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We Shouldn’t Forget the Lessons of Black Hawk Down: Part I

Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment in Somalia, 1993.

(Editors’ note: This article is the first of a three-part series by the author on the Trump administration’s approach to special operations.)

Twenty-four years ago this month, President Bill Clinton, a first-term commander in chief with no military or foreign policy experience, approved a request from his military commanders to deploy several hundred special operations forces to Somalia.  The deployment would eventually lead to a bloody battle on the streets of Mogadishu, horrific images of U.S. soldiers being dragged through angry mobs, and the greatest foreign policy disaster of Clinton’s Administration. Fast forward to the present, and in roughly the same amount of time in office, President Trump has presided over a significant expansion in special operations deployments while delegating authority to Pentagon leadership and “his” generals in the field. Earlier this summer, his National Security Advisor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster declared that the White House was “getting out of the tactical business.” McMaster’s comment is reminiscent of what Clinton would later say in describing the Somalia mission: That he had heeded the lesson of Vietnam, which was not to manage tactical decisions from Washington. Yet the tactical mishaps in Mogadishu would have strategic fallout for President Clinton, teaching his young administration a lot about the role Washington should play in overseeing military operations and ultimately laying the groundwork for how each of his successors would oversee sensitive military missions.  We should hope that McMaster’s comments reflect a genuine desire to streamline the National Security Council process, not to neglect those painful lessons learned.

Of course, much has changed since 1993.  President Trump inherits a very different geopolitical landscape and a cadre of special operations forces honed through continuous operations since 9/11. But since the Black Hawk Down incident, three successive administrations have developed approaches to managing special operations that consider the full range of risks – operational, diplomatic, political – through careful policy process prior to operational deployments.  The framework that Barack Obama left to his successor evolved out of his predecessors’ approaches and formalized careful oversight of operations.

Through its early months in office, the Trump administration, both by design and circumstance, has presided over a deconstruction of the Obama framework that critics had blasted as inappropriately tactical. No president is obliged to follow the policies of his predecessor, but through his early actions, President Trump may be raising the specter of a special operations disaster for which the government and the U.S. public are both unprepared.  His responsibility as Commander in Chief is not to eliminate the risks that are inherent to counterterrorism but rather to set the conditions – by hiring a good team and creating a sound policy process – so that he can make sound decisions and the American people can feel confident about the risky missions for which their military is deployed.  To do anything less is to ignore the lessons of the past 24 years – and invite a disaster of the President’s own making. 

I. Deconstruction: Unpacking the lessons from the past

In order to understand the troubling signs of President Trump’s early tenure and why it could end so badly, it’s worth recalling the Blackhawk Down disaster.  Specifically, how flaws in the process and dynamics under which the deployment was approved may have contributed to suboptimal decision making, if not the operational catastrophe itself.  President Clinton took office following a bruising campaign in which he was portrayed as a war-protesting draft dodger taking on an incumbent President who was a decorated war hero and immensely successful commander-in-chief.  Clinton inherited Somalia from President George H.W. Bush but quickly embraced the mission, which seemed to be a new model for using American military might post-Cold War to foster peace, stability, and humanitarian aims.  But the Somalia mission quickly grew more difficult than Clinton’s team had anticipated, the United Nations urged bolder action, and by their first summer, the administration was looking for options to improve the situation on the ground.  American military commanders in the Middle East and Horn of Africa proposed adopting a more aggressive approach focused on manhunting Somali warlords who were destabilizing Mogadishu and impeding the distribution of food aid.  Then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell expressed some reticence about the expanded mission but eventually deferred to senior military commanders, and Clinton would approve the creation of a special operations task force that would conduct raids and other operations in Mogadishu in support of the UN mission.  The decision to deploy the task force was a difficult one: congressional support for the deployment was shaky and there were divisions within the Pentagon over how aggressively to pursue the mission and what level of force package should be deployed (Secretary of Defense Les Aspin and General Powell opposed the deployment of tanks and armor and gunships).  Clinton’s brand new national security team — many of whom had not served in government since the Carter Administration 12 years prior or who had little experience overseeing military operations — was hesitant to take too heavy of a hand with the military that had only recently defeated Saddam Hussein’s army in spectacular fashion, and Secretary Aspin was operating with a skeleton staff, with many posts still awaiting White House appointees. But President Clinton had taken a more optimistic view of the mission, combined with a deference to military leaders that may have been borne out of his own insecurities around military matters and his focus on an ambitious domestic policy agenda.  He perhaps best summarized his thinking on overseeing the deployment when meeting with the father and widow of one of the soldiers killed in Mogadishu, who asked whether Clinton was aware of the raid before it took place.  Clinton replied that he was “surprised” when he heard of the raid and told the family, “We learned from LBJ’s experience in Vietnam that decisions of that type should not be made from Washington.  They need to be made by the commander on the scene.”

Whatever the rationale, the human toll was immense.  19 dead U.S. service members, 73 more wounded, 1 captured.  Malaysia and Pakistan each lost one soldier, and several more were wounded.  Estimates of Somali casualties are shaky, but range from 300-500 killed and 500-800 wounded – a mix of militants, sympathetic clansmen, and non-combatants — though some analysts put the numbers far higher.  Clinton initially tread lightly in discussing the operation but as casualty accounts climbed, images appeared of U.S. service members being dragged through the streets, and further reports emerged of Somalis desecrating U.S. dead, Clinton began to face a swirling firestorm of public and congressional criticism.  Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and several colleagues called for the quick withdrawal of U.S. forces.  Several U.S. military commanders, including those who participated in the mission, wanted Clinton to recommit to the mission, but under such political pressure, the best he could negotiate was congressional approval for a six-month withdrawal window, to give him flexibility in negotiating some improvement in conditions and to ensure that the removal of U.S. forces did not lead to the collapse of Somalia.  Three-plus days after the battle, on October 7, Clinton delivered a speech that argued for resolving the situation in Somalia even while U.S. troops were preparing for withdrawal.  Clinton expressed his sympathy and gratitude to the families of those killed in Somalia, though he notably did not take explicit responsibility for the failed operation.  The mission was a terrible low point less than one year into Clinton’s presidency and seemingly validation for the opponents who had always questioned whether he had the judgment or experience to be Commander in Chief.  In the epilogue to his masterful account of the battle, Mark Bowden notes that the overall commander of the task force, Major General William Garrison, sent a handwritten letter to Clinton taking full responsibility for the mission and ending with “for this particular target, President Clinton and Sec. Aspin need to be taken off the blame line.”  Nevertheless, in the congressional inquiry that followed, Les Aspin faced withering criticism from his former colleagues over the deployment, including the decision not to deploy armor and other support to the task force (it is unclear if it would have arrived in time to have made a difference).  Beleaguered by Somalia and several other missteps, Aspin resigned before year’s end.

In subsequent years, and with the international community largely departed, Somalia would devolve into a hotbed of clan warfare and extremism, and amid the instability, Osama bin Laden would send operatives from his young al-Qaeda organization to the Horn (some commentators, including Bowden, believe that al Qaeda was involved in supporting Aidid’s men prior to the Battle of Mogadishu).  Several other jihadist groups would set down roots in Somalia over the years and the country has remained a national security concern for the United States ever since.  Only the deployment in recent years of another multinational force, led by the African Union and supported by the United States, would create any hope for future stability in Somalia.  The fallout rippled beyond East Africa as well.  A top civilian official on Somalia cited the incident as a primary reason that Clinton hesitated to intervene with ground troops to stop the genocide Rwanda.  In Ghost Wars, Steve Coll notes that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Hugh Shelton, himself a Special Forces officer who had led the Special Operations Command from 1996-97, thought of the Somalia mission when recommending against a 1998 raid against Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.  (Such a raid would have also been a far more complex operation, due to complications related to intelligence and geography.)

The Battle of Mogadishu was the second of two watershed moments in the post-Vietnam era.  The first took place in April 1980, with Operation Eagle Claw, the failed attempt to rescue the American hostages in Tehran.  The mission ran into problems before the force package could be fully staged in the Iranian desert and the operation was aborted.  As U.S. service members were preparing to depart the staging site, a U.S. helicopter collided with a C-130 airplane on the ground and the ensuing fire killed eight service members.  Secretary of State Cyrus Vance resigned in protest over the mission and the process by which it was approved, and the whole incident was a huge black eye for President Carter, fueling growing election year concerns over the President’s national security chops. Within the national security community, the failed mission led to several years of departmental and congressional reforms to special operations that ultimately laid the foundation for today’s force.  There were significant improvements to training and planning, two new military organizations — the Joint Special Operations Command and U.S. Special Operations Command — were created in the years after to improve command and control and resourcing of special operations, and a civilian office responsible for oversight of special operations and low-intensity conflict was established within the Office of the Secretary of Defense.  (I spent five years in this office.)

Nevertheless, the reforms were unable to prevent the debacle in Mogadishu.  That the United States has largely steered clear of further special operations fiascos since then, even as the pace of such operations has increased, is a testament to the competence of our special operators, who have continually evolved as a joint force since Eagle Claw and particularly through 16 years of steady operations since 9/11.  Indeed, one of our top special operations officers, Joint Special Operations Command chief Lieutenant General Scott Miller was a young commander in Mogadishu; he and others have lived this evolution.

But it’s also attributable to the seasoned teams put in place by Presidents Bush and Obama, who had the experience to provide effective oversight of special operations missions.  Bush’s team would make tremendous mistakes in the Iraq War, but his team was experienced and comfortable in overseeing special operations and understanding how tactical operations and missteps can have strategic effects.  As to President Obama, he took office with virtually no foreign policy experience, but he wisely decided to retain President Bush’s second Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates (as well as Gates’ top special operations policy official, Michael Vickers, and intelligence official, James Clapper), and it was Gates more than anybody else who set the tenor for how the Obama Administration managed these missions.  Gates had deep experience in overseeing operations.  He had capably led the Pentagon during the final two years of the Bush Administration, managed a range of paramilitary activities while serving as Director of the CIA, and coordinated policy on various operational issues while serving as President Reagan’s Deputy National Security Advisor.  But perhaps the formative experience for Gates in this domain was being present in the White House Situation Room during the failed mission in Iran.  Gates would later cite that experience in explaining why he opposed the helicopter assault mission that would kill Osama bin Laden, instead preferring an airstrike on his compound.

The Secretary was exacting in his review of operations.  He would ask for details on the operation: What was the expected benefit?  What was the risk to forces and what had been done to mitigate it?  What were the contingency plans if things went wrong?  Did the ground force have adequate casualty evacuation and air support?  And he would ask what others outside of the military thought of the operation: Did his civilian advisors support the operation?  Did the intelligence community agree on the value of the target?  Had the Secretary of State, or other senior State officials, been briefed on the operation and was State prepared to execute the supporting diplomatic actions?  Were public affairs officials prepared to handle media inquiries or mishaps?  And when would Congress be informed?  This method of rigorous interrogation of operations and insistence on civilian input helped ensure that we went into all operations with a levelheaded assessment of the risk and confident that our operators were going into harm’s way for worthy purposes.

The Gates view of operational oversight also largely meshed with President Obama’s general inclination toward careful consideration of risks and rewards through sound policy process.  For his part, Obama understood that in counterterrorism operations, tactical successes or failures could have strategic effects, which in turn called for appropriate oversight and dialogue with the American public.  So even while he approved a series of risky operations — the Bin Laden raid; hostage rescue operations in unstable areas of Syria, Yemen, and Somalia; clandestine captures of terrorist fugitives in Libya; a daring raid against an ISIS senior official in Syria — Obama also took great efforts to lock in an oversight process that would lead to sound decisionmaking on these activities.  He evolved and eventually codified the approach that Gates had established, most notably in his Presidential Policy Guidance governing lethal strikes and capture operations.  He also made the public case — through his own speeches as well as a running series of addresses delivered by his Secretary of Defense, Attorney General, Counterterrorism Advisor and top lawyers from the Departments of Defense and State — for his use of force in counterterrorism and the legal and policy frameworks covering these operations.  Obama also pushed for greater transparency (some of it unrealized) around the results of counterterrorism operations.   

Although the Obama framework built upon the Gates approach, in his 2014 memoir, the former secretary delivered pointed critiques of the Obama White House and what Gates viewed as its micromanagement of operations.  The Obama Administration had continued to ask the hard questions, but in Gates’ view, the White House team had become far too involved into the operational weeds and tied up in bureaucratic process.  By the end of the Obama era, a range of commentators and journalists were echoing the Gates critique, alleging that the National Security Council micromanaged operations and this in turn led to missed opportunities to save American lives, remove dangerous individuals from the battlefield, and address strategic challenges in counterterrorism.  Although many of those critiques are unfair and based on anonymous sources with incomplete information, the broader challenge of how to ensure thorough review of proposed operations while giving operators plenty of leeway is a perennial policy question that every President must grapple with.  How the Trump team addresses this question may well be one of the defining aspects of his foreign policy and indeed, his entire presidency.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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About the Author

Fellow - International Security Program at New America, Executive Director of National Journal's Network Science Initiative, Former Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council, Former Deputy Director for Counterterrorism Operations in the Office of the Secretary of Defense Follow him on Twitter (@LukeHartig).