WASHINGTON — The secretive U.S. airstrike against suspected al-Qaida members in Yemen last week is the latest in what has been a fast-growing campaign to better equip and fund Yemeni forces so they can eliminate the expanding al-Qaida havens there.
The Pentagon has poured nearly $70 million in military aid to Yemen this year, a massive financial infusion compared with nothing in 2008.
Much like the effort with Pakistan's Frontier Corps, the military has boosted its counterterrorism training for Yemeni forces and is providing more intelligence, which probably includes surveillance by unmanned drones, according to U.S. officials and analysts.
The heightened attention comes at a politically sensitive time, as the United States and Yemen continue talks on the possible transfer of Yemeni detainees in the Guantanamo Bay facility in Cuba back to their homeland. The transfer is critical to President Barack Obama's pledge to shut down Guantanamo, but U.S. leaders are not convinced that Yemen is prepared to handle the detainees or that they won't simply be set free.
Information about any spike in U.S. involvement, including last week's strike that missed a key al-Qaida leader but killed others, is closely guarded by Yemeni authorities, who fear that a visible American role in the country will fuel internal conflicts.
Observers point to increased American activity at a military base in northwest Yemen and the sightings of new aircraft and drones in the skies above.
"The U.S. presence is certainly growing there," said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University, who regularly visits the country. He said it was particularly evident at the U.S. Embassy when he was last in the country during the summer.
That increase, along with the recent strike that reportedly killed civilians as well as al-Qaida members, may only result in more support for al-Qaida in Yemen and stir up antigovernment factions, he said.
"In the end it's probably counterproductive," said Johnsen, adding that video and photos of dead women and children from the blast "is a recruiting field day for al-Qaida."
U.S. officials will not publicly confirm participation in last week's strike and will only offer broad comments about U.S. activities in Yemen.
"We continue to provide advice, training and equipment to both Saudi Arabia and Yemen as part of our ongoing security cooperation," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
Crowley denied suggestions that the United States is getting involved in Yemen's internal war with Shiite Hawthi rebels in the north, saying "we have no direct role in what's happening along the border" with Saudi Arabia.