Pentagon to Send More Special Forces to Yemen
Officials say the additional troops could be a significant increase above the roughly 200 special forces personnel who are currently in Yemen at any one time.
(WSJ) The Pentagon is assigning more special forces personnel to Yemen as part of a broad push to speed the training of the country’s counterterror forces in the wake of the failed Christmas Day attack on a crowded U.S. airliner.
Military officials familiar with the matter said the U.S. will begin rotating the same groups of special forces personnel through Yemen and keeping some of the elite troops there for longer tours, changes designed to help the American trainers develop closer relationships with their Yemeni counterparts.
The officials declined to specify how many new troops will be arriving in Yemen, but said it would be a significant increase above the roughly 200 special forces personnel who are currently in Yemen at any one time.
“The numbers are definitely going to grow,” said one military official familiar with the emerging plan, which is expected to be formally approved within weeks. “This will be a much more robust effort pretty much across the board.”
The moves come as the U.S. steps up its military and financial assistance to Yemen, the stronghold of the al Qaeda affiliate that claimed responsibility for the attempted Christmas Day bombing. The sole suspect in the attack, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, is currently in U.S. custody awaiting trial.
The Obama administration plans to increase its counterterrorism support to the government of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh from $70 million in 2009 to roughly $190 million this year, and the U.S. and U.K. have agreed to jointly fund a new counterterrorism police force inside Yemen.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said the U.S. supported Yemen “in many different ways” and credited Mr. Saleh’s government with an “aggressive and forceful response to this growing terrorist threat in their country.”
Mr. Morrell, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, said the U.S. was already providing Yemen with financial support, training and other forms of military assistance.
“If that is something that the Yemeni government continues to find helpful, we will look for ways to continue to do that, if not broaden it, but this is obviously a sensitive issue for the Yemeni government and we are mindful of their sovereignty,” he said.
The U.S. military’s involvement in Yemen has already begun to grow. In the weeks since the Christmas Day attack, the U.S. has increased the number of surveillance drones flying over Yemen, as well as the number of unmanned aircraft outfitted with missiles capable of striking targets on the ground, according to a senior U.S. official with direct knowledge of the deployments.
Most drones operating outside of Iraq and Afghanistan are controlled by the Central Intelligence Agency, but the official said the drones operating over Yemen belong to the military’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command.
U.S. forces aren’t involved in direct combat within Yemen, but special forces troops are helping Yemeni counterterror personnel plan attacks against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula targets inside the country, according to military officials with knowledge of their activities.
The special forces troops are also working as liaisons between the Yemeni military command and the Pentagon, which has begun relaying intelligence gleaned from drones, satellites and intercepts of militant phone calls and emails
A U.S. military official said the Yemeni forces have mounted roughly 30 strikes against the terror group since late December. Several of AQAP’s top leaders inside Yemen had been killed in the U.S.-backed assaults, he said.
“It’s beginning to make a dent,” he said. “But there’s a lot of fighting still to come.”