Trump, the War President, Leaves a Trail of Civilians Dead in Yemen

A new report sheds light on Donald Trump’s bloody continuation — and intensification — of the brutality of U.S. foreign policy.

Buildings within a civilian residential area are destroyed after airstrikes by the Saudi-led Coalition on March 7, 2018 in Sana'a, Yemen.
Buildings within a civilian residential area are destroyed after airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition on March 7, 2018 in Sana’a, Yemen. Photo: Mohammed Hamoud /Getty Images

In late January 2017, just weeks after Donald Trump was sworn in as commander-in-chief, U.S. troops carried out a raid in the southwestern Yemeni village of al-Ghayil that marked the start of his presidency with bloodshed. The raid, led by dozens of U.S. special forces troops backed by helicopters, allegedly intended to hit Al Qaeda operatives believed to be living in the village. Trump said the raid was “highly successful,” but in reality it ended in bloody calamity.

U.S. forces descended on the village, leveling mud houses with explosives and filling the small alleyways of al-Ghayil with gunfire. By the time the shooting was over, dozens of Yemeni civilians had been killed, along with one U.S. servicemember. The dead included many children. An 8-year old girl, Nawar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American citizen, was among them. Nawar was the daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who later took up arms with a local Al Qaeda affiliate before being killed, along with his 15-year-old son, Abdulrahman, Nawar’s half-brother, in drone strikes carried out by the Obama administration.

Later reports from al-Ghayil listed Nawar al-Awlaki as just one of at least 10 children under the age of 13 killed in the attack. Her death under Trump, who reportedly green-lighted the raid over dinner at the White House days earlier, marked the latest tragic chapter in the saga of the al-Awlaki family’s collision with the U.S. government. “She was hit with a bullet in her neck and suffered for two hours,” her grandfather, Nasser al-Awlaki, later told reporters. “Why kill children? This is the new administration” — the Trump era — “it’s very sad, a big crime.”

The Airwars report paints a picture of a war brutally waged over the past four years while quietly being nudged away from public attention.

A new report released Wednesday by the independent monitoring group Airwars gives a clearer picture of the Trump administration’s devastating impact on Yemen. Called “Eroding Transparency: US counterterrorism actions in Yemen under President Donald Trump,” the report paints a picture of a war brutally waged over the past four years while quietly being nudged away from public attention. Trump campaigned for office in 2016 by portraying himself, at least some of the time, as a counterbalance to a bloodthirsty and out-of-control U.S. foreign policy establishment. But, as the Airwars report shows, the reality of his time in office does not fit with that rosy picture.

According to estimates provided by the report, at least 86 civilians were killed in airstrikes and raids carried out in Yemen on Trump’s watch. Most of these killings occurred during the years 2017 and 2018. In the context of U.S. military operations in Yemen, these two years were some of the most active in terms of strikes — and the deadliest for civilians. The full U.S. war effort in Yemen contains different components: raids and airstrikes carried out by the military, a separate covert campaign involving drones and other measures carried out by the CIA, and finally the indirect support provided by the U.S. to a Saudi-led coalition waging a separate, devastating war against Yemen’s Houthi rebel forces.

Trump inherited these efforts from his predecessor President Barack Obama, but the 45th president has also intensified them. There can be no doubt that Trump has contributed to making Yemen into what Human Rights Watch has described as the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. After more than five years of war, millions find themselves on the brink of starvation in what was already one of the world’s poorest countries. Trump has been glad to oversee the intensification of this crisis, bombing and carrying out raids in the country periodically, as well as arming foreign states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to aid in their own campaigns. In 2019, Trump even failed to take an off-ramp in Yemen: He issued his second presidential veto in order to block a move by Congress to end U.S. involvement in the war.

Adding insult to injury, as the Airwars report notes, Trump has rolled back even modest attempts at the tail-end of the Obama administration, after years of pressure, to provide transparency over U.S. military operations. In 2019, Trump issued an executive order rolling back an Obama-era measure mandating public disclosure of estimated civilian death tolls from U.S. operations in areas like Yemen that are deemed active war zones. The move came two years after Trump relaxed rules around airstrikes and commando raids, thus giving the U.S. military the ability to carry out operations with reduced oversight.

In annual reports under Trump, the U.S. military has claimed that zero civilians were killed in Yemen during operations it carried out in 2018 and 2019. Such a claim flies in the face of painstaking reporting by monitoring groups like Airwars. Unsurprisingly, the absurd death toll went unquestioned by an administration that has gone out of its way to encourage and defend individuals accused of killing civilians in combat.

As harrowing as it has been, the Trump administration’s bloody footprint in Yemen is just one example of how it has continued and even intensified the brutal legacy of U.S. foreign policy throughout the Middle East. U.S. airstrikes in Somalia hit record levels under Trump, even as the country buckles under the pressure of the coronavirus. The U.S. is currently pursuing a policy of siege warfare against the population of Iran as that country grapples with one of the worst virus outbreaks on the planet, denying civilians access to vital supplies as its health system comes under strain not to mention provoking the Islamic Republic by assassinating its military commanders. And, just 10 of Trump’s airstrikes in Afghanistan led to 150 civilian deaths.

Rubble of buildings line a street that was damaged during fighting between U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters and Islamic State militants, in Raqqa, Syria on April 5, 2018.

Rubble of buildings line a street that was damaged during fighting between U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters and Islamic State militants, in Raqqa, Syria, on April 5, 2018.

Photo: Hussein Malla/AP

One of Trump’s purported military successes, the war against the Islamic State, was carried out with similar brutality and indifference to future consequences. As soon as Trump came into office, civilian deaths in the conflict soared. Under his presidency, the U.S.-led coalition air and artillery campaign in Iraq and Syria against the terrorist group killed up to 13,000 civilians — a staggering figure that represents merely the latest tragic chapter in a decadeslong history of U.S. military campaigns in the Middle East that have bred despair and radicalism amid the ruins of Arab countries.

A French military officer serving in the anti-ISIS coalition issued a rare rebuke to how war had been waged during the Trump era. “We have massively destroyed the infrastructure and given the population a disgusting image of what may be a Western-style liberation leaving behind the seeds of an imminent resurgence of a new adversary,” the officer, Col. Francois-Regis Legrier, wrote in a defense journal last year; his article was subsequently removed.

America under Trump is waging war with utmost brutality and little concern for the civilians left behind.

Legrier’s comments were about the U.S.-led coalition’s efforts as a whole and gave an important glimpse into how war had been waged by America and its allies under Trump: with utmost brutality and little concern for the civilians left behind.

Following the 2017 raid on the Yemeni village of al-Ghayil, a reporter from The Intercept who visited the village found a scene of destruction and grief among the survivors — people left behind in a remote place where Trump had approved of sending the U.S. military into combat. One young boy told the reporter about the death of his mother in the U.S. strikes: “She was hit by the plane. The American plane.” The 5-year-old added, shyly, “She’s in heaven now.”

As Trump now pushes for reelection, touting himself as an opponent of “endless wars,” it is worth reflecting on the fates of the civilians in al-Ghayil — and the many other small towns and villages, unknown to most Americans, destroyed during by the U.S. military on Trump’s watch. Rather than the opponent of the military-industrial complex he likes to portray himself as, from his perch in the White House, Trump has served as its pliant and willing enabler.

Join The Conversation