U.S. Teaming With New Yemen Government on Strategy to Combat Al Qaeda
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is embarking on an ambitious and potentially risky plan to help the new government in Yemen overhaul its military to combat the Qaeda franchise that has exploited the political turmoil there to seize control of large swaths of the country’s south.
The plan’s two-pronged strategy calls for the United States and Yemen to work together to kill or capture about two dozen of Al Qaeda’s most dangerous operatives, who are focused on attacking America and its interests.
At the same time, the administration will work with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf allies to train and equip Yemeni security forces to counter the organization’s wider threat to destabilize the country and the government of its newly installed president, Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi.
This approach mirrors the White House’s global counterterrorism strategy in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: to employ small numbers of Special Operations troops, Central Intelligence Agency paramilitary teams and drones against elements of Al Qaeda that are committed to striking the United States, while arming and advising indigenous security forces to tackle costlier long-term counterinsurgency campaigns.
John O. Brennan, President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, spelled out the new plan in a visit to Sana, the Yemeni capital, before last week’s elections, as well as in telephone interviews. One main proposal, he said, is to pay Yemeni troops directly rather than through their commanders. The current system has spawned corruption and shifted soldiers’ loyalty to individual commanders rather than to the government.
“We’re trying to ensure that the aid is very tailored, so it goes to those units that are professional, that fall within a command and control structure that reports to Hadi, that are addressing Al Qaeda and domestic threats to Yemen, and are not engaged in any political shenanigans,” Mr. Brennan said by telephone after making his seventh trip to Yemen in the last three years.
Senior American officials say the Qaeda group in Yemen poses the most immediate threat to the United States and its allies. It was responsible for failed plots to blow up a commercial airliner as it approached Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009, and for planting printer cartridges packed with explosives on cargo planes bound for Chicago in October 2010.
The American-backed campaign against the group has had mixed results in the past year. An American drone strike last September killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric who was one of the group’s top operatives, and Samir Khan, another American who edited the group’s English-language online magazine. Their deaths deprived the group of its two most skilled operatives focused on attacking America.
But in the political tumult that surrounded Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, many Yemeni troops in the past year abandoned their posts or were summoned to Sana to help support the tottering government. The United States pulled out about 75 Special Forces trainers and support personnel in Yemen, and counterterrorism training ground to a halt.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — the group’s formal name — stepped in to fill the vacuum. In response, the C.I.A. and Special Operations forces have carried out nearly a dozen drone strikes against Qaeda operatives in Yemen since last May, according to The Long War Journal, a Web site that tracks the attacks.
With Mr. Hadi now in power and pledging to work closely with the administration to fight Al Qaeda, Mr. Brennan said the administration would slowly start resuming security aid that was suspended last year.
Mohammed Albasha, a spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy here, reiterated on Sunday that “the fight against Al Qaeda is a national and religious duty.”
One major unanswered question is how much influence Mr. Saleh’s son and nephews will retain over the security forces, including the Republican Guard and the Central Security Forces, some of whose members have been trained and equipped by the United States. It is a practical and ethical dilemma for the administration, given that many Yemeni security forces used scorched-earth tactics to suppress pro-democracy protesters.
“The Yemeni people who for one year stayed at demonstrations, they didn’t do this just for Saleh to leave, but for his whole regime, and that especially means those who are leaders in the armed forces,” said Ali al-Mamari, a Yemeni member of Parliament who quit the ruling party last spring after violence was used against protesters.
“After the past year, the Yemeni people now are thinking that America is helping them, and the American role is respected,” he said. “If the Americans continue to support the son and nephews of Saleh in the same way, the stance of the Yemeni people will change toward America.”
Some independent analysts also warned that the administration’s approach amounted to picking and choosing favorite Yemeni generals, which could backfire over time. “Any time the U.S. gets into where it’s favoring certain generals or trying to play generals off each other, it is a very dangerous game,” said Gregory Johnsen, a Princeton scholar who closely tracks militants in Yemen.
The United States has allocated $53.8 million in security assistance for Yemen this year, up from $30.1 million last year, according to State Department figures.
American officials, including Mr. Brennan and Gerald M. Feierstein, the American ambassador to Yemen, say the administration will consider Yemen’s requests for security assistance case by case once Yemen submits a long-term strategic plan for how it plans to address threats from Al Qaeda.
A high-level Yemeni military delegation is expected in Washington next month, the first of a series of reciprocal visits.
American officials say they envision sending trucks, troop carriers and transport helicopters, to give Yemeni forces greater mobility to attack militant fighters in their desolate redoubts. Ammunition, spare parts and other logistical support is also likely, the officials said.
“There are some things we couldn’t do last year because of the political crisis,” Mr. Feierstein said. “There has been a hiatus. We have not done training because the Yemeni units were not in a position to continue with the training. They had other priorities.”