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What’s the U.S. role in Yemen’s civil war?

April 7, 2016 at 6:30 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first, the grinding war in Yemen has further broken an already failing state. Now there are new questions about the depth of U.S. involvement there, aiding what has become a proxy war.

Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies launched the air campaign 13 months ago, aimed at Shiite Houthi rebels in league with Iran. But the United Nations estimates the airstrikes account for 60 percent of the 3,200 civilians killed in the conflict so far.

Just last month, an air raid on a crowded market left 119 people dead.

RUPERT COLVILLE, Spokesman, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Despite public promises to investigate such incidents, we have yet to see progress in any such investigations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now Human Rights Watch says its investigators visited the site, and determined the strikes used U.S.-supplied bombs. The group said it illustrates — quote — “tragically, why countries should stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia.”

In response, the U.S. Central Command said: “Selection and final vetting of targets in the campaign are made by the Saudi-led coalition, not the United States.”

Secretary of State John Kerry said he didn’t have any — quote — “solid information” about what weapons were used. He spoke during a visit to Bahrain, a member of the Saudi coalition.

The U.S. aids that coalition, and in November approved a nearly $1.3 billion rearming program for the Saudis. “Foreign Policy” magazine reports that there have been roughly 750 U.S. aerial refueling missions.

Meanwhile, a cease-fire is scheduled to begin Sunday, with new peace talks scheduled for April 18.

For more on the conflict and the U.S. role in Yemen, I’m joined now by retired Army Colonel Derek Harvey. He was an intelligence officer and special adviser to the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus.

Colonel Harvey, thank you for being with us again.

This report by Human Rights Watch is disturbing, but hasn’t it been known for some time that there have been large numbers of civilian casualties in this war?

COL. DEREK HARVEY (RET.), Former Army Intelligence Officer: Yes, it’s been true that large numbers of civilian casualties.

And I think it’s inevitable, given the skill and lack of training and use of the weapons and technology that the Saudi air forces employ in Yemen today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what do you mean by that? What do you mean by lack of training and skill, or lack of skill?

COL. DEREK HARVEY: Well, Judy, I think we are very accustomed in America and elsewhere in the world to the high professionalism and great skill of the U.S. Air Force and Western European countries, who have rules of engagement, training, and capabilities that allow them to reduce collateral damage and civilian casualties.

Other countries around the world, to include the Saudi Arabian air force, doesn’t have that same level of skill. They fly higher. They’re not as good at employing those weapons. They, you know, are probably trying to avoid civilian casualties. Everything we see seems to suggest that. But it’s inevitable, given the type of conflict and the skill level of those that are involved in this conflict.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why did the U.S., why did this administration decide to provide this kind of military support to the Saudis and to this coalition, intelligence, refueling, and all the rest?

COL. DEREK HARVEY: Well, part of it is, we have been attempting to bolster the relationship with Saudi Arabia after some of the fractious disagreement about the Iran nuclear deal, and concerns in Saudi Arabia and in the Gulf about Iranian continued efforts to encroach on Sunni Arab areas.

And with the successes of Iran in Iraq and in Syria and Lebanon, they saw this as another threat from Iran supporting the Shia-aligned Houthis in Yemen that was going to threaten Saudi Arabia. The United States simply decided it was best to pollster and repair that relationship with Riyadh and support them in the way that we have been doing it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what — I mean, can you spell out a little bit more about what the support entails?

COL. DEREK HARVEY: Clearly, we are providing some advice and assistance with limited what I would call coaching. But we’re not selecting or directing the operations or directing any targeting.

There is intelligence that’s being provided from a range of U.S. intelligence capabilities, to include drones that are flying over Yemen on a regular basis. The air refueling that was commented on in the intro piece is — has been an important element.

But, mostly, the Saudi Arabians and the other Gulf countries that are involved in this conflict primarily use U.S. weapons and munitions. And, inevitably, it’s going to be American-sourced equipment, weapons and munitions that will be used in Yemen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how much responsibility does the United States bear for these civilian casualties?

COL. DEREK HARVEY: Well, I don’t think we’re involved in selecting any of those targets. It’s indirect.

We have been supporting an ally, and, in that sense, you know, there is some responsibility. The United States administration, the Obama administration, Secretary Kerry and others, have distanced themselves very clearly from that conflict and are recognizing that it’s really about supporting Saudi Arabia and repairing the relationship.

So, they understand that they’re in a hard place because of the blowback and the concerns that the United States is being tainted by the support of the Saudi Arabians in this conflict.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But do you — is it your sense that the administration has explained the conflict here, the contradiction here?

COL. DEREK HARVEY: No, not at all.

This is another war that is forgotten. It’s on the back burner. It’s, in part, part of our larger C.T. strategy that imploded almost a year ago in Yemen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Counterterrorism.

COL. DEREK HARVEY: Yes, our counterterrorism strategy.

And, unfortunately, since the civil war expanded and the Saudis became involved, our ability to go after al-Qaida and the expanding Islamic State elements in Yemen has been hurt.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it sounds as if the prospects for working this out are — remain very difficult. There’s a cease-fire and peace talks, but no assurances.

COL. DEREK HARVEY: I think we’re just at the beginning of that journey. The talks that are coming up in Kuwait City mid-month are a good step.

There has been some exchanges of prisoners. There’s talk on both sides. But we’re a long ways away from exhaustion on both sides or one side being able to impose its will on the other. So I think this conflict is going to rage on. And there’s really, you know, bleak prospects.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Colonel Derek Harvey, we thank you very much.

COL. DEREK HARVEY: Thank you, Judy.

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