US won't send troops to Yemen. How will it defeat Al Qaeda there?

President Obama and the Pentagon have ruled out US troops in Yemen. The US will have to rely on civilian aid – which has been ineffective in Iraq and Afghanistan – to undermine Al Qaeda.

Nasser Nasser/AP
Two soldiers guard the gate of the Yemeni Foreign ministry, background in San'a, Yemen, Jan. 6. Sheik Abdul-Malid al-Zindani, says a deployment of American troops to Yemen would amount to an occupation and would force Yemenis to 'rise up' against their government.

The US is looking at ways to help the Yemeni government stabilize its country that are unlikely to include sending American forces anytime soon.

That may appease some of the more radical elements within Yemen, including a Yemeni cleric, who said Monday that the US should keep American troops out of his country. Sheik Abdul-Malid al-Zindani, considered by the US to be a global terrorist with ties to Osama bin Laden, says a deployment of American troops to Yemen would amount to an occupation and would force Yemenis to “rise up” against their government.

“We reject any military occupation of our country and we do not accept the return of colonialism," Mr. Zendani said at a news conference Monday in Sanaa, the capital.

Despite fears of a growing Al Qaeda threat in Yemen, the American government does not appear to be looking to start another war. Instead, it’s looking to civilians to strengthen the weak Yemeni government, helping it govern and provide its own security.

President Obama himself ruled out the use of combat forces. “I have no intention of sending US boots on the ground in these regions,” Mr. Obama told People magazine.

The Yemen threat

Recent events have put Yemen back on the US national security radar. The so-called Christmas Day bomber is a Nigerian man who allegedly received terrorist training in Yemen. That incident followed the discovery that the alleged Fort Hood shooter was linked to another radical Yemeni cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki. Yemen is also where the USS Cole was attacked and 17 American soldiers died in 2000.

For its part, the Yemeni government has said that any deployment of American troops would incite more radicalism.

But the Yemenis are keen on American help. Many experts and administration officials believe the answer to Yemen’s problems lie in a robust civilian engagement using so-called smart power to help prop up the weak government and provide development assistance.

Civilian initiatives, however, have not been very successful in Iraq and are still unproven in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The State Department and USAID have so far been unable to provide adequate numbers of civilian experts to do this kind of work.

Few good options

But the US has few options, says Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington. “My question is: What is the alternative? And my answer is: Let’s try to mobilize the institutions of the US government that are supposed to be capable of doing this,” he says. (Editor's note: The original version misidentified the organization that Mr. Kagan is affiliated with.)

Sending troops to Yemen would be “extremely undesirable,” says Mr. Kagan, who is considered to be one of the chief architects of the surge of forces into Iraq in 2007. “I don’t know of any rational person who wants to do that."

The US military currently provides about $67 million in assistance to Yemen. Earlier this month, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of US Central Command – the region which includes Yemen – said the US would double that amount by next year. His statements sent Pentagon officials scrambling to deny that such a decision had already been made, yet most experts agree the US must do much more.

The US has provided millions in assistance to the Yemenis. Military aid pays to help train Yemenis, including a reasonably effective counterterrorism force and a Coast Guard, which is considered highly professional and interdicts smuggling operations along portions of the coastline.

Under the Pentagon’s “Section 1206” money for building the defense capacity of such allies, the US funds programs to improve cross-border security and counterterrorism efforts with the Yemeni Special Operations Force, and provides helicopters, night vision goggles, and training to counter roadside bombs.


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