The U.S.–Yemeni Joint Counterterrorism Exercises: The Other Side of the COIN

By: MAJ Mohammed Garallah

Arguably the most important military component in the War on Terror is not the fighting we do ourselves, but how well we enable and empower our partners to defend and govern themselves. ——Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, 26 November 20071

After the bombing of the USS Cole in the Port of Aden on 12 October 2000, the Republic of Yemen became a potential ally of the United States in U.S. counterterrorism campaigns. To ensure the Yemeni government's ability to combat terrorism on its own soil and prevent such attacks from occurring again, the United States provided the Yemeni Special Forces with light equipment and engaged in a series of joint exercises with them. Today, "U.S. security assistance to Yemen is aimed at restoring stability and security to Yemen while building the capacity of the Yemeni government to combat the common threat of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)."2

People in both Yemen and the United States had very high expectations for the outcome of U.S.–Yemeni joint military training exercises. They assumed this training would both make the Yemeni SOF very effective at countering al Qaeda and help ensure the country's stability and security. Despite the tremendous effort and resources devoted to those exercises, however, the Yemeni SOF still lack the desired levels of proficiency and readiness for effective CT operations.

The SOF units, like the other Yemeni armed forces, still have no doctrine, no planning experience, and no real institutional structures in place. The way they conduct operations is similar to the way regular forces do. The training provided by the United States simply created a group of professional individuals commanded by a senior officer with a "general purpose" regular forces background. The purported goal of the training, to develop effective, sustainable SOF for Yemen, appears to be far beyond reach for the near future. For example, the Houthi rebels3 in the northern part of the country were able to defeat the Yemeni government in six wars, while al Qaeda continues to get stronger in the south. Generally, those trained military units seem to vanish when they are needed for real missions.

Under these circumstances, I wonder how long it will take U.S. forces to train the Yemeni counterterrorism units. What will it take for their efforts to be successful? How can we measure the effectiveness of this training, and what is wrong with the current U.S. approach to training foreign militaries?

I will not try to answer these questions in this article because they require extensive research. I will, however, describe my personal experience with the U.S. training program in Yemen that took place from 2001 to 2002. As a young lieutenant during this training, I went through a life-changing experience.

Although the training was very effective and successful in my case, I think there is room for improvement if we look at it from the other side of the coin.

Yemen's Special Forces: An Uncertain Beginning

After graduation from the Yemeni Military Academy in 2000, I was deployed to the Special Operations Forces unit along with 16 other officers. The SOF was established in 1999 in reaction to the escalation of terrorist activities in Yemen. As a new graduate, I was an inexperienced officer in a young, inexperienced unit. For almost a year, we were assigned to train enlisted soldiers in the way special forces should fight. I and my peers wondered what knowledge we could give those young men besides the troops' parade march, physical training, some technical knowledge, and punishment techniques. We were not ready to admit our lack of experience, however, so we moved forward, claiming to have all the knowledge in the world.

Nearly a year after my deployment to the Yemeni SOF, an order came from the commander of the SOF and the Republican Guard to form what then was called a joint exercise battalion. The unit chief of staff announced, "This battalion will receive training from American experts."4 Because it was the first time the Yemeni special forces would be trained by experts from such a great, knowledgeable, and strong country, the commander observed the establishment of this battalion closely and was directly involved in the process of selecting the officers, calling for the best soldiers to be picked up.

Of course, every officer wanted to be part of this training, but the decision was made to choose only the most expert, dedicated, and intelligent individuals from the two best battalions in the unit—the special forces battalion and the counterterrorism battalion. These two battalions alone, however, could not furnish the new battalion with the required number of officers and soldiers. To fill the requirement for manpower, the commander directed the best officers and soldiers from other battalions to join, and that is how I was picked up.

During the new battalion's establishment process, negotiations and discussions were going on between the Yemeni special forces command, the Yemeni national intelligence body, and the Americans. For us soldiers, everything was vague. All we knew was that we would be trained by American experts, which we hoped would give us some prestige for being part of it. All of the soldiers were eager either to get short leave or to resolve personal issues so that they could dedicate themselves fully to the training, which we understood would last a month or two, or maybe even three months.

The joint exercise battalion consisted of two companies and a reconnaissance platoon, and each company was made up of three platoons. The platoons each had 12 soldiers, excluding the platoon leader and deputy. I was assigned as the second platoon leader in the second company. The deputy assigned to my platoon was one of my colleagues at the Yemeni Military Academy, a very smart and cooperative officer.


The first day of training was at the SOF training camp. Everybody was eager to see the American experts. How would they look? What would they say or do? What weapons would they show us? And more important, what could they give us? The battalion was at its full strength. Its officers were ready to follow orders and so were the soldiers. The battalion commander was very active that day. However, he was not ready to join the training. His chief of staff was not ready to be trained either, so the training included only those at the company commander level and down.

The American experts utilized the first day of training to familiarize themselves with the Yemeni soldiers, and to test our level of training and our marksmanship. We were directed to start shooting at targets using different kinds of weapons. After this initial assessment, the American team introduced themselves to the companies and started to show us a better way to manage the light arms. The expert team never gave us any details about their plans for the type and length of these trainings, perhaps because this was not yet decided, or details were kept secret for security reasons, or the need for a schedule was just ignored. Whatever the reason, no one apparently considered the effect that keeping these details from us would have on our training if it took longer than we expected or planned for.

The training was set in phases. Phase one was movement techniques, patrol formations, and weapons alignment. Phase two included raids, ambush operations, and marksmanship. Phase three focused on building assault operations, night patrols, and hostage rescue. Phase four included air assault tactics in desert and mountain operations. The training plan and the end goal had the potential for success, but they were not communicated to the participants, who began the training expecting to do phase four first instead of last. As a result, the Yemeni soldiers and officers didn't accept the basic knowledge they were taught by the instructors in phase one. They wanted the type of knowledge they didn't already have.

When the first phase began, the soldiers started to complain. Some of them challenged the instructors, saying, can you do this or can you do that? They started to ask questions, like, what if this happened and what if that didn't happen? The soldiers weren't asking these questions because they wanted to know the answers, but because they wanted to prove that the Americans didn't know. Soldiers started to question the real reason behind why those trainers came all the way to Yemen just to show them how to walk and fire the arms they used every day. At this point, the fancy mental picture of Americans was gone. They needed to give us something new—maybe knowledge, equipment, or weapons—to be accepted again. The American team understood that they had to do something to raise the soldiers' morale, and a new weapon was the solution they thought of.

Two months after the training started, the instructors and battalion commander announced that our new weapons had been shipped and would arrive soon. The soldiers started to imagine these weapons, picturing the American Hollywood movies that showed Rambo holding a gun with lasers that could destroy a building with one shot. When the new weapons arrived, the excited soldiers were sadly disappointed. The weapons we received were used AK–47s—Russian machine guns—and RPGs that had been recovered from Afghanistan and poorly repainted so they would look good. The soldiers imagined a Ferrari, but their gift was a salvage car that came from the insurance company. Instead of raising the soldiers' morale, the arrival of the weapons lowered it even more.

Getting these undesirable weapons was a great excuse for the soldiers to be lazy, late, or absent. So whenever we were asked to start training, we would point to the weapons. Even if we messed up a tactical mission, the instructors got the response: The weapon is bad. The battalion commander started to lose control of his men. His promise of new and great weapons turned out to be false. The expert team faced this problem as well. Every morning before we started any training, as you can imagine, we would remind the American instructors that the weapons they had given us were bad and that we didn't like them. Even when the translators avoided conveying those complaints, we would hold the weapon up and make a gesture showing how much we hated it. The instructors did their best to help us align the weapon, adjust it, and make it work if it got stuck. That, however, didn't help them avoid our complaints.

The bottom line was this: To raise morale and make things work, new weapons or equipment had to come. The exercise continued with the hope of receiving new weapons. As we were promised, just one month later, huge containers filled with equipment arrived at the unit. This new equipment consisted of almost everything we had hoped for—even more in some cases, although less in others. We were issued hand watches, night vision goggles, M16 assault rifles, and body armor and helmets. But most important were the Glock 19 pistols, the first Glock pistols to enter Yemen. Everyone's morale was now very high, and we were envied by those who hadn't joined the training. A new team of American trainers had also arrived to replace the first team, so the first American team didn't get to see our excitement.

By the time the new weapons and equipment arrived, the training was in the advanced phases and had become more specialized. We were learning new techniques and utilizing new equipment and assets. During the later training phases, we learned how to be marksmen, how to raid and ambush, and how to fight. We trained in air assaults, raids, ambushes, rural and urban assaults, jungle and mountain assaults, and techniques to breach buildings. The more time that passed, the more advanced the training became.

Although the advanced training was very useful, the joint exercise battalion was not now up to its full strength. Some officers and soldiers were absent or had deserted the training for personal reasons. Some soldiers were replaced by new soldiers who hadn't attended the initial phases. So although the advanced training had arrived, it didn't really seem that way in the eyes of the officers and soldiers.

Lessons Learned and Where There's Room for Improvement

In the foreword to the new U.S. Army field manual, FM 3-07.1, General Martin E. Dempsey, TRADOC commander, asserted that "security force assistance is no longer an ‘additional duty.' It is now a core competency of our [U.S.] Army."5 In other words, the training of foreign militaries is a core means of improving the United States' security as a whole. Understanding and learning from previous experiences is key to the success of future training exercises. The U.S.–Yemeni joint exercise had many successful features and overall was very good. There are some aspects, however, that could be changed to make the training more successful, to maintain the knowledge and experience the soldiers absorbed, and to better achieve the training's goals.

Although the training was very successful at lifting the soldiers from a certain level of expertise to the next level, it didn't even touch the commanders who would be leading those newly trained soldiers. As I mentioned previously, the battalion commander and his deputy were not included in the training. Why? Because when the soldiers conduct missions, our commanders only watch! Or because they lead their soldiers during times of peace, but when war comes, somebody else who has been well trained takes over! The question of why the commanders weren't trained only came to my mind when I received advanced training in the United States following my participation in the U.S.–Yemeni program. It was then that I learned that commanders also need to be trained. They should be even more highly trained than their subordinates, not only in corruption and how to manipulate roles, but also in leading in battle and bringing soldiers back safely.

The U.S.–Yemeni training program was not set up for long-term success. After the training was completed, the (untrained) Yemeni commanders didn't appreciate the importance of this SOF battalion or respect its initial purpose. The first thing they did was distribute those trained officers and soldiers back to their original battalions, effectively returning them to the condition they were in before the training. After a year or so, I learned that almost half of those soldiers who had participated in the training quit the service and went to be farmers or qat dealers.6 Other soldiers were very disappointed in the eventual outcome of the training. Everybody started to forget what they had learned. The officers had one concrete benefit from their participation in the joint training: the Glock pistols that they got to keep. But the knowledge turned out to be not that important.

Unlike what we expected, the American instructors were very soft. They didn't punish, yell, or report those who arrived late to training or even those who were absent. Instead, they observed, took a deep breath, and continued their program. Maybe they thought that the battalion and company commanders were capable of making great soldiers and were doing their job. They should have asked themselves, if those commanders are really capable of doing their jobs, why would they need us Americans here in the first place? The American instructors seemed like politicians dealing with the soldiers. As a result, more soldiers were intentionally late and some started to question why they needed this type of training anyway.

As uninformed consumers, we were just like people in the dark waiting for a door to open to see the light behind it. It wasn't just the junior officers and soldiers who were confused. Everybody was confused. Even the Yemeni Army leadership was not expert in discussing issues with the Americans and planning ahead. I believe even they thought, the Americans know what to do, so why discuss it? It was rumored that US $50 million was given to the Yemeni government for this training, however, so we had expected a lot of new equipment, modern weapons, and very advanced training.

We were not briefed by our commandant or by the American experts about the type and purpose of the training. All we were told was to stay active during the training, learn more, represent the country, and be on time. As I emphasized previously, the biggest concern of the Yemeni soldiers and officers was what type of weapons and equipment they would get out of the exercise and which ones they would get to keep.

The training program was carefully planned by the American side. They knew what they needed to do to make a unit better. They knew how long it would take to do the training, how many soldiers could be trained, what type of training area was necessary, and what their assignment was. What they didn't know, however, was exactly what type of soldiers they would find in the Yemeni trainees or what kinds of administrative issues the Yemeni soldiers faced. For example, they didn't know how the Yemeni military organizes and implements leave for soldiers, or how it punishes absence from training camp. The American experts also did not know how long most Yemeni soldiers expect to stay in one type of training without leave.

For example, long trainings can be problematic for Yemeni soldiers because a soldier's family does not come with him while he participates in training exercises. If a Yemeni soldier is from the southern part of the country but trains in the northern part of the country, then his family will stay in the south. Weekends are not long enough for him to visit his family. And even if they were, the salary a Yemeni soldier earns is not enough to cover visits home to his family more often than once every three to four months. And when a soldier is finally able to travel home, the familial issues he faces when he arrives after a long absence can sometimes require several weeks to deal with. The Yemeni government does not really take care of its soldiers and their families. If a Yemeni soldier or a member of his family is sick, they must go and suffer while waiting in the military hospital, begging military police dictators who guard the hospital to let them in so they can be seen by the doctor. For all these reasons, Yemeni commanders expect their soldiers to be late for training or even to desert a training assignment, especially if the exercise takes longer than soldiers expect.

The American contractors also didn't spend enough time learning to understand the Yemeni administrative system. The administrative system of any unit can determine either the success or failure of that unit in achieving the ultimate goal of the exercise. A Yemeni soldier or an officer has no future if the highest commander doesn't personally know him or his abilities. Because of this, he has to do his best to be known, or simply die unknown. Those soldiers who had been waiting for a chance to prove their effectiveness and their readiness to serve their country saw that chance arrive with the joint training exercise led by the American experts. Many of those Yemeni soldiers were working to demonstrate their effectiveness during training because they needed not only the American experts' knowledge and support, but also a recommendation from the trainers to the highest commander. This was how they could secure a future.

Repairing Yemen's administrative and institutional systems is necessary for the success of any future joint training exercises. In Yemen, we don't have FM 3-0—or any FM at all. Our doctrine is simply this: Do what I tell you. In Yemen, we don't have institutional leadership; we have individual leaders. In other words, the leader in Yemen is the system, and the leader is the unit. If he is good, then the unit moves forward. But when a new commander comes in, the unit starts all over again, from scratch. Training professional soldiers to shoot without training the decision-makers who command those soldiers is just like making genuine parts for a vehicle that doesn't exist. Unfortunately, awareness of this reality was not in the American training experts' manual.

The training of foreign militaries would be more successful if the following guidelines were taken under consideration by the commands organizing such training programs:

  1. Make it or break it. Either conduct a good, effective training program, or don't show up.
  2. Train the commanders first. Planning is key.
  3. From the beginning, inform those being trained about the whole training process, including the purpose and the goals of the training.
  4. Implement a good selection process for choosing which officers and soldiers should be assigned to participate in the training.
  5. Study extensively the customs, roles, and administrative issues of the units being trained.
  6. Be prepared to adapt the training process should administrative issues affect the training.
  7. Make sure that good officers are nominated by their units.
  8. Support the active soldiers with any means necessary, and report the bad and lazy soldiers.
  9. Be aggressive when the training requires it.
  10. Be strict with those who are not obeying the rules.

For the Yemeni special forces, the U.S.–Yemeni joint exercise was not their only training, but was the beginning of a series of trainings. Yet the Yemeni special forces seemed to be marching in double time while going nowhere. Maybe someday I will see more than training. Maybe someday I'll see the training bring the desired outcomes.

As Major Garallah points out, he is describing experiences from more than a decade ago. We at CTX like to think that sensibilities have changed—and will continue to change. Indeed, one aim of the Combating Terrorism Exchange, and of articles like Major Garallah's, is to tilt against cross-cultural misunderstandings before they occur, and to sensitize operators to better understand both themselves and those they are working with.

About the Author(s): MAJ Mohammed Garallah serves in the Yemeni SOF command.


1. Headquarters, Department of the Army, Security Force Assistance (FM 3-07.1), May 2009:

2. U.S. Department of State, Office of the Spokesperson, "U.S. Government Assistance to Yemen," posted 7 August 2012:

3. The Houthi rebellion is made up of Shi'a insurgents who have been fighting the central government in northern Yemen for nearly two decades. They take their name from Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, who was their commander until he was killed in September 2004.

4. Yemeni SOF COS forces briefing, Special Forces Base, Yemen, 2001.

5. Gary Sheftick, "New Field Manual Focuses on Training Foreign Force," Army News Service, 6 May 2009:

6. Qat is a tree with leaves that people in Yemen, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia chew for its stimulant effect. Qat leaves are considered a drug in the United States, but not in other countries like Germany and the United Kingdom.

Average (0 Votes)
The average rating is 0.0 stars out of 5.
No comments yet. Be the first.