ATAQ, Yemen — The United States has waged a drone war in Yemen for 16 years, trying to suppress al-Qaida’s branch here. But the campaign has had a hidden cost: civilians cut down by the drones’ missiles.
There is no comprehensive count of civilian deaths because of the difficulty of confirming identities and allegiances of those killed. But in an examination of drone strikes this year alone, The Associated Press found that at least 30 of the dead likely did not belong to al-Qaida.
That is around a third of all those killed in drone strikes so far in 2018. The Pentagon does not release its assessment of the death toll, but an independent database considered one of the most credible in tracking violence in Yemen counted 88 people — militants and non-militants — killed by drones this year.
The AP count gives a glimpse, even if incomplete, into how often civilians are mistakenly hit by drone strikes, at a time when the Trump administration has dramatically ramped up the use of armed drones. It has carried out 176 strikes during its nearly two years in office, compared to the 154 strikes during the entire eight years of the Obama administration, according to a count by the AP and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
The AP based its count on interviews with witnesses, families, tribal leaders and activists. Most of those killed, 24, were civilians; at least 6 others were fighters in pro-government forces — meaning ostensibly on the same side as the U.S. — who were hit in strikes away from the front lines while engaged in civilian life.
The drone toll goes almost unnoticed in the region’s conflicts. Immensely greater destruction has been wreaked by U.S. allies in the Saudi-led coalition’s air campaign against Iranian-backed Shiite rebels known as Houthis. More than 57,000 civilians and combatants have been killed in Yemen’s civil war, by some estimates, and thousands more may have died of starvation caused by the conflict.
Yet the killing of a single man — Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, slain by Saudi operatives in his own country’s consulate — has raised more international uproar than any of those deaths in a war waged by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and baked by the U.S.