Show sidebar

The Unstable Status Quo: The Trump Administration’s Approach to Special Operations

(Editors’ note: This article is the second of a three-part series by the author on the Trump administration’s use of special operations. Read part I here.)

Donald Trump stormed into the White House after a campaign in which he made the case that America and its people were under existential attack from a range of threats both internal and external, including terrorists, and that President Obama had been weak in the fight against “radical Islamic terrorists.”  Yet the reality is that Trump inherited a wide-reaching campaign against al-Qaeda and ISIS, with U.S. forces deployed or engaged in major counterterrorism operations against these groups and their affiliates in Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Iraq, Syria, the Sahel, the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, and southeast Asia.  But what might seem at first glance like a sprawling campaign was, upon closer examination, a series of operations and deployments nested within tailored regional counterterrorism strategies.  In most cases, senior officials in the administration or President Obama himself had agreed on specific parameters for U.S. operations in each location and the processes by which U.S. forces could request expanded operations.  In short, they were the kind of detailed policy oversight frameworks that the 1993 Somalia deployment lacked.

While Obama and his team saw these frameworks as a way of ensuring that our activities and risk calculus matched the specific threat in each place, several of President-elect Trump’s top advisers were generals who had served under Obama and chafed at these operational oversight processes.  Almost immediately in the Trump era, reports emerged of a quicker operational approval process and greater delegation of authorities to the Department of Defense.  Seven months into this Administration, it’s not clear how much of the Obama counterterrorism review framework remains in place.  Nor should we think that President Trump or his team consider that a bad thing.

Certainly there are ways that the Obama approach could be improved, and every new President should review his predecessor’s policies and processes.  But to understand the ways in which President Trump might be loosening the oversight framework, consider just a few of the reports we have seen on expanded special operations under President Trump. 

  • Last week, a combined U.S.-Somali special operations raid reportedly killed up to 10 civilians, including up to three children. 
  • In March, President Trump quietly approved the deployment of 400 additional special operations forces to Syria to support the fight against ISIS, bringing the total to nearly 1,000.
  • U.S. forces have carried out multiple raids inside Syria targeting ISIS leaders.  Only one such raid (beyond an unsuccessful hostage rescue operation in 2014) reportedly took place during the Obama Administration.
  • In January, U.S. forces conducted a raid against an al-Qaeda compound in Yemen that killed a Navy SEAL and reportedly more than a dozen civilians.  Subsequent raids have gone still deeper into Yemen.  No such offensive raids (again, beyond hostage rescue operations) reportedly took place during the Obama Administration.
  • Another Navy SEAL was killed in Somalia while supporting Somali forces in their fight against al-Shabaab.
  • In June, reports emerged that our Emirati partners have been operating a prison in Yemen and that widespread abuses have been reported at the facility.  The Pentagon has come under substantial scrutiny from the press and Congress to explain whether U.S. forces were aware of the abuses, had taken any action to stop them, or considered ceasing U.S. cooperation until the allegations were investigated.
  • Reports indicate that the White House has substantially loosened rules of engagement for drone strikes and other lethal operations in parts of Yemen and Somalia, though reports indicate that, except for a brief surge in Yemen operations earlier this year, commanders have largely operated at the same tempo as in 2016.

Throughout this ratcheting up of operations, President Trump and his advisors have mostly avoided any thorough public explanation.  By contrast, President Obama and his senior legal and policy officials gave several speeches explaining our broader counterterrorism campaign and the role that the use of force and special operations deployments played in it.  Many of the top legal and policy officials who offered public explanations during the Obama Administration have yet to be appointed by President Trump.  And in perhaps his most notable public comment on these operations to date, President Trump laid blame on his military commanders for the failed mission in Yemen, saying that “they lost Ryan [Owens],” the Navy SEAL killed in that operation.   

None of these operations — either individually or in the aggregate — are inherently problematic.  Indeed, the Obama approach called for discriminate use of special operations forces and intensive operational partnerships with allied forces, and none of the deployments described above are dramatic expansions beyond the Obama approach.  What’s troubling is that, based on media accounts, it is not clear that any robust interagency policy process was conducted prior to the approval of most of these missions.  The January Yemen raid was reportedly approved over a dinner attended by the President, Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joe Dunford, and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, as well as White House advisors Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner.  No State Department rep attended.  Then-Deputy National Security Advisor KT McFarland is reported to have conducted a meeting after the approval to iron out details.  If the White House is truly “out of the tactical business,” it begs the question as to how the Department of Defense receives advice on the diplomatic implications of planned operations, the intelligence basis for operations, and whether proposed operations support our broader strategic aims.

The Department of Defense may well be reaching out to State prior to operations, but with a skeleton staff and widespread vacancies in Foggy Bottom and at our posts abroad, it is unclear whether State has the capacity to provide a robust diplomatic and foreign policy perspective on operations.  Within the Pentagon, the Policy shop would typically provide the Secretary with a civilian perspective on operations, but it too is a skeleton operation (not unlike Les Aspin’s Pentagon), with only a handful of appointees in place and Secretary Mattis’s top pick to lead the organization, the well-respected Ambassador Anne Patterson blocked by Senators Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton.  And so the Trump Administration appears to have a situation where the NSC is disinclined to engage in operational matters, virtually every official who might be involved in the review of an operation is either an active duty or retired general, and the President himself, either by disposition or as a response to Obama-era policies, appears uninterested in taking a heavy handed role on military matters.  Ths is not a recipe for the kind of rigorous review from a diversity of perspectives that has served previously presidents well, and it raises the risk that an operational fiasco could be on the horizon.

To be clear, none of this is criticism of the particular generals leading our national security apparatus.  To his great fortune, President Trump is capably supported by six of the finest generals of their generation.  In addition to Kelly, Mattis, McMaster, and Dunford, our top two operational generals, Central Command chief Joe Votel and Special Operations commander Tony Thomas are battle-tested leaders and first rate professionals. I have worked directly with or with the staffs of all six men, and all are selfless officers who lead with integrity and have earned the loyalty of their troops — a testament that the U.S. military is still one of the most functional institutions in American life.  And in reviewing operations, nobody will be more sensitive to the risk to U.S. forces than a senior officer who has lost troops in combat, as all of these generals have.   

But it is a problem to have so many generals filling so many positions typically filled by civilians.  Other parts of our government and society are also capable of producing strong leaders, though developed through different formative experiences and with corresponding different perspectives on national security.  So far, those people do not appear to be close to adequately represented at the table.  Good national security process is about bringing together these perspectives to help the President make sound decisions.  Consider just a few of those perspectives and how they might be valuable in national security decision making.  A former ambassador might be attuned to the challenges of engaging a waffling government to support U.S. counterterrorism operations or smoothing diplomatic relations after a mishap.  A former congressman or senior congressional staffer may focus on how the contemplated operation may resonate on the Hill and what the Congress needs to know about the operations in order to sustain support for our broader counterterrorism campaign.  A national security lawyer could focus on whether a proposed operation is consistent with domestic and international law, our treaty obligations, the broader framework of international norms, what legal constraints our allies might face, and how blowback from legal institutions can be avoided.  A former academic might be well-versed on the history and politics of a country or region where operations are planned.  A senior intelligence official would scrutinize the underlying intelligence, consider alternative explanations, and assess whether the proposed operations would make a discernible impact on the threat.

The Trump approach to overseeing special operations need not use the Obama playbook, and indeed, by the end of his Administration, certain reforms were in order (some of which I have previously suggested).  But in ordering operations these past 24 years, President Trump’s predecessors have learned a lot — about civilian oversight, a deliberative process that brings together a range of perspectives, the need to consider much more than the risk to our people on the ground, and explaining the purpose of U.S. operations to Congress and the American public.  The early months of the Trump era suggest that he has not fully heeded these points, and if that’s the case, he’s unnecessarily raising the risk of the next catastrophe.

Image: Defense Dept.

Tags: ,


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).