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As Biden visits Middle East, GAO questions U.S. complicity in Yemeni deaths

President Biden waves to reporters as he departs the White House. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

One question hovering over President Biden’s Middle East trip next week, especially his Saudi Arabia stop, is how complicit American-made weapons are in the deaths of Yemeni civilians.

During the trip, Biden will discuss the U.N.-mediated truce in Yemen, which White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said “has led to the most peaceful period there since war began seven years ago.”

Yet that long and brutal war has been fueled by the supply of U.S. weapons to the Saudi-led coalition waging it. Reports have documented massive civilian deaths. Last year, the United States vowed to end support of the coalition’s offensive operations, including through arms sales.

But a report by the Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog, raises troubling questions about how seriously State Department and Defense Department officials take that pledge.

Starting in 2015, the United States provided military support to the coalition, the report explained, which sought to restore Yemen’s government after an Iran-backed Houthi military offensive overtook Sana’a, the capital.

Through 2021, the Pentagon approved $54.6 billion in military support to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to the report. More than a third ($18.3 billion) was for missiles, including air-launched, ground-launched and sea-launched varieties. Aircraft, ships, ammunition and weapons, all of which can be used offensively, also were included.

During that period, 23,000 airstrikes killed or injured more than 18,000 civilians, according to U.N. estimates.

Questions about American complicity in those deaths and injuries remain because U.S. officials can’t define the terms of the discussion — or war.

“In February 2021 the President announced his intent to end U.S. support for offensive operations in Yemen,” Jason Bair, GAO’s director of international affairs and trade, said in an email. “While State officials told us that they attempt to distinguish between ‘offensive’ and ‘defensive’ weapons, they have no specific definitions of ‘offensive’ and ‘defensive.’ ”

If the U.S. government can’t tell the difference between offensive and defensive weapons, that’s a fundamental problem generating other issues.

“Without clear definitions of ‘offensive’ and ‘defensive’ weapons, it can be difficult for the State Department to implement the President’s wishes” to end offensive weapons assistance, Bair added. He noted that “State’s assessment is based on the INTENDED use of the weapons, which may or may not match the actual use. State and DOD lack a comprehensive picture of how U.S. assistance has actually been used in the war in Yemen.”

There’s another problem with terms. Pentagon policy prohibits the “the misuse or unauthorized transfer” of defense goods and services, but those terms are not defined.

“DOD and State officials both said that use that causes civilian harm would not necessarily constitute ‘misuse,’ ” GAO’s report said.

While American officials don’t know how much harm American materials have caused in Yemen, the United Nations found “that U.S.-origin defense articles may have been used in strikes that caused substantial civilian harm in a manner that violated international humanitarian law,” the watchdog reported.

Curiously, U.S. officials haven’t tried to find out what harm their military supplies have caused.

“Despite several reports that airstrikes and other attacks by Saudi Arabia and UAE have caused extensive civilian harm in Yemen,” the report said, “DOD has not reported and State could not provide evidence that it investigated any incidents of potential unauthorized use of equipment transferred to Saudi Arabia or UAE.”

The Pentagon also “has not fully measured the extent to which its advising and training have facilitated civilian harm reduction in Yemen,” GAO found.

That tells Phyllis Bennis, a program director at the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies, that “the U.S. military has no intention of tracking — let alone trying to seriously diminish — civilian casualties that it causes in the so-called Global War on Terror. It speaks to the legacies of racism, xenophobia and indeed cruelty in these wars.”

Asked to comment on the GAO report, the Pentagon punted to State.

“We have engaged with the Saudi-led Coalition for several years on efforts to reduce the risk of civilian casualties and harm,” State’s public affairs office said by email. “The Saudis have received training from U.S. forces on Law of Armed Conflict, air-to-ground targeting procedures, and best practices for mitigating the risk of civilian casualties. The Saudi government has taken some steps to improve its targeting processes and adopted mechanisms for investigating alleged incidents of civilian casualties, though we recognize there is work to be done. …

“To truly address the issue of civilian casualties in Yemen,” the statement continued, “we must also stop the kinds of violence that have been responsible for the vast majority of civilian casualties in recent years, like shelling, small-arms fire, and land mines. We have unfortunately seen the latter persist even during this current U.N. truce.”

How GAO’s findings affect Biden’s trip and ongoing U.S.-Saudi relations depends to some extent on Congress, according to Akshaya Kumar, director of crisis advocacy for Human Rights Watch.

“Now they have a GAO report that shows the oversight is inadequate and incomplete,” she said. “So, we’re really hoping that Congress then takes up the mantle once again to pressure the administration to rethink its approach.”

While American officials don’t know how much harm American materials have caused in Yemen, the United Nations found “that U.S.-origin defense articles may have been used in strikes that caused substantial civilian harm in a manner that violated international humanitarian law,” GAO reported.

For Human Rights Watch, which has published numerous reports about the tragedy in Yemen, the solution is not complex.

“The U.S. government … should just stop selling all weapons to the kingdom Saudi Arabia, at least until there’s an end to these abusive actions in Yemen,” Kumar said. “Just end all arms sales.”