The new American defense secretary acknowledged Wednesday that Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen had exploited the tumult partly created by the Saudi-led airstrikes there to capture territory, in what has become a broad expansion by the Sunni extremist group.
Calling the situation “obviously very unsettled,” Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said that the war in Yemen had left a number of groups vying for power, including Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, also known as A.Q.A.P., an enemy of the United States.
“A.Q.A.P.,” Mr. Carter said, “has seized the opportunity of the disorder there and the collapse of the central government.”
He warned that the group had “ambition to strike Western targets including the United States,” and said that American counterterrorism efforts had been stymied by the fall of the Yemeni government.
“It’s always easier to conduct counterterrorism when there’s a stable government in place,” Mr. Carter said. “That circumstance obviously doesn’t exist in Yemen.”
Mr. Carter’s comments, which came during a news conference with his Japanese counterpart during a visit to Tokyo, were a tacit acknowledgment of the complications that have arisen since the start of the military offensive led by Saudi Arabia against the Houthi rebels in Yemen two weeks ago. The Houthis, whom the Saudis have portrayed as Iranian proxies, have taken the capital, Sana; driven the president into exile; and are basically in control of Aden, the country’s southern port and No. 2 city.
Saudi officials have maintained that their military action is aimed at driving the Houthis, from northern Yemen, out of territory they have captured in the past eight months and restoring the president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, to power.
The United States has backed the Saudi effort; Mr. Carter said on Wednesday that the United States was expediting deliveries of weapons to Saudi Arabia. “We are providing them with intelligence” and surveillance, Mr. Carter said, “and with some resupply of equipment and munitions.”
But that effort also has come with consequences, notably the resurgence of the Qaeda affiliate, which has exploited the mayhem exacerbated by the Saudi assault on the Houthis — foes of A.Q.A.P. — to take territory.
Capitalizing on public anger with Mr. Hadi, the Houthis captured Sana in September, and have since justified their military actions as an effort to eradicate corruption and defeat Al Qaeda. The Houthis have allied themselves with forces loyal to Yemen’s former autocratic president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, bolstering their military power.
The fighting and the airstrikes have led to widespread civilian suffering in Yemen, the Middle East’s poorest country, and have bought warnings from international relief agencies that a humanitarian disaster is unfolding.
The World Health Organization said Wednesday that more than 640 people had been killed in Yemen over the past few weeks, more than 2,200 wounded and more than 330,000 displaced. Oxfam, which has been working in Yemen for 30 years, reported that prices had doubled for some basic foods, quadrupled for fuel, and that the violence had placed “increased pressure on the lives of more than 16 million Yemenis who already need aid.”
The turmoil also has upended the Obama administration’s counterterrorism efforts in Yemen. Last month, even before the Saudis intervened, the United States evacuated 125 Special Operations advisers from Yemen. Last week, Qaeda militants stormed of Al-Mukalla, the country’s fifth largest city, emptying the central bank branch and freeing hundreds of inmates from the local prison.
The group flaunted its surging confidence on Wednesday by announcing that it would pay a bounty of 20 kilograms of gold for the killing or capture of the Houthi leader, Abdel-Malik Al-Houthi, or Mr. Saleh, the former president.
In Washington, a senior military official on Wednesday described new details about the United States military assistance to the Saudi-led air campaign.
The United States is flying Predator and Reaper reconnaissance drones over Yemen, and transmitting the information to a 20-person American military coordination team divided among Riyadh, Qatar and Bahrain, overseen by Maj. Gen. Carl E. Mundy III, the deputy commander of Marines in the Middle East, the official said.
About half of the team was dispatched to the Saudi capital to help provide information — “battlefield awareness,” the official called it — to Saudi military planners. Assigning the task to an officer of General Mundy’s rank and experience reflected the importance the Pentagon assigns to the Saudi-led operation.
While the Americans are not providing specific targeting information, the official said they are helping designate “no-strike areas” such as mosques and refugee camps — an important role as Saudi warplanes had been blamed in the campaign’s early days for killing Yemeni civilians in some airstrikes.
In addition, the United States recently began flying one daily aerial refueling flight for Saudi F-15 and United Arab Emirates F-16 attack planes involved in the fight, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to provide confidential operational details.
The official confirmed that some existing orders of ammunition and other equipment, such as 500-pound bombs and 2,000-pound bombs and their guidance kits for precision strikes, would be accelerated. But the official downplayed the idea that the United States was sending a new flood of weaponry to the Saudis.
While Saudi ground forces have massed along the northern border with Yemen, and Pakistan has received requests from Saudi officials for military aid, including ground troops, the senior American official said there was no indication that any type of ground incursion was imminent.
A second American official with close contacts in the Pakistan Army said that there was little appetite within Pakistan’s senior officer corps to deploy troops to Yemen at a time when Pakistan is consumed with a major operation in its own territory, in North Waziristan.
When asked what ground force, working with the air campaign, would be potent enough to reverse the Houthi advances in the south, the first official said, “Your guess is as good as mine.”
In a related development, the State Department said on Wednesday that it had approved the sale of Hellfire missiles to Egypt, a member of the Saudi-led coalition. Under the proposed sale, Egypt would pay $57 million for 356 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles. Egypt already has Hellfire missiles, but this sale would arm it with a more advanced variant. The Congress was notified about the State Department’s decision on Tuesday,
Last month, President Obama removed the freeze on arms sale to Egypt.
Source: The New York Times