The evacuation of U.S. special forces in Yemen will seriously degrade the ability to coordinate targeting for U.S. drone operations against al Qaeda over the country, military experts told NBC News on Monday.
The situation in Yemen has become so dire that Yemen's president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, considered getting on one of the U.S. planes, and at one point U.S. commanders proceeded on the assumption that he was going with them, officials told NBC News.
While U.S. officials called the evacuation a success, it means the U.S. military no longer has eyes and ears on the ground inside Yemen, where Houthi rebel fighters captured the capital of a southern province late Friday.
With the rebels battling their way toward Yemen's last stronghold, the main seaport of Aden, "we lost the ability to get the kind of intelligence we need to strike at various insurgent and extremist targets without having collateral damage and civilian casualties," said Anthony Cordesman, a Gulf strategy and homeland security expert at the nonprofit Center for International and Strategic Studies.
The scope of the weekend evacuation appears to have been much larger than had previously been indicated. Officials said Saturday that about 100 Special Operations advisers were ordered to leave, but a military official told NBC News on Monday that about 350 Special Operations, Green Beret and intelligence agents were airlifted from two locations Friday and Saturday nights.
Classified materials were destroyed, along with millions of dollars' worth of equipment, to keep them from falling into enemy hands, this official said.