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Lawmakers Want to Force US Military Out of Yemen War

An anti-ISIS coalition aircraft refuels from a U.S. KC-135 Stratotanker over Southwest Asia in August 2017. Lawmakers want to curtail the Air Force’s ability to refuel coalition jets operating in the Yemen air war. Staff Sgt. Trevor T. McBride/Air Force
An anti-ISIS coalition aircraft refuels from a U.S. KC-135 Stratotanker over Southwest Asia in August 2017. Lawmakers want to curtail the Air Force’s ability to refuel coalition jets operating in the Yemen air war. Staff Sgt. Trevor T. McBride/Air Force

The U.S. Air Force's refueling operations for the Saudi-led coalition striking Yemen could end if lawmakers succeed in passing a House bill.

Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat and member of the House Armed Services Committee, on Sept. 27 introduced House Congressional Resolution 81, which would order the U.S. military removed from unauthorized hostilities in Yemen except operations directed at Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.

The bipartisan resolution, also headed by Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C.; Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis.; and Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., has 30 members of the House as co-sponsors.

The war first made headlines in spring 2015, when Houthi rebels -- anti-government fighters aligned with ousted former president Ali Abdullah Saleh -- were dislodged from their position near the port city of Aden by the coalition, which includes the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Kuwait.

The coalition included Qatar before the Gulf Cooperation Council diplomatic crisis earlier this year.

Despite the U.S. military’s quiet role in the war, it has become a target of critics -- from organizations tracking civilian casualties, all the way to Washington.

There have been nearly 14,000 civilian casualties so far in the conflict, "including 5,159 people killed and 8,761 injured" since March 2015, according to the United Nations' Human Rights High Commissioner Office.

The bill "in no way restricts our military counter-terrorism efforts in Yemen," Khanna said in a telephone interview with Military.com on Thursday. "All the bill basically does is say we should not be assisting Saudi Arabia in Yemen."

But could this jeopardize the United States' partnerships with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- the two nations at the forefront of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen -- in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria?

"They need us far more than we need them," Khanna said. "They're not going to tell the United States what to do."

An Error in Statistics

For more than two years, the Air Force routinely provided refueling statistics to this reporter, saying the numbers were specific to jets refueling for operations in Yemen.

However, this month, officials said the data they had been providing was not fully accurate.

The data, officials with Air Forces Central Command said, encompassed total refueling operations happening in or near the Horn of Africa "to include but not limited to Saudi-led operations in Yemen, U.S. missions in that area, and Emirate operations against [Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula] targets," said Capt. Jose Davis, spokesman for the command.

When asked why the data distribution erred before, Davis said, "We do not have the ability to break out this data just for the Saudi coalition jets in Yemen because our database does not break down details on each receiv[ing aircraft]."

When Military.com last reported on the statistics -- at the time, identified to be specifically for Yemen-related operations -- in February, the missions were steadily increasing. Now, that information is obscure.

Since April 2015, the service's tankers, such as KC-135 Stratotankers and KC-10 Extenders, have participated in 2,363 sorties in the Horn of Africa region, AFCENT said.

More than 10,400 aircraft have benefited from the U.S.' refueling capabilities in that region, according to the statistics provided to Military.com on Oct. 9.

U.S. tankers have offloaded nearly 80 million pounds of fuel as a result.

Refueling numbers are tracked by the command but, unlike statistics on strikes and sorties against the Islamic State and the Taliban, aren't publicly released via the command's airpower summary factsheets.

"I think [Defense] Secretary [Jim] Mattis is a man of integrity, and I have confidence in our military's transparency, but I hope that we'll get the right information," Khanna said when asked if the recent statistics error worries him.

But it's how the U.S. will be remembered for its assistance in the Yemen conflict that really troubles him, he said.

"We don't have any stake, in my view, in whether the Houthis are in power in Yemen -- it's not in our national security interest," Khanna said.

Pointing to Saudi Arabia, he said, "They need to assist us in the fight against terrorism, because it's the right thing to do, and they have no right to extract a price from the United States for going after terrorism."

No Targeting Ops

Khanna said the House bill also outlines removing "targeting assistance" provided by the U.S. to the Saudis.

Central Command officials in previous months have said the U.S. does not provide targeting intel to Saudi jets striking Houthi sites.

AFCENT commander Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian told reporters during the Air Force Association's annual Air, Space and Cyber Conference last month that the U.S. does not have "the mandate to do that or the authorities to do that."

"Yes, we still provide tankers. Yes, we still have airmen in the Saudi [air operations center]. But I want to be very clear on this: We do not provide and advise on targeting," Harrigian said Sept. 19.

"What we have those airmen doing down there is basically assuring that any sorties that we would have in and around Yemen are deconflicted from what the Saudi-led coalition is flying," he said.

Harrigian said the Saudis create and fly their own tasking orders.

The U.S. meanwhile needs "to make sure that if we fly down there, we are squawking the appropriate codes that are deconflicted from their specific operations," he said, referring to transmission codes that allow friendly forces to understand an aircraft's position.

When asked if the U.S. has amended these rules in recent weeks to provide targeting intelligence in any capacity, Marine Corps Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, on Thursday reaffirmed that the Defense Department does not coordinate targets.

Can It Be Done?

The goal now is for the U.S. to remove itself before becoming more complicit in Saudi Arabia's war, Khanna said.

"What my concern is, is that we need to reorient our foreign policy and not have an alliance with Saudi Arabia. But I have great admiration and great confidence in our military [in counter-terrorism operations], and I think our military can achieve those goals against ISIS and in Yemen," he said.

The U.S., Khanna said, has a "much higher standard" when it comes to precision targeting to avoid or minimize civilian casualties -- something to which Saudi Arabia may not necessarily adhere.

"We comply with human rights [advocacy] in a way the Saudi regime does not," he said.

The congressman is in talks with other members of Congress regarding the War Powers Resolution of 1973 and whether it can be invoked in this case. If invoked, it would order the U.S. to end its involvement in the Yemen conflict within 30 days of the bill's passage, unless Congress votes otherwise.

Once negotiations conclude, lawmakers hope to take it to a House vote Nov. 2.

Dan DePetris, a fellow at Defense Priorities and a Middle East and foreign policy analyst at Wikistrat Inc., said the U.S.' role in Yemen's civil war is only complicating how that country can sustain itself in the future -- and how the U.S. deals with terrorist organizations.

"The broader point that cannot be overstated enough is that the civil war in Yemen is only complicating our policy against ISIS and al-Qaida," DePetris said in an email to Military.com.

"Indiscriminate airstrikes on civilian targets and Riyadh's obsession with the Houthis are allowing jihadist groups to breathe a little easier. AQAP has capitalized on the violence by recruiting those who have lost friends and relatives in the bombing," he said.

"Continuing the provision of aid to the Saudis in their campaign against the Houthis serves no vital U.S. national security interest," he said.

DePetris said it's time to pick a side.

"U.S. officials have publicly stated that no party in this conflict is strong enough to win militarily. And yet Washington's actions do not match those words," he said. "On one side of our mouth, we talk about a negotiated resolution to the war. But on the other side, we continue to reinforce the Arab coalition's operations."

DePetris added, "It is completely counterproductive and no way to proactively work toward an inclusive diplomatic process."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.