I’ve read the NYT, WaPo, and Reuters accounts of what happened but I can’t recall a single piece of hard evidence alleged that would suggest the White House, rather than military planners, screwed this up. You can blame Trump from a “buck stops here” standpoint (which is surely what we on the right would have done with Obama had the Bin Laden raid gone sideways), but otherwise I’m with streiff. The balance of information we have right now is that the SEALs were victims of bad operational planning and bad luck (and perhaps, a tip-off to Al Qaeda that they were coming). How is that the White House’s fault?
U.S. military officials told Reuters that 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 U.S. officials said the extremists’ base had been identified as a target before the Obama administration left office on Jan. 20, but then-President Barack Obama held off approving a raid ahead of his departure.
A White House official said the operation was thoroughly vetted by the previous administration and that the previous defense secretary had signed off on it in January. The raid was delayed for operational reasons, the White House official said.
Per the Times, Obama held off on ordering the mission himself because the SEALs wanted to wait for a moonless night and the next one didn’t roll around until after his term was over. Otherwise, though, it sounds like due diligence had been done and Ash Carter had approved of the raid; the only specific intimation of wrongdoing by the Trump White House in the Reuters piece is the claim that “on-the-ground surveillance of the compound was ‘minimal, at best'” — but whose responsibility was that? Did the Navy ask for more surveillance and was denied by the White House, perhaps wishing to expedite the mission in hopes of securing a glorious counterterror victory for the new president? Or did the Navy simply fail to provide enough surveillance itself? The story suggests that Trump was rash to approve the raid but never makes clear why, or why it was brought to him for approval if it wasn’t ready. And on top of that, probably the single most able officer in his cabinet, Jim Mattis, is serving at the Defense Department. Mattis surely has the operational background to know if a raid is half-baked or ready to go. If he told Trump they were ready — and presumably he did — why on earth would Trump have doubted him?
The Times and Post stories make a point of noting that Team Trump wants to streamline the process for approving raids against jihadis by delegating authority for action further down the chain of command. Shave away some of the bureaucracy that delays missions like this one and you’ll give the military more freedom to act quickly when opportunity presents itself. That could lead to rash action in some cases or political fiascos where an aggressive commander approves a raid that the president and his team would have been more cautious about — but again, there’s no clear assertion that that’s what happened here. On the contrary, this raid had been in the works since the Obama era. What’s missing from any of the reporting is the suggestion that Defense warned the Trump White House that they weren’t ready to roll but the White House demanded action anyway. Until that evidence is produced, why should we assume that Trump is the negligent party?
Over at Lawfare, Bobby Chesney consider what might have happened:
Famously, the Obama administration in May 2013 adopted a set of policy constraints on the use of force for counterterrorism purposes outside zones of “active hostilities.” This Presidential Policy Guidance, known thereafter as “the PPG,” forbade the use of force in circumstances in which collateral damage was foreseeable, even if such harm would have been permissible under the law of armed conflict. My understanding is that the Obama administration always categorized Yemen as a location in which the PPG applied, and I have speculated that President Trump sooner or later will either change that categorization or else repeal this aspect of the PPG outright. And so the question arises: does Sunday’s raid show that one of these things already has happened?
Perhaps. But the reporting suggests that raid planners had hoped the element of surprise (on a moonless night, with helicopter insertion several miles away) would enable the US and UAE personnel to make their way to the target building undetected. It is possible that the planners did consider the PPG standard, but concluded that the “near certainty” standard of the PPG (i.e., near certainty that the attack won’t cause collateral damage) was met (perhaps just barely). As the raid actually developed, of course, the element of surprise was lost early on and a fierce and long-running firefight resulted, including substantial intermixing of AQAP fighters (including female fighters) with local civilians. In such circumstances, it is no surprise at all that civilians died. I just don’t think we can conclude from this that the Trump administration already has jettisoned the PPG.
It could be that Trump has loosened or is preparing to loosen the restrictions regarding collateral damage on counterterror raids — but again, no specific claim to that effect is made in any of today’s reporting. In fact, the NYT’s (gripping) account of the raid suggests that Al Qaeda was curiously well prepared for what was coming; it’s implied that someone (maybe one of the UAE troops who accompanied the SEALs?) had tipped off the jihadis. Some of the women who were killed in the firefight reportedly fired on the Americans too, raising the question of whether all of the “civilian” collateral damage here was truly civilian — although some, like Anwar al-Awlaki’s eight-year-old daughter, obviously was. Long story short, while there may be more specifics coming on how White House mismanagement contributed to the chaos of the raid, for now all there is is insinuation.