By Micah Zenko, Foreign Policy Magazine, March 27, 2017
After two years and thousands of civilian casualties, the Trump administration needs to realize it can’t win a war that has no point.
Yesterday was the two-year anniversary of President Barack Obama’s most indefensible and harmful foreign-policy decision. On the evening of March 25, 2015, a statement from National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan was posted on the White House’s website: “President Obama has authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support to GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council]-led military operations. While U.S. forces are not taking direct military action in Yemen in support of this effort, we are establishing a Joint Planning Cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate U.S. military and intelligence support.” Two days later, Obama called Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and “reaffirmed the strong friendship between the United States and Saudi Arabia and emphasized the United States’ support for the action taken by Saudi Arabia, GCC members, and others.”
With those little-noticed declarations, the United States offered its political and military support to a Saudi-led bombing campaign of Yemen, thus becoming a co-combatant in yet another war of choice in the Middle East. That war has now extended into the presidency of Donald Trump. The result has been a disaster by every plausible metric.
Two years ago, the Saudi government gave a number of justifications for the intervention, primarily to restore to power the sitting president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and to defend Saudi territory from Houthi forces that were actually advancing and capturing territory in the south of Yemen. A U.S. senior administration official proclaimed, “[O]ne reason why the Saudi intervention is positive, is we don’t want AQAP [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] to try to establish itself as the vanguard of Sunni opposition to the Houthis.”
The less openly acknowledged reason the Obama administration so strongly endorsed and backed the Saudi-led bombing campaign was to ensure Sunni governments provided at least tacit support for the Iran nuclear deal. As Rep. Adam Schiff, minority leader of the House Intelligence Committee, said, U.S. support would be perceived “as an indicator of our willingness to push back against Iranian efforts to increase hegemony in the region [and] that may influence how comfortable they are with a nuclear agreement,” adding, “it is very important for the U.S. to have Saudi Arabia’s back when it comes to Yemen.” One anonymous Pentagon official put it coldly: “If you ask why we’re backing this … the answer you’re going to get from most people — if they were being honest — is that we weren’t going to be able to stop it.”
Today, Hadi is still in exile, Houthi forces remain entrenched in urban settings in southern Yemen, and Iranian “malign influence” in the Middle East has only increased (according to every U.S. military official testifying before Congress). In addition, AQAP has only grown from “approximately 1,000 members” in 2014 to 4,000 in 2016, according to the State Department. And the United States has made little diplomatic effort to help broker a cease-fire and ultimately resolve this internationalized civil war in which it is a direct participant.
More critically, the Saudi-led bombing has been conducted in an immoral and indiscriminate manner from the very beginning, including with U.S.-supplied cluster munitions, the use of which is widely condemned internationally. As the U.N. Panel of Experts documented in its excellent report released in January, the Saudi-led coalition has violated international humanitarian law and human rights law with its use of air power at least 10 times in 2016. The 10 documented strikes resulted in “292 civilian fatalities, including at least 100 women and children.”
Most horrific was the Oct. 8, 2016, “double-tap” bombing of a community hall in the capital of Sanaa that resulted in at least 827 civilian fatalities and injuries. The airstrike targeted a funeral gathering, first with a U.S.-supplied “GBU-12 Paveway II guidance unit fitted to a Mark 82 high explosive aircraft bomb,” dropped at 3:20 p.m., followed by a second one minutes later as mourners were still reeling. As the U.N. report notes, “the air campaign waged by the coalition led by Saudi Arabia, while devastating to Yemeni infrastructure and civilians, has failed to dent the political will of the Houthi-Saleh alliance to continue the conflict.”
According to the most recent United Nations estimate, 5,000 Yemeni civilians have been killed and over 8,000 injured during the past two years, with an additional 21 million Yemenis, or 82 percent of the population, in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. As U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein stated on Friday, “Over the past month alone, 106 civilians have been killed, mostly by air strikes and shelling by Coalition war ships.”
Throughout these airstrikes, the United States continued to provide intelligence, targeting guidance, in-air refueling, weapons, and contractor support. Indeed, under Obama, the United States sold $115.3 billion worth of weapons and services to Saudi Arabia through August 2016. In mid-December, after Trump was elected, Secretary of State John Kerry, standing next to Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, even decried the pace of weapons sales, noting they “can be much lengthier than I like or certainly than the buying country likes, and I wish we could find a way to really accelerate it and speed it up more. As the foreign minister knows, I’ve worked very hard to accelerate it and try to move it forward. … [O]ne of my recommendations to the next administration will be that we try to find a way in our laws to accelerate it.” Kerry’s recommendation has been heard, as the Trump administration has reportedly decided to approve one $1.5 billion weapon sale that had been delayed by Obama.
The morning after that NSC news release was posted on the White House webpage two years ago, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin, commander of the U.S. Central Command, was asked about the objectives of the U.S. support. His stunning reply remains the most accurate characterization from a U.S. official: “I don’t currently know the specific goals and objectives of the Saudi campaign, and I would have to know that to be able to assess the likelihood of success.” Other than dropping weapons with an unconscionable lack of discrimination and proportionality, it appears there are no clear goals and objectives to this day.
On a personal note, in the nearly 20 years of having had the privilege of working and interacting with U.S. national security officials and staffers, I have never followed an issue that virtually nobody can justify or defend. Military officers who have watched or played a role in the Saudi-led bombing campaign are especially sickened by the brutality and strategic pointlessness of the airstrikes. But as the civil war rolls into its third year, do not expect any reduction in airstrikes or U.S. support for them. This shameful war now extends into a second presidential administration and a new Congress that seem even more enthused by it.