U.S. weighs plan to send military aircraft to aid Yemen


WASHINGTON —Spurred by recent battlefield gains, the Pentagon is making plans to send U.S. military aircraft to Yemen for the first time to help move government troops and supplies more quickly into battle against Islamic militants, U.S. officials said.

Senior U.S. commanders responsible for the Middle East argue that deploying American cargo aircraft could be crucial to carrying on a U.S.-backed offensive that has driven members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and allied groups out of several cities and towns.

“This wasn’t an American idea. It was a Yemeni idea and one worth considering given our common fight against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” said a U.S. official, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity because the plan is not public. “Nothing’s been decided, and it may take some time before the Yemenis themselves sort out whether they need this kind of support or not.”

The proposal does not have final White House approval yet and has prompted concern among officials in the White House, the State Department and even within the Pentagon. Militants who have targeted the U.S. are based in Yemen, which also is riven by regional and tribal differences, and skeptics fear the conflict is looking increasingly like a civil war.

Deploying aircraft would invite a backlash in the country and the wider Middle East, said administration officials critical of the idea.

“We have to be very mindful of the fact that there is a lot of attention being paid to the role of the United States in Yemen,” said another U.S. official. “We want it to be appropriate, and not something which is taking kind of a controlling role, if you will, in these activities. And that I think is where the concerns lie now.”

The plan, which could include providing Yemen’s troops with vehicles and other supplies, would still limit the U.S. to a support role, which White House officials have insisted is as far as President Obama will go.

Obama, who has withdrawn U.S. troops from Iraq and is in the process of drawing down American forces in Afghanistan, has said he has no intention of putting U.S. boots on the ground in Yemen.

U.S. officials have insisted for months that they will not be drawn into a civil war and do not intend to put ground troops in Yemen, other than trainers and small special-operations units. But a decision to use U.S. aircraft and air crews in Yemen would be another sign that the United States is taking on a more active role in the country.

Recent gains by Yemeni forces have strengthened the hand of U.S. military commanders. They argue that sending aircraft and other additional assistance could help turn the tide in Yemen. Over the last year, militants appeared to be gaining strength and setting up fledgling governments in southern provinces under their control, several officials said.

In contrast to its recent successes, the Yemeni military’s previous efforts to conduct operations in the country’s rugged hinterlands have frequently ended with the government suffering bloody defeats at the hands of Islamic militants and well-armed tribes.

Yemen’s armed forces rely on an aging fleet of Soviet-era helicopters and poorly maintained trucks to transport its forces.

The questions of how many and what types of U.S. aircraft would be required are being studied by the Pentagon’s Joint Staff and by planners at U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for U.S. military operations in the Middle East, officials said.

Dozens of U.S. Special Forces troops deployed to Yemen this year and have been supplying intelligence and advice on tactics that have aided the operations, officials said.

The U.S. military and CIA are coordinating a separate but related campaign of airstrikes against members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which U.S. intelligence officials say poses the greatest threat to America and is one of several militant groups fighting the Yemeni government. The group claimed responsibility for recruiting “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a passenger plane heading to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.

The group exploited a security vacuum last year during a popular uprising against Yemen’s longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to seize territory in the southern provinces of Abyan and Shabwa. That raised fears it could use the area as a foothold from which to launch more attacks on U.S. targets.

A senior U.S. official said the further expansion of direct U.S. military support for the Yemeni armed forces was being considered seriously by the administration to capitalize on the recent gains in the south. U.S. commanders are eager to move quickly because Yemen’s president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, is proving far more willing than Saleh to accept and even solicit U.S. military assistance.

Hadi, who took office in February, has vowed to defeat the insurgency, unlike Saleh, who allowed militants take control of large parts of Yemeni territory.

Marine Gen. James Mattis, who is in charge of Central Command, met with Hadi and other Yemeni officials this week in Sana, Yemen’s capital, and “affirmed the United States’ readiness to support Yemen’s efforts to defeat Al Qaeda, which threatens Yemen and the international community alike,” according to a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy.

Mattis’ visit came less than a month after a visit by Army Brig. Gen. Ralph Groover, the deputy director for plans and policy at Central Command.

“We’re all trying to be as helpful as we can to President Hadi and the campaign that he and the Yemeni armed forces are waging in the south to dislodge the AQAP presence and allow civilian authorities to return,” said the U.S. official critical of the Pentagon plan, using an acronym for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

“If American aircraft were ferrying Yemeni government troops, it would be evident that we were involved in a substantial way,” the official said. “It invites a lot of attention that would not be helpful.”

A senior military official involved in the discussions described them as “nascent.” He declined to go into details because of the danger of tipping off militants.

But other officials said that the discussions were well advanced and that details were being circulated to departments and agencies involved in Yemen policy. The Pentagon’s Joint Staff is preparing specific operation plans, including what types of aircraft would be deployed to Yemen and other military assistance that would be required, the officials said.

Times staff writer Ken Dilanian contributed to this report.