SANAA, Yemen — Ties between the United States and Yemen are being strained by a growing disagreement over how to combat the Yemen-based terrorist group that U.S. officials have called the most potent al-Qaeda franchise.
Even as both sides claim credit for the death of American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in a U.S. drone strike Friday, they are sparring over divergent priorities. Senior Yemeni officials accuse the United States of not helping government forces fight opponents — many of whom they say are al-Qaeda-linked insurgents intent on attacking the West — inside Yemen.
U.S. officials, in turn, express little interest in the insurgency in Yemen and say their counterterrorism efforts are limited to what they describe as a minority within al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate that is focused on U.S. attacks. The officials say they are determined to resist efforts by the government of embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh to enlist American forces and firepower in a domestic counterinsurgency and draw the United States into Yemen’s internal chaos.
The dispute underscores a fundamental dilemma facing the Obama administration. Although it depends on counterterrorism cooperation from the Saleh government to target leaders of the Yemen-based group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, it is seeking Saleh’s resignation as part of the pro-democracy Arab Spring.
Interviews with officials from both sides portrayed some elements of the U.S.-Yemeni counterterrorism relationship as contentious, at times antagonistic, despite recent public claims by senior American officials that the ties are close and cooperative.
“The American aid is very limited,” said Gen. Yahya Saleh, a nephew of the president, who heads Yemen’s U.S.-trained counterterrorism units and its powerful Central Security Forces. “Unfortunately, the American side has been paying more attention to the political situation than fighting terrorism.”
The tensions come as Yemen’s eight-month-old populist revolt has turned increasingly violent, with rival military forces and tribal militias battling each other in Sanaa, the capital, and other cities.
Diplomacy has failed to persuade the Yemeni president to sign a power transfer deal crafted by the country’s Persian Gulf neighbors and backed by the United States and Europe. Instead, the unrest has weakened government control over much of Yemen, particularly in the south, where Islamist militants — many linked to al-Qaeda — have seized large swaths of territory, especially in Abyan province. Many Yemenis and diplomats fear that this impoverished Middle Eastern nation at the heel of the Arabian Peninsula is on the threshold of civil war and economic collapse.
A senior Obama administration official brushed off the Yemeni criticism and drew a distinction between targeting individuals through counterterrorism measures and the more resource-intensive strategy of eliminating militant havens through counterinsurgency.
The United States will not become involved in the latter in Yemen, where there “is a veritable stew of counterinsurgencies, different political elements and competing factions,” the official said, adding that the United States would fight AQAP only to prevent it from attacking the United States and its interests.
While AQAP is “fighting a ground war against Yemeni military forces,” the official said, many of the insurgents are tribally based, part-time fighters trying to oust the Saleh government. AQAP leaders focused on attacking the United States and its allies number only “a couple of dozen, maybe,” White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan said last month.
“I know there is dissatisfaction, particularly among the Saleh family,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. counterterrorism operations in Yemen. “They would like us to do different things to suppress an insurgency that is alive, particularly in Abyan, and [anything against] Saleh’s political interests.” But, the official said, “we’re not going to get enmeshed in that type of domestic situation.”
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.”
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.