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When Is the U.S. Responsible for Allies' Civilian Casualties?

The U.S. is effectively fighting both sides of Yemen's ongoing civil war, with no clear definition of what victory looks like.
Yemenis gather next to the destroyed bus at the site of a Saudi-led coalition airstrike, on August 10th, 2018.

Yemenis gather next to the destroyed bus at the site of a Saudi-led coalition airstrike, on August 10th, 2018.

Last week, an airstrike conducted by the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition in Yemen struck a school bus full of children returning home from summer camp in the country's Saada province, leaving 29 children dead. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the attack as a tragedy amid what the organization considers the world's worst humanitarian crisis; the Saudi-led coalition, confident it had taken out enemy missile launchers, dismissed the incident as a "legitimate military operation."

This isn't the first time the Saudi-led coalition, organized by the Saudis to combat the Houthi rebels they see as Iranian proxies, has shown wanton disregard for civilian casualties in Yemen. For a U.N. analysis of 10 air attacks in 2017 that killed 157 people investigators found that Saudi military forces deliberately targeted non-combatant subjects. Among the targeted: a migrant boat, a night market, five residential buildings, and a motel. In December of 2017, a single airstrike that killed 68 civilians led the U.N. to dub the Saudi-led intervention there "an absurd and futile war." As of March of 2018, more than 5,000 children had been killed or maimed by coalition sorties, per the Washington Post; a third of the population, 8.4 million people, is slowly starving to death.

It's a tragic and futile war, and the United States has had a heavy hand in it. Since the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen began in August of 2015, the U.S. has sold the Saudis precision-guided munitions; funneled tanks, planes, bombs, and targeting intelligence to Saudi defense officials; and provided material support during bombing runs. The Department of Defense's mission in Yemen has become so complex that U.S. Central Command, tasked with overseeing combat operations in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, is unable to keep track of how much gear and fuel it offloads onto the Saudi coalition.

"We may never know if the munition [used] was one that the U.S. sold to them," CENTCOM spokesman Army Major Josh Jacques told Vox of the school bus strike. "We don't have a lot of people on the ground.

Tragic as last week's airstrike was, it's also nothing new: The U.S. has had a formidable military presence in Yemen for a while now, often independent of any Saudi-led coalition. In January, a U.S. special operations forces raid in the country—one officials say yielded "no significant evidence"—left one Navy SEAL dead. Then, in May, SEALs killed seven leaders of the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) faction at a compound in the country's central Ma'rib governorate. The following August, the Department of Defense deployed boots on the ground to help expel the militants from their de facto capital. And that was before the New York Times reported in May of 2018 that Green Berets were engaged in a quiet ground game to neutralize "caches of ballistic missiles and launch sites" used by Yemen's Houthi rebels to attack Saudi cities.

The irony is that, in throwing resources into the Saudi-led coalition, the U.S. is doing its jihadist enemies a favor. Last May, senior AQAP officials claimed they were fighting alongside assorted militant factions that were actually waging war on Yemen's Houthi rebels as part of a long-running Shiite-Sunni rivalry—meaning that the U.S. is effectively fighting both sides of Yemen's ongoing civil war, with no clear definition of what "victory" looks like. Defeat AQAP and the Houthis get a boost, much to the chagrin to the U.S.'s allies in Riyadh; defeat the Houthis, and AQAP gets to refocus all of its resources on spreading through the Middle East and North Africa.

There is no clear victory for the U.S. in Yemen; in fact, there's no clear reason to be there beyond the clarion call of the "Global War on Terror." So long as the Saudi-led coalition continues its campaign of callous indifference to civilian casualties, the only clear outcome for the U.S. is more blood on its hands.