U.S. Broadens Terror Fight, Readying Troops for Yemen
By Michael R. Gordon and James Dao, The New York Times
WASHINGTON, March 1 - President Bush has approved plans to send as many as 100 troops to Yemen to help train that nation's military to fight terrorists, senior administration officials said today.
While American officials said the details were still being worked out, they said the troops could leave as early as next week. They would consist predominantly of Special Forces, but could also include intelligence experts and other specialists. The main target would be Al Qaeda fighters who are hiding in Yemen.
Yemen is just the latest partner in an increasingly broad campaign that has expanded well beyond Afghanistan to the Persian Gulf, the Philippines and potentially to Georgia and Indonesia as well.
It comes as Democrats have become increasingly restless about the military moves, complaining that the administration has demanded virtually unlimited funds without providing a clear road map of the worldwide military effort.
"If this administration believes as strongly as I know it does about its conduct in the war thus far, I would think they'd look forward to answering the questions that the Congress necessarily must ask," Senator Tom Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota and the majority leader, told reporters today.
Administration officials have rejected the charge, saying it does not take account of the scope of Al Qaeda's operations and the need to combat the terror network on a global basis.
The military campaign appears to be expanding by the week. While Washington has been rife with speculation about a major military campaign against Iraq, the operations being planned are very different.
They involve military training by American Special Forces and donations of arms and military equipment to nations struggling to crush isolated but potent Islamic insurgencies that have possible links to Al Qaeda.
Special Operations forces played a central role in Afghanistan, where they called in air strikes and sometimes fought alongside anti-Taliban Afghans. In this next phase of the war on terrorism, the Special Forces' role is largely limited to training and equipping nations that have asked for American assistance, not calling in air strikes. Indeed, American commandos will be discouraged from even firing their weapons, except in self-defense, military officials said. The missions vary from nation to nation.
In the former Soviet republic of Georgia, for instance, Washington is considering sending about 200 Special Forces soldiers and more than $50 million in equipment to aid the feeble Georgian military, which has been unable to establish control over the Pankisi Gorge near Chechnya.
A senior American official said that several dozen Qaeda extremists may be hiding in the Pankisi Gorge and that most, if not all of them, had been there for months and had not fled from Afghanistan.
The American official said there was no current plan for United States soldiers to go into the gorge on combat operations with the Georgians.
Officials say there is now only one American soldier in Georgia, where he was sent to help the Georgians operate 10 UH-1 transport helicopters the United States is providing.
Other training efforts are under discussion as well. Senior military officials are pushing Congress to allow a resumption of military to military relations with Indonesia to help its armed forces root out Islamic extremists with possible ties to Al Qaeda.
Algeria has also asked the United States for night-vision goggles and other military assistance so that it can fight extremists there.
Of the new operations, the one in the Philippines is the most ambitious. About 600 American troops, including 160 Special Forces soldiers, are already in the Philippines advising and training local troops that are trying to surround a Muslim separatist group called Abu Sayyaf on the southern island of Basilan.
The Pentagon has long viewed Yemen as a center of support for Osama bin Laden, the Qaeda leader. His father was born there. Yemen was also the site of the terrorist attack on the destroyer Cole, which killed 17 American sailors in October 2000.
Western investigators have said Yemen, where well-armed tribal militias are more powerful than the government along parts of the Saudi border, is home to at least 20 senior Qaeda officials and scores of fighters trained in Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.
Brig. Gen. John W. Rosa Jr., deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said today that it was likely that some Qaeda fighters slipped back into Yemen from Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. "I think it would be common knowledge that that would be a refuge that one might expect them to go to," he told reporters.
While the government in Yemen has said it wants to work with Washington to track down Qaeda units, it has also expressed concerns about having American troops on its soil.
In an interview today, the Yemeni ambassador to the United States, Abdulwahab Alhajjri, said one solution would be to have Yemeni soldiers come to the United States for training, and to keep the number of American soldiers in Yemen to a minimum.
"We need to examine the whole issue and whether we need to bring people to Yemen or to be trained in the United States," he said. "We're more in need of equipment and financial help."
Asked what kind of equipment Yemen was seeking, the ambassador said: "We are asking the U.S. to assist us in any way they can. We're in need of everything, anything. You name it, we want it."
A senior administration official said the type of equipment being discussed included helicopters, night-vision goggles and other kinds of sensors, and small arms.
Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander of American forces in Afghanistan and Central Asia, told Congress this week that Yemen had worked "hand in glove" with the United States to help fight terrorism since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. He also mentioned Sudan and Somalia as countries where terrorism has been allowed to breed.
"I think the approach that our government may take in any one of these countries will not be like what we have seen," General Franks told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. "We will not use the Afghanistan model."
Senior military officials say they are also looking to build stronger military ties to Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, in the hope of encouraging that country to root out terrorist cells. For the last two years, Mr. bin Laden has been working to establish a foothold there, American and Asian officials contend, using the archipelago as a base for training, fund-raising and recruiting.
In the view of the Pentagon, Indonesia has been slow to crack down on terrorists, declining to search hard for the cleric Riudan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali, who is thought to be the mastermind of a plot to blow up the American Embassy in Singapore. But many senior Pentagon officials contend that closer military ties to Indonesia would strengthen that nation's ability to track down terrorists.
"We are looking for ways to cooperate with Indonesia against this common enemy," Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the head of the United States Pacific Command, said in an interview this week.
At the Pentagon's behest, Congress late last year eased restrictions on the training of Indonesian military officers in the United States that had been imposed in 1999 after human rights abuses by government troops in East Timor. Many military and Congressional officials say they expect the Pentagon to propose sending Special Operations troops to Indonesia next to train military units in counterterrorism tactics.
The training is likely to draw opposition from critics of Indonesia in Congress, led by Senator Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations. Admiral Blair met with Mr. Leahy this week in an effort to ease some of his concerns that the Indonesian military had done little to reform itself.