U.S. officials say they are encouraged that Yemen can be a full partner in the fight against al-Qaida, despite uneven counter-terrorism cooperation in the past. The top State Department official for Near Eastern affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, said Yemen's government faces security, economic and political challenges it must overcome with help from the U.S. and other partners, if efforts to prevent al-Qaida from expanding its influence are to succeed.
Assistant Secretary Feltman said Yemen received a clear message from the United States and other partners at the recent London conference on Yemen, that it must respond to security and other threats to its stability.
Pointing to the attempted Christmas U.S. airliner bombing, Feltman listed bolstering security, establishing good governance, and economic development as the major challenges, none of which can be carried out to the exclusion of the others.
"It [the attempt] confirmed what many of us have known for years," said Jeffrey Feltman. "That the militant extremists in Yemen are able to operate in the unsettled environment there and threaten U.S. national security as well as interests of key allies."
The U.S. has ramped up counter-terrorist and economic aid, recognizing what Feltman called the "toxic effect" in Yemen of deteriorating governance, human-rights protections, and stagnant development.
For U.S. lawmakers, Yemen's importance was underscored by the training the December bombing suspect is quoted as saying he received from militants associated with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and the links a U.S. Army psychiatrist accused of murdering 12 soldiers and one civilian had with a Yemeni-American cleric.
Committee Chairman Howard Berman said instability in Yemen poses both a regional and wider global threat requiring comprehensive engagement by the Obama administration.
"The more unstable Yemen becomes, the more likely it is that terrorism will thrive there, threatening U.S. regional interests and our homeland," said Howard Berman.
State Department counter-terrorism official Robert Godec said participants in the London conference on Yemen must ensure that momentum is not lost toward achieving a stable, secure and effectively-governed Yemen.
"As the government of Yemen grows more transparent and responsive, and Yemenis find hope for their future, the seeds of extremism and violence will find less fertile ground, and the threat of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula will truly recede," said Robert Godec.
Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen asked Godec and Feltman this question:
"Has the government of Yemen changed its strategic calculus and mindset about al-Qaida and other jihadists," said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. "Do we now have a true partner in fighting this threat?"
Opposition Republicans also used Wednesday's hearing to underscore their criticisms of Obama administration plans to eventually close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, noting that some former prisoners released from Guantanamo emerged as members or leaders of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Christopher Boucek, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said civil war is accelerating Yemen's economic decline, while Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies warned against increasing aid to Yemen without strict pre-conditions.
BOUCEK: "The civil war in [the northern province of] Saada is rapidly accelerating the economic collapse of Yemen. The country is spending in alarming rates, money that they don't have to spend on water, education, fighting al-Qaida, anything else."
SCHANZER: "If Yemen continues to allow terrorists to roam free, the problems in Yemen will continue to mount and it is up to the Yemenis to fix this. The government must prove it will put our taxpayer funds to good use rather than squander them as it has in recent years, the government must prove that it has a plan before we commit our taxpayer money."
Calling the situation in Yemen complex, difficult and dire, Bruce Riedel of The Brookings Institution warned against the U.S. becoming mired in any expanded military presence or in Yemen's local conflicts.
"Al-Qaida wants to use Yemen to expand the global battle space against America, that is to stretch our resources even further, if possible to bog the U.S. down in local conflicts in Yemen which can become quagmires, and through all of this relieve some of the pressure that the al-Qaida core in Pakistan and Afghanistan is [facing] today," said Bruce Riedel.
CIA Director Leon Panetta told a Senate committee on Tuesday the situation in Yemen remains volatile, with President Ali Abdallah Saleh facing internal rebellions. Panetta said al-Qaida has turned to "regional nodes" such as Yemen, Somalia and the Maghreb as it continues efforts to strike the U.S.
Yemen would receive about $174 million in assistance from the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development under President Obama's proposed 2011 fiscal year budget. Yemen is receiving about $70 million in military aid in 2010.
Assistant Secretary Feltman told lawmakers the Obama administration does not expect to send Congress any supplemental aid request, on top of aid contained in the current budget.