The report, published by UK-based nongovernmental organization Airwars, concluded that at least 86 non-combatants were credibly reported to have been killed during US operations in Yemen since 2017. Credit: Tasnim News.

When Joseph Stalin was asked about the power of the Vatican in ceasing the oppression of Catholics in Russia, he scoffed: “How many divisions has the Pope?”

The comparison is much like the mighty Pentagon vs. a small, well-intentioned watchdog group called Airwars.

The latter — a United Kingdom-based nongovernmental organization — simply has no power to take the US military giant to task for its sins. So much for America’s moral high ground.

On the heels of a watchdog report on the number of civilians killed by the US military in the Yemen conflict, US Central Command (CENTCOM) simply swept away dozens of allegations, choosing instead to take responsibility for one single airstrike, which they conceded killed two civilians, Al-Monitor reported.

The report concluded that at least 86 non-combatants were credibly reported to have been killed during US operations in Yemen since 2017.

The group also concluded the majority of those alleged deaths occurred shortly after US President Donald Trump rolled back engagement restrictions for the US military in certain conflicts, Al-Monitor reported.

“US CENTCOM conducted a thorough review of the information Airwars provided,” spokesperson US Navy Capt. Bill Urban told Al-Monitor via email. “Of the information Airwars provided, one strike on September 14, 2017, was assessed to have caused injuries to two civilians.

“The bulk of the information asserted by Airwars, however, did not correspond with dates and locations of US military strikes or raids in Yemen,” Urban wrote. “Other Airwars allegations either did not allege civilian harm or were not assessed as credible upon our review,” he wrote.

Airwars responded to CENTCOM’s statement on Thursday, saying that more than half of the alleged US military engagements deemed to have resulted in civilian casualties corresponded to confirmed US strikes and raids, Al-Monitor reported.

“The ongoing failure of CENTCOM to provide locational information for its strikes in Yemen — and the opacity of its civilian harm assessments — contrast sharply with its processes for Iraq [and] Syria,” Airwars tweeted.

Airwars acknowledged that the inconsistency between its findings and US Central Command’s claims may suggest that another party — namely the CIA — could have been behind some of the drone strikes, Al-Monitor reported.

CENTCOM’s public tally stands at 12 civilians killed in Yemen, all during a single botched special operations raid during President Trump’s first month in office. The command told Congress in May it received zero allegations of civilian casualties in the country in 2019, a claim Airwars disputed in its report.

Groups like Amnesty International and journalists continue to report that the US military undercounts its civilian casualties in conflicts in SyriaSomalia and Yemen, in many cases labelling those killed as combatants despite claims to the contrary.

However, the work of bodies like Airwars has led to some changes in how the US military tracks and reports civilian casualties.

Key findings in the Airwars report:

• A total of 230 alleged and declared US kinetic actions took place in Yemen during
Donald Trump’s presidency (2017-2020) according to Airwars monitoring. Of
these, 181 US actions were officially declared. This likely marked the most intensive
period of strikes in that country by any US president since 2001. However, this
high tally disguises significant variations between individual years.
• The year 2017 saw the heaviest period of US actions in Yemen during the Trump
administration, with 133 officially declared US airstrikes and ground actions. This
spike in activity coincided with the administration labeling three provinces as
‘areas of active hostilities’, making it easier for US Central Command to conduct
• Since this early peak, US activity in Yemen has declined significantly. Only 21
declared or likely US actions took place in Yemen during 2019; while this year to
October 2020, only 15 claimed US strikes had been tracked, the lowest levels of
reported US activity in Yemen since 2011.
• Forty one of the 230 alleged and declared US actions in Yemen during Donald
Trump’s presidency were found by Airwars to have associated allegations of
civilian harm. Of these, 25 reported US actions were assessed by Airwars to have
likely resulted in civilian harm, reportedly leading to the deaths of between 86
and 154 civilians, including at least 28 children and 13 women.

According to Human Rights Watch, the armed conflict in Yemen has killed and injured thousands of Yemeni civilians since it began. 

As of November 2018, 6,872 civilians had been killed and 10,768 wounded, the majority by Saudi Arabia-led coalition airstrikes, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The actual civilian casualties are likely much higher. Thousands more have been displaced by the fighting and millions suffer from shortages of food and medical care.