Michael Knights’s masterful account of the UAE’s intervention to save Aden from Iran-backed Houthi rebels provides a rare glimpse of one of the few success stories of global counterinsurgency.
A complex grey zone where politics, aid and civil conflict meet — exemplified recently by the US-led struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan — counterinsurgency has fallen out of fashion, amid the raging Ukraine war.
But this excellent book reminds us it would be dangerous to ignore counterinsurgency operations altogether, a realm where conflicts that have simmered for decades can suddenly explode into a regional crisis.
In this case, control of Aden by a well-equipped Iranian proxy would have given hardliners in Tehran a range of options to pressure rival states, cement influence over southern Yemen, plot further attacks on commercial shipping in the nearby Red Sea and, potentially, choke off the Bab El Mandeb strait, a transit point for 7 per cent of global trade.
The crisis emerged quickly as the movement stormed across Yemen in 2014, a feat that resembled the collapse of Afghanistan in 2021 or the rise of ISIS, also in 2014.
Like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, Yemen suffered increasing state fragility and insurgency until dangerous terrorist organisations burst onto the world stage.
It was Afghanistan, Knights explains, where the UAE gained operational experience that would inform its efforts to hold back the Houthi tide and counter Al Qaeda in Yemen.
Readers then receive a blow-by-blow account of the UAE’s successful mission to defend the globally important port city, facing down a fanatical adversary.
It’s a book that may help some industry professionals rethink misconceptions surrounding Arab military effectiveness, topics explored in Kenneth Pollack’s excellent Armies of Sand.
Like the international involvement in Dhofar, Oman, in the 1970s, which benefited from a light footprint SAS effort to defeat a communist rebellion, the UAE campaign to save Aden deserves to be a case study in future military doctrine.
Knights explains how it achieved a strategic objective without being sucked into a quagmire and being forced to deploy tens of thousands of troops, an extremely difficult balancing act that the US has frequently struggled to master.
The book touches on every aspect of the campaign, lifting the lid on an unknown side of a long war, reminiscent of Jim Willbanks’ chronicling the last years of the South Vietnamese army or Walter Ladwig’s exploration of light footprint counterinsurgency operations in his excellent The Forgotten Front.
Much will be familiar to those who enjoy literature on counterterrorism: UAE Special Forces drop boats by night from Chinook helicopters, brimming with modern encrypted communication gear to reach friendly forces in the besieged port city.
Joint Terminal Attack Controllers — men trained to call in close air support — obliterate enemy forces as they threaten friendly positions. Readers are also reminded of the UAE’s long-standing alliance with the US against Al Qaeda in the region and how both sides worked to stymy the group as it attempted to exploit the chaos amid the Houthi offensive.
But the book really shines by showcasing what is sometimes called a “whole of government” effort by Nato countries. The UAE excelled at this, bringing together policymakers, civilian aid workers and the military, in partnership with local allies — something that proved so difficult for coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Most importantly, fans of military history will find this an enjoyable read with plenty of gripping combat accounts and detailed descriptions of Aden's history, from an author who's long been passionate about Yemen.
25 Days to Aden will be available from January 26