U.S. adjusts strategy
There has been a visible change in the U.S. counterterrorism policy here. In recent months, the Obama administration has escalated the use of airstrikes through drones and cruise missiles, viewing that as a more attractive option to find and eliminate terrorists in hard-to-reach areas.
As the violence has escalated, the administration has quietly recalled military trainers, consultants and other experts who worked with Yemen’s counterterrorism forces, Gen. Saleh said. “There’s no more training. There has been no more ammunition or equipment,” he said. “Gradually, their support is becoming less and less.”
“We requested them to help us in the situation in Abyan, in planning operations,” he said. “They said, ‘We will,’ and then nothing happened.” U.S. officials said they provided humanitarian assistance, including food and medical supplies to troops trapped inside a sports stadium, as well as intelligence, but Yemeni officials dismissed the support as too little, too late.
The Obama administration appears to be treading more carefully as reports escalate of security forces loyal to President Saleh opening fire on unarmed protesters, killing and injuring hundreds. Opposition leaders have accused Gen. Saleh of deploying U.S.-trained counterterrorism units against the protesters, a charge he denies.
A Western diplomat in Sanaa, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said there was no evidence that American-trained Yemeni counterterrorism forces were used against peaceful protesters, which would be a clear violation of U.S. law. But, the diplomat said, there was some evidence that U.S.-trained units fought against armed anti-government tribesmen in the capital’s Hassabah enclave.
“We’ve made clear to the Yemeni government that any such use of those forces or any capabilities or equipment that we provided to suppress domestic protesters will result in the elimination of any type of assistance to those units,” said the senior Obama administration official. “We are comfortable and confident those units are not involved.”
He added that “the line between what makes someone a terrorist as opposed to a domestic opponent is a fuzzy line” but that “we’re not going to invest in capabilities that are going to be used against peaceful protesters.”
Anger in Saleh government
The rare public criticism by the Yemenis comes as the Saleh government is growing increasingly bitter over the Obama administration’s demands that the president step down immediately. On the day Awlaki was killed, the White House stressed publicly that his death would not alter U.S. demands. That prompted senior Yemeni officials to complain that the United States did not respect a key counterterrorism ally, even after it helped kill one of America’s most wanted al-Qaeda operatives, who had inspired attacks on U.S. soil.
Gen. Saleh also expressed concern that the increased use of airstrikes by drones could lead to a backlash inside Yemen against the government and the United States, ushering more instability.
“At times, the partnership is not there,” said Sultan al-Barakani, a senior ruling party official. “The United States, when it deals with al-Qaeda, acts as if it is giving orders to Yemen,” he said, adding that the Americans “are not playing an active role.”
When it came to tracking down Awlaki, the CIA and Special Force operatives trusted few Yemenis. The Western diplomat said the Americans were dealing only with Yemen’s National Security Bureau, considered the most reliable. The operation was so closely guarded that the CIA didn’t involve Gen. Saleh or his U.S.-trained counterterrorism units. In the past, Yemen’s security forces have been infiltrated by al-Qaeda sympathizers.
“We’re trying to be as precise and as careful as possible, to mitigate the threat to our interests but at the same time not contributing to” Yemen’s internal conflict, the senior administration official said.
DeYoung reported from Washington.