At least one third of those killed by U.S. drone strikes in the war-torn country of Yemen over the past year have been civilians, according to a recent Associated Press investigation.
The troubling statistic comes amid a three-year-long bombing campaign of Western Yemen led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which the U.S. aids by providing weapons as well as targeting and logistical assistance despite the fact that the airstrikes frequently target civilians and civilian infrastructure. The recent AP investigation reveals that U.S. drones are yet another deadly but often overlooked threat to Yemen’s civilians.
The investigation begins by noting that a comprehensive count of civilian deaths caused by drone strikes is nearly impossible, given the difficulty in confirming the identities and allegiances of those killed. However, examination of the available information on U.S. drone strikes in Yemen, allegedly conducted to combat the presence of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), found that at least 30 of those killed by the strikes this year were not al Qaeda members but civilians, including a 14-year-old boy and five members of a family looking for their lost child.
According to figures provided by an independent database cited by AP, at least 88 people have been killed by U.S. drone strikes this year in Yemen, meaning that the civilians killed account for around a third of the total deaths caused by U.S. drone strikes. Those killed also included soldiers fighting alongside the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition who had returned to visit their families.
The high number of civilians killed in drone strikes has long been a reality of the U.S.’ drone war, which began under the Bush administration and expanded under the administrations of Presidents Obama and Trump.
Indeed, it has been known since at least 2015 that militant leaders on the controversial U.S. “kill list” account for a mere 2 percent of drone-related deaths, with strikes confirmed to kill civilians 90 percent of the time. Shockingly, over 80 percent of those killed have never been identified and the CIA’s own documents have shown that it is not even aware of whom it is killing — avoiding having to report civilian deaths simply by naming all those in the strike zone as enemy combatants.
The high rate of civilians killed by U.S. drone strikes in 2018 is partly the result of the Trump administration’s increased use of drone warfare in certain areas and its relaxation of rules of engagement intended to reduce civilian casualties. Since Trump took office, the number of drone strikes in Yemen has quadrupled, with the U.S. bombing Yemen 127 times in 2017, compared to 32 times in 2016. Strikes in Pakistan and Somalia also increased.
However, the greatest increase in U.S. drone strikes under Trump has taken place in Iraq, Syria and Libya, where combined civilian deaths from U.S. airstrikes reached between 3,923 to 6,102 last year. This startling figure marks a massive increase from reported civilian deaths during the Obama administration, which was responsible for between 2,298 to 3,398 civilian deaths during Obama’s eight years in office.
Trump’s decision last March to allow the CIA to conduct strikes without White House approval also bears significant responsibility for the jump in civilian deaths. The policy change overhauled an Obama administration requirement that the military carry out strikes on target’s identified by the CIA. This move has also made reporting drone strikes – and their casualties – more difficult, as the CIA, unlike the Pentagon, is not required to disclose the strikes it conducts.
As a result, the drone assassination rate under the Trump administration is now eight times higher than it was under Obama. Obama’s, in turn, was 10 times that of his predecessor George W. Bush, making Trump’s drone kill rate a whopping 80 times higher than that of Bush.
In addition to the drone war’s further expansion under Trump, there is plenty of evidence that U.S. drone strikes in Yemen are not only ineffective but actually counter-productive.
Officially, the U.S.’ drone strikes in the country are conducted with the purpose of targeting AQAP. However, the U.S. has been aware for years that its “counterterrorism” policies in the country, namely drone strikes, were only strengthening the terror group’s presence. Furthermore, U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition and its war against Yemeni resistance group Ansar Allah has resulted in the U.S. “turning a blind eye” to the coalition’s open alliances with AQAP during major offensives, as well as the coalition’s offering of weapons and cash to the group.
An AP report published in August found that the U.S.-backed coalition paid large sums to al Qaeda commanders in exchange for their leaving key locations throughout coalition-controlled Yemen, while also allowing the terror group’s forces to retreat with all of their weapons, cash and supplies and without fear of reprisal. Even when the Saudi-backed government of Yemen sent al Qaeda members to represent it in peace talks held in Geneva, the U.S. continued to give its full backing to the Saudi-led coalition.
Thus, as a direct result of U.S. policies in Yemen, AQAP — once called “the most dangerous regional node in the global jihad” by the CIA — has “become stronger than at any time since it first emerged almost 20 years ago.” Yet, while AQAP has benefitted from U.S. “counterterrorism” policies in the country, Yemen’s civilians have found little to no reprieve, as they are either targets of the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led war in Western Yemen or targeted by drone strikes in the areas of Yemen under coalition control.