Samantha Andrews is an intern in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.
As the United States provides targeting assistance to the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council in Yemen, it should consider that its allies’ standards for target selection may be less rigorous. However, the United States is still partially responsible for airstrikes enabled with its intelligence. Contrary to the official U.S. position that it remains in a “non-combat advisory and coordinating role to the Saudi-led campaign,” this enabling support makes the United States a combatant in the Yemen air campaign. Even if the United States is not pulling the trigger, the “live intelligence feeds from surveillance flights over Yemen” that “help Saudi Arabia decide what and where to bomb” are indispensable for the launch of airstrikes against Houthi rebels.
Recognizing U.S. responsibility and enabling combat role could help to limit the inextricably high number of civilian casualties resulting from coalition airstrikes by increasingly accountability among allies. Shortly after the Saudi-led coalition began Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen on March 26, the United Nations reported the first civilian casualties. On March 31, an airstrike hit a dairy factory, killing 31 civilians. Since then, the United Nations reported on at least 9 other airstrikes that killed a total of 329 civilians, including at least 35 children, and wounded 356 others. This includes an incident on July 6 when coalition airstrikes hit two separate provinces, killing 76, but excludes the initial estimates from July 24 that airstrikes reportedly killed at least 120 civilians.
Even though U.S. intelligence is indispensable for coalition airstrikes, the Obama administration’s response to reports of civilian casualties has been to shift the blame to the Saudis or Houthi rebels. On May 6, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest responded to a question about concerns for civilian casualties stating, “We certainly are pleased that the Saudis have indicated a willingness to scale back their military efforts, but we haven’t seen a corresponding response from the Houthi rebels.” Later, on July 6, State Department Spokesperson John Kirby responded to a direct question about the Saudi-led coalition’s “pattern of attacks, destroying civilian homes and resulting in scores of civilian deaths and injuries” by suggesting that he would let Saudi Arabia “speak to their operational capabilities and performance.” In both cases, there was no mention of the U.S. role.
There is precedent for providing joint targeting assistance to U.S. allies while avoiding culpability for civilian casualties resulting from airstrikes. In 2007, the United States established the Combined Intelligence Fusion Cell in Ankara, Turkey to provide real-time intelligence feeds to the Turkish military targeting Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, members in northern Iraq. Similar to the advisory role that the United States plays in the Saudi-led coalition, the United States worked “side-by-side” with the Turkish military “to analyze incoming intelligence.” In total, U.S. intelligence facilitated over two hundred cross-border and artillery strikes. Yet, when the Turkish military used surveillance from a U.S Predator drone on December 8, 2011, to mistakenly drop a bomb that killed thirty-four civilians, a senior Pentagon official announced, “The Turks made the call. It wasn’t an American decision.”
This response reveals consequential flaws in joint target selection. According to a former senior U.S. military official involved in sharing intelligence with Turkey before the December attack, he and his fellow officers were troubled by the Turks notion of “guilt by association” in selecting targets. Whereas U.S. standards for target selection seek a high degree of confidence in discriminating between combatants and non-combatants, the Turkish military blurred this distinction. Further, the U.S. Predator drone that initially identified the civilian caravan was asked to fly offsite before the airstrike. Only when the drone was out of range, and could no longer monitor the attack, did Turkish warplanes strike. Subsequently, any potential intelligence the United States could have provided to the Turkish military about the civilian nature of the caravan was missed. Startlingly, U.S. officials admitted that compliance with Turkish requests was standard procedure.
To minimize civilian casualties in Yemen, the Obama administration should consider the lessons from the Combined Intelligence Fusion Cell. Specifically, it should reevaluate its assistance to Saudi Arabia to make it contingent upon greater involvement in joint target selection and approval. Live intelligence feeds from drones should be used to conduct damage assessment, including confirming the impact of the weapon. In an environment where the United States and its allies have limited intelligence on the ground, these considerations would encourage allies to exercise greater discrimination and alleviate potentially negative consequences for the United States.
As the Obama administration seeks “to mobilize allies and partners to share the burden” of military action, it should bear in mind that U.S. allies will not always apply the same rigorous standards to avoid civilian casualties. When airstrikes are enabled with U.S. intelligence, the country should acknowledge its enabling role, accepting at least partial responsibility for the collateral damage, and hold its partners to higher standards. Only then can the United States begin to put in place joint targeting measures to minimize civilian casualties.