WASHINGTON – The Pentagon and the State Department failed to investigate whether a Saudi-led coalition used U.S.-provided military support to carry out any of repeated airstrikes and other attacks that are alleged to have killed civilians in Yemen, a U.S. government report released Wednesday said.
Criticism of civilian casualties in Saudi-led coalition airstrikes that at times have hit wedding parties, funerals, hospitals and other gatherings of civilians has clouded U.S. arms sales and other military support to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates since the two launched a war in Yemen in 2015.
The now 7-year war has failed in its aim of ousting Iranian-allied Houthi rebels who have seized control of Yemen's capital, Sanaa, and much of the rest of Yemen's north. Under U.S., U.N. and other international mediation, all sides in the conflict have joined in what U.S. officials say is a promising but fragile truce this spring and summer.
Publication of the critical report by the Government Accountability Office comes the day after the White House confirmed that President Joe Biden plans a July trip to Saudi Arabia in a bid to bolster relations with the oil-producing kingdom.
High oil and gasoline prices are helping to drive inflation in the U.S. and threatening the prospects of Biden's Democrats and Biden himself in coming elections. Israel and other allies also have urged the U.S. president to mend relations with the Saudis, and de facto Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in the interests of regional security.
Biden took office denouncing Saudi Arabia over the deaths of noncombatants in Yemen and the 2018 killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The U.S. intelligence community says Prince Mohammed likely ordered Khashoggi's killing.
Biden pledged at the outset of his term that the United States would withhold any U.S. offensive military aid to Saudi Arabia.
News organizations and rights groups have cited repeated civilian deaths blamed on airstrikes by the coalition, and U.N. investigators have confirmed several of the accounts. The attacks include a 2018 coalition-led airstrike on a school bus that killed at least 26 children, according to Human Rights Watch.
The U.S. says it has worked to train Saudi forces on improved targeting and other best practices to minimize harm to innocent civilians.
The United Nations estimates that from March 2015 to August 2021 about 23,000 airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen killed or injured more than 18,000 civilians.
Houthi rebels are also widely accused of rights violations, including forcing children to fight and profiting off food and fuel desperately needed by civilians. Yemen is the poorest country by far on the Arab peninsula. Aid groups and international organizations say the war has greatly deepened food insecurity for millions of people there.
The GAO, an independent watchdog meant to assist government oversight, examined how well the U.S. government has tracked any role that extensive U.S. military aid to its two Gulf strategic partners, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, played in civilian deaths.
Congress commissioned Wednesday’s report from the GAO last year.
The U.S. has provided more than $54 billion in military support — from missiles and aircraft to maintenance and training — for Saudi Arabia and the UAE from 2015 to 2021, the GAO said.
State Department officials told the GAO investigators they consider civilian harm and how equipment is used when weighing U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the report said.
“In addition, (Department of Defense) and State officials said they have made some efforts to understand the extent to which U.S.-origin defense articles were used in Yemen,” the report said.
“However, despite several reports that airstrikes and other attacks by Saudi Arabia and UAE have caused extensive civilian harm in Yemen, 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,” GAO investigators said.
In a written response to GAO investigators, State Department comptroller Jeffrey Mounts disputed the GAO's overall conclusion. Mounts wrote that the State Department had provided documentation of government oversight of potential U.S. arms' involvement in attacks that claimed civilian lives or hit civilian infrastructure.
GAO investigators said the documents provided by the State Department did not change their conclusion, however.
The report also quoted officials with the U.S. military's Central Command saying “they do not know how DOD security cooperation officials in Saudi Arabia and UAE would obtain the information necessary to determine whether U.S.-origin defense articles were used in Yemen by Saudi Arabia or UAE against anything other than legitimate military" targets.
Outside the Saudi Embassy on Wednesday, officials from the Washington, D.C. local government and Saudi and Yemen rights advocates unveiled a street sign newly renaming the block in front of the embassy “Jamal Khashoggi Way."
Tawakkol Karman, a Nobel peace laureate from Yemen, faulted Biden at the street ceremony for planning to meet with Prince Mohammed, widely known by his initials.
“When you meet MBS, will this serve peace in Yemen?” she asked, to Biden. “Absolutely not.”
Asked Wednesday for comment, the State Department cited steps to minimize casualties, but added that “we recognize there is work to be done.” Spokespeople for the Saudi Embassy and the Pentagon did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the GAO report.
The State Department told the GAO of steps it has taken to comply with Biden's 2021 directive that the U.S. provide only defensive support to Saudi Arabia, as opposed to materiel that would help it fight its war in Yemen. That includes the State Department telling Saudi Arabia to use new air-to-air missiles only against cross-border air attacks, and not to hit ground targets, according to the report.
The State Department said it “paused” two other munitions sales out of concern for civilian harm.
The version of the report released Wednesday withholds what the government says is classified material from the original version, which was not made public.
The material withheld consisted of “a relatively small amount of information” on the Pentagon’s advisory work and the State Department’s internal decision-making, said Jason Bair, director of the GAO’s international affairs and trade office.