WASHINGTON, Jan 21 (Reuters) - The Obama administration plans to couple expanded military support for Yemen to fight al Qaeda with an economic assistance program aimed at curbing the appeal of Islamists, officials said.
In addition to military cooperation that includes U.S. training and other assistance for Yemen’s counterterrorism forces, the Pentagon is working with the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development on a development and reconstruction package targeting young men and those who live in tribal and rural areas.
Washington hopes long-term economic development will eventually help erode al Qaeda’s appeal among the 50 percent of the Yemeni population that is under the age of 15.
U.S. officials describe Yemen’s central government as "inefficient" with little sway outside major population centers, leaving large tracts of territory open to al Qaeda and other groups.
An alleged failed plot by a militant trained by Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to blow up a U.S. airliner bound for Detroit on Christmas Day has increased support in Washington for stronger counterterrorism measures in Yemen.
U.S. intelligence agencies estimate al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is composed of several hundred operatives.
"AQAP ... is not merely a threat to Yemen, but to regional and international security as well," a defense official said.
The Pentagon and the CIA have sought to keep their expanding roles in Yemen quiet, in part to avert a public backlash against the government, which, besides al Qaeda, is battling Shi’ite rebels in the north and faces separatist sentiment in the south.
Washington has urged Yemen to seek a negotiating solution to the conflict with the Houthis, who are fighting government troops in the north, complaining of social, religious and economic discrimination.
"A military solution to the problem seems as unlikely as ever," a defense official said. "In order to attend to the worsening humanitarian situation and limit the regional expansion of the conflict, we urge immediate de-escalation of the conflict."
U.S. officials said they saw no evidence of direct Iranian involvement in the Houthi conflict, but said that could change the longer the conflict goes on.
Last summer, the Obama administration completed a strategic review of U.S. policy with Yemen and determined that "counterterrorism or military engagement alone with Yemen is inadequate to address the range and severity of the country’s stability challenges," an official said.
To achieve long-term stability, the goal must be to "defeat" AQAP and improve Yemeni counterterrorism forces in the short term, while "building capacity and increasing economic opportunity for Yemen’s population in an effort to decrease the appeal of, and recourse to, militant ideology," the official said.
Pentagon proposals to work more closely with Yemeni forces has drawn fire from some human rights groups.
Annual U.S. State Department reports on human rights in Yemen have highlighted allegations of torture by Interior Ministry forces, some of which play an increasingly important role in tracking and fighting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in close cooperation with U.S. Special Forces and the CIA, which declined to comment.
Yemen’s share of publicly-disclosed U.S. counterterrorism funding under the so-called 1206 program has grown sharply in recent years, from $4.6 million in fiscal 2006 to $67 million in fiscal 2009, and is poised to increase sharply this year.
General David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, has proposed more than doubling military assistance for Yemen to about $150 million, but it is unclear how much covert assistance will be provided on top of that. (Reporting by Adam Entous; editing by Anthony Boadle)