WASHINGTON – An initial Pentagon proposal to provide more than $43 million in military aid to other countries does not include any assistance for Yemen, underscoring concerns about the unrest that threatens to topple the country's U.S.-backed leader.
While the terror threat coming from al-Qaida-linked extremists in Yemen remains a top concern for the U.S., Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said officials will continue to monitor the upheaval there and make funding decisions based on developments. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's forces have cracked down on protesters demanding he step down after 32 years in power.
Meanwhile, notice of the first installment of the Pentagon's military assistance has been delivered to Congress. It would pay for training and a wide range of war-fighting equipment for 10 countries who are allies in the Afghanistan war. The plan was obtained by The Associated Press.
The Pentagon program is designed to improve the counterterrorism operations of U.S. allies. While the total for the military aid is in flux due to the ongoing federal budget gridlock, it would total $350 million if it is based on last year's amount. The Pentagon's 2011 budget proposal submitted last year requested $500 million.
Morrell said Tuesday he does not believe the U.S. commitment to Yemen has lessened. But the budget showdown, which is threatening to lead to a government shutdown this weekend, will almost certainly lead to cuts in funding, making it unlikely that Yemen would get the more than $200 million that officials proposed for the country late last year, well before the unrest took hold.
U.S. officials have grown increasingly alarmed about al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula over the past two years. The Christmas Day 2009 attempted airliner bombing was linked to al-Qaida leaders in Yemen, including radical American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. And last year two Chicago-bound packages shipped from Yemen were intercepted in Britain and Dubai after authorities were tipped that they contained bombs. They were also linked to AQAP.
"Obviously, we are monitoring the situation closely," Morrell told reporters. "It's fluid. And we are making determinations and evaluations based upon how it's developing."
He said officials will evaluate what makes the most sense in terms of dealing with the threat and supporting the Yemeni government. And he added, "The threat from Yemen is a real one that needs to be dealt with, and that's where our focus has been over the past several years."
The Pentagon routinely releases military aid in three or four installments each year. This first piece, going to a group of smaller partner nations in the Afghan war, mirrors similar assistance last year and could help encourage countries not to abandon the increasingly unpopular conflict.
The countries slated to receive the aid are Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia. The assistance would fund training and buy equipment ranging from Humvees and communications equipment to guns, grenade launchers and night vision goggles.
There was initially a question about whether the rules of the program allowed the Pentagon to spend money helping nations fighting alongside U.S. troops in the wars. But Congress has agreed it is an appropriate expense, although lawmakers want it to be limited.