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.