WHITE HOUSE — President Barack Obama's counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, John Brennan, on Wednesday defended the U.S. strategy in helping Yemen's government battle a major al-Qaida affiliate.
Brennan's remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations were partly a response to criticism President Obama received in June from more than two dozen prominent foreign policy experts. In a five-page letter, they said there was a perception that in Yemen the United States was "singularly" focused on the battle against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, over broader underlying and important economic and social issues.
Key recommendations included increased economic aid, support for good governance and institution-building in Yemen, restructuring security forces, and a reevaluation of U.S. drone strikes, which the group said generated significant anti-American sentiment.
Referring to the letter, Brennan said President Obama always understood that Yemen's challenges are "grave and intertwined" and said that U.S. policy emphasizes governance and development as much as security.
Brennan noted that more than half of the $337 million provided to Yemen this year is for political transition, humanitarian assistance and development.
"In fact, this is the largest amount of civilian assistance the United States has ever provided to Yemen. So any suggestion that our policy toward Yemen is dominated by our security and counterterrorism efforts is simply not true," Brennan said.
Brennan listed key pillars of U.S. foreign policy toward Yemen, which he said include "timely, effective and full implementation" of the Gulf Cooperation Council agreement. Going forward, he said, the United States calls on all Yemenis, including former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, to put Yemen's national interests ahead of parochial concerns.
Brennan noted steps toward a national dialogue, a military reorganization, and the recent decree by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi reassigning several brigades from under the command of Saleh's son, and a leading Saleh rival.
At the same time, Brennan said Yemen's economic, political and social success depend on eliminating "the cancerous growth" of AQAP.
Brennan defended what he called a multidimensional counterterrorist approach that he said has thwarted terrorist plots, and eliminated key leaders, such as an U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed last year by a drone.
Reiterating the Obama administration's position that drone strikes are "legal, ethical, wise and highly effective," Brennan said the United States believes they have not made the job in Yemen more difficult.
"We see little evidence that these actions are generating widespread anti-American sentiment or recruits for AQAP. In fact, we see the opposite. Our Yemeni partners are more eager to work with us. Yemeni citizens who have been freed from the hellish grip of AQAP are more eager, not less, to work with the Yemeni government," Brennan said.
Brennan said, "targeted strikes against the most senior and most dangerous AQAP terrorists are not the problem, they are part of the solution."
Despite the continuing U.S. commitment to Yemen, and what he called "exceptional consistency" in cooperation since President Hadi came to office, Brennan said the United States is under no illusions about the tremendous challenges Yemen faces. He mentioned the suicide bombing last Saturday that killed at least 35 people and wounded dozens of others in the village of Jaar, one of several towns retaken by the government in June, and clashes last week at the Ministry of the Interior in Sanaa.