The U.S. military unleashed 40 airstrikes on al-Qaida targets over a five-day period in Yemen last week, more strikes than the Obama administration dropped in the war-torn nation in any given year of the civil war there, according to Foreign Policy magazine.
The surge of airstrikes is part of a ramp-up of U.S. counterterrorism operations in Yemen, and it comes roughly a month after President Trump approved the botched ground raid on an al-Qaida compound in the Shabwa province that resulted in the death of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens and an estimated 30 civilians, including nine children.
The extent of damage caused by January’s costly raid is still coming to light, with the Intercept recently detailing the “horror” the raid inflicted on nearby civilians. And on Thursday, a top military official told the Senate Armed Services committee that he accepts “full responsibility” for the operation.
But, by and large, Trump and his military advisers appear unperturbed by the heavy criticism they’ve received in the wake of his administration’s first military blunder. Trump has repeatedly characterized the raid as a success, saying it “generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.” And Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, told Senators on Thursday that after a lengthy review of the raid, he had determined the military exhibited sound judgement and decision-making in moving forward with the mission, and that there was no need for further investigations.
Gen. Votel’s revelations came the same day the State Department announced its decision to green-light the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia previously blocked under the Obama administration. Obama had halted the arms sale late in his second term amid growing concerns of the U.S.’s role in the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes, which were racking up untold civilian casualties in Yemen.
The State Department’s reversal was a reminder of the other complicated role the U.S. continues to play in Yemen, where it has not only conducted counter-terror operations against the country’s al-Qaida arm (AQAP), but provided critical tactical support to a Saudi-led coalition in its war with Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
The U.S.’ recent decisions regarding Yemen have raised concerns among human rights and aid activists that any further escalation in airstrikes will cause greater harm to civilians.
“Despite Yemen’s many complexities, it’s clear that warring parties on all sides are not doing enough to minimize harm to civilians ” Kristine Beckerle, Human Rights Watch’s Yemen and Kuwait researcher, told VICE News. “Rather than green-lighting more weapons sales to Saudi Arabia — and risking complicity in possible future coalition war crimes – the U.S. should be wielding the leverage it has to push its partners to comply with the laws of war, and make sure its own forces do the same.”
Yemen’s civil war proved to be an unexpected puzzle for the Obama administration. Once believed to be a quick intervention that would reinstall the Saudi-preferred Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi to power, the Yemen war has been anything but. Instead, the costly proxy war between two regional powers (Iran and Saudi Arabia) — which has claimed the lives of over 10,000 civilians, and pushed the country toward the brink of famine — now hurtles into its third year with no clear resolution on the horizon.
And Trump takes over at a time when al-Qaida is in ascendance in the Arab world’s poorest country. The terror group has benefited from Saudi Arabia and Iran’s intervention in Yemen, generating money, land, and new recruits amid the chaos.
Though Trump hardly spoke of Yemen on the campaign trail, the considerable ramp-up of military activity in recent weeks runs counter to one position he regularly espoused: a less interventionist approach to U.S. foreign policy.
To the contrary, the U.S. military appears uncuffed under Trump, and just six weeks into his administration, poised to further embroil itself in Yemen’s multifaceted and deeply fractured civil war.