A growing chorus of lawmakers are demanding the U.S. government end its support of Saudi Arabia’s bloody military intervention in Yemen’s ongoing civil war against the Houthi rebels, a campaign marked by callously indifferent airstrikes that have killed thousands of civilians, a potential death toll in the millions from starvation, and allegations that the Department of Defense is engaged in an unconstitutional conflict in the Middle East’s poorest country outside the Gaza Strip.
On Oct. 11, a bipartisan trio of lawmakers made up of Reps. Ro Khanna of Pennsylvania, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin — both on the House Armed Services Committee — and Walter Jones of North Carolina authored a scathing call for Congress to reclaim its oversight responsibilities for American war-making, too long abdicated to the White House and Pentagon since the passage of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. Since 2002, the U.S. government has used the AUMF to justify counterterrorism deployments and foreign military training against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, an unauthorized military engagement pursued “for political purposes” with the Saudis, the lawmakers allege.
“There’s a good reason that the Constitution reserves for Congress the right to declare war — a clause taken in modern times as forbidding the president from pursuing an unauthorized war in the absence of an actual or imminent threat to the nation,” they wrote. “Clearly, the founders’ intent was to prevent precisely the kind of dangerous course we’re charting.”
Since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the commander-in-chief has turned up the heat on the terror group there. In January, a tragic U.S. special operations forces raid in the country left one Navy SEAL dead and officials claims yielded “no significant evidence.” In May, SEALs took out seven AQAP leaders at a crucial compound in the country’s central Marib governorate. And in August, the DoD deployed boots on the ground to help expel al Qaeda militants from their de facto capital of Al Mukalla (one service member with the Army’s 160th Special Operations Air Regiment was killed in a Black Hawk crash a few weeks later). The latest Defense Manpower Data Center report, from June 30, 2017, listed only 13 military personnel in the country; the Pentagon declined to comment on existing troop levels there).
Since the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen began in August 2015, the United States has sold the former precision-guided munitions and even white phosphorous; despite a brief halt in sales in late 2016 citing civilian casualties, Trump unveiled the largest arms sale in U.S. history during a trip to Riyadh in May 2017 as part of efforts to build an “Arab NATO” with Saudi Arabia at the center, a decision that came months after Trump reportedly discussed a deeper U.S. involvement in the country. The Pentagon has not just actively funneled tanks, planes, bombs, and targeting intelligence to Saudi defense officials (the latter of which they apparently ignore), but provided material support during bombing runs, flying nearly 1,200 sorties to refuel more than 5,600 warplanes as part of the Saudi-led coalition in the first year of the campaign, according to U.S. Central Command statistics, the New York Times reported in August 2016. The DoD mission in Yemen has become so complex that CENTCOM can’t even keep track of how much gear and fuel it offloads onto the Saudi coalition.
But there’s a problem, as Kanna, Jones, and Pocan wrote in the New York Times on Oct. 11: the Shiite Houthi rebels targeted by Sauri airstrikes “are in no way connected to the Sunni extremists of al Qaeda or the Islamic State, which the United States has been going after across the globe under the Authorization for Use of Military Force of 2001,” meaning that any U.S. military involvement in the Saudi bombing campaign against the group doesn’t fall under the AUMF.
“Al Qaeda has been referred to by The Associated Press as a ‘de facto ally’ of Saudi Arabia and its coalition in their shared battle against the Houthis,” the congressman wrote. “This raises the question: Whom are we actually supporting in Yemen?” (It’s worth noting that, in May, an AQAP leader in Yemen claimed the group was fighting alongside the Shiite rebels targeted by the Saudi regime.)
A bipartisan resolution introduced by Khanna on Sept. 27 would forcefully end U.S. military involvement from its “unauthorized hostilities” in Yemen in support of the Saudi forces targeting Houthi rebels, a measure that Khanna told Task & Purpose would benefit AUMF-justified counterterrorism operations in the long term.
“Ongoing counterterrorism operations will not be impacted,” Khanna told Task & Purpose in an email. “In fact, increased U.S. support for the counterproductive and unrelated Saudi-led war has made our efforts to pursue AQAP all the more dangerous and difficult.”
Bipartisan concern over the U.S.-back Saudi campaign has been growing in the Senate as well. Sens. Todd Young of Indiana and Chris Murphy of Connecticut in mid-September sought to galvanize support for a rider to the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act “that would condition U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia on American officials guaranteeing that Riyadh is following international humanitarian law,” as the Huffington Post put it at the time. Back in June, senators turned out in record numbers to attempt to block a $500 million weapons sale to the Saudi government after another group of lawmakers, including Murphy, moved to introduce a precision-guided weapons measure that would have stalled the bill. The legislation failed by 47 to 53.
Given rising anxiety among taxpayers regarding America’s growing military presence in foreign battlefields — a trend that will only continue as the Army’s “advise and assist” missions expand in the coming years, as Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley admitted during his opening remarks at AUSA this year — it’s possible that the political frustration with the conflict on Capitol Hill, if somehow successful, could trigger a broad reconsideration of a new AUMF, a debate that hit a high point in late June when the House Appropriations Committee approved language revoking the 2001 AUMF.
“The Pentagon’s expanded involvement in Yemen, particularly in the Saudi-led war against the Houthis, raises concerns regarding the lack of transparency and accountability of its operations,” Khanna told Task & Purpose. “This resolution would ensure that Congress exerts greater oversight in the region through an Authorization for Use of Military Force.”
But bringing the DoD’s involvement more in line with the law may, despite protests in the legislative branch, prove difficult given the Trump’s administration’s apparent fixation on backing up Saudi Arabia. During his May visit to Riyadh, Trump praised the Saudi monarchy for “[taking] strong action against Houthi militants in Yemen,” a statement that belies a fundamental misunderstanding of his own military’s role in the country.
There are currently two wars in Yemen: one against terror, and an unconstitutional one. Which one will the DoD choose to fight?
Greg Flynn contributed reporting.