US-Caused Civilian Casualties in Yemen at Highest Levels Since 2001, Watchdog Group Says

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Southern Yemeni demonstrators.
Southern Yemeni demonstrators celebrate the 52nd anniversary of the beginning of Yemen's armed struggle against the occupation by Great Britain, during a ceremony in Aden, Yemen, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Wael Qubady)

The Defense Department says it's responsible for few civilian casualties in the Yemen conflict. But a new watchdog group report released Wednesday contradicts that claim, and says a marked increase of airstrikes and raids resulting in civilian casualties has occurred during the Trump presidency.

Airwars, a London-based non-profit group that tracks air conflicts, said that since 2017, the U.S. military and CIA have caused between 86 to 154 civilian casualties, "likely [marking] the most intensive period of strikes in that country by any U.S. president since 2001." That's according to the new report, "Eroding Transparency."

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The U.S. has conducted roughly 180 kinetic operations, including ground missions and airstrikes, since President Donald Trump took office in 2017, the report says.

AirWars said that, out of a total of 230 alleged and confirmed actions, 41 had "associated allegations of civilian harm;" in Trump's first year alone, Yemen saw the heaviest period of U.S. action, with more than 130 confirmed strikes, the organization said.

Strikes have dropped off considerably since 2017 -- to fewer than 60 in both 2019 and 2020 combined, AirWars said.

The latest report contrasts starkly with the Pentagon's own findings about civilian casualties incurred in its Yemen counterterrorism operations.

"As of March 1, 2020, DoD has no credible reports of civilian casualties resulting from U.S. military actions in Yemen during 2019," officials said in the latest tracking report, released in May. The Pentagon said the same for 2018. In 2017, DoD admitted there were a number "of credible reports of civilian casualties" at the hand of U.S. military strikes in the country, but did not disclose exactly how many.

While the last three years have seen as many as 154 civilian casualties in Yemen, the Obama administration conceded its strikes caused between 64 and 116 civilian deaths in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Libya between 2009 and 2015; however, and without an official breakdown by country, those were only attributable to drone strikes outside major war zones.

"We are reviewing information provided by AirWars," Navy Capt. Bill Urban, CENTCOM spokesman, told Military.com Wednesday.

March and April 2017 saw a peak in activity in Yemen, according to statistics compiled in the study. The increased action followed a Jan. 29 Yemen raid criticized as a failure that resulted in the death of U.S. Navy SEAL William "Ryan" Owens.

Previous estimates from the Pentagon said 14 to 20 civilians were killed in that raid, along with about 16 al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters in what U.S. Central Command described as a "ferocious firefight." On March 2 of that year, the U.S. began a series of wide-ranging airstrikes against AQAP targets, using a mix of manned and unmanned aircraft.

Citing statistics compiled with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Airwars said there were a total of 133 U.S. strikes in 2017, compared to the "150 confirmed strikes under the full presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama between 2002 and 2017."

The organization noted the considerable strike increase that year could be attributed to Trump inheriting "an already expanding campaign from Obama, leading towards the increased activity."

It added that assessing civilian harm in Yemen "remains a challenge, due both to parallel CENTCOM and CIA campaigns, as well as to a broader civil war involving multiple local and foreign actors."

While Trump has vowed to get America out of "forever wars" in the Middle East, most notably in Afghanistan, the drop-off in airstrike reports doesn't mean the U.S. has stopped its campaign, Chris Woods, director of Airwars, told Business Insider this week.

"Donald Trump's wars represent a paradox," Woods told the outlet. "While currently we're seeing some of the lowest numbers of US airstrikes in years across major theaters, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria ... this is a pretty recent phenomenon.

"Earlier on in his presidency, we saw record numbers of both airstrikes and reported civilian harm in multiple theaters, fueled by Trump's stated intent to 'take the gloves off' against terror groups," he said.

Early in his presidency, Trump demonstrated his preference for giving ample leeway to generals, allowing them to take an aggressive approach to stamping out extremist threats. Such was the case with the highly publicized drop of the 21,600-pound GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) -- nicknamed the "mother of all bombs" -- against the Islamic State faction in Afghanistan -- ISIS-Khorasan, or ISIS-K -- in the Achin district of eastern Nangarhar province in April 2017.

The administration has lately chosen to be less transparent about its bombing campaigns. Trump last year rescinded part of an Obama-era order requiring the publication of an annual report on civilian casualties resulting from U.S. military and intelligence actions overseas.

Pentagon officials, however, said that they will continue to release their data, although perhaps not for Afghanistan.

In March, CENTCOM stopped publicizing monthly reports on the number of airstrikes and bombs dropped over Afghanistan due to peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban.

The same logic could apply to public information on Yemen operations, Woods told Business Insider. The increased strike activity in 2017 may also have stalled AQAP -- as well as Islamic State -- activities in Yemen in the years since, he said.

Yemen has seen escalating conflict since 2015, when Houthi rebels -- anti-government fighters aligned with ousted former president Ali Abdullah Saleh -- were dislodged from their position near the port city of Aden by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition. The U.S. Air Force had been quietly supporting Saudi jets striking targets in Yemen with fuel from its tankers; that mission ended in 2018 following growing pressure from lawmakers.

In response to the report, some national security experts criticized the U.S.'s expanded role in modern conflicts.

"The data is quite clear: Donald Trump may not technically have 'started new wars,' but he has increased our involvement in existing ones," tweeted Emma Ashford, Resident Senior Fellow at the AtlanticCouncil's Scowcroft Center.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

Related: No Changes for DoD After Trump Eases Civilian Casualty Reporting Requirements

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