White House Continues to Back Yemen as Model For Successful Counterterrorism

PHOTO: Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, stand near a damaged car after a bomb attack in Sanaa, Yemen, Friday, March 20, 2015. PlayHani Mohammed/AP Photo
WATCH Saudi Arabia Launches Military Operations in Yemen

The White House continues to hail Yemen -- a country that is descending into chaos -- as a model for fighting extremism, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said today.

“The White House does continue to believe that a successful counter-terrorism strategy is one that will build up the capacity of the central government to have local fighters on the ground to take the fight to extremists in their own country,” Earnest told reporters at the White House. “That is a template that has succeeded in mitigating the threat that we face from extremists in places like Yemen.”

President Obama has long pointed to the counterterrorism campaign in Yemen as a model for the fight against ISIS.

“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years,” Obama said in September as he outlined his strategy to degrade and destroy ISIS.

But today, the U.S. strategy in Yemen has virtually collapsed amid the fall of the American-backed government. The U.S. embassy in Yemen has been shut down and U.S. military personnel have been evacuated.

“We have not seen that kind of progress in terms of strengthening the central government, I think you could make a pretty strong case that we've seen the opposite of that, but we do continue to enjoy the benefits of a sustained counterterrorism security relationship with the security infrastructure that remains,” Earnest said. “There are elements of the Yemeni government that we continue to be in touch with that continue to further our efforts to apply pressures to extremists that seek to operate in that country.”

Here is ABC’s Jonathan Karl exchange with the White House:

QUESTION: Josh, just quickly first on Yemen. I know you're asked this every time something terrible happens in Yemen. But -- but now that we have, you know, essentially complete chaos in Yemen, does the White House still believe that Yemen is the model for counterterrorism strategy?

EARNEST: Jon, the White House does continue to believe that a successful counterterrorism strategy is one that will build up the capacity of the central government to have local fighters on the ground to take the fight to extremists in their own country. And the United States can serve both to diplomatically offer up some political support to central governments. We can offer very tangible support to local security forces in the form of training and equipping.

And we can also support the operations of those security forces through whether it's the deployment of ISR capability or even in the case of Iraq, military airstrikes. And that -- that is a template that has succeeded in mitigating the threat that we face from extremists in places like Yemen and Somalia. And it's the template that we believe can succeed in mitigating the threat emanating from Syria as well.

QUESTION: You know, that -- that's astounding. You're saying that you still see Yemen as the model? I mean, the central -- building up the central government, a central government which is now collapsed; a president who has apparently fled the country. You know, Saudi troops massing on one border; the Iranians, you know, supporting the rebels. You consider this -- this as a model for counterterrorism?

EARNEST: Again, John, what the United States considers to be our strategy when confronting the effort to try to mitigate the threat that is posed by extremists, is to prevent them from establishing a safe haven. And certainly in a chaotic, dangerous situation like in Yemen, what the United States will do and has done is worked to try to support the central government, to build up the capacity of local fighters, and use our own technological and military capabilities to apply pressure on the extremists there.

And, look, I -- there's no doubt that we would like to see a functioning central government in Yemen. We don't see that right now. And that is why we're supportive of the U.N.-led process to try to put an end to the violence and instability; to bring the sides, you know, all sides together to the table to try to resolve their differences; to build up the capacity of the central government; to build up the capacity of local forces; and to continue to apply pressure to extremists.

What I will say is that we have not seen that kind of -- of -- of progress in terms of strengthening the central government. I think you could make a pretty strong case that we've seen the opposite of that. But we do, you know, we do continue to enjoy the benefits of a sustained counterterrorism security relationship with the security infrastructure that remains in Yemen.

QUESTION: Do you think a security infrastructure still remains in Yemen?

EARNEST: There are -- there are elements of the Yemeni government that we continue to be in touch with that continue to further our efforts to apply pressure to extremists that seek to operate in that country. And we continue to have the capability, again because of the planning and because of the relationships that we have in the region, we do continue to have the capability to take out extremists if they're posing a threat to the United States.