The US military is weighing an increase in its presence in Yemen to better challenge Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, building on momentum against the group after a successful offensive by Gulf allies, a top US general told Reuters.
US Army General Joseph Votel, who oversees American troops in the region, said in an interview that a variety of locations could be suitable for American forces but did not disclose potential sites or suggest a recommendation was imminent.
“We want to be able to work within a very secure environment to focus on the very (particular) mission we have there – which is principally focused on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP),” he said, speaking in Baghdad.
“We will try to posture the force where we can best do that.” Despite significant US strikes, including one that killed AQAP’s leader last year, US counter-terrorism efforts have been undermined by Yemen’s civil war, pitting government forces against Iran-allied Houthi rebels.
The war weakened the Houthis, but in the resulting turmoil AQAP swept across the eastern side of the country, seizing more land than it had ever held and raising tens of millions of dollars from running Mukalla, the country’s third largest port.
Only a very small number of American troops have returned to Yemen since they pulled out in early 2015 due to the conflict.
“If we can continue to better understand what Al Qaida’s doing, regain the situational awareness that we lost when we all had to depart Yemen here some time ago, that’s what I’m interested in doing,” Votel said.
US intelligence and military officials view AQAP as a threat to the United States. The group has plotted to down US airliners and claimed responsibility for last year’s attacks on the office of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris.
It also boasts one of the world’s most feared bomb makers, Ibrahim Hassan Al Asiri.
Asked if Asiri was believed to still be alive and in Yemen, Votel said: “To my knowledge, he still is.”
“As we continue on the mission, I think there will be some additional troops that we will ask to bring in,” he said.
Votel did not offer details on the timing of any requests to President Barack Obama’s administration.
His remarks came just three days after Obama’s administration announced a 560 troop increase as part of an effort to facilitate an Iraqi offensive to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city.
Most of those troops will work out of Qayara air base, which Iraqi forces recaptured from Daesh militants last week.
They plan to use Qayara as a staging ground for an offensive to retake Mosul.
Votel suggested future requests would similarly be tailored to particular stages of the campaign.
“We try to tie our requests to specific objectives we’re trying to achieve on the ground,” he said.
The recapture of Mosul, Daesh’s de facto Iraqi capital, from which its leader declared a modern-day caliphate in 2014, would be a major boost for the plans by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi and the United States to weaken the militant group.
Abadi has pledged to retake Mosul by the end of the year.
Some US officials caution that retaking the city without a plan to restore security, basic services and governance would be a major mistake and question the ability of Iraq’s government in Baghdad to mend the sectarian divide fueling the conflict.
Votel broadly acknowledged concerns about the non-military aspects of the campaign but said he felt more upbeat after meetings on Wednesday with top Iraqi officials, including Abadi.
“While there is still a lot of work to do – a lot of work to do – I left more encouraged,” he said, stressing the importance that US-backed military operations “pay off on the political side”. With the latest troop increase, the United States has an official limit of just over 4,600 troops formally assigned to Iraq, although the actual figure is higher due to temporary assignments.
Republican leaders this week called on Obama to ask Congress for additional funds to pay for the deployment of more troops to Iraq, as Congress and the White House debate defense spending amid mandatory budget cuts.
Votel cautioned that even after Daesh eventually loses Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa, Americans should not expect a rapid, wholesale withdrawal from the country. “What we don’t want to do is declare victory and depart after that. I think we want to see this through,” Votel said.
“If there’s capabilities we don’t need, we will remove them. Likewise if there’s capabilities we do need that we don’t have, we’ll ask for them,” Votel said, describing an evolving campaign that won’t end soon.