Pentagon Lied to Congress: Army Special Forces Secretly Sent to Yemen
May 4, 2018
AntiWar.com & Al-Monitor & The New York Times
The US military is more deeply involved in the Saudi War in Yemen than officials ever admitted. In fact, new evidence suggests the Pentagon lied to Congress during the March debate about US involvement, presenting the US role at present being limited to targeting and mid-air refueling of Saudi warplanes.
US Army Special Forces Secretly Sent to Fight Houthis in Yemen
Green Berets are helping Saudis
locate and destroy Houthi missile caches
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com
(May 3, 2018) – The US military is more deeply involved in the Saudi War in Yemen than officials ever admitted. In fact, new evidence suggests the Pentagon lied to Congress during the March debate about US involvement, presenting the US role at present being limited to targeting and mid-air refueling of Saudi warplanes.
The New York Times is reporting on Thursday that there are actually a small number of US special forces on the ground at the Saudi border with Yemen. Those troops have not only been on the ground since late 2017, but are there on a mission to help the Saudi military fight Yemen's Shi'ite Houthi movement.
No public debate took place with respect to this deployment. Indeed, the Pentagon appears to have gone to great lengths not to tell the American public or the Congress about the Green Berets they sent to the border. The Green Berets are intended to help the Saudis "locate and destroy" Houthi missile caches, and attack Houthi launch sites inside Yemen.
This has been going on despite the Trump Administration telling Congress that America's involvement in Yemen was purely "non-combat," and again, despite the Pentagon repeatedly saying that America's sole involvement in Yemen was logistics and support for the air war.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) said the Pentagon was deliberately "blurring the lines between train and equip missions and combat." It is unclear from the New York Times report if the US troops crossed into Yemen, but given that their mission was to target Houthi sites, it seems almost certain that they have.
Centcom Commander Gen. Joseph Votel, during the March debate, did say that he had authorization to "help the Saudis defend their border." At that time, however, he told the Senate this was being done purely through intelligence sharing and "military advice." Clearly, it also involved physical US troops on the border.
It remains to be seen what the consequences of the Pentagon's deception will be domestically. At the very least it seems like this could provide a new pretext for a vote on ending US involvement in the Yemen War, as Congress lacked all the information they needed to have an informed vote in March.
US Troops on Yemen Border
Ruffle Congressional Feathers
Bryant Harris / Al-Monitor
(May 3, 2018) -- Congressional critics of US involvement in the war in Yemen are up in arms following a recent report in The New York Times revealing that the Donald Trump administration has stationed a dozen US Army Green Berets on the Saudi border as part of the fight against Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
The Trump administration maintains that US support for the Saudi-led coalition is limited to targeting, logistics, intelligence and midair refueling support for coalition warplanes. But in recent months the US role in the war has fallen under heightened scrutiny from lawmakers as coalition bombings result in mounting civilian casualties and the country struggles with famine and the worst cholera outbreak in history.
"The Trump administration's purposeful blurring of lines between train and equip missions and combat, from Niger to Yemen, is unacceptable," Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told Al-Monitor in a statement. "It runs afoul of our system of checks and balances in war powers and is deepening our involvement in endless wars without a vote of Congress."
Progressive champion Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Tea Party stalwart Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, forced a floor vote on ending US participation in the war after House leadership forestalled a similar effort by Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., last year in the lower chamber. Although the Senate blocked the joint resolution 55-44, the vote reflected growing bipartisan frustration with the war -- frustration that continues to fester.
"I have strong concerns that the Trump administration is getting the US more involved in a war in Yemen without congressional authorization," Sanders tweeted today, following the Times report. "I'll be seeking further clarification on these activities. We must prevent the US from getting dragged into another never-ending war."
The failed Sanders-Lee resolution also prompted Sens. Todd Young, R-Ind., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., to introduce new legislation that would require Saudi Arabia to meet a series of stringent diplomatic and human rights criteria in order to continue qualifying for US refueling support. US refueling operations are essential for the coalition in carrying out its aerial campaign.
Also taking to Twitter, Khanna today argued that the ground troops go "beyond just refueling Saudi-led coalition jets and targeting-assistance. Our troops continue to see their involvement increase in the Saudi-led war against the Houthis. This is an unconstitutional and unauthorized use of military force."
However, critics of Iran's support for the Houthi rebels against Yemen's internationally recognized government are quick to defend US support for the coalition as a deterrent against a constant barrage of missiles that have targeted Saudi cities and airports in recent months. According to the Times, the handful of US troops at the border are training Saudi troops and using surveillance planes to track Houthi weapons and launch sites.
"While Yemen is awash with Russian and Chinese weaponry, Iran has been a force multiplier for Houthi missile capabilities," Behnam Ben Taleblu, a research fellow at the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Al-Monitor. "One hopes that the Green Berets will be able to not only help the Saudis identify launch sites and material depots, but the launchers that enable the Houthi missile force to become mobile."
He added, "A known unknown in the open source community is the exact location which Yemen is using to fire missiles into the kingdom."
A United Nations report earlier this year found that Tehran was in violation of an arms embargo on Yemen because the Houthis have obtained Iranian missiles.
But opponents of US anti-Houthi operations in Yemen contend that The New York Times revelations indicate that the Trump administration was less than forthcoming in the debate leading up to the Senate's tabling of the Sanders-Lee joint resolution in March.
"The bigger question here is the credibility of the arguments the Pentagon made during the debate and how forthcoming they're being with members who are trying to do oversight and weigh in on this," Stephen Miles, the director of Win Without War, a coalition of anti-war groups, told Al-Monitor.
The Pentagon did not respond to Al-Monitor's inquiry as to whether they had informed lawmakers of the Green Berets stationed at the border. During the debate, the Department of Defense maintained that US support for the Saudi coalition does not constitute involvement in "hostilities."
"The administration's claim that US military support to Saudi Arabia -- which has included aircraft, weapons, training, intelligence and refueling -- does not constitute involvement in 'hostilities' is absurd," Kaine told Al-Monitor. "This is yet another example of why we urgently need a debate and vote on the blank check that's been given to the president to wage wars."
Miles also contended that the ground troop deployment constitutes "hostilities," regardless of which side of the border they're stationed on, since they're providing targeting assistance against targets in Yemen. He noted, "It's unclear … whether or not those Green Berets have gone into Yemen on a mission."
Bryant Harris is Al-Monitor's congressional correspondent. He was previously the White House assistant correspondent for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.
Army Special Forces Secretly Help Saudis
Combat Threat From Yemen Rebels
Helene Cooper, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Eric Schmitt / The New York Times
WASHINGTON (May 3, 2018) -- For years, the American military has sought to distance itself from a brutal civil war in Yemen, where Saudi-led forces are battling rebels who pose no direct threat to the United States.
But late last year, a team of about a dozen Green Berets arrived on Saudi Arabia's border with Yemen, in a continuing escalation of America's secret wars.
With virtually no public discussion or debate, the Army commandos are helping locate and destroy caches of ballistic missiles and launch sites that Houthi rebels in Yemen are using to attack Riyadh and other Saudi cities.
Details of the Green Beret operation, which has not been previously disclosed, were provided to The New York Times by United States officials and European diplomats.
They appear to contradict Pentagon statements that American military assistance to the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen is limited to aircraft refueling, logistics and general intelligence sharing.
There is no indication that the American commandos have crossed into Yemen as part of the secretive mission.
But sending American ground forces to the border is a marked escalation of Western assistance to target Houthi fighters who are deep in Yemen.
Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia and a member of the Armed Services Committee, on Thursday called the Green Berets mission a "purposeful blurring of lines between train and equip missions and combat." He cited the report in The Times and called for a new congressional vote on the authorization for the use of military force -- a war powers legislation used by three successive presidents in conflict zones around the world.
Beyond its years as a base for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen has been convulsed by civil strife since 2014, when the Shiite Muslim rebels from the country's north stormed the capital, Sana. The Houthis, who are aligned with Iran, ousted the government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the Americans' main counterterrorism partner in Yemen.
In 2015, a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia began bombing the Houthis, who have responded by firing missiles into the kingdom. Yet there is no evidence that the Houthis directly threaten the United States; they are an unsophisticated militant group with no operations outside Yemen and have not been classified by the American government as a terrorist group.
The Green Berets, the Army's Special Forces, deployed to the border in December, weeks after a ballistic missile fired from Yemen sailed close to Riyadh, the Saudi capital. The Saudi military said it intercepted the missile over the city's international airport -- a claim that was cast in doubt by an analysis of photos and videos of the strike. But it was enough for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to renew a longstanding request that the United States send troops to help the kingdom combat the Houthi threat.
A half-dozen officials -- from the United States military, the Trump administration, and European and Arab nations -- said the American commandos are training Saudi ground troops to secure their border. They also are working closely with American intelligence analysts in Najran, a city in southern Saudi Arabia that has been repeatedly attacked with rockets, to help locate Houthi missile sites within Yemen.
Along the porous border, the Americans are working with surveillance planes that can gather electronic signals to track the Houthi weapons and their launch sites, according to the officials, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the mission publicly.
During a meeting on Capitol Hill in March, senators pressed Pentagon officials about the military's role in the Saudi-led conflict, demanding to know whether American troops were at risk of entering into hostilities against the Houthis.
Pentagon officials told the senators what had already been said publicly: that American forces stationed in Saudi Arabia only advised within the kingdom's borders and were focused mostly on border defense.
"We are authorized to help the Saudis defend their border," Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the head of United States Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 13. "We are doing that through intelligence sharing, through logistics support and through military advice that we provide to them."
On April 17, Robert S. Karem, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the United States had about 50 military personnel in Saudi Arabia, "largely helping on the ballistic missile threat."
The Green Berets have stepped in to deal with an increasingly difficult problem for the Saudi military. Their presence is the latest example of the expanding relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia under President Trump and Prince Mohammed.
Mr. Trump's first overseas trip after taking office was to Riyadh, nearly one year ago. By contrast, President Barack Obama regularly criticized Saudi Arabia for civilian casualties inflicted by its bombing campaign in Yemen, and blocked arms sales to the kingdom.
In March, as Prince Mohammed met with Mr. Trump and top national security officials in Washington, the State Department approved the sale of an estimated $670 million in anti-tank missiles in an arms package that also included spare parts for American-made tanks and helicopters that Saudi Arabia previously purchased.
"Saudi Arabia is a very wealthy nation, and they're going to give the United States some of that wealth hopefully, in the form of jobs, in the form of the purchase of the finest military equipment anywhere in the world," Mr. Trump said at the time.
He called Prince Mohammed "more than the crown prince now" and displayed a poster featuring military aircraft worth $12.5 billion that the United States had agreed to sell to Saudi Arabia.
The American military's support for the Saudi campaign against the Houthis is different from the Pentagon's campaign against other militants in Yemen.
Over the past two years, American-backed government troops from Yemen and the United Arab Emirates have expanded a shadowy war in Yemen's central and southern regions. The effort has targeted more than 3,000 members of the Qaeda affiliate and its tribal confederates, driving them into the rugged, mountainous interior.
Last year, as part of Mr. Trump's intensified campaign against terrorist organizations, the United States launched more than 130 airstrikes in Yemen, according to United States Central Command. Most of the strikes targeted Qaeda militants; 10 were launched against Islamic State fighters.
By comparison, the American military launched 38 strikes in Yemen in 2016; airstrikes have continued this year.
Officials said American support for the Saudi-led coalition against Houthi rebels, a campaign that includes the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt, was initially outlined in a 2015 document known as the Rice memo, named after Susan E. Rice, who was then Mr. Obama's national security adviser.
The memo detailed military assistance and was intended to keep the United States out of offensive operations against the Houthis, focusing instead on helping the Saudis secure their border.
Under the Trump administration, the scope of those guidelines appears to have grown -- as evidenced by the addition of American surveillance planes and the Green Beret team.
The Saudi air campaign in 2015 initially was aimed at stockpiles of older Soviet ballistic missiles that were first used in Yemen's 1994 civil war. The Saudi military reckoned those weapons could fall into Houthi hands.
In April 2015, after a month of strikes, the Saudi-led coalition said it had accomplished its goals of destroying the missiles and the equipment used to launch them. But that June, Houthi rebels launched their first salvo of ballistic missiles, aimed at Khamis Mushayt, a Saudi city roughly 60 miles from the Yemen border.
Since then, Houthis have launched dozens of missiles, including shorter-range modified antiaircraft missiles and imported Iranian munitions. The White House and State Department have seized on the attacks to condemn not only the rebels but their Iranian supporters, underscoring the administration's increasing hard line against Tehran.
"Iran destabilizes this entire region," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a visit to Riyadh on Sunday. "It supports proxy militias and terrorist groups. It is an arms dealer to the Houthi rebels in Yemen."
Since 2015, Mr. Karem said, Houthi rebels have launched more than 100 ballistic missiles and many more rockets against major population centers, international airports, military installations and oil infrastructure -- all within Saudi Arabia.
In the first four months of this year, the Houthis launched more than 30 missiles -- roughly on par with the number fired in all of 2017, according to data compiled by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Saudi forces trying to counter weapons from Yemen's west coast -- like the Houthi-held port in Al Hudaydah, where officials in Riyadh believe components of the missiles are shipped -- have only two viable options, said Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The first is to find the missiles where they are stored, which requires an extensive amount of intelligence, Mr. Knights said. The second is far harder: to attack the launch sites, he said.
"They have a very difficult problem," Mr. Knights said.
Houthi rebels could hide mobile missile launchers anywhere from inside culverts to beneath highway overpasses. They are easily moved for hasty launches.
Dealing with that problem requires a well-orchestrated system by the Saudi-led coalition, extending from satellites to troops on the ground, to ensure aircraft can find and quickly destroy the missile launchers.
"In a mobile-missile environment, that's a challenge," Gen. David L. Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, said in an interview.
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