IN A SURPRISING admission on Tuesday, the head of U.S. Central Command -- which oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia -- admitted that the Pentagon doesn't know a whole lot about the Saudi airstrikes in Yemen that the United States is supporting through intelligence, munitions, and refueling.
U.S. CENTCOM Cmdr. Gen. Joseph Votel made the admission in response to questions from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"General Votel, does CENTCOM track the purpose of the missions it is refueling? In other words, where a U.S.-refueled aircraft is going, what targets it strikes, and the result of the mission?" Warren asked.
"Senator, we do not," Votel replied.
Warren followed up by describing an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition that struck civilians in February. The attack, in the northern Yemen town of Saada, killed five civilians. Medical staff who rushed in to help survivors were hit in a follow-up attack, Warren noted. (This is known as a "double-tap" airstrike.)
"General Votel, when you receive reports like this from credible media organizations or outside observers, is CENTCOM able to tell if U.S. fuel or U.S. munitions were used in that strike?"
"No, senator, I don't believe we are," he replied.
Since the Yemen war started three years ago, the Saudi-led coalition has killed thousands of civilians, including in strikes on hospitals and civilian centers. U.S. tankers refuel planes from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other coalition members, raising questions about American culpability in war crimes.
Last month, Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; Chris Murphy, D-Conn.; and Mike Lee, R-Utah introduced a resolution designed to end U.S. involvement in the war. In response to Votel's answers, Warren said the lack of clarity about the specific role of the U.S. military in the conflict is one of the reasons she is backing the Sanders-Lee proposal.
The Massachusetts senator pointed out that Iran also plays a role in fueling the conflict, but said U.S. support for Saudi Arabia makes it subject to more scrutiny.
"We need to be clear about this: Saudi Arabia's the one receiving American weapons and American support. And that means we bear some responsibility here. And that means we need to hold our partners and our allies accountable for how those resources are used," she said.
Votel's stunning admissions come after The Intercept reported last year that CENTCOM doesn't know how much fuel it offloads specifically for the Saudi-led coalition. Responding to questions from The Intercept, CENTCOM said that it lumps together refueling data for the coalition with data for U.S. planes in the area, joint U.S.-Emirati missions, and possibly other operations. The database that tracks refueling include the refueling of all aircraft, including American ones, in the "Horn of Africa" area.
The Sanders-Lee proposal would invoke the War Powers Act to force a debate on limiting U.S. involvement in Yemen to missions that combat Al Qaeda. Crucially, it would withdraw support for the Saudi-led war. Since March 2015, the Saudi-led coalition has been at war with the Houthi rebels, who are supported by Iran and are opponents of Al Qaeda. The United States supports the Saudi coalition with intelligence, munitions, and refueling for aircraft.
In 2016, The Intercept interviewed half a dozen former senior U.S. diplomats who served in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and all of them decried the Saudi-led war as unwinnable. They called on the U.S. to consider withdrawing support for the conflict to get the Saudi Arabian government to commit to peace. Nearly two years after we published this piece, the war continues with no end in sight.