There has been a lot of controversy about the first (that we know of) major special operations raid carried out post-inauguration. The raid–in Yemen–did not go according to plan. A member of Seal Team 6 was killed. Two other Americans were seriously injured. A V-22 Osprey was damaged in a hard landing and had to be destroyed. Civilians were killed, including (allegedly) the 8 year old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, and several other women (who may, or may not, have been firing weapons).*
Immediately the raid was politicized. An ex-Obama administration official, one Colin Kahl, immediately took to Twitter to claim that, contrary to Trump administration statements, the raid had not been considered or planned under the Obama administration. Instead, Kahl claims, only a “broad package” of operations was discussed prior to the departure of the Obama administration, and this “information was shared” with the incoming administration.
I call bullshit. This kind of operation requires detailed planning and extensive intelligence collection, both of which take time. It takes more time for this to work its way up through the chain of command, including I might add a review by the lawyers to evaluate the risk of civilian casualties. There is no bleeping way in hell this went from a “broad package” to lead flying in a week. It would have been reasonable for the lame ducks to leave the decision to the new team, but it is risible to claim that this was an impromptu rush job undertaken by a rash Trump administration. (For one thing, there is no way Mattis would have signed off on any such thing.)
So what went wrong? Murphys Law. Shit happens. That is the nature of special operations raids. They are inherently risky, tightly coupled operations where pretty much everything has to go right in precise sequence. When they go wrong they tend to go horribly wrong, because they involve small elements who are usually outgunned, relatively immobile, and isolated if they lose the element of surprise or run into an obstacle that delays their quick ingress or egress.
These operations rely on surprise, speed, and sometimes brutal shock action. All the planning and training and experience in the world cannot guarantee these things will work. The “for the want of a nail” phenomenon is baked into special operations.
Apparently the SEALs operating in Yemen in late-January lost the element of surprise, and rather than abort they relied on aggression to attempt to complete the mission. In so doing, they suffered casualties and inflicted a lot of them, including some on civilians.
This is nothing new. Almost exactly two years earlier, a raid to rescue western hostages in Yemen was compromised by a barking dog. A week before the election, a Special Forces team was shot up in Afghanistan because it ran into an unexpected gate: two very experienced SF men were killed and several others were wounded.
The Obama administration obviously owns that last one, and arguably is was more of a clusterfuck than what happened in Yemen last month. But you haven’t heard much about it, have you? Go figure.
As for the Osprey, they are prone to “brownouts” (i.e., the pilot losing his bearings when the huge rotors blow up a cloud of dust while landing), as occurred in Hawaii in 2015. They can also lose lift because they enter a vortex ring state. (This is the leading theory of the crash of the stealth helo during the bin Laden raid.) Again, this is another roll of the dice with this kind of operation with this kind of aircraft.
I could go on and on. The success rate of US (and also UK and Australian) special operators is amazing, but periodic disasters are part of the package.
As for the civilian casualties, that to is inherent in the nature of these operations, and the enemy against whom they are directed. These terrorists, be they in Afghanistan or Yemen or wherever, are typically embedded in the civilian population. In Afghanistan in particular, they are just part of the ordinary menfolk. Such is guerrilla warfare. Even if civilians are not targeted, they will be killed.
What happened in Yemen a couple of weeks back is not extraordinary, given the nature of the operation, and most importantly, the extent and intensity of these kinds of operations that the US is conducting in Southwest Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Indeed, it is a testament to the skill of US special operators that these things don’t happen more often.
It is therefore incredibly disgusting to see this politicized. Yes, ex-Obama admin people and their water carriers in the media are primarily culpable in this incident, but they have help, notably from John McCain who really needs to STFU: his hatred of Trump leads him to make opportunistic statements (e.g., calling this mission a failure) that convey a very misleading picture of realities. This politicization does not help the US military, or enhance the effectiveness of its operations. Most of the politicized criticisms also tend to be blissfully ignorant of military realities. There is a justification for having a debate about whether the current anti-terror strategy that relies heavily on high tempo special operations is worth the risk. But that discussion has to be predicated on the understanding that things like those that transpired in Yemen in January (and in December, 2014) are inherent to that strategy, and do not necessarily imply failure or incompetence.
*The only basis for the claim that Awlaki’s daughter was killed is a statement by her grandfather.