NEW DELHI (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Sunday defended his administration’s drone-based counterterrorism strategy against al Qaeda militants in Yemen, saying the alternative would be to deploy U.S. troops, which was not sustainable.
“It is not neat and it is not simple, but it is the best option that we have,” Obama told reporters at a news conference in New Delhi.
Four months ago, Obama hailed Yemen as a model for “successful” partnerships in the fight against Islamic militants. But last week, the country’s U.S.-backed government collapsed, and Iran-aligned Houthi rebels took over.
Some U.S. officials told Reuters on Friday the United States had halted some counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda militants in Yemen following the takeover. Other officials said the situation was fluid and described the halt as a temporary measure to assess chaotic conditions on the ground.
Obama said the United States had not suspended its counterterrorism operations.
“We continue to go after high-value targets inside of Yemen and we will continue to maintain the pressure which we require to keep the American people safe,” he said.
“What we have shown is that we can maintain the kind of pressure on these terrorist networks even in these kind of difficult environments,” he said.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough defended the U.S. strategy on Sunday on television news shows, saying Washington needed to support its allies with equipment, training and security cooperation — not a huge number of troops.
“We cannot be an occupying force in a place like Yemen, or in Syria,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union”.
The United States needed to support fighters on the ground, McDonough said on NBC’s “Meet the Press”, “so that they win this fight for themselves and for their own future. That’s how it’s going to be won.”
Republican U.S. Senator John McCain, a vocal critic of Obama administration policy in the region, derided that position.
“It is delusional for them to think that what they’re doing is succeeding,” McCain told NBC. “We need more boots on the ground. ... For them to say, ‘we expect them to do it on their own’ — they’re not doing it on their own and they’re losing.”
Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel, Roberta Rampton and Krishna Das; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Crispian Balmer