Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan press roundtable
February 19, 2012
Ambassador Feierstein: Let us welcome you all to the Embassy. Today, we have as our guest Mr. John Brennan, who I think you all know is the Deputy National Security Advisor for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security in the White House. Also, a frequent visitor to Yemen. But we’re very pleased to have this opportunity to have John brief you on his visit here, and let me turn it over to him.
DNSA Brennan: Thank you very much for being here this morning. What I thought I would do is to say a few words first, and then I would be glad to take your questions. First of all, I want to underscore that there is a longstanding friendship between Yemen and the United States. There have been 65 years of relations between our two countries, and strong bonds between the Yemeni and American people. This relationship is not dependent on individual political leaders; it is based on the relationship, and the trust and the friendship between our countries. Secondly, U.S. policy toward Yemen is based on the principle of doing what we can to support the stability and security of Yemen. It’s also based on the principle of supporting and advancing the dignity, prosperity, and unity of the Yemeni people. Third, Yemen is on the eve of a historic milestone- the election of a new president. Of all the countries in the Middle East that have been affected by the so-called Arab Spring, Yemen has demonstrated that it can transition from the past to the future through the ballot box. Although there have been some difficulties in getting to this point, the Yemeni people should be very, very proud of this moment. Fourth, the President asked me to come out here in order to demonstrate and to underscore the commitment that the United States has in the future of Yemen. He asked that I meet with the Yemeni officials, such as Vice President Hadi, Prime Minister Basindwah, Foreign Minister al-Qirbi, and other ministers from throughout the Cabinet, to convey to them his personal congratulations on getting Yemen to this point. We have tried to demonstrate our commitment and our support to Yemen through many different ways. First of all, by sending our best diplomats in the State Department to Yemen, (laughter) who I understand is now an honorary Yemeni citizen. But also, over the past year, the United States has provided to Yemen over $100 million in humanitarian and development assistance. We are working very closely with Yemeni security services to ensure that al-Qaeda and other groups do not kill more innocent Yemeni men, women and children. And we are in constant dialogue with the Yemeni government and different representatives of the Yemeni people about all of the challenges that lie ahead and our commitment to working with you in the future. And as important as Tuesday’s election is, the most important part is being able to follow through on that election with the commitment to national dialogue, so that there is going to be a political process that will ensure that this transition is going to be deep-rooted and longstanding. It is important to make sure you continue along the path of constitutional reform and electoral reform, bringing the different elements of Yemeni society into the country’s political system, such as the Houthis and the Herak, and making sure that there’s going to be the restructuring, the reorganization and the increasing professionalization of the Yemeni armed forces. The Yemeni armed forces cannot be a collection of individual fiefdoms. There has to be a strong command and control system to make sure that the Yemeni armed forces truly are a national military. And the United States is willing and ready and eager to provide our assistance, our advice, and the benefit of our experience in these areas. But these are going to be Yemeni challenges, and the Yemenis are going to have to lead the way. And the international community right now is very hopeful and optimistic that there’s a dawn of a new day in Yemen. And the international community is ready to provide the type of assistance that is needed for Yemen to meet its challenges. So during my trip, I’m going also to Saudi Arabia as well as to Europe to talk about my meetings here in Yemen, and to talk about the confidence we have that the Yemeni people and the Yemeni government are ready to move forward. And I want to point out that in my meeting with Vice President Hadi yesterday, I delivered to the Vice President a letter from President Obama, who is personally engaged and following the developments in Yemen. And in his letter, the President says, “Mr. Vice President, I know you face challenges ahead, but I am optimistic that Yemen can emerge as a model for how peaceful transitions in the Middle East can occur when people resist violence and unite under a common cause. I want you to know that the United States will be a strong and reliable partner. I look forward to deepening our friendship in the years to come. Please accept my best wishes as Yemen begins a new and promising chapter in its history.” And with that I’ll be glad to take your questions.
Question: I have two questions. The first one: What are the most prominent results from your meetings with Yemeni officials? The second one: How high have the fears of the United States increased after the expansion of the number of jihadist groups in Yemen’s regions?
DNSA Brennan: As far as the results of my visit, I came away with a strong sense that Vice President Hadi and other Yemeni government officials are confident about moving forward with this political transition. I also have a sense that there is a strong realization that they understand some of the magnitude of the problems that they face. But I find that there is a newfound commitment to tackle these problems in a very aggressive and responsible way. But they are also very practical in terms of, they understand that there is going to be a process here that’s going to take years. And so the national dialogue, with all of the requirements there, is something that is going to be initiated as a result of this election, but there is a commitment that they are going to follow through with it. And I must say that just in my short visit here in Yemen, I sense a new level of optimism and activity among the people that I’ve met. There are fewer military barricades in the city, and thank goodness the garbage is off the streets. So I do get a sense that there is an appreciation on the part of the Yemeni people that there is now reason for hope. Which gets to your second question about the terrorist groups that are resident here in Yemen. First of all, I expressed my appreciation and admiration to Yemeni government officials, Vice President Hadi and others, about the courageous efforts on the part of the Yemeni security, military services to battle these terrorists. And too many Yemeni men, women and children have died at the hands of these murderers. They present themselves as religious individuals, but they are anything but. They are evil. And the United States is committed to working with our Yemeni brothers and sisters to confront that evil. So we are concerned about the presence of al-Qaeda here, but the counter-terrorism cooperation with the Yemeni government has never been better. And we’re ready to continue and expand that assistance.
Question: I have two questions. The first one is about President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Do you confirm that President Saleh will return before or after the election? The second question is about the Houthis. They hold guns and banners saying “Death to America.” There are accusations that those groups are connected to groups inside Iran. Some ask - Why doesn’t America include the Houthis as one of the terrorist groups?
DNSA Brennan: On the first question, regarding Ali Abdullah Saleh’s return to Yemen, and you asked me whether I can confirm that he’s going to return before or after the election. I’m smart enough to know that I can’t predict the future. But it is my expectation that he will be returning to Yemen after the elections. On the question of the Houthis, it is part of the National Dialogue to address the need of the Houthis to become part of the Yemeni system. But I can fully understand that no government wants an army that is separate from the government, inside of its own borders. And I have no doubt that there are external forces that are trying to exploit their relationship with the Houthis for external agendas. And we condemn those efforts, and we applaud the Yemeni government’s interest in creating this dialogue with the Houthis, because the Houthis are Yemenis too. And it is my fervent hope that the Yemenis will be part of a system of governance here that will be inclusive and will be able to address all the needs and requirements of the Yemeni people, irrespective of the tribe they come from or the region of Yemen they come from, but again this has to be a process that the Yemeni government is going to go through with the Houthis, with the Herak, and with others.
Question: My first question relates to the economic situation of the country, or what you have referred to as a “dawn” that is coming up now. What is the support that the United States is willing to extend to Yemen post-Saleh? Do you think that $100 million is actually enough to take care of what Saleh has left behind? My second question deals with the restructuring of the army. When will this restructuring begin? I would like to hear further explanation about what you have termed as “fiefdoms.”
DNSA Brennan: First on the economic situation. Clearly the needs of the Yemeni people are significant, and there needs to be major external assistance provided to Yemen in order for it to be able to meet its requirements. And so to this point, because of the instability and lack of security inside of Yemen over the past year, there has been a reluctance on the part of the international community to extend this assistance, aside from the humanitarian assistance that’s been provided. But I do detect increased optimism and hope on the part of these international donors about what is happening in Yemen right now. And there are different groups that we participate in, such as the Friends of Yemen, that will be meeting next month, that will be looking at the requirements that Yemen has on the economic assistance front. But it is important for the Yemeni government to be able to prioritize its needs so it can articulate to the international community what its requirements are. And I’ve emphasized to the Yemeni government officials that I’ve met that it’s important that they take steps in order to be able to address the immediate requirements of the Yemeni people, such as electricity, water, food; while at the same time addressing the longer-term requirements of economic reform, infrastructure building, and the development of employment opportunities for the Yemeni people. So $100 million is not enough to address the needs of the Yemeni people, but I anticipate that international assistance will be increasing in the coming months and years. On the second question about the restructuring of the army, this is something that we emphasize in all of our meetings, because if Yemen is going to be able to address the security threats that it faces, it has to leverage and optimize the military capabilities that it has. But if military units are fighting against one another, they’re not using their strength and their guns against those that threaten Yemen’s security. So the competition and animosity that may exist between the different individuals who are leading these different divisions and units, need to be addressed by the Yemeni military leadership. And by fiefdoms, I mean individual unit commanders who may be pursuing their individual political agendas to the detriment of the national interests of Yemen. So I call upon the various generals, such as General Ali Mohsen, to set aside their political agendas, and to do what’s in the best interest of the Yemeni people, and that the time has come for the Yemeni military to be able to be a unified, disciplined, and professional organization. And this is something that I emphasized when I spoke to General al-Ashwal yesterday, who is an impressive and professional military officer. So this is something that has to be addressed in the immediate term, and Yemen is fortunate that Vice President Hadi is an individual with a military background, and who understand what it’s going to take to turn the Yemeni military into a professional and first-rate organization that will be able to destroy al-Qaeda and protect the Yemeni people.
Question: The United States recently has decided to strike al-Qaeda bases in Yemen with the assistance of the Yemeni army, or using U.S. unmanned planes, but until now, the reality on the ground has not changed. There is potential danger that al-Qaeda will storm Aden. Will the United States maintain its policy for dealing with al-Qaeda remotely, or will it deal with it on the ground? Because the situation is extremely dangerous, and Aden is subjected to the storm of al-Qaeda. We have elements in al-Qaeda now waiting for a “zero point,” and the security forces are weak and virtually non-existent, and Aden is an extremely important and strategic city. My second question is about the return of Ali Abdullah Saleh. His return to Yemen will be catastrophic. Will Saleh stay resident in Yemen?
DNSA Brennan: On the first question about counter-terrorism operations here in Yemen. I want to underscore that this is a partnership that we have with the Yemeni military, security and intelligence services. Everything we do in the counter-terrorism realm, we do in full partnership with our Yemeni counterparts. And you’re absolutely right about the threat that al-Qaeda poses, particularly in the southern area and in the environment near Aden. Some very brave and courageous Yemeni soldiers have been fighting against al-Qaeda in that area. The 25th Division showed tremendous courage in standing up to al-Qaeda. So our assistance takes many forms: training, advice, different types of equipment. And the more confidence that we have that the Yemeni forces are going to truly be a professional disciplined force, we will have greater confidence that the assistance and training and equipment that we provide is going to be used against al-Qaeda and the terrorists, and is not going to be used for internal political purposes. That is why we say it is so important for the Yemeni military forces to be restructured and reorganized: because we want to be able to increase our assistance, but the Yemeni armed forces mission has to be clearly understood, especially by those military commanders, and those commanders have to understand that their mission is not to fight other military commanders, it’s to fight those terrorists who are murdering Yemenis. The question about Ali Abdullah, which was focusing on his residence here. Ali Abdullah, after the election, will become a private Yemeni citizen, and Ali Abdullah’s future is something that Ali Abdullah and his family will need to determine. And so therefore I’m not going to try to predict, again, the future, but it is my understanding that Ali Abdullah has been very supportive of this political transition, and he has said such publicly.
Question: An observation: the role of the American forces in Abyan.
DNSA Brennan: We provide to the Yemeni units that are fighting al-Qaeda, advice and assistance. We’ve been very careful to make sure that our advice, assistance, and equipment is not going to those units that are not fighting al-Qaeda. Again, I want to emphasize that we are doing everything in full partnership and cooperation with the Yemeni government, and we will continue to do so.
Question: I will start my question from where you stopped. More than 11 years now, Yemen and the United States have had a full partnership in combating al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda is still growing and expanding in new governorates in Yemen. Haven’t you thought to re-evaluate your assistance program to Yemen in terms of combating al-Qaeda, and actually start drying the sources of al-Qaeda in Yemen. Especially considering that there are political or ideological parties that are sponsoring al-Qaeda in one way or another, and there are hundreds of al-Qaeda elements that were in prison and they were released to go to Abyan and fight. Many Yemenis consider that this combating al-Qaeda is a political game that some benefit from, and the United States is being exploited. And the development programs are not working as a result. And some are using al-Qaeda to negatively influence the political transition process. My second question deals with combating corruption. No doubt, the restructuring of the military forces is part of combating corruption. So will the donors consider alienating those who are corrupt after the elections?
DNSA Brennan: On your first question, you’re absolutely right that there are some individuals within Yemen who have exploited al-Qaeda’s presence here for the wrong purposes. We find it outrageous for any members of the Yemeni government or the Yemeni political system to exploit al-Qaeda’s presence for their own purposes. When the Yemeni government in the past has done things that we disagree with, we have been very candid and blunt in our criticism. And this is my 7th visit to Yemen in the past 3 years, and in my previous trips, I have spoken very directly to Yemeni officials about their need to do more against al-Qaeda and to dry up those sources of support as you rightly point out. So rather than re-evaluate our program of support to the Yemeni government, we are going to continue to press the Yemeni government, the Yemeni intelligence, security and military services, to do the right thing against al-Qaeda. We will continue to do that. And I’ve had that conversation with Vice President Hadi, and I am very encouraged by his comments to me. He is committed as well to destroying al-Qaeda, and I consider him a good and strong counter-terrorism partner. And on corruption in the armed forces, you are absolutely right that there are individuals within the military who, over the years, have tried to take advantage of their positions for personal gain. This is unacceptable, and I know Vice President Hadi and other Yemeni government officials believe that it’s unacceptable and must stop. And there are, I’m sure, individuals within the military who are very concerned about this restructuring and reorganization because it threatens their personal interests. But if Yemen is going to get through this political transition and destroy al-Qaeda and other terrorists, the professionalization of the military and the armed forces is essential. And one of the ways that the military is going to be able to restructure and reorganize itself, is for the money that is paid to the Yemeni soldiers [to get] to the Yemeni soldiers and doesn’t go into the pockets of others.
Question: The first question pertains to the expansion of al-Qaeda in the south of Yemen. And they work clearly in the daylight. We reporters actually receive telephone calls from elements claiming to be part of al-Qaeda and they talk about operations. This has never happened in the past. Especially now that those forces that were trained by the U.S. have not participated in operations against al-Qaeda, especially in Abyan. Will the United States change its training pattern, and work with, for example, the 25th Brigade? My second question: You mentioned General Ali Mohsen. Are we to understand that Ali Mohsen is an individual who opposes restructuring and reorganization of the armed forces, or is Ali Abdullah Saleh also opposing the same thing?
DNSA Brennan: On your first question, as far as U.S. assistance to various elements of the military forces, we have made it very clear, and most recently made it very clear, that assistance that we provide must go to units that are actually going to be engaged in the fight against al-Qaeda. As we go forward, we will constantly evaluate the needs and requirements of the military in terms of what they need and whether or not they’re engaged in the fight against terrorists, and the ones who are actually protecting their Yemeni brothers and sisters as opposed to those that are fighting each other. So we’re willing to provide the assistance to the Yemeni military units or security units, as they merit that assistance. Again, we have a long term commitment to Yemen’s security, but we expect that there’s going to be this restructuring that will require there to be a multi-year plan about how we’re going to provide this assistance to them. As far as individuals within the military, within the government, opposed to military restructuring and reorganization, quite frankly I presume that there are many, especially those that have benefited from a corrupt system in the past. But I will go back to what I said earlier- they need to recognize that a new day is dawning in Yemen, and corruption needs to be something of the past, and honesty and a commitment to Yemen’s national interest is the new order of the day. I think the Yemeni people have spoken and will continue to speak long after election day.