groups and observers of war crimes being committed in Yemen as a result of the disproportional air strikes.