Intel: Pentagon undercounting civilian casualties in Yemen, watchdog says

al-monitor Yemeni doctors offload a man from an ambulance after he was injured in reported air raids by the Saudi-led coalition that hit a Bedouin tent in Rahal in the Houthis' northern heartland of Saada province, Yemen, May 25, 2018. Photo by STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images.

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Yemen war

Oct 29, 2020

A rollback of Obama-era safeguards in the early days of the Donald Trump administration led to a wave of deaths of noncombatants from US drone strikes in the war-torn country, according to a new watchdog report released Monday.

At least 86 civilians have been killed by US military operations in Yemen since Trump took office in 2017, despite US Central Command’s claim of no more than 12 such deaths, according to Airwars, a United Kingdom-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) that tracks civilian casualties caused by the exercise of Western airpower in conflict zones.

Those 12 acknowledged deaths occurred during a failed Special Operations raid on Yakala, a village in central Yemen, during Trump‘s first month in office. A Navy SEAL was killed in the operation. The United States initially said no civilians were believed to have been killed, but that number was later amended.

“One reason CENTCOM does a poor job of tracking civilian harm allegations for Yemen is lack of a permanent civilian casualty team focused on the conflict,” Airwars writes.

CENTCOM did not respond to Al-Monitor’s request for comment by publication time.

Since the spike in US operations in Yemen at the start of Trump’s presidency, the number of declared actions has fallen significantly. This year, the United States has only claimed 15 strikes so far, the lowest rate since 2011, according to Airwars.

Why it matters: Even as the Pentagon has expanded operations to fight Islamist militants across the Middle East over the past two decades, it has been slow to standardize civilian casualty reporting procedures — an initiative started under former Defense Secretary James Mattis, then later mandated by Congress.

The Defense Department announced a web portal last week to make it easier for people to send information on civilian casualties to the combatant commands.

Airwars said it provided CENTCOM in August with more than 1,000 pages of its own research detailing US operations allegedly causing civilian harm in Yemen, but the command did not follow up.

“The failure of CENTCOM properly to respond to such good faith engagements by external NGOs is troubling — particularly given the command’s own apparent inability to track recent public claims of civilian harm from US actions in Yemen,” Airwars’ new report read.

Congress mandated in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that the Pentagon report annually on civilian casualties caused by its operations abroad.

In its last report to Congress on the matter, the Pentagon said that it had “not receive[d] any reports” from NGOs about possible US-caused civilian casualties in Yemen. Airwars' new report pushed back on that claim, saying the command had previously said it was investigating at least one report.

“The present failure of CENTCOM adequately to identify, review and where necessary acknowledge civilian harm claims from its actions in Yemen appears to be markedly at odds with current Pentagon policies, and should be addressed as a matter of urgency,” Airwars said in the report.

Experts say specific campaigns under US Central Command, like the US-led fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or against the Taliban in Afghanistan, have been more open to local claims of civilian casualties.

US Africa Command only this year began regular reporting on civilian casualties, despite local reports going back years of noncombatant deaths in Somalia in particular. Until this year, AFRICOM had only admitted it killed two civilians in a single incident in its 13-year history of operations in Africa, despite more than 200 strikes in Somalia alone.  

NGO representatives have long urged AFRICOM to offer Somali civilians an accessible pathway to report claims of relatives killed or wounded by US military actions. Meanwhile, CIA drone strikes in regional conflict zones are unannounced.

What's next: The Defense Department has not yet unveiled its congressionally-mandated standardization of civilian casualty reporting across the combatant commands. A person familiar with the discussions said that policy is likely to be finalized in the next few weeks. A Pentagon spokesperson was not immediately available to return Al-Monitor's request for comment on the matter.

Know More: The steady pace of US military drone strikes continues in Syria’s northwest, where al-Qaeda figures have found safe haven behind the war’s stalled front lines.

Last week, a drone strike by Joint Special Operations Command killed 7 al-Qaeda members, CENTCOM said, though local reports suggested at least 10 people died in the strike.

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