WASHINGTON – The Pentagon plans to resume programs that would pay for military training and equipment in Yemen, nearly a year after halting aid to the key counterterrorism partner because of escalating internal chaos.
While no agreements have been cemented, U.S. defense officials said as much as $75 million in military assistance could begin to flow this year. The officials said the Pentagon and State Department are putting together a letter to send to Congress to request restarted the aid.
The plan is in line with the Obama administration's intention to provide significant security and civilian aid to Yemen in 2012-13 as long as the Middle Eastern country makes progress toward a new government and the money is kept from insurgents.
One senior military official said discussions have begun over how best the United States can help Yemen, which is putting a new U.S.-backed government in place. The official said it may be difficult to relaunch the counterterrorism training that was suspended about a year ago because Yemeni forces are engaged in battle with the al-Qaida-linked insurgency based in the country.
Instead, the training program could shift to focus less on fighting tactics and more on how to plan combat operations and strategize against the enemy.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because no final decisions have been made.
Widespread protests, coupled with pressure from the U.S., led to the ouster of longtime ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh. U.S. leaders have said they believe that new president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, will be a good partner to the U.S.
The renewed effort come as al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula also is experiencing its own transition. While often described as the chief terrorist threat for strikes inside the U.S., the group hasn't surfaced as a main source in any domestic threats for more than a year.
The killing in a U.S. drone strike last fall in Yemen of Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born radical militant cleric, has set back the group's efforts outside Yemen. Al-Awlaki was linked to the planning and execution of several attacks targeting U.S. and Western interests, including the attempt to down a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009 and the plot to bomb cargo planes in 2010.
But it's hard to tell how long the lull may last.
"What we don't necessarily know is are they going to be focusing much more on Yemen, or is it a short-term thing, to be able to build up time and capacity to be able to strike at a far enemy," said Frank Cilluffo, director of a homeland security studies program at George Washington University. He was White House domestic security adviser to President George W. Bush.
Officials warn that the group has taken broad advantage of the unrest in Yemen to expand its foothold in the south, capture weapons, ammunition and equipment and score successes against the Yemeni military.
On Saturday, airstrikes killed 18 al-Qaida-linked militants in central Yemen, while separate attacks targeted militants in the south, Yemeni officials said. The offensive followed the recent killing of nearly 200 soldiers by al-Qaida, which had sneaked across the desert at dawn to the back lines of Yemeni forces.
Al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula "has been degraded by the strike and the loss of al-Awlaki, but that doesn't mean they are not a threat," said Stewart Baker, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security who is now with the law firm of Steptoe & Johnson. "Their talent pool was thin and made thinner."
But counterterrorism experts said the al-Qaida affiliate has proved willing to attempt attacks and fail, in the hopes of an eventual success. Cilluffo said the group still represents the most active and focused domestic threat to the U.S., largely because bomb-maker Ibrahim al-Asiri is alive and active.
The U.S. has poured more than $326 million in security and civilian assistance into Yemen since 2007, fueled by the escalating threat from the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. The aid abruptly stopped last year as political and security unrest raged.
Initial plans by the Pentagon to send at least $150 million in aid to Yemen last year were shut down and no new military aid was approved.
Pentagon leaders have as much as $350 million to spend on military aid to foreign countries this year, and according to congressional restrictions, as much as $75 million can go to Yemen. Congress also requires the Pentagon and State Department to defend the spending and assure the proper use of any assistance.
On the civilian side, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, under a directive from the National Security Council, have begun a new review to assess the situation in Yemen following the recent presidential election and to determine how best to provide development support, according to a new government report.
Since 2007, Yemen has received about $316 million in U.S. civilian aid, including humanitarian, education, development and refugee assistance.
The military money, in addition to providing counterterrorism training, has also paid for aircraft, radios, rifles, patrol boats, trucks and other equipment.