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What Can Stop the Next Black Hawk Down: Risks to Special Operation Forces in the Trump Era

(Editors’ note: This article first appeared as a three-part series. We are reproducing it here in full.)

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.


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

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.

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

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.

III. Preventing the Next Black Hawk Down

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.

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About the Author

is a fellow in New America's International Security program and executive director of National Journal's Network Science Initiative. He previously served as Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council, and deputy director for counterterrorism operations in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. You can follow him on Twitter (@LukeHartig).