Congress grills incoming Middle East commander on Yemen

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Article Summary
On the heels of a vote to end support to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, senators grilled President Trump’s choice to lead US troops in the Middle East about America’s role in the conflict.

Just a week after the Senate voted to advance a bill that would end US support to Saudi-led forces fighting in Yemen, President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead American troops in the Middle East faced harsh questions from Congress today about the US role in the fight.

Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, who serves as director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, sought to bat back congressional fears that US involvement in the conflict is deepening as Saudi Arabia and the Iran-backed Houthis head to the negotiating table in Geneva for talks to end the war. McKenzie notably indicated that US-gathered information is not supporting Saudi airstrikes, which have been blamed for dozens of civilian deaths.

“The intelligence we’re providing is not target-level intelligence,” McKenzie told lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing to lead US Central Command (CENTCOM).

Yet McKenzie’s response and the Pentagon’s decision to end aerial refueling for the Saudi-led forces did little to quell the fears of lawmakers, as a smaller gathering quizzed CIA Director Gina Haspel about the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a secure room in the Capitol building.

"We don't like being told we're not involved in hostilities" when US bombs are falling in Yemen, said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who has pushed the US military on its legal justification for American troops fighting in the Middle East. CNN reported in August that a Saudi-led strike on a Yemeni school bus that led to the deaths of 40 children used a Lockheed Martin-made MK 82 guided bomb.

"Neither side is winning this proxy war, and the Yemeni people are suffering," Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., told McKenzie. Warren has challenged the sitting CENTCOM commander, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, on the notion that the United States was unable to track Saudi planes during the Pentagon-led refueling mission, which ended in November.

In written responses to the committee’s queries, McKenzie indicated that the Pentagon has significant concerns about Iran deploying improved missile technology in Yemen to get within striking distance of American forces.

“US forces and civilians are present in the thousands at a number of locations within the ranges of Houthi missile and [drone] systems,” McKenzie wrote. “The risk to US personnel, citizens, partners and interests remains substantial.”

McKenzie also wrote that the Houthis, using Iran-smuggled missiles, could hit targets up to 500 miles away, and that the Yemeni rebels “continued to elevate threats” against shipping lanes in the Red Sea with small explosive boat attacks that could hamper UN envoy Martin Griffiths’ effort to seek a negotiated peace. 

And despite Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in May, McKenzie suggested that Iran had not retreated from the region with its support of proxies, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

"Iranian destabilizing activities across the region have been occurring before, during and after withdrawal," McKenzie told Warren. 

"So, no effect," replied Warren, a possible 2020 presidential contender and a proponent of the Iran deal.

Despite an overall reposturing of US forces away from the Middle East, the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that the United States will return an aircraft carrier to the Gulf for the first time in months to deter the Iranian threat.

Found in: Yemen war

Jack Detsch is Al-Monitor’s Pentagon correspondent. Based in Washington, Detsch examines US-Middle East relations through the lens of the Defense Department. Detsch previously covered cybersecurity for Passcode, the Christian Science Monitor’s project on security and privacy in the Digital Age. Detsch also served as editorial assistant at The Diplomat Magazine and worked for NPR-affiliated stations in San Francisco. On Twitter: @JackDetsch_ALM, Email: jdetsch@al-monitor.com.

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