U.S. Rationale for Military Aid to Saudis in Yemen War Is Fraying

Second Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani of Saudi Arabia, a 21-year-old Al Qaeda loyalist, shot dead three U.S. sailors and wounded eight others last December in a classroom building at a naval air station in Pensacola, Fla. He had been enrolled in the program developed to teach Saudi pilots how to reduce civilian casualties, U.S. officials said — a fact that has not been reported previously. The vetting systems put in place in the United States and Saudi Arabia after the Sept. 11 attacks had failed to detect warning signs around Lieutenant Alshamrani.

Separately, the State Department, starting in the Obama administration, sent a senior official, Larry Lewis, on frequent trips to Saudi Arabia to advise on civilian harm. But the Obama administration halted his trips in late 2016, after it had begun a policy review on Yemen, and the next year Trump administration officials pushed him out of the agency.

In 2017, American officials prodded the coalition to expand to 33,000 a list of “no strike” sites in Yemen, including hospitals and refugee camps. Yet Saudi officials failed to consult the list, a United Nations report found in 2018, and pilots have continued hitting the sites, as Mr. Malinowski pointed out.

Even Mr. Trump previously acknowledged the shortcomings of Saudi pilots who were being entrusted with the lethal weapons.

“That was basically people who didn’t know how to use the weapon, which is horrible,” he said after an American-made bomb hit a school bus in August 2018, killing at least 54 people, 44 of them children.

But American officials are doubling down on the Saudi partnership as their answer for how to address the moral and legal pitfalls of the civilian killings.

“We do use our leverage and our strong relationship with Saudi Arabia to provide training, to provide coursework,” Timothy Lenderking, the deputy assistant secretary for Gulf Arab affairs, told reporters last Thursday, while acknowledging that the use of American weapons in the killings was a “major concern.”

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