BEIRUT—Yemen's government repeatedly diverted U.S.- and British-supported counterterrorism fighters from their intended use against al Qaeda to fight a purely domestic opposition group, taking the Yemeni commandos away from their mission against al Qaeda for months at a time, according to WikiLeaks cables that show the former U.S. ambassador to Yemen vainly protesting the apparent misuse of U.S. military support.
Despite also receiving reports in 2009 that Yemen was deploying U.S.-supplied armored vehicles and Humvees against domestic rebels, the United States -- anxious for Yemen to crack down on al Qaeda -- has only increased shipments of weapons, night-vision goggles, helicopters, and other war gear to Yemen in 2010.
Years of U.S. diplomatic cables show Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, unswervingly determined to get more war materiel and cash from the United States. In some meetings, Saleh pushes the United States to join the fight against Yemen's northern Houthi rebels directly with gifts of helicopters, aircraft, and armored vehicles; in others, Saleh asks for specific weapons but pledges not to use them against the Houthis.
"We won't use the helicopters in Sa'ada, I promise. Only against al-Qaeda," Saleh told U.S. Gen. David Petraeus in a January 2009 meeting. Saleh made his pledge, apparently unsolicited, in reference to a northern Yemen city that is the base of a regional rebellion led by the country's Houthi Shiite dissidents.
In a September 2009 session with White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, Saleh, frustrated, presses the United States to give armored vehicles, airplanes, and ambulances specifically to his campaign against the Houthi rebels. "The Houthis are your enemies too," Saleh tells Brennan.
Brennan deflects that request. "The USG [U.S. government] is prohibited by law from providing military support to the [Yemeni government] to be used against the Houthis since the USG considers the group a domestic insurgency," he is quoted telling Saleh.
At that time, however, Saleh and his military chiefs were already diverting the U.S.-supported counterterrorism unit -- a commando group funded, trained, and equipped by the United States and Britain from 2002 on to take a lead role fighting al Qaeda in Yemen -- as well as possibly U.S. armored vehicles and Humvees, against the Houthis, then-U.S. Ambassador Stephen Seche notes in another cable. Seche uses the term ROYG to refer to the Republic of Yemen government, and CTU and CT to refer to the counterterrorism unit.
"The ROYG, desperate to defeat the Houthis at any cost, has largely ignored USG concerns regarding deployment of the CTU to Sa'ada,'' Seche wrote in December 2009. "The CTU has been unable to go after genuine terrorist targets like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) while it has been tied down in Sa'ada."
The United States this year more than doubled its military aid to Yemen in a push to encourage Saleh's government to do more against what many President Barack Obama's administration see as the world's most aggressive branch of al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a Yemen-based union of Saudi and Yemeni al Qaeda groups, has been linked to the failed December 2009 attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound jet and the recent printer-cartridge bombs, among several other successful and unsuccessful attacks targeting Americans and their allies.
The Yemeni Army and other regular forces are ill-trained, ill-equipped, and riven by corruption that has tens of thousands of "ghost soldiers" on the payrolls so that commanders, tribal leaders, and others can draw the salaries of the nonexistent soldiers and sell their gear on the black market, according to a 2006 assessment by the U.S. Agency for International Development.