Beneath a banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished” President George W. Bush announced that “[m]ajor combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”
Bush’s May 1, 2003 announcement on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln would turn out to be wildly overoptimistic. The US invaded Iraq in March 2003. US troops would remain in Iraq for the next eight years, until 2011. In 2014, US forces were back, this time to fight the Islamic State. In 2020, US troops left Iraq under pressure from the Iraqi government.
US forces were in Afghanistan for nearly two decades after invading in 2001, the longest war in US history. (President Donald Trump withdrew the US from Afghanistan in 2020.)
The lesson here is that just because the US says a war has ended, we shouldn’t be too quick to celebrate.
Which brings us to the war in Yemen. Since 2015, the US has been giving crucial assistance to Saudi Arabia’s military coalition in its war against Yemen’s Houthi rebels. US assistance takes the form of intelligence sharing, logistics and targeting assistance, arms sales, and transfer of spare parts for coalition warplanes.
That may all be ending. On February 4, Biden gave his first major foreign policy address as president. One topic was Yemen. Biden had promised during his presidential campaign that he would take the US out of the war. On February 4, Biden announced that he was ending “all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen.”
Biden thus provided himself with a loophole big enough to drive an Abrams tank through. Hassan El-Tayyab, a Middle East expert at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, asks: how does the Biden Administration distinguish offensive from defensive operations? Does the Administration consider intelligence-sharing to be offensive? How about targeting assistance? Logistical support? Transfer of spare parts for coalition warplanes? At this point, El-Tayyab says, we don’t know.
We don’t know, but it’s imperative that we find out. Biden emphasized that the US remains committed to Saudi Arabia’s defense. Biden said that “Saudi Arabia faces missile attacks, UAV [drone] strikes, and other threats from Iranian-supplied forces in multiple countries. We’re going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.”
President Barack Obama said the same thing in 2015. The US would defend Saudi Arabia. President Obama took the US into the Yemen war in 2015 as a consolation prize to the Gulf States which had opposed Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. For the next two years, the Obama Administration gave the Saudi-led coalition practically unconditional support.
But if everything the US, Saudi Arabia, and UAE have done in Yemen since 2015 has been defensive, what isn’t defensive? Stretch the definition of defense sufficiently and even dropping a 227 kg laser-guided bomb manufactured by US defense contractor Lockheed Martin on a bus carrying 40 schoolchildren, as a Saudi warplane did on August 9, 2018, might be deemed defensive.
US Drone Assassinations in Yemen
One category of military activity is definitely non-offensive in the eyes of the Biden Administration. According to Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, the US will continue operations against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Biden said on February 4 that “Saudi Arabia faces missile attacks, UAV [drone] strikes, [etc.],” but said nothing about US drone strikes on Yemen which have killed many innocent Yemenis.
US drone strikes in Yemen date back to November 2002, when a Hellfire missile fired from a CIA Predator drone destroyed a moving car carrying six suspected members of Al-Qaeda. President Barack Obama ordered ten times more drone strikes worldwide than President George W. Bush. The upward trend continued under President Donald Trump, who carried out more drone strikes in four years than President Obama did in eight. How many drone strikes will Biden carry out?
Some drone strikes kill US citizens. Al-Qaeda-allied US-born radical cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki was killed by a US drone on September 30, 2011. Al-Awlaki’s assassination raised the legal question, as yet unresolved, whether the US can assassinate US citizens without due process of law. The question was reignited in 2011, when Al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son Abdulraman, who is not known to have participated in any terrorist group, was killed by a US drone in Yemen.
Al-Awlaki’s 8-year-old daughter was killed in a ground raid by US Special Forces on a Yemeni village on January 29, 2017. Nine days into his presidency, this was President Donald Trump’s inglorious debut in the field of covert operations. The raid is generally regarded as a fiasco. Fourteen members of Al-Qaeda were killed, but also ten to thirty innocent villagers.
Peace Breaks Out?
It will take more than the US simply stepping aside to bring peace to Yemen. On February 4, President Biden said his administration was “stepping up diplomacy to end the war in Yemen,” reach a ceasefire, and revive peace talks.
Biden is in for a fight. So are Yemen peace activists. There will be resistance from the well-heeled Saudi and defense contractors’ lobbies. Also from Iran hawks who regard the Houthis as little more than proxies for Iran. Resistance may even come from what would seem to be an unlikely quarter. Peace Group Code Pink is circulating a petition calling attention to 27 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who have accepted “thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from weapons companies.” Some Yemen activists want Congress to pass, and President Biden to sign, a War Powers Resolution on Yemen to ensure that peace is genuine and lasting.
The fight is worth it. Yemen is rightly called the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” The UN estimated in December that some 233,000 Yemenis, including 3,000 children, have died during the war. Most of these deaths are from “indirect causes” such as hunger and disease caused by Saudi and UAE air attacks which destroy hospitals, food production facilities, and water treatment plants. Two-thirds of Yemenis cannot afford water. A land, sea, and air blockade reduces the amount of food and medicines that enter Yemen. The war on Yemen must end. Peace activists’ mission will not be accomplished until it does.
1) A similar problem exists with Biden’s February 4 promise to “end relevant arms sales.” What are “relevant” arms sales? For now, all US arms sales to the coalition are on hold. ↑
2) Shireen Al-Adeimi and Sarah Lazare, Biden Says He’s Ending the Yemen War—But It’s Too Soon to Celebrate, IN THESE TIMES, Feb. 4, 2021; Yemen: Biden to End U.S. Offensive Support for Saudi-Led Assault, But Will the War Actually End?, DEMOCRACY NOW!, Feb. 5, 2020 (interview with Professor Shireen Al-Adeimi). ↑