By Mike Phipps
A major new study into US counterterrorism actions in Yemen under President Trump finds that transparency for civilian harm reached its high point just twelve days into his administration – and has been in sharp decline ever since.
The new Airwars report, Eroding Transparency, examines US air and ground actions against both Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Islamic State in Yemen, since 2017. “Eighteen years after the United States conducted its first drone targeted killing against Al Qaeda in Yemen, ongoing US military and CIA actions against alleged terrorists in that country remain mostly opaque and unaccountable,” says report co-author Mohammed al-Jumaily.
A total of 230 alleged and declared US actions took place in Yemen during the Trump presidency. The largest number of actions was in Trump’s first year, since when air strikes and ground actions tailed off significantly. Around a tenth of all actions “were assessed by Airwars to have likely resulted in civilian harm, reportedly leading to the deaths of between 86 and 154 civilians, including at least 28 children and 13 women.” Around 40% of civilian deaths resulted from US ground raids in Yemen.
The report draws on thousands of local sources. But of the at least 86 civilians fatalities resulting from US actions in Yemen from 2017 to 2020, the Pentagon has admitted to only 12 deaths.
The US Central Command, CENTCOM, has an obligation both to track and report on civilian harm from its actions. It appears to be failing on both counts. “Recent claims to Congress that there were no known civilian harm claims relating to US actions in Yemen during 2019 were incorrect,” argues Airwars.
CENTCOM under-counting of civilian deaths is linked to the fact that it has no formally constituted civilian casualty assessment cell for Yemen. In short, it explores civilian casualties on an entirely ad hoc basis, when pressurised to do so.
Almost all of the transparency reforms introduced by Barack Obama in relation to US strikes in Yemen have now been rolled back. For example, while it’s been 16 months since CENTCOM last declared a strike in Yemen, Airwars has tracked 30 locally claimed events since then. Some of these have been confirmed by US officials as CIA or Special Forces actions.
Critics of US counterterrorism actions in Yemen argue that US activity there not only lacks oversight – it is also often based on outdated and inaccurate information and is frequently counter-productive, building anti-western resentment among the civilian population.
Airwars monitors military action in a number of conflict zones. It seeks to provide a counter-narrative to the dominant military assertion that civilian deaths are low in modern warfare and it contributes to accountability through collecting accounts from various sources and leveraging that information to bring about change. As well as Yemen, it is currently monitoring the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria, the Turkish military in the same theatre of conflict, the Russian military in Syria, all belligerents in Libya and the US forces in Somalia.