State Dept. Official Says Counterterror Efforts Continue in Yemenhttp://nationaljournal.com/
The Obama administration is busily working to lay the groundwork for counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen’s government as embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh's sudden departure to Saudi Arabia gives hope to peace negotiations to end the bloody conflict.
Saleh, who has repeatedly refused to sign an agreement that would lead to his resignation, remains in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment for severe wounds after a bomb struck his presidential compound. Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi, the acting president, began discussions with opposition leaders on Monday. The first known meeting since the beginning of the year was seen as a step toward reconciliation.
Even so, in the country rife with anti-American sentiment, the composition and policies of any successor government remain unclear. Yemen’s opposition is deeply fractured, and without a unified agenda: tribal and religious leaders, Islamists, young antigovernment protesters are all calling for Saleh’s ouster.
“We don’t know what a successor government might look like, so it would be foolish to predict that [our counterterrorism cooperation] will simply be taking off from where we were,” Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, said at a defense writers breakfast.
Saleh, considered an ally in the fight against al-Qaida, was in critical condition last week after receiving burns to nearly half his body and bleeding in his brain. A U.S. official said recently that his chances of survival were “unclear,” and cautioned that Saleh may be in no condition to lead the country even if he does recover.
With Saleh now facing the steepest challenge to his three-decade rule, U.S. officials have publicly maintained that counterterrorism cooperation in Yemen extends beyond one man. “We are confident that the moving average will continue to [move] upward,” Benjamin said. “Because al-Qaida threatens the fundamental stability of Yemen and we believe that Yemenis of almost all political orientations recognize that.”
However, much of the administration's recent focus on the counterterrorism relationship with Yemen has been targeted on Saleh's government. When the Obama administration came into office, the counterterrorism relationship with Yemen was virtually nonexistent, Benjamin said. “That line had largely gone dead for more than five years.”
The administration then spent several months cultivating a relationship with Saleh and his team. "That resulted in Yemen taking its first concerted action against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in December of 2009, before, I might add, the Christmas Day attempt on the Northwest flight," he said, referring to the attempt by a Nigerian trained by al-Qaida in Yemen to blow up a Detroit-bound plane.
"In the time since, we have seen an overall increase of counterterrorism cooperation. As is often the case with these relationships, it isn’t directly linear. But the moving average was upward," Benjamin said. "We saw some distraction because of the political turmoil, but we believe that the direction will be correctly oriented afterward when we get through this."
Officials are concerned that the recent unrest will leave militants more latitude to plot attacks. Militants in recent weeks have taken over some southern towns, including the capital of the restive Abyan province, known to be an al-Qaida stronghold. Saleh’s departure raised fears that a widening power vacuum would enable Islamic extremists to push farther south. In testimony last week, CIA Director Leon Panetta acknowledged that the latest instability in Yemen has allowed al-Qaida to enlarge its area of operations and make some tactical gains in the tribal areas.
The U.S. ambassador in Yemen, Gerald Feierstein, has had productive discussions with al-Hadi to defuse this threat, Benjamin said. “The doors are open, the communication has been quite effective,” he said. “The al-Hadi government has been quite concerned about what’s going on in Abyan and has deployed troops there, while at the same time trying to balance that with the necessity of preserving security in Sana’a.”