Yemen denies reports it has suspended U.S. ground operations

Posted at 10:46 AM, Feb 09, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-09 10:46:23-05

A Yemeni boy (C) walks past a mural depicting a US drone and reading ” Why did you kill my family” on December 13, 2013 in the capital Sanaa. (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)

By Ese Olumhense

Yemen ‘Continues to Cooperate’ With U.S. In Anti-Terror Fight

Yemen’s foreign minister on Wednesday denied reports that the country suspended United States ground operations following a deadly January commando raid that killed several civilians.

“Yemen continues to cooperate with the United States and continues to abide by all the agreements,” Abdul-Malik al-Mekhlafi, Yemen’s top diplomat, told the Associated Press on Wednesday. He said that Yemen has asked for a “reassessment” of the operation.

Citing unnamed U.S. officials, The New York Times first reported on Tuesday that the Yemeni government, in response to the January 28 raid “in which just about everything went wrong,” had rescinded permission for U.S. ground operations. This depiction broke sharply from that of the White House, which said that the raid was “highly successful.”

Yemeni officials, however, said the raid killed 15 women and children, including at least one American — 8-year-old Nawar al-Awlaki, also known as Nora, the daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, a cleric connected to al Qaeda who was killed in a 2011 U.S. drone strike. Al-awaki’s 16-year-old son was killed in a separate raid in 2011.

In a statement on the matter, the Pentagon confirmed that civilians were likely killed in the “complex situation,” but that it yielded “valuable intelligence.”

Some Yemeni leaders have publicly criticized the raid, saying that civilian deaths undermine cooperation between the two nations in their fight against al Qaeda’s insurgency in the Arabian peninsula.

“Yemen’s government is a key partner in the war against terrorism,” said Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, Yemeni ambassador to the U.S., in an interview with Al Jazeera. That partnership, he said, shouldn’t come “at the expense of the Yemeni citizens and the country’s sovereignty.”

A U.S. Navy SEAL, Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, was also killed in the raid.

Exact Number of Civilians Killed in Military Operations Unknown

Though Yemen may not be suspending U.S. ground operations, it has tried to limit American military operations before. After a 2014 drone strike killed about a dozen civilians at a wedding celebration in central Yemen, the government voted to temporarily ban drone operations. They soon allowed them to resume, however, after an uptick in violence in the region.

Many have raised concerns about the risk to Yemeni civilians in the ongoing conflict, including the United Nations (U.N.). A 2015 U.N. report said that U.S. drone strikes in Yemen killed more civilians than al Qaeda.

The exact number of civilians killed by drone strikes during the ongoing war on terror is not widely known. That information is closely guarded by the Pentagon and White House, which claims that between 64 and 116 people were killed by strikes between 2009 and the end of 2015. But observers monitoring the conflict estimate that between 380 and 801 civilians were killed by drone strikes in that period.

The U.S. had previously claimed that drone strikes were “exceptionally surgical and precise” and “do not put… innocent men, women and children in danger.”

The Drones of The Future Will Be Deadlier

No one knows how persistent this kind of operation could be under President Trump, but he has repeatedly claimed that he is open to “taking out” the families of terrorists as a means of defeating insurgent groups like ISIS — a shift from the “very politically correct war” he says was fought under Obama.

The Trump Administration’s war against ISIS is likely to involve increased use of drone technology, which was being planned by the Pentagon under Obama. The drones of the future, the Department of Defense has said, will have machine-learning capabilities, enabling them to “integrate sensing, perceiving, analyzing, communicating, planning, decision making, and executing to achieve mission goals versus system functions.”

Obama relied heavily on drone strikes in many of the Middle Eastern conflicts in which the U.S. became embroiled. He is said to have authorized more drone strikes by the end of his first year as president than George W. Bush had during his entire presidency — although part of that is due to technological innovation over the course of the last 15 years.

Given the threat that these drone strikes already pose to civilians (including to American citizens), the lack of real transparency around drone operations, and Trump’s cavalier attitude toward killing the families of insurgents, the prospect of future drone use in the Middle East worries human rights groups. They say that civilians deaths are a danger to America too.

“Make no mistake: secret raids that kill small children will do nothing to make Americans safer,” Jennifer Gibson of Reprieve, an international human rights group, said in a statement. “Trump’s allies — both in the U.S., and in countries like the U.K. — must urgently persuade him to scale back on this disastrous use of his executive powers.”