Battling for Aden

Karl Pieragostini
Britain, Aden and South Arabia: Abandoning Empire
New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991. xiv, 256 pp.

Reviewed by F. Gregory Gause III

Yemen Update 35(1994):33-35

The irony of reviewing a book about one battle for Aden when another one is raging, particularly when many of the same names keep coming up in both battles, is both bitter and provocative. The bitterness is easy to comprehend: it is a sad story of political folly that this city, once the jewel of Arabia, has been reduced to penury and increasingly, if news reports are to be believed, rubble. Its inhabitants have gone from trial to trial with little if any prospect for improvement of their lives in the near future. The provocation is more intellectual. Is there anything that can be learned from the experience of the independence struggle against Great Britain in what was then called South Arabia about the collapse of the unity experiment of 1990 and the prospects for the recently proclaimed (but ultimately unrecognized internationally) "Democratic Republic of Yemen"?

That question does not engage Karl Pieragostini, but I will return to it later. His purpose in writing the work under review is to understand British policy-making regarding South Arabia during the 1960's, specifically to answer the question "[h]ow did Britain come to invest considerable resources, effort and prestige in its commitment to Aden and South Arabia, only to scuttle the effort so abruptly?" (p. 183) He hopes in studying the series of British decisions that led to the "scuttle “in Aden to shed some light on what he sees as a similar process of American entrapment in and then abrupt departure from Vietnam. Dr. Pieragostini, who teaches at the Defense Intelligence College in Washington, is well-positioned to grapple with the complexities of Whitehall and Westminister. Though an American, he lived in Britain for ten years, serving part of that time as a research assistant to a Member of Parliament. His contacts in the British political system gave him personal access to a number of the decision-makers, including both Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Denis Healey, who played a central role in South Arabian decisions as the Labor government's Defense Secretary, as well as a number of British officials who served in Aden. Besides these personal interviews, he relied primarily in his research on British government documents, declassified American documents, the memoirs of a number of the British participants, and the contemporary English-language press.

His reconstruction of the British decision-making process is detailed and convincing. The central reason for the abrupt change that emerges from his account is the assumption of power by the Labour Party after the October 1964elections. The new ministers brought an entirely different perspective to colonial questions than their Conservative predecessors, which is hardly surprising. Healey admits to the author that his goal upon taking up the Defence portfolio was to liquidate Britain's military position East of Suez, which he saw as financially draining, morally questionable and of little strategic value. One can hardly imagine many of his Tory colleagues ennunciating such views, though their behavior in power might not in the end have been that much different, given the intense financial pressures the British exchequer was under during those years. The Conservative ministry of Edward Heath (1970-74), after vociferously criticizing Wilson's policies East of Suez while in opposition, continued its policies of withdrawal from the Gulf.

Pieragostini traces the interesting changes in the bureaucratic politics surrounding British policy toward South Arabia, changes that were greatly affected by the switch from Conservative to Labour governments, but that had a dynamic of their own. His account of how Colonial Office officials, particularly those on the ground in Aden, worked to undermine the policies of their more liberal-minded Labour ministers, is a bracing antidote to the stereotype of the faithful British civil servant who carries out government policy regardless of his personal preferences. The crucial bureaucratic turning point, in the author's view, was when the Defence Ministry switched in 1966 from being a supporter of a continued military role in South Arabia to an opponent. The Foreign Office, which had been more willing to reconsider Britain's position in Aden, had previously been overruled by a bureaucratic alliance of Defence and the Colonial Office. With this change, the Colonial Office found itself without bureaucratic allies, and thus less able to make the case to a skeptical government that staying the course in Aden was in Britain's interest.

The switch of position at the Ministry of Defence was in part a response to the pre-existing preferences of Mr. Healey, but other factors contributed as well. New budgeting techniques introduced by the Labour government allowed more precise estimates of the actual cost of the bases at Aden, which was much higher than had previously been thought. The military value of the bases was increasingly called into question by the services themselves, as military energies came to be almost completely devoted to defending British positions against attacks by partisans of the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY). Aden could hardly be an adequate jumping-off point for British forces if they were all required to stay there to protect the bases. Alternative facilities in Bahrain, Oman and in the newly formed British Indian Ocean Territory(including the base at Diego Garcia that was subsequently leased to the United States) were seen by the services as providing similar strategic benefits at lower cost and with fewer political problems.

While his account of British decision-making is thorough and persuasive, Pieragostini is less successful in achieving his stated purpose of using this case to built a model for understanding the general process of great power commitment to marginal strategic areas, reassessment of that commitment, and withdrawal. In the first chapter he sets out a number of hypotheses about this process, dividing it into three stages of "passive entrapment," "active entrapment" and "scuttle." However, there is very little effort to apply systematically these hypotheses to the case at hand. In the end, he offers the weak conclusion that "the model, as applied here, does not indicate those changes that would be either necessary or sufficient conditions of either entrapment or scuttle; it merely suggests certain properties of the system that encourage each" (p. 201). Though this reviewer finished the book with a better understanding of British policy in Aden, I am no more enlightened about the general issue of what international relations scholars are now calling "imperial overstretch" and imperial retreat than I was before. If the author came to a new understanding of American policy in Vietnam through his examination of this case, he did not share it with the reader.

Pieragostini spends little if any time on the domestic politics of Aden and South Arabia. He provides accounts of events on the ground as background to the policy debates in London. While not ignoring such issues as the growth of the NLF, the movement within the Aden Trades Union Council (ATUC) and FLOSY toward armed opposition to the colonial authorities, and the efforts of the protectorate shaykhs and sultans to make the fledgling South Arabian Federation work, he tends to discount their importance in British decision-making. This is understandable, given both the sources he uses and the story he wants to tell, but the reader interested in Yemeni history and politics will be disappointed by the thinness of the coverage. Pieragostini also fails to give a satisfactory answer to one of the continuing puzzles of British policy in Aden: why London in the end tilted toward the NLF rather than FLOSY when it came time to surrender power. This failure is largely the result of his decision to end his detailed narrative account in 1966, with the announcement of Britain's intention to withdraw from Aden. He provides a short epilogue carrying events up to the actual withdrawal on November 29, 1967, but with none of the analytical depth that characterized the earlier chapters.

Are there any lessons to be learned from the southern Yemeni experience in the 1960's about the current civil war? I think there are, but they must be considered with caution. The immediate and superficial conclusion someone analyzing events of the1960's and now would reach is that there is some kind of southern Yemeni political culture &emdash; based on the shared experience of British colonialism and the fight against it &emdash; that sets the area off from the rest of Yemen. There is some circumstantial evidence supporting this analysis. The willingness of some of the NLF's bitterest enemies, including the League of the Sons of the South (now renamed the League of the Sons of Yemen), Abdallahal-Asnaj of FLOSY and Abd al-Qawi Makkawi, former chief minister of Aden colony, to put aside their old conflicts and join with the breakaway government in Aden is both ironic and surprising. The constant refrain among intellectuals associated with the Yemeni Socialist Party (the successor to the NLF) that the old South Yemen had "nizam" (order) while the North, and by extension theunified Yemeni state, was characterized by "fade" (chaos), is frequently explained both by Yemenis and by outside observers as the product of the South's British colonial experience.

I think that these observations must be taken with a large grain of salt. Political culture arguments about the distinctiveness of North and South Yemen just do not hold up. The fact that the breakaway "Democratic Republic of Yemen" strongly emphasized its commitment of the concept of Yemeni unity in its founding documents demonstrates that even separatists realize the popularity of the concept. "Southern" units loyal to former South Yemeni president Ali Nasir Muhammad are spearheading the assaults on Aden and Mukalla for the "Northern" government. If the current civil war were being fought by spontaneously mobilized popular forces on both sides, perhaps the political culture explanation would be more supportable. But in fact it is being fought by regular armies; in the case of the Aden government an army that was built by and controlled through a party organization. There is no doubt that the politics of South Yemen was different from that of North Yemen, and that these two styles came into conflict in the unified states. But the origin of that difference is to be found at the top of the political system, particularly in the organization of the ruling party in the South, rather than in some vague notion of political culture.

For all its bloody internecine conflict, the Yemeni Socialist Party that (as the National Liberation Front)emerged from the independence struggle to rule South Yemen maintained a tight control over society. It successfully reduced the autonomy and political power of the tribes. It played a dominating, and ultimately destructive, role in the economy. It built a pervasive and effective secret police organization. In short, it did many of the things that governments in the North either could not or would not do. When a combination of international factors and its own worries about its ruling position in the South led it to agree to unity in 1990, it expected to play a leading role in the governing of the new state while maintaining its controlling role in the southern and eastern governates. When the election results of April 1993indicated that it would be relegated to a secondary, if not tertiary, role in the state, and when Ali Abdullah Saleh proved unable to stop the campaign of assassinations against YSP figures in the north, the party leadership opted to provoke a political crisis to improve its bargaining position. It was that political crisis, which began with Ali Salim al-Beidh's self-imposed seclusion in Aden in August 1993,that led to Salih's decision in late April-early May 1994 to use military force to bring the crisis to an end.

The discipline of the YSP, its confidence in its ability to control the former South Yemen, and its capacity to mobilize military force for its political purposes all stem from its formative experiences both as the leader of the armed struggle against the British and as the ruling party of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. It is to the development of the party and the goals of its leaders, as well as the development of political institutions in the North and the goals of their leaders, that we should look for reasons for the current civil war, not to putative differences in Northern and Southern "political cultures".

Another aspect of the current civil war that has analogues in the independence struggle against the British in the1960's is the importance of tribal identity in the mobilization of political support. The original revolt against the British in Radfan was based on tribal grievances, though it was enveloped within a larger political agenda by the NLF cadres who assumed leadership of the fighting. Much of the NLF's recruiting, particularly in the countryside, was on tribal bases, though it also recruited in Aden itself on more class and nationalist-ideological bases. Once in power the NLF/YSP was able to curb the autonomous power of the tribes(unlike the government in Sanaa), so that independent tribal military power was not a threat to the state. However, tribal and regional loyalties remained important in the factional politics within the party. Thus the ouster of Ali Nasir Muhammad in the bloody fighting of 1986 was accompanied by the wholesale defection of South Yemeni army units based in Abyan and Shabwah, the home territories of Ali Nasir and many of his closest allies. These units have played an important role in the Sanaa government's offensive. Likewise, as many of the YSP leaders who split from the central government hail from Hadramawt, suspicions have arisen that their real goal in the fighting is to establish a separate Hadrami state. The fact that Ali Salim al-Beidh spent most of the war in al-Mukalla, not in Aden, the “capital" of his new state, fed those suspicions.

That tribal and regional identification should play an important role in the political life of the southern areas of Yemen is not surprising, given the enduring importance over the centuries of tribal and village social structures. But it is interesting to note that the recrudescence of the political importance of tribal identity in the South is directly related to political crises that reduce the power of the state, which throughout the Middle East has always been the greatest threat to tribal political power and autonomy. Tribalism was important in the 1960'swhen the power of the British colonial authorities and their local clients were being challenged (and even more so in North Yemen, with the collapse of Imamate rule and the ineffectiveness of its republican successor). Tribalism comes to the fore in the South at times of crisis within the state, like 1986 and the current war. If one wants to call the enduring importance of tribalism a part of Yemeni, or more generally Arab, "political culture," I will not quibble. However, it seems eminently clear that the way that tribalism affects politics differs enormously according to the specific political and social circumstances surrounding the events being explained.

Finally, both the independence struggle of the 1960's and the current civil war underline the importance of regional powers in Yemeni politics. Egyptian support for the NLF was crucial in its development and in its eventual ability to win the power struggle among the South Yemeni contenders for power, even though Cairo withdrew its support from the NLF in the last stages of the fighting. Likewise, it is hard to imagine that the YSP leadership would have declared the independence of the "Democratic Republic of Yemen" without at minimum the tacit encouragement of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The role of regional powers, particularly Saudi Arabia, remains an important element in understanding Yemeni politics.

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