Pentagon to boost Yemen’s special operations forces

Defense Secretary Robert Gates in February authorized $150 million in security assistance for Yemen for fiscal 2010, up from $67 million last year, but the Pentagon has offered few details about the highly sensitive program.

Officials briefed on the matter said the Pentagon informed Congress that it would provide $34 million in “tactical assistance” to Yemen’s special operations forces.

“Special Operations forces are uniquely qualified for counterterrorism missions,” a U.S. defense official said of the funding. “The United States wants to work with partners in the region to address their terrorist threats.”

In addition, $38 million will provide Yemen with a military transport aircraft, officials said. The Pentagon is drawing up detailed spending plans for the rest of the program, which is expected to focus on boosting Yemen’s air transport capabilities.

U.S. military and intelligence agencies have sought to keep their expanding roles in Yemen quiet, in part to avert a public backlash against the government.

Several of Yemen’s internal security and intelligence services have been named as human rights abusers by international rights groups and the U.S. State Department.

U.S. military and intelligence assistance in recent months has included satellite and surveillance imagery, as well as intercepted communications, to help Yemeni forces carry out air raids against al Qaeda targets, officials said.

Critics say the growing U.S. military involvement risks fueling anti-American sentiment and boosting al Qaeda’s standing.

In an article for Foreign Affairs magazine released on Monday, Gates argued that operations against militant groups in Yemen “have shown how well-integrated training and assistance efforts can achieve real success.”

“Building the governance and security capacity of other countries must be a critical element of U.S. national security strategy,” Gates wrote.

Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for a failed plot to blow up a U.S. passenger jet as it prepared to land at Detroit on Christmas Day.

AQAP has emerged as one of al Qaeda’s most active affiliates, and U.S. officials said earlier this month that the Obama administration has taken the extraordinary step of authorizing the CIA to kill or capture a leading figure linked to the group — American-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. Some of the equipment may not be delivered until fiscal 2011, which begins October 1, they said.