Some U.S. military officials, Reuters reports, blame President TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 panel faces double-edged sword with Alex Jones, Roger Stone Trump goes after Woodward, Costa over China Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves MORE for approving a military raid “without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations.” This is wrong headed, potentially damaging to civil-military relations, and masks deeper problems with U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens died of wounds received on January 29th during a raid in Yemen. Three others were also wounded. 14 al Qaeda militants were reportedly killed as were over a dozen civilians. This was Trump’s first covert military action.
In keeping with Washington’s toxic political environment, Trump opponents seized upon this as evidence the president carelessly put American troops in harm’s way. This is nonsense.
The special operations plan was reviewed by the Pentagon and recommended for Trump’s approval. If the commander on the ground believed the intelligence and support were insufficient, he could have aborted the mission. Trump did not force an unwilling SEAL team into a dangerous raid. He was approving what the military said should be done.
For any military official to blame Trump for the raid’s technical and operational problems is as unacceptable as it is factually untrue. Such conduct undermines trust and damages the military’s credibility. It also creates an impression that officials seek presidential approval for operations with the intention of avoiding blame if things go wrong.
The raid raises bigger questions that the president should ask his national security team.
First, what is our strategy in Yemen? For years, it seems, we have been playing whack-a-mole with drone strikes, only to watch al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — the branch that is in Yemen — grow stronger. Meanwhile, we are supporting Saudi Arabia’s military operations there — operations that have caused significant numbers of civilian casualties and may be strengthening the terrorist group.
Trump should demand to know what goals the United States is trying to achieve, how elements of national power are being used to achieve them, and how to measure results.
Second, what operations require presidential approval and why? Withholding authority at higher levels does not necessarily improve decision-making or prevent civilian casualties. In fact, as General Stanley McChrystal suggests in his book Team of Teams, over-centralization can lead to worse decisions.
Subordinate leaders, knowing they can transfer risk upward, may make more aggressive recommendations than a situation warrants. Senior leaders rarely possess greater knowledge of a tactical situation, so may contribute little in the review process other than delays.
Micromanagement can needlessly impede the pace of operations, forfeit opportunities, and put lives at greater risk. Unless officials at more senior levels have critical information or perspectives that their subordinates cannot, authority should be given to the people in best position to make decisions.
Third, who is in charge? He is likely to find out that nobody below him is responsible and accountable for success in Yemen. Instead, he will probably discover that Defense, State, the intelligence community, and others operate in un-prioritized bureaucratic silos. These silos allow agencies to “do their own thing” while no one is focused on achieving U.S. goals. If that is the case, Trump should put someone in charge and hold that person accountable for results.
Last, why is the situation getting worse? After over 15 years of counterterrorism efforts, groups like AQAP should be much weaker or eliminated. Instead, they are stronger and reportedly have more support from the population than before. Trump is likely to find his agencies are measuring progress within their silos, and that such efforts may be operating at cross-purposes. He may also find that U.S. support to Saudi Arabia’s operations is damaging American credibility.
Trump has an important opportunity to examine U.S. counterterrorism strategies and make needed changes. This is an important way of honoring the sacrifices of those America puts in harm’s way.
Christopher D. Kolenda, a veteran of 4 combat tours in Afghanistan, was senior advisor to Under Secretaries of Defense Michèle A. Flournoy and James Miller and to Generals Stanley McChrystal, David Petraeus, and Joseph Dunford
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