CENTCOM Improves Transparency of Yemen War Civilian Casualties, But Gaps Remain

On January 7, United States Central Command (CENTCOM) published a press release titled “CENTCOM counterterrorism strikes in Yemen 2018 rollup,” providing data on the various counterterrorism strikes CENTCOM carried out in Yemen during 2018. The release, and CENTCOM’s reporting throughout the year in response to requests, represented an important step towards transparency compared to 2017. But it also revealed the extent to which even with better government reporting, the ability to understand the war the United States is waging in Yemen has deteriorated in recent years due to both U.S. policy and the character of the war itself.

According to CENTCOM, “U.S. Central Command conducted 36 total air strikes in Yemen in 2018, targeting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS-Yemen.” Over the past year, CENTCOM repeatedly provided individualized date and location information (at least at the provincial level) for its strikes. Indeed, New America was able to obtain date and location information from CENTCOM for all 36 strikes CENTCOM said it conducted. This represents a major improvement in transparency compared to 2017, when CENTCOM routinely did not release individualized strike date and location information despite conducting 131 strikes over the year; more than twice the previous highest yearly number of strikes. Instead CENTCOM provided bulk numbers that could not be disaggregated by date and location, and did not respond to New America’s requests to provide such individualized information.

Despite the overall improvement, in only five of the strikes this past year was date and location information available within CENTCOM’s quarterly press releases and end of year summary of strikes. CENTCOM provided the other information at request to New America and others tracking the war. Nevertheless, CENTCOM’s willingness to provide detailed information on the timing and location of strikes in response to requests helps clarify the U.S. campaign in Yemen.

The newfound transparency only goes so far. The 2018 press release does not address the question of how many ground raids the United States conducted over the past year. In 2017 CENTCOM stated it had conducted multiple ground raids. This may have been in part the result of the disastrous January 2017 raid on Yakla in which a Navy Seal died, making it difficult to refrain from comment, rather than a result of a greater commitment to transparency with regard to ground raids last year.

More important, CENTCOM still does not release casualty assessments or counts disaggregated by strike in Yemen. This is in contrast to AFRICOM, which has in many cases reported not just strike locations and dates, but casualty counts with regards to strikes in Somalia – often immediately following the occurrence of strikes. Recent reporting on American strikes in Yemen – though not providing a thorough tracking of casualties throughout the campaign – suggests high civilian death tolls with about a third of known deaths in strikes in 2018 being civilians, according to a report by the Associated Press. That rate may well be higher than the true rate either because the report inaccurately classifies civilian deaths or because the total count of deaths in strikes is artificially low due to a lack of reporting. Unfortunately, the lack of transparency regarding casualties makes it difficult to judge the veracity of the AP report’s claimed rate of civilian casualties.

Who Flies over Yemen’s Skies?

Increased difficulty attributing drone strikes to a specific actor also clouds the picture. While in the past the United States was the only actor operating drones over Yemen (so attribution of strikes was relatively easy), that is no longer the case. According to Mohammed Ghobari, a Yemen correspondent for Reuters, “with the collapse of the central state in Yemen, the presence of UAE and Saudi forces in Yemen which also … contain drones, it is difficult for journalists to know exactly who conducted the strike.”

Indeed, the United States continues to conduct drone strikes in Yemen, but the U.S.-backed Saudi coalition has been conducting its own airstrikes with high civilian casualty rates. The United Arab Emirates, for example, has reportedly conducted drone strikes against Houthi forces. Even the Houthi rebels are operating armed drones over Yemen’s skies.

The challenge of determining responsibility for a strike is further compounded by the question of whether CENTCOM is the only part of the U.S. government conducting strikes or whether there are covert strikes taking place. At least in Syria, the Trump administration reportedly sought to expand the role of the CIA in drone strikes beyond limits imposed during the Obama administration. (A separate question of the extent to which the United States is participating in strikes and raids by its partners and proxies in Yemen adds another layer of complexity regarding ultimate responsibility, if not in determining the actors actually conducting a given strike).

The ability of those tracking the war from outside the government to sort through these possibilities has been further constrained by the difficulty journalists face in reporting from the locations of strikes amidst the escalated war. This makes ensuring U.S. government reporting’s accuracy and transparency especially critical.

This complex environment was illustrated by the CENTCOM press release summarizing strikes in 2018, which stated that CENTCOM had not conducted a strike in Yemen during October, November, or December of 2018. Yet media reports (and thus New America’s tracking of the war) record a suspected U.S. drone strike on November 25th that killed two people right in the middle of what CENTCOM claims to be a three month pause in strikes.

Was it a covert U.S. strike not conducted by CENTCOM? Alternatively, did reports incorrectly identify a U.S. role when it was actually conducted by another actor, perhaps a Saudi coalition member? And if it was not a U.S. strike, was it nevertheless enabled by U.S. support? Ghobari, who reported on the strike for Reuters, did not attribute the strike to the United States in his article because his sources were not able to confirm that a U.S. drone carried it out, though other media outlets did report it as a suspected U.S. strike. Yet, Ghobari cautions against dismissing a U.S. role, stating, “my personal conviction is that the raid was carried out by an U.S. drone because the Saudi-led coalition has never carried out such precise operations.”

The November 25th strike is not a lone case. There are a total of six cases in which media reported a suspected U.S. air strike in Yemen that CENTCOM does not acknowledge. For one strike, the discrepancy appears to be a matter of confusion over the date of a strike in media reporting with it occurring on a date surrounding an acknowledged strike and having a similar reported location. However, in the other five cases, including the November 25th strike, confusion over dates does not account for the media reports of U.S. strikes not acknowledged by CENTCOM.

High Stakes Demand Greater Transparency Going Forward

The Trump administration and CENTCOM should be lauded for better reporting this year that has meaningfully improved the tracking of the counterterrorism war in Yemen. Further improvements could be made, including reporting casualty assessments disaggregated by strike, reporting ground raids, and making individualized strike and ground raid information available through official press releases (rather than only in response to requests).

In Afghanistan, the U.S. military has cited operational security needs for limiting its transparency. Operation Resolute Support in Afghanistan stopped reporting targets of its strikes in November, telling the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, “We determined we were giving the enemy too much detail with the information we were providing in the strike reports.” On the other hand, as noted previously, AFRICOM has provided more detail than CENTCOM has, suggesting that arguments for restrictions on transparent and detailed reporting need to be made with greater specificity as to why such reporting is dangerous in Yemen – or in Afghanistan – but not Somalia.

Even with improvements, the expanded set of actors waging war in Yemen’s skies and the ongoing proxy and civil war on the ground will limit how much can be learned from CENTCOM reporting. Congress, however, could step up to provide greater oversight of the broader contours of the Yemen war and ensure that reporting is transparent even if strikes are carried out through proxies and partners.

At least 1,300 people have been killed in the counterterrorism war in Yemen, according to New America’s research. That is almost certainly an undercount. The lack of transparency in this war prevents the American public from fully knowing the nature of what is being conducted in their name. With counterterrorism strikes occurring amidst a larger civil and proxy war, the stakes of this lack of transparency are high.

 

Photo credit: A Yemeni man looks at graffiti protesting against US drone strikes on September 19, 2018 in Sana’a, Yemen (Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)

 

  

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About the Author(s)

David Sterman

Senior Policy Analyst, International Security Program at New America. You can follow him on Twitter (@Dsterms).