Hillary Clinton made the first trip by a US Secretary of State to Yemen in 20 years on Tuesday to underline to the Sanaa government the urgency and importance of fighting al Qaeda at its grassroots.
“We face a common threat posed by the terrorists and al Qaeda but our partnership goes beyond counterterrorism,” Clinton said in a statement after about two hours of talks with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
“We are focussed not just on short-term threats but long-term challenges,” she added as Saleh stood beside her. “We support an inclusive political process that will in turn support a unified, prosperous, stable, democratic Yemen.”
Washington is anxious for Yemen, next door to the world’s top oil exporter, to step up its fight against an al Qaeda wing based in the Arabian peninsula state where militants have attempted ambitious attacks against US and Western targets, Reuters reports.
Clinton was in Sanaa seeking to convey to the Yemeni government the urgency of defeating al Qaeda’s ideology by promoting long-delayed economic and political reforms.
“It’s not enough to have military-to-military relations,” Clinton said before the talks. “We need to try to broaden the dialogue. We need to have this dialogue with the government.”
Yemen-based al Qaeda militants, engaged in hit-and-run attacks on Yemeni forces in recent months, have also grabbed the focus of Washington with failed plots to bomb cargo planes in October and to blow up a US passenger jet in 2009.
Washington has been quietly ramping up its role in Yemen, hoping to stop the slide towards state failure in a country also facing separate domestic rebellions in the north and south in addition to an al Qaeda resurgence.
But the United States is also acutely aware that too big of a footprint could exacerbate fierce anti-American sentiment in Yemen and undermine Saleh’s already weak central government.
Clinton said Yemen recognised the threat posed by al Qaeda’s Yemen-based arm and “has become increasingly committed to a broad counterterrorism strategy.”
US-Yemen relations have, however, been strained by Washington’s desire for a quicker pace of economic and political reforms, which it hopes would slow recruitment by militants, an aide to U.S. President Barack Obama said last month.
Clinton was not expected to bring any new aid to the table in Sanaa, but said Washington was seeking to rebalance its $300 million (192 million pounds) aid package, now weighted in favour of security and military assistance, to give more weight to civilian aid.
“We are committed to a balanced approach to Yemen which includes social, economic, political assistance,” she said.
About 42 percent of Yemen’s 23 million people live on less than US$2 (1.28 pounds) a day, the World Bank says. Revenue from dwindling oil output fell 70 percent in Jan-Oct 2009. New gas exports cannot fill the gap.
Yemen’s population is set to double in 20 years, but jobs are already scarce and water resources are collapsing.
Donors, however, will be wary of throwing more money at Yemen, which has managed to spend only a fraction of US$5 billion (3 billion pounds) pledged at a 2006 conference, at least without tight supervision.
Yemen has said it would set up special anti-terror forces in four provinces in the south and east to fight al Qaeda. Clinton said Washington and Yemen now increasingly had “a very strong partnership” on counter terrorism.
Clinton’s visit could also help clear the air after ties were tested by WikiLeaks’ disclosure of US state department cables about US-Yemen security coordination.
The cables said Saleh had offered to mask US cruise missile strikes in Yemen on al Qaeda targets that could have inflamed public sentiment, claiming they were instead carried out by his own armed forces.