Streetwise Professor

February 12, 2017

The Yemen Raid: Inherent Risk, Not Failure.

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 1:43 pm

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.

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  1. Spot on. The only thing I would add here is that special forces have been greatly abused/miss-used by politicians over recent years, not helped by Hollywood marketing of course. They make great headlines when it all comes off, which leads to ‘man with a hammer’ thinking. In reality these guys are mostly light infantry with a more selective training program. If they hit heavy weapons or large organised resistance, they need to get out and fast.

    Comment by David Moore — February 12, 2017 @ 3:58 pm

  2. >> 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.

    News media accounts said something quite different. It had finally been approved by Obama in January, but the best time for it was a new moon, which would take place after the inauguration, and it was approved again by Trump and hia advisers.

    Kahl may be correct as to the situation in the fall of 2016. But Obama made a decision to go ahead with this one attack in January.

    I think the operatioon was compromised. Al Qaeda was not alerted now by the fact that some drones flew lower than usual, and a barking dog didn’t alert them in 2014 andm fir that matter, in Benghazi on September 11/2, 2012, they didn’t suddenly find out the location of the CIA annex because they followed some people back. These are all imaginary excuses.

    Probably somebody in Yemen’s government was told that the raid was coming (the Yemeni government probably had to OK it) and passed it along.

    The information as to what they would find and who would be at the site was probably also wrong, or out of date.

    Comment by Sammy Finkelman — February 12, 2017 @ 6:55 pm

  3. Would love to know your thoughts about the whole Flynn thing. Give us a post on it, please?

    Comment by job — February 13, 2017 @ 1:24 am

  4. I’ll leave it to the Americans to discuss amongst themselves about the rights and wrongs of the use (abuse?) of their Special Forces and the political opportunism that floats around them – but there is one question I can’t help but wonder about: What on earth are US forces doing in Yemen? I understand that the Saudis have their reasons for being there (not that I agree with them), but it’s not like the Saudis helped the US in Afghanistan or Iraq. The Saudis have the money, the equipment and the political skill* to clean up their own mess in Yemen… what’s in it for Uncle Sam?

    *There’s a very wry quote from a Saudi ambassador: “My family has been in leadership position since 1747. Now, you can call us many things, but politically stupid we are not”.

    Comment by Hiberno Frog — February 13, 2017 @ 7:48 am

  5. @job-Thanks. I will write something. My initial thought: the WaPoo is targeting Flynn to show that it can break the administration. Trump no doubt thinks that, and as a consequence is unlikely to fire him.

    The substance of Flynn’s reputed remarks is rather benign. It’s not as if he told the Russians that sanctions would be lifted. He basically just said don’t freak out about them, to show restraint.

    IMO here’s the biggest part of this story: US intelligence is leaking signals intelligence involving US persons, and in particular, the individual designated for a very senior national security post. This is beyond disturbing. It also gives the lie to their bullshit about not wanting to reveal specifics re the hacking investigation for fear of disclosing sources and methods.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 13, 2017 @ 11:22 am

  6. @Hiberno Frog. I have long been amibivalent about the heavy reliance on special operations. Under Obama in particular it became a way of waging war in the shadows, thereby stifling public debate on what our policy should be, and what the real terrorist threat is. I am also ambivalent because special operators are a precious resource that should not be squandered on secondary and tertiary targets.

    They are in Yemen because it has become, apparently, the new Afghanistan. That is, a largely stateless region where Al Qaeda can gather, and from which it can launch attacks against the US. At least that is the rationale for our being there. But again, for the most part we have had to take the government’s word on that.

    I will note that it is particularly ironic that Obama called the US campaign in Yemen a success. Right before the entire country descended into chaos and civil war.

    The Saudi objectives are totally different from American goals. Saudi involvement in Yemen is a proxy war with Iran. Ours was primarily related to Al Qaeda (about which the Saudis really don’t give a rat’s ass). Unfortunately, although the Saudis are not politically stupid, the same cannot be said of the US. Indeed, the former have successfully made us co-belligerents in their proxy war there. That is hardly in US interests.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 13, 2017 @ 11:31 am

  7. If the death of one SEAL is to lead to hand-wringing, what will the response be when China (say) sinks a big carrier?

    Comment by dearieme — February 13, 2017 @ 5:02 pm

  8. Thank you for another wonderful article. As you are in academia, could you explain why Betsy DeVos is not very popular. Even within the GOP.

    Comment by Peter Hall — February 13, 2017 @ 8:21 pm

  9. @dearieme–To be cynical, it will depend on who is president.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 13, 2017 @ 9:19 pm

  10. Peter:

    Betsy is not popular b/c she has the temerity to say that the ‘Emperor [EdShed establishment] has no clothes.’

    VP VVP

    Comment by VP Vlad — February 13, 2017 @ 9:20 pm

  11. @Peter Hall. Thanks, Peter.

    Even many Republicans, especially in DC, are members of the party of government. The education establishment, most notably the teachers’ unions, is at the core of that party. Advocates of vouchers (like DeVos) are an anathema to that party.

    There is also a strong cultural element at work here. Voucher and charter school advocates are disproportionately religious and rural or exurban and suspicious of the authority of their “betters.” As such, they are scorned by the establishment. And believe me, Republicans (especially those in government or in the party apparatus) can be as scornful as any liberal.

    I remember the transition between the Reagan administration and Bush I. The Bush I establishment types had nothing but disdain for the Reagan administration people who came from Middle America. I saw some of that up close and personal when working on a project growing out of the bailouts of S&Ls that occurred during the dying days of the Reagan administration. I had meetings with people in regulatory agencies (FSLIC, Treasury) and Hill staff in early-1989. The new Bush people mocked the Reagan people they replaced, not so much for their policy views or decisions, but for their alleged gaucheries. It was petty and rather nauseating. My disgust with the DC class, irrespective of party, dates from that experience.

    The snark directed at Betsy DeVos is very redolent of the post-Reagan Bushie snark.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 13, 2017 @ 9:31 pm

  12. “The only basis for the claim that Awlaki’s daughter was killed is a statement by her grandfather”: that’s about par for those countries. Remember the claim that Reagan’s raid on Libya killed a daughter of Gaddafi?

    (I remember the raid; the planes flew over my head as I cycled home from work.)

    Comment by dearieme — February 14, 2017 @ 7:08 am

  13. Thank you.

    Comment by Peter Hall — February 14, 2017 @ 4:29 pm

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