Pentagon Bulks Up Yemen’s Arsenal as Shadow War Grows


By Spencer Ackerman

Yemen is the new Pakistan — well, at least it is to many in the Pentagon, the White House, and the intelligence community. U.S. spies think al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate is the most likely terrorist network to attack us, And just like last year’s $400 million U.S. “counterinsurgency fund” for Pakistan tried to get the Pakistani military al-Qaeda-specific weapons, the Pentagon’s already given Yemen $155 million dollars’ worth of copters, Humvees, radios and transport planes to contain the evolving terrorist threat. Look for all that to expand.

According to the Wall Street Journal, U.S. Central Command is pondering a $1.2 billion military-assistance package to Yemen covering the next five years. Just five years ago, the Defense Department dispensed less than $5 million to the benighted country on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula. But anywhere al-Qaeda goes, U.S. military money is sure to follow.

Neither U.S. Central Command nor the Office of the Secretary of Defense would discuss the contours of the hypothetical military-assistance package. But the current year’s aid bundle is instructive. Like what the U.S. gave Pakistan in 2009, it centers around stuff that small units can use on raids against terrorist cells.

That’s because the Yemeni army as a whole, in the assessment of one U.S. defense analyst, is a basket case. “You can’t rehab the whole Yemeni army. It’s too corrupt and too poorly trained,” says the Army War College’s W. Andrew Terrill. Better to focus on what elite units can do against the targets that the U.S. wants hit than to bankroll the total 75,000-man force in its on-again-off-again war with Houthi rebels in its northern provinces.

But with a larger defense package waiting in the wings, and the threat of more Yemen-trained underpants bombers creating public anxiety over Yemen, who knows whether the training mission will end up creeping. After all, the Pakistanis still covet F-16s to go after their Indian rivals — and the U.S. is providing them with 18 new ones this year.

This fiscal year, the Defense Department devoted $155 million through the end of this month to its Yemeni counterparts, mostly focusing on their Special Operations Forces and Air Force. Yemeni Special Operations Forces get $34.5 million for 50 new Humvees, personal radios, light weapons, ammo and other stuff to improve their “tactical effectiveness and operational reach,” according to Pentagon budget documents.

Yemen’s Air Force get nearly $83 million for new Huey helicopters, Russian-designed Mi-17 “Hip” copters, and spare parts and maintenance gear. “This program will allow the Yemen Air Force to transport small units to participate in day- or night-time operations at high altitude,” the department says in a funding submission to Congress.

Finally, there’s another $38 million to get the Yemenis CN-235s, a transit plane that just so happens to double as a spy plane. The plane’s stated purpose here? To “help build the capacity of Yemen’s national military forces to conduct [counterterrorism] operations by providing equipment and training to improve the operational reach and reaction time of counterterrorism forces.”

That sort of gear isn’t the kind that the Yemenis like to use against the Houthis and other non al-Qaeda enemies. A multi-stage offensive last year showcased heavyhanded Yemeni tactics — it was called Operation Scorched Earth — and even drew in the Saudis, who dropped bombs and pulvarized Houthi areas with artillery.

“This won’t make lot of difference in a major counterinsurgency campaign. This isn’t going to tip the scales combatting something like the Houthis,” Terrill explains. “But it could get some people in a hurry, in helicopters and maybe Humvees, go after 20 al-Qaeda [at a time].”

But that could change. The U.S. has recently lobbed cruise missiles against suspected al-Qaeda targets in Yemen. But the Journal reports that unmanned Hellfire-carrying drones might be part of the next-gen Yemen military-assistance package. And if Yemen really is the new Pakistan, then like the Pakistanis, the Yemenis could persuade the U.S. to let them use some drones against their own internal enemies. The last nine years of war have demonstrated conclusively that the U.S. is more concerned about blunting the emergence of new terror threats than it is about mission creep — and that it’s willing to throw a lot of money around in faraway locales.

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