Zaid Jilani on the Yemen Raid: “This Is a Country That’s in a Tremendous Crisis”

Janine Jackson: “Women Killed in Yemen Raid Were Qaeda Fighters, Pentagon Says” was the headline on a January 30 New York Times story on the recent commando raid in central Yemen, the first on Donald Trump’s watch. The Times says the Pentagon first denied any civilian casualties, then backtracked as evidence came in of such deaths, including children. But that’s no reason not to now quote a Pentagon spokesperson’s statement:

We saw during this operation as it was taking place that female fighters ran to pre-established positions as though they’d been trained to be ready and trained to be combatants.

Whether they were “female fighters” before they ran to these pre-established positions or because they did is neither asked nor answered, but the spokesperson does get to wink to the paper’s millions of readers, “Take reports of female casualties with a grain of salt.”

No such caveat attaches to the claim that the Yemen raid yielded valuable materials that will help prevent terror attacks. The paper notes the spokesperson “did not provide details,” where another might say what was missing was proof.

So while Trump’s Yemen raid is being called tactically flawed, the near bottomless credulity with which elite media accept the official line on US actions in Yemen would seem unchanged. Joining us now to talk about it is Zaid Jilani. He’s a reporter for The Intercept. Welcome to CounterSpin, Zaid Jilani.

Zaid Jilani: It’s great to be here.

In general terms, I’m wondering, is this a departure, does this represent a departure, either of US involvement in the coalition attacks on Yemen, or a departure in terms of US media’s treatment of that involvement?

It’s really interesting; US military, including Special Operations and drones, have been active in Yemen for years, stretching back even through the Bush administration, and certainly in the Obama administration. This raid was targeting Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has grown considerably over the past few years, even though there’s an ISIS presence in Yemen now.

And part of the reason that it’s grown is because the Saudi-led coalition, which the United States mostly was supportive of, has been bombing the government in Yemen, which took power, basically, in a coup led by the Houthis. And the Houthis were opponents of Al Qaeda and also of ISIS, and so that civil war in Yemen between the Houthi-led government and the old government of Yemen, which is supported by Saudi Arabia and other countries, has opened up space for groups like Al Qaeda to grow, even ISIS to grow.

The US doesn’t want to directly fight the Houthis, who are basically Saudi Arabia’s enemies right now, but it does want to fight Al Qaeda. So that’s why we’ve seen this sort of action taking place on the side. But the larger situation in the country, that is one of the largest international crises with millions of people on the edge of starvation, seeing the civil war that doesn’t end and the Saudi involvement that doesn’t end. Regardless of whether we’re talking about one raid or another, it’s important to understand the larger situation in Yemen is an international crisis that wasn’t really resolved under the Obama administration, and certainly it looks like the Trump administration is not even talking about resolving that larger crisis, let alone approving raids like this, which, you know, are not too atypical for US policy in the past few administrations.

You had an encounter recently with the Saudi ambassador that was interesting in several ways. Can you tell us, first of all, the circumstances of that encounter; where were you?

Sure. So there’s an organization called NCUSAR, which is basically a US/Arab relations group. I mean, it’s backed by many of the Gulf Arab governments, including Saudi Arabia, but also many US businesses that do business between the United States and these countries. Basically they held a conference in Washington, DC, where we had a number of foreign policy discussions.

So the Saudi ambassador was there, he gave some remarks, and that’s when I decided to basically query him a little bit about Yemen, because he had defended the war during his remarks.

You asked him about the use of cluster weapons, and he basically treated you as a heckler, almost.

He laughed and called me habibi, which is sort of like “darling” or something in Arabic. I asked him, basically, if they would continue to use these sort of weapons in Yemen, because cluster munitions are not precise weapons and they persist long after the strikes, often, and kids pick them up and are killed by them, and it’s very destructive.

So I asked him if they would continue to use them, and he told me, this is like asking me if I’m going to continue to beat my wife. He made a big joke out of it and laughed about it. He was trying to make light of it what actually is a very serious issue.

The use of these weapons in Yemen actually had Saudi Arabia placed on a UN list of countries that were endangering and killing children. Interestingly, the UN took them off that list, and then the secretary-general basically admitted they took them off the list because Saudi Arabia was threatening to cut funding to the United Nations. They’re very, very sensitive to criticism about these things. I mean, it’s not a democratic country, and they’re not a country that is used to intense criticism, either from the UN or from folks like me.

We also wrote an article in The Intercept talking to people who used to be ambassadors there in Yemen, or to Saudi Arabia even, and universally, every single person we talked to thought what they were doing in Yemen was really problematic, and that it had no real end in sight.

So I think they’ve come under a lot of criticism for their behavior there, but they feel like because they have support from foreign countries–I mean, they get logistical support and arms shipments from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, other places–they feel like they can keep doing it pretty much forever, which may end up being the case. But the reality is that it’s also sort of becoming their version of Vietnam, and they have suffered retaliatory attacks, and it’s supposed to be ended a long time ago. I mean, they don’t exactly know what they’ve gotten themselves into. So it may be that the internal situation of the conflict is what ends up overwhelming them politically. But they certainly do feel like they’re insulated, at least, from external criticism.

Speaking of that insulation, one of the things that I think folks will find striking about the video, and even the write-up of it on The Intercept, is it shows how rarely folks like this really face confrontational questioning from reporters. They seem to respond to it so poorly. And one of the things I thought was interesting was to have other reporters back up the question and not allow him to simply deflect it. Do you worry that that kind of direct questioning of the sort that you did is — it just seems like it’s not that common among corporate media, or mainstream media.

Part of the problem is that I think a lot of people who work in media are not necessarily attuned to these issues; it’s not really a front-burner issue for US politicians, and they tend to let the agenda be set by whatever’s being talked about by the US politicians, and most US politicians, unfortunately, don’t care very much about this topic.

And watching this play out for us at The Intercept, this is a topic that we pay a lot of attention to. For us, it’s no sweat to take these questions to them, but there’s also the other question of access, right? I don’t think that the Saudi ambassador would sit down for a formal interview with us. I’ve had to appear at an event like this and just talk to him on the fly, because they are not super interested in talking to people who offer any questions like this. And I think that a lot of mainstream journalists can score those interviews because they won’t ask those questions. And, unfortunately, that’s a trade-off you have when you take this approach.

Finally, if you would, I wanted to direct folks also to a recent piece that you wrote or co-wrote, I’m not sure, about Rex Tillerson which connects these issues that we’ve been talking about. What was preeminent in that piece, and how does it link up to what we’re talking about here?

With respect to Tillerson, and he was just confirmed secretary of State actually yesterday, he was actually asked about this conflict, during his confirmation hearing, between Saudi Arabia and what’s happening in Yemen. And basically, he was asked about the use of cluster munitions in the conflict, and his response was something like, well, I mean we can help Saudi with some targeting and we can make sure they’re not hitting noncombatants and things. Which was remarkable, because that’s already what the United States has been doing, providing information that should be doing that. But a big part of the problem is that Saudi Arabia does not seem to have a whole lot of concern about that in the way that they’re prosecuting their war. It’s not a matter of giving them better information.

And, honestly, he seemed almost legitimately ignorant of the fact that the United States had been doing that, almost like he has paid no attention to what’s happening there, which is really remarkable for someone who, as of today, is now responsible for US diplomacy with Saudi Arabia and other countries. And it really shows that a lot of people I think may assume, maybe even I would assume, that the CEO of a large multinational corporation would be highly cognizant and aware of these issues, and respond to them intelligently, but that’s not always the case, and I think that’s certainly the case with how Tillerson responded to that question.

Of course, we have Donald Trump now saying the raid was a big success, and that’s the line that the White House is going to put out. So I guess I’d just ask you, finally, if we don’t want the story to drop from the headlines, what would you be encouraging other reporters to be doing right now who are interested in — who are at least — maybe just the death of the Navy Seal is enough to start them, but who are going to be looking into the US role in Yemen. What are some directions you might point them for things to look at?

I think the important thing is to look at the broad situation of what’s happening in Yemen. I mean, obviously the details of this operation were quite a disaster, and it will be investigated and litigated. But people should understand this is a country that’s in a tremendous crisis, that rivals probably only Syria in that region, a humanitarian crisis — and a crisis that could be ended should we see an end to the civil war, primarily the Saudi involvement; it would be really positive to see an end to that involvement. That’s something the United States could create. That would also create space for locals to be able to push back against groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, and reduce the need or any desire for us to be even more militarily involved.

This has been going on for a couple of years now, and unfortunately it’s dropped off the map, because Yemen’s a very poor country and not a lot of countries have a lot of interests there, other than neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia. It’s important for people, whenever they address news events, to understand that we don’t live in year zero. There’s always a history and a context.

We’ve been speaking with Zaid Jilani, reporter for The Intercept. You can find their work on line at Zaid Jilani, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Yeah, thank you, Janine.