In killing Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, the U.S. military has just conducted one of its most important and consequential special operations missions ever. And it has done so without a crucial player – the Pentagon’s civilian chief of special operations.
Much has been said about the Trump administration’s failure to fill several key Senate-confirmed positions, but today, perhaps none of these is more significant than the Assistant Secretary of Defense (ASD) for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict (SO/LIC). The Trump administration’s former Senate-confirmed ASD SO/LIC, Owen West, left the Department in June and his principal deputy, Mark Mitchell, departed in October. Both had served for more than two years and oversaw a wide range of special operations missions. The position of Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Counterterrorism, the key first-line official overseeing operations, is also currently listed as vacant. Thomas Alexander, the chief of counter-narcotics at DOD and a long-time congressional staffer, was promoted to acting ASD just two months ago, and immediately faces an intensive round of on-the-job training.
Why should we care, you might ask. The mission appears to have been well-executed and successful even without a civilian overseer. What could a civilian possibly bring to the table that our highly professional special operators lack? The short answer is that the ASD SO/LIC combines expertise in operational oversight with foreign policy judgement to ensure that our operations are conducted as prudently as possible. This is essential because special operations almost always have strategic and political ramifications that go beyond the military’s execution of them.
I worked in SO/LIC for five years. In an operation like this one, the ASD SO/LIC would be a critical voice in vetting the proposed mission and advising the Secretary of Defense and the White House on its risks and rewards. The assistant secretary would provide a check on those within the military who might be overly focused on the operational upside and largely neglect the broader foreign policy fallout and risks. This is a high-stakes task that requires an experienced professional who is ready for the pushback that comes from asking hard questions about the military’s plans.
Since Benghazi, the ASD SO/LIC also has had responsibility for coordinating DOD support to the security of embassies and other overseas facilities. The assistant secretary would therefore advise on the potential for mass demonstrations or targeted attacks at U.S. facilities following such a mission and, for example, how far U.S. Marines and other military assets could go to ensure the safety of Americans in the region.
Beyond these operationally-focused duties, the ASD SO/LIC would be particularly attuned to ensuring appropriate congressional oversight of operations. This is particularly notable since several key members of Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), appear to have learned of the operation only after the fact, even while other members, notably Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), were notified in advance.
It’s also not clear whether Congress has been offered a legal justification for the operation, a critical component of congressional notification. And the ASD SO/LIC would run lead in crafting public affairs guidance, ensuring that the administration explains the operation consistently and in a manner that does not jeopardize the forces or tactics, techniques, and procedures they employed in the operation. Given a flurry of public remarks from the administration today, offering varied explanations for the legal basis and circumstances of the operation, work to ensure unity of message would undoubtedly have smoothed the aftermath of the operation.
The coming days will be tense and the risk to our people high. Government officials will be working around the clock to keep Americans safe and manage the fallout. It’s highly unfortunate that one critical voice will be missing from the table.