A raid which killed a Navy Seal and possibly an 8-yr-old girl was mired in confusion and misinformation about the nature of al-Qaeda in Yemen. The aftermath has been the same.
(Updated at bottom)
One of the great fears going into the Trump administration was that the President had zero experience in public service or the military. That in and of itself wasn’t damning–obviously, Barack Obama never served, and George W. Bush just had a stint in the National Guard at a time when that was pretty stress-free (before he later sent them to serve multiple combat terms in his wars). Neither Clinton nor Reagan served. But, to varying degrees, they all took things seriously, and took the awesome burden of their responsibilities to heart.
That isn’t the case with Trump. We already know this, and that is what makes it so frightening.
The discussion has reached new levels in the wake of the Special Forces raid into Yemen last Saturday, an operation, as reported by the New York Times, approved by Trump during dinner with SecDef Mattis, Special Advisor of Whatever Steve Bannon, and Jared Kushner, the guy who married his daughter. If that sounds flippant, it is because that’s sort of how the Times described it: a President rushing into an operation to show his bona fides, advised largely by people who have no operational experience either (and one guy who has decades of it).
The outcome of the raid on the AQAP safehouse seems to justify that, as well. It was chaos, with their cover blown almost immediately, a much fiercer firefight than expected, casualties and injuries, with many civilians being killed, along with AQAP fighters. The civililans included women.
But there are some mitigating factors to that neat story, one which I was obviously inclined to believe (indeed, the reason I waited so long to write this post is because my justifiable anger at everything Trump is so white hot that I wanted to make sure it wasn’t tempering analysis).
- The operation was not disapproved by President Obama. The information he had and the advice he got said it was best to wait until a moonless night, and since that wouldn’t come until after his term, he deferred. It should be Trump’s presidential prerogative. But at least with what has been reported, this wasn’t a matter where calm and sober Barack Obama rejected a plan, and then Trump got wind and clumsily rubber stamped it.
- The “civilians” thing, as some say, might also be overblown. After all, as the Military Times reports, the females immediately grabbed guns, and went to positions to return fire, which indicates some kind of training.
- And anyway, why were they at an AQAP safehouse anyway? Could they actually be considered civilians? As Navy Captian Jeff Davis told Military Times ” Some of these enemy killed in action are, in fact, female.” Note he isn’t saying “some females were killed”, but some enemy are female.
So, best-case scenario, this is a case where things just went sideways, as can happen to the absolute best-case plans. We live in a frightening world where women can be just as much enemy combatants as men, and while that is unfortunate, chivalry doesn’t exactly apply. A raid has to be carried out to get intelligence, and we will never know everything in advance. To lay this at the Trump’s stubby feet is just partisanship.
And while to an extent all of that is true, it also masks some deeper issues. Let’s take a look at the “Female combatant” issue.
I was talking to a Yemen expert about this (one who wishes to remain anonymous), and he reminded me that there is a fluidity of identity when it comes to AQAP. There is a house where AQAP members train, but does that mean the other people who live there are AQAP? They probably support it, but in Yemen, it isn’t always a matter of pledging allegiance and all that. A lot of the time, these are tribesmen looking out for their own best interests. The females included in that.
And so, when a group of Navy Seal comes blasting, your best interests are taking up arms and returning fire. These are women whose village was under attack. That they had training doesn’t make them, by default, militants. It makes them humans in a bad and dangerous situation who have learned to defend themselves.
Of course, part of that training could have been from AQAP. Maybe all of it. Right now, there is a lot we don’t know, and that is sort of the point. The reason that this raid felt so rushed and went so bad is that there was a lack of intelligence on the ground (the kind that might have said “there are female combatants” or “they will only return fire if threatened” or “there are easier ways to turn the tribes.”). And that lack of intelligence is going to be a feature moving forward.
From current reporting, everything indicates that Donald Trump wants to “streamline” the operational review process. This has long been one of the issues that Republicans have had with the lawerly Obama–that he was too Hamletish in his approach to power, too legalistic and indecisive, that he took too long to review things. They want a return to how operational commanders in Iraq had more latitude to make immediate decisions. They, and Trump, see that as the way to do things: why should it have to run to Washington? It is a fast and fluid war, and we have to be fast and fluid.
(That this meshes perfectly with Trump’s hatred of reading, his disdain for intelligence briefings, and his loathing of sitting through discussions, which adds up to an inability to make an informed decision, is a happy bonus. It is another venue where the President’s pathologies push right-wing ideology.)
The difference, of course, is that we were at war in Iraq, and had tens of thousands of troops there, and huge intelligence networks which featured local allies. In a more diffuse combat environment, like say Yemen, where our government allies are non-existent and tribal relationships sketchy, we don’t have that information.
And it is going to get worse, of course, with a President who is going out of his way to alienate the entire Muslim world. This can’t be overstated: this will earn the US Less cooperation. We will get worse human intelligence. It will make it harder to build needed relationships (especially when people who risked their lives for the US are denied entrance).
In short, Trump wants to move faster while being dumber. This particular operation can’t be blamed on him, but it demonstrates the template moving forward.
Update: Colin Kahl, a national security officer in the Obama administration, disputed the notion that this had been essentially planned, if not approved, by Obama. He said (paraphrased by WaPo from tweets) “that the Defense Department worked up a general proposal that asked for the authorities to do raids in Yemen, but that the mission carried out Saturday was not specifically a part of that. Then-President Obama did not make any decisions because he thought it represented an expansion of the war in Yemen and believed the Trump administration should assess how to proceed.”
“In a nutshell, Trump and his team owns the process and the ultimate decision — and the consequences,” Kahl tweeted.
This could be ass-covering, of course, but if it is true, then it definitely advances the idea that the Trump administration moved very quickly, by design and by temperament, which makes it even more possible that this is the template.
Luke Hartig at Just Security has another good piece today, pivoting partly off Kahl. One of the worries is that Team Trump will internalize that this operation was planned for a long time and still went bad, so that planning makes things worse. That’s very plausible!