Looking for an expert’s explanation of why the Saudi airstrikes in Yemen, which are supported by US arms and assistance, repeatedly kill large numbers of civilians? Andrew Exum, who recently served as U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy at the Pentagon has something for you. In a very well analyzed piece in The Atlantic on lessons drawn from the Obama team’s experiences in Yemen, Exum delivers his insights into the Saudi targeting practices.  He writes (with my emphasis added):

The Obama administration couldn’t make up its mind on the Saudi campaign in Yemen. On the one hand, it didn’t want to encourage what it thought to be a misguided campaign that showed little promise of decisive victory. On the other hand, it didn’t want to wreck its relationship with Saudi Arabia—or the UAE, whose pluck and military power senior Obama administration officials from the president on down admired. So the Obama administration pressed the Departments of Defense and State to continue delivering precision-guided munitions and aerial refueling to the Saudi-led coalition, while working with the Royal Saudi Air Force to adopt the same kinds of best practices the U.S. Air Force had used to minimize civilian casualties in the war against the Islamic State. The Saudis were eager students, but as we at the Pentagon often explained to our exasperated colleagues at the White House each time an errant (or deliberate) Saudi bomb killed Yemeni civilians, the deficiencies in the Royal Saudi Air Force at the operational level were glaring, and it was hard to rebuild the proverbial airplane while it was in the air.

The performance of the Saudis reflected poorly on the Department of Defense in particular: Although individual Saudi pilots had often performed well flying as part of U.S.-led coalitions, decades of U.S. training missions had not produced a Saudi military capable of independently planning and executing an effective air campaign that minimized collateral damage. And however much Saudi air forces struggled, Saudi ground forces labored even harder, trying and repeatedly failing to prevent or even counter Houthi ground excursions across the border.

In the end, no one in the Obama White House seemed able to answer whether or not we wanted to help the Saudis win their conflict in Yemen. We did just enough to earn the enmity of the human-rights community and members of Congress concerned about civilian casualties, yet not enough to enable conflict termination. Meeting after meeting chaired by the White House focused on the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Yemen—and deteriorate it surely did—while very little thought was given to the idea that the humanitarian situation was not the result of a hurricane or some other natural disaster but the result of a conflict that we ourselves could affect.

Note Exum’s phrase: “it was hard to rebuild the proverbial airplane while it was in the air.” That statement reflects a commonly held view that it is difficult to change military operations and planning on these issues while engaged in the fight. That message sounds different to different audiences when it comes to resolving the serious problem of civilian casualties. To some it means to soften the pressure and the blame on the Saudis because one should not have high expectations that they can improve their practices anytime soon. To others it means there is added reason to back away from support for the Saudis knowing that they will not be improving their highly deficient targeting practices anytime soon.

I recommend reading Exum’s article also for its analysis of the opportunities and perils for the Trump Administration in grappling with Iran’s influence in Yemen. For more on that front, there’s also this great Just Security piece by Kate Kizer: “Hitting Iran Where It Doesn’t Hurt: Why U.S. Intervention in Yemen Will Backfire.”


Image: U.S. Marine and U.S. Naval officers and corpsman with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), and Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Crisis Response-Central Command receive a familiarization class on an Agusta Westland AW-139 helicopter from the Royal Saudi Naval Forces, Dec. 9, 2014–Gunnery Sgt. Rome M. Lazarus/Released