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Obama, who has withdrawn U.S. troops from Iraq and is in the process of drawing down American forces in Afghanistan, has said he has no intention of putting U.S. boots on the ground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