(MintPress)—As U.S. relations with Pakistan continue to weaken amid controversy over secret military operations and mounting civilian casualties from Obama’s drone war, a separate covert operation is flying under the radar in Yemen. A special report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) found that since the War on Terror began in 2001, as many as 520 people have been killed in US attacks in Yemen, including as many as 105 civilians.
In that same period, closer to 3,000 people have been reported killed from drone strikes in Pakistan, including anywhere from 480 to 800 civilians. However, the report shows that while Pakistan has seen higher casualties in the past, drone strikes there are on the decline while strikes in Yemen are on the rise.
By this time last year, there were zero reported strikes in Yemen compared to 22 strikes in Pakistan that resulted in roughly 170 deaths, including militants and civilians combined. In 2012, there have already been 10 strikes in Pakistan and as many as eight in Yemen. In March alone, there were six strikes in Yemen and only four in Pakistan.
Taking Advantage of the Arab Spring
Seventy-five percent of all U.S. attacks in Yemen have taken place since May 2011, during the Arab Spring. While former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was cracking down on protesters in the streets, the U.S. government was engaging in covert operations against alleged suspects of Al-Qaeda of the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), which is based primarily in Yemen.
Instead of demanding that Saleh step down or face military intervention as had been done in Libya, the U.S. latched to Saleh, a major ally in Obama’s drone war, and took advantage of the protests as a distraction from its own missions in the country.
Even after Saleh was wounded in a rocket attack by protesters demanding an end to his three-decades of power, the U.S. provided refuge for the former president while he sought medical treatment and escaped demands that he go on trial for the massacre of thousands of demonstrators since the beginning of the Arab Spring.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said when asked if the US still backed Saleh after dozens of protesters died, ”We are obviously concerned about the instability in Yemen. We consider Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is largely located in Yemen, to be perhaps the most dangerous of all the franchises of Al Qaeda right now. And so instability and diversion of attention from dealing with AQAP is certainly my primary concern about the situation.”
Perhaps what Gates meant to say was that the U.S. was concerned that a new Yemeni president would not be as complicit with its covert tactics against AQAP as Saleh had been. Yet, thankfully for the Obama administration, newly appointed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is eager to aid the U.S., calling in his inauguration speech for “the continuation of war against al-Qaeda as a religious and national duty.”
Since the Arab Spring began, between 21 and 35 strikes have been carried out in Yemen. But, TBJI reports that the unwillingness of the U.S. and Yemeni governments to clarify events means the actual numbers may be higher.
Failure to Take Responsibility for Civilian Casualties
The U.S. operates its covert mission in Yemen under the auspices of the Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force, signed by former CENTCOM commander David Petraeus in 2009. The directive authorizes Special Operations troops to perform clandestine military activities abroad to disrupt militant groups, gather information and build alliances regardless of whether the U.S. is currently engaged in a military operation in that country.
Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times reported that, “Unlike covert actions undertaken by the CIA, such clandestine activity does not require the president’s approval or regular reports to Congress.” Despite widespread knowledge of US involvement in strikes in Yemen, the covert nature of the program allows the Obama administration to evade responsibility for the civilian casualties these attacks have caused.
A Wikileaks Cable reveals that Saleh was fully aware of and subsequently covered up U.S. activities against AQAP in Yemen. According to the cable, Saleh and Petraeus were in communication regarding shifting methods of future attacks away from cruise missiles, which were “not very accurate.” Saleh warned Petraeus that any U.S. casualties in strikes against AQAP would be harmful to future efforts.
Saleh is quoted as saying to Petraeus, “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” which prompted Deputy Prime Minister Alimi to joke that he had just “lied” to Parliament by saying the bombs were American-made but deployed by Yemen.
In the same cable, Saleh and Petraeus are recorded debating the number of civilians killed in a 2009 missile strike in al-Majala in southern Yemen. Fifty-eight people were reported killed in the attack, including 44 civilians: 12 women, 5 of them pregnant, and 22 children.
One week later, a U.S. drone strike killed American-born cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi and 30 other suspected Yemeni militants in Shabwa province. The U.S. government is currently facing several Freedom of Information Act lawsuits because of its unwillingness to provide details about the legality of its targeted killing programs in Yemen and elsewhere in the region.
A Yemeni parliamentary commission conducted an extensive investigation of the December 17th attacks in al-Majala. However, the Obama administration has yet to conduct its own investigation or acknowledge the role of U.S. Special Operations forces in the attack.
A spokesman for Sheikh Himir Al-Ahmar, the commission’s chairman and now Yemen’s deputy speaker, told the TBIJ, “The families of the victims were indeed paid appropriate compensation by the Yemeni Government. The American authorities did not get involved in this process in any way.”
Meanwhile, TBIJ points out that the US government has agreed to pay families $50,000 for each victim of a killing rampage recently carried out by an American soldier in Afghanistan – a massacre which will likely not be as easy to cover up as the hundreds of civilians killed in Yemen by U.S. strikes.