It now seems clear the special ops raid in Yemen did not go according to plan and it went badly. This Times account relates a “a chain of mishaps and misjudgments that plunged the elite commandos into a ferocious 50-minute firefight that also left three others wounded and a $75 million aircraft deliberately destroyed.” Chief Petty Officer William Owens was killed in the operation. There also appear to have been a large number of civilian casualties.
Obviously, not every military operation is successful. But there is an extraordinary passage in this article just out from Reuters. What Reuters identifies as “U.S. military officials” says that “[President] Trump approved his first covert counterterrorism operation without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations.”
As a result, three officials said, the attacking SEAL team found itself dropping onto a reinforced al Qaeda base defended by landmines, snipers, and a larger than expected contingent of heavily armed Islamist extremists.
The Pentagon directed queries about the officials’ characterization of the raid to U.S. Central Command. The latter pointed only to its statement on Wednesday.
This is an extraordinary and yet also ambiguous statement. It suggests that Trump somehow jumped the gun, approving the mission without adequate intelligence or support. But of course missions come to the President through a chain of command. If there’s not enough operational intelligence, he should be told that by his military advisors. It’s not like the President can dial into troops in the region directly and order a strike. Available reports suggest that the decision was made at a dinner the President had with Secretary Mattis, the Joint Chiefs Chairman Dunford, Steve Bannon, Mike Flynn, Jared Kushner and Vice President Pence. Dunford is the President’s chief military advisor and Mattis is the immediate link in the chain of command. So the highest level people were there to give the President whatever information he needed.
Did Trump press for a more aggressive policy than his advisors counseled? Are they blaming the President for operational shortcomings in the military planning? Whatever the reality of the situation, what seems most germane is that military officials (at least on a fair reading of this Reuters report) seem to be throwing the Commander-in-Chief under the bus. That is a big deal whether they’re pointing out his poor decision making or covering up for their own.
Some indication may come from this passage in the article from the Times …
Mr. Trump’s new national security team, led by Mr. Flynn, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and a retired general with experience in counterterrorism raids, has said that it wants to speed the decision-making when it comes to such strikes, delegating more power to lower-level officials so that the military may respond more quickly. Indeed, the Pentagon is drafting such plans to accelerate activities against the Qaeda branch in Yemen.
But doing that also raises the possibility of error. “You can mitigate risk in missions like this, but you can’t mitigate risk down to zero,” said William Wechsler, a former top counterterrorism official at the Pentagon.
Some missions just go wrong. On its own I’m not sure we could draw more conclusions than that. But the comments in the Reuters article make clear that some military officials are willing to point the finger of blame at the President. Again, that is a big deal whether it is a fair characterization or not.