The Pentagon is being urged to move its counterterrorism operations from Yemen across the Gulf of Aden to Djibouti should the government in Sanaa fall.
Sen. Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican and ranking member of the Appropriations subcommittee that funds military base construction, said in an interview, "I think the administration should be actively considering a Plan B for Yemen."
On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters en route to Cairo that the United States had not done any "post-Saleh planning," a reference to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Yemen is the main redoubt of the terrorist group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and political instability is raising fears that the group will expand its power.
Mr. Kirk said this plan should be aimed at establishing a base of operations in Djibouti to continue the military's efforts to target AQAP should Mr. Saleh step down or be ousted from power.
Mr. Saleh said Thursday that he would defend his office with "all possible means" despite a series of high-level defections from his military amid mass protests in Sanaa, Yemen's capital. Other reports from the country, however, stated that Mr. Saleh is brokering a plan to step down from power in negotiations with one of the breakaway generals, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar.
Diplomatic cables disclosed late last year by the website WikiLeaks recounted a meeting between Mr. Saleh and Gen. David H. Petraeus, at the time commander of the U.S. Central Command, discussing U.S. drone strikes against AQAP targets in his country.
AQAP controls territory in northern Yemen and is widely considered the most dangerous of al Qaeda's affiliates. In 2009, the U.S.-born AQAP ideologue, Anwar al-Awlaki, recruited Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, an English-speaking Nigerian national who is charged with trying to detonate a bomb aboard a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit.
After the failed terrorist attack on Christmas Day 2009, the Obama administration increased the pace of drone strikes and other counterterrorism operations inside Yemen.
"We will probably have to fall back to another country - for example, Djibouti - to do more counterterrorism ops," Mr. Kirk said. "It will likely have to do more to take on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," said Mr. Kirk, a reserve Navy intelligence officer who plans to visit Djibouti next month.
Mr. Gates was asked during a news conference in Moscow on Tuesday whether the United States still supports Mr. Saleh or whether it is time for him to step down.
"I don't think it's my place to talk about internal affairs in Yemen," he said. "We are obviously concerned about the instability in Yemen. We consider Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is largely located in Yemen, to be perhaps the most dangerous of all the franchises of al Qaeda right now. And so, instability and diversion of attention from dealing with AQAP is certainly my primary concern about the situation."
Other U.S. officials have said that Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti is one base that is being considered for counterterrorism operations if a new government in Yemen discontinues or scales back its counterterrorism cooperation with the United States.
Other bases in Iraq and Kuwait could be used for launching counterterrorism strikes into Yemen, but Camp Lemonnier is geographically closer to many targets.
Frances F. Townsend, who was a homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush, said Djibouti would be a good location for a base. "We are going to have to rely more on Camp Lemonnier, but we are also going to have to be attuned to the political difficulties of relying more on the host nation Djibouti than we do now," she said.
At one point, the Pentagon considered moving the operational headquarters of Africa Command, or Africom, to Djibouti. But that plan was scuttled out of concern that the government there would face too much public pressure.
Ms. Townsend said she has had her own frustrations during the Bush administration with the level of Mr. Saleh's counterterrorism cooperation. Nonetheless, she said, "We worked out a counterterrorism arrangement that allowed us some level of activity and cooperation with Saleh's government inside Yemen."
"Absent Saleh, the most likely scenario is an Islamic extremist-leaning government," Ms. Townsend said. "It becomes much less certain that we will get the kind of cooperation we get now with the Saleh government, which itself is inadequate."
Juan Zarate, a former deputy national security adviser to Mr. Bush for counterterrorism, said he thought the Saudi government, which shares a border with Yemen, would step up its own counterterrorism operations against AQAP. Many of AQAP's leaders were originally members of Saudi Arabia's now-defunct al Qaeda affiliate.
"I think the most important immediate effect is that the Saudi government themselves would view themselves at risk and would devote more attention to problems along its border," Mr. Zarate said.
Overall, the view from Washington is that the crisis in Yemen will have security implications for the United States at home and abroad.
Charles Allen, a retired veteran CIA officer and until recently the senior intelligence analyst at the Homeland Security Department, said a vacuum in Yemen's leadership "could enhance the capabilities of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has already launched long-range attacks on the United States."
"Anything that would lessen our ability to work cooperatively with the Yemeni military and its security services would be to the detriment of the United States," Mr. Allen said.
Mr. Kirk said the Obama administration needs to prepare for the worst.
"The government in Yemen is in crisis, with armored-corps commanders flipping to the other side," he said.
"The U.S. government should be involved to see if another government that supports our counterterrorism policy takes power. But we have to be prepared for the worst, that a government aligned with terror would take power in Sanaa."
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