The next Black Hawk Down will probably look nothing like the Battle of Mogadishu. A series of reforms in the community helped solve the operational and organizational problems that led to the catastrophe in Somalia, and 16 years of continuous operations have honed the skills of our special operations forces. The next Black Hawk Down might instead look like an accident that results in substantial civilian casualties and no plan to mitigate the fallout. It might be complicity — real or perceived — in abuses perpetrated by our partners, such as a worsening of the Emirati abuses we have already seen in Yemen, that diminishes U.S. leadership on the global stage. Or it might involve U.S. operatives captured or discovered in a politically sensitive area. We will never be able to fully prevent these scenarios, but the duty of the Trump national security team is to make sure the risks are appropriate for the strategic aims, that we have done everything we can to mitigate them, and that our national security team and the American public are prepared for any mishaps. Doing so honors the service of our operators but it also ensures that they remain available, and their deployment remains politically viable, for a range of national security threats.
The solution is not to ask our special operations forces to self regulate. Their community is special in large part because it is comprised of risk takers who are willing to push the boundaries of what’s possible and put themselves at great personal risk to accomplish the mission. Nor is the solution to defer all oversight to a process run entirely within the Pentagon. Even a fully empowered Pentagon policy shop can’t provide the full range of interagency perspectives — things like speaking for embassies, addressing international legal questions, evaluating intelligence assessments. Plus, there is strong pressure inside the Pentagon to get all operations approved, and the President and Secretary would be well served to receive perspectives from outside the building.
But there are a few basic steps President Trump and his national security team could take – building on the lessons of the past 24 years – to ensure appropriate review of special operations.
First, the right people need to be at the table. The President should move quickly to nominate candidates for a wide range of vacant civilian national security policy posts that are essential in providing advice on special operations. Top of the list should be the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and the senior regional assistant and deputy assistant secretaries who provide the Secretary of Defense with civilian advice on operations. Equally important is filling the broad swath of vacant regional assistant secretaries of state, who could advise on the foreign policy and diplomatic aspects of counterterrorism operations. Appointing a full slate of ambassadors in the regions where we are currently conducting operations would ensure that the President and Secretary of State have trusted representatives to work important diplomatic channels, like convincing host nations to approve operations and partner with the United States or smoothing tensions in the event of an operational mishap. Finally, the President should fill the vacant senior legal counsel positions at the Departments of Defense and State with qualified lawyers who have a demonstrated track record of respect for the core legal framework — established in the second Bush term and solidified under Obama — under which our counterterrorism professionals currently operate.
Second, the National Security Advisor should ensure that a viable interagency policy process is in place that brings together an appropriate representation of foreign policy officials to consider the strategic and policy costs and benefits of operations and provide a balanced set of views to the President. Part of the challenge here is that over the course of the Obama Administration, critics came to conflate effective oversight from a variety of foreign policy perspectives with micromanagement. This is in many ways understandable. President Obama’s lengthy directive governing drone strikes and capture missions describes an intensive review process run by a series of committees chaired by the National Security Council staff and attended by a wide range of departments and agencies. Although those of us responsible for coordinating that process moved as quickly as possible to prepare proposals for decision, the mere fact that some operations had to come to the White House added another layer of review that slowed things down. Critics cite President Obama’s guidance document, Secretary Gates’ statements, and extensive media accounts of White House review of operations as evidence of intense micromanagement that have caused us to miss operational opportunities and distracted the National Security Council from its core business of bringing together senior officials to grapple with strategic challenges.
But effective civilian oversight of operations need not involve extensive White House meetings considering minute tactical details. Authority for approving specific operations can and should be delegated to the Pentagon, where our military commanders and the Secretary of Defense will be far better suited to consider risk to forces for any specific operation. The interagency process could instead review broad concepts of operations that outline the types of missions that the Department of Defense proposes for addressing a specific threat in a given region and agree on specific boundaries to those operations. Those guideposts should ensure operations support our policy objectives, avoid risks (defined much more broadly than risk to force) that exceed rewards, and are supported by other parts of the government. And senior interagency review bodies should reconvene periodically to check in on the effectiveness of operations, consider whether risk levels have changed, and advise the President on modifications to operational plans. Full civilian staffing and sound process might not have prevented the Black Hawk Down debacle, but it might have allowed the President to better consider and monitor whether the strategic goal merited the operational risks, drum up greater public and congressional support for the mission, and develop a plan for mitigating the extensive fallout from the battle.
Finally, the President and his top national security officials should deliver public remarks and conduct congressional engagements that explain the types of missions our counterterrorism professionals are conducting today, soberly convey the associated risks, and make the case as to why these operations are critical for our national security. Committing to congressional oversight can be painful at times but typically results in a crop of political allies to stand by the President when things go wrong. On the public side, the pending release of a new counterterrorism strategy offers a perfect opportunity to move beyond bashing the Obama Administration for political purposes and instead make an affirmative case to the American people that seeks their buy-in and also prepares them for losses that will inevitably occur along the way. And when tragedies occur, as they inevitably will, the President needs to be prepared to speak soberly about the loss, put it in strategic context, accept ultimate responsibility as commander in chief, and commit to investigating what went wrong and learning from any mistakes that might have been made.
We are fortunate to have the most capable set of commandos that (as President Trump might say) the world has ever seen. Our forces can do things today they never could have done 24 years ago, and yet they know that no matter how good they get, risk is an inherent part of counterterrorism. It can never eliminated, only managed. And certainly civilians in the White House, the Pentagon, Foggy Bottom, and our regional embassies, deliberating through a sound policy process, cannot address risk on the battlefield. But mindful of that everpresent risk, the President and his team’s job is to honor the skill and courage of our forces by making sure that they are always deployed for worthy purposes and in the wisest manner. To do anything less is a disservice to them, and to the counterterrorism mission the American people have entrusted the President to carry out.
Image: US Defense Dept.