Seldom visible in the Yemeni mountains, the elite U.S. commandos training the Yemen’s military represent the Obama administration’s quest to fight terrorism without inflaming anti-American sentiment.
That balancing act has become an administration trademark, funneling millions of dollars in aid and low-profile military trainers to countries such as Pakistan and Yemen in order to take on a more diverse, independent and scattered al Qaeda network.
The scope and amount of the military training in Yemen has grown slowly, reflecting the Pentagon’s intention to tackle the terrorism threat while still being sensitive to fears that a larger U.S. footprint in Yemen could help fuel the insurgency.
Over the past year, the number of elite U.S. trainers moving in and out of Yemen has doubled, from 25 to about 50. The numbers fluctuate depending on the training schedule, but U.S. forces now are providing a more complex level of instruction that combines tactical ground and air operations.
At stake is the stability of a troubled, poverty-stricken nation struggling to thwart al Qaeda-linked terrorists who are growing stronger and increasingly are targeting the U.S. and other Western interests.
“Yemen is the model for how we’re going to conduct counterterrorism in the future,” said Rick Nelson, a counterterrorism analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It is not going to be large-scale intervention, as it was under the Bush administration, and not because it is or isn’t working, but because it’s economically unfeasible” to wage expensive wars.
The U.S. has placed unprecedented priority on Yemen, State Department counterterrorism coordinator Daniel Benjamin said last week, describing a two-pronged program to root out terrorists while targeting the “incubators for extremism” — such as poverty, weak governance and corruption.
Speaking at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Mr. Benjamin said the U.S. is on track to provide as much as $300 million in military, humanitarian and development this year. About half of that is for military equipment and training.
The terrorism threat from Yemen has escalated in the past 18 months, with estimates that about 300 al Qaeda members or cells are operating there. The gravity of the situation deepened after the failed Christmas Day attack of an airliner over Detroit was linked to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen.
Yemen is also the base of U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is thought to have helped inspire the airline plot and other attacks in the U.S. The administration has the fugitive Mr. al-Awlaki on a kill-or-capture list.
The U.S. military training in Yemen, said one senior defense official, is aimed at fixing shortfalls in the Yemeni military’s aviation, intelligence and tactical operations. There also is training for the maintenance of aircraft and other systems.
In general, the U.S. trainers never appear in public. The U.S. special operations forces are thought to be concentrated in a mountainous area in western San’a, the capital. Yemeni counterterrorism troops and British special operations trainers are participating with the U.S. trainers.
Yemeni authorities have been careful not to discuss the U.S. presence. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said during a Ramadan sermon last month that Yemen does not accept the presence of foreign troops in its territory. However, he acknowledged in March that American trainers are in Yemen.