Could The Failed Yemen Raid Become Trump's Benghazi?

02/14/2017 08:29 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2018
U.S. President Donald Trump listens during a parent-teacher conference listening session inside the Roosevelt Room of the Whi
U.S. President Donald Trump listens during a parent-teacher conference listening session inside the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017. Michael Flynn's abrupt ouster from President Donald Trump's top national security post prompted a flurry of Republicans calling for a deeper look into the administration's relations with Russia and Moscow's alleged interference in U.S. politics. Photographer: Olivier Douliery/Pool via Bloomberg

The first military operation President Trump authorized, over dinner, was a troubling failure. It killed 30 civilians, including 10 children and women. It cost the life of American Seal William Ryan Owens, injured three other Americans fighters, and the crew of an Osprey that crashed-landed. It pushed the local tribes -- including those that in the past supported the United States -- toward aligning themselves with Al Qaeda. And it showed, once again, the U.S.'s weakness in this kind of warfare.

Before I proceed, I should note that I was trained for one year as a Special Forces combatant (though in my day, they were called commandos), and I was involved in close combat for two and a half years. (These include two short periods in which there was a ceasefire). I mention this because the following is not merely based on publically available information, but also on personal experience.

If the Democrats in Congress were not shell-shocked by the bombardment of executive orders, and if they were able to hold the kind of investigation and hearing the Obama Administration was subjected to over the loss of four American lives in Benghazi, here are the questions they should have raised about the recent Yemen raid. These questions call out for answers -- before we face more such operations.

David Sanger, a highly regarded New York Times reporter, stated on public television that the decision to launch the strike in Yakla by the Trump team did not follow the usual procedure. There was no meeting in the situation room, in which (in the past) detailed reports about planned operations were submitted, followed by discussions about the goal of the operation, presentation of a risk assessment to American troops and to local civilians, and on the legal standing of the operation. Instead, the matter was decided during dinner conversations which included among others, Stephen Bannon, Trump's leading political consultant. (A few days later, when the news broke that North Korea tested a missile, the decision of how to respond was made in a similar way -- only this time, various other people in the area made videos of the documents presented and the informal presentations, and posted them online).

Hence, the first of line of question that must be raised concerns who briefed the President and what did they state? Did they call his attention to the fact that, often, killing a few terrorists, especially when civilians are involved, only increases the number of terrorists the US and its allies must contend with? (As Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld put it, we must be sure we kill more terrorists than we create). What were the reasons given why drones were not used instead of Special Forces, which is a much less risky though one of less PR value? Was the President told that killing various Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan by similar raids and drones had helped suppress Al Qaeda (at least for a while) however, this was not achieved by a few sporadic raids -- but by many scores of raids, following one after the other.

One may even wish to know, given Trump's often reported limited attention span and distaste for intelligence briefings -- whether the president heard out the briefings, if any were made, or if he cut them short? Maybe future briefings should be made in the form of videos and presented on a TV screen? Did the President rely, as he often states, on his gut feeling and sense that he instinctively knows all one needs to know, better than all others?

Al Qaeda combatants were forewarned about the attack. As a result, the all important element of surprise was lost. In most armed conflict situations, the conditions favor the defense because combat occurs in the territory it is familiar with, it is dug in, and it has short supply lines. The major factor that favors the attack is that the defense does not know when and how the position it defends will be attacked. This is especially true in commando raids, in which small forces attack a larger force, far away from the attackers' base. Here, loss of surprise is particularly detrimental. (Two operations in which I participated in were aborted once we lost the element of surprise). One needs to establish, regarding the raid in Yemen, how Al Qaeda found out about the looming operation. Was it due to the fact the US command decided to include some local troops? Or, because of the greatly heightened drone activities over the target, which served as a telltale sign that an attack was forthcoming? If this is true, surely one will want to know who made such an elementary mistake in executing the operation.

Claiming that the raid was largely successful, Administration sources stressed the value of intelligence the US gleaned from material collected at the site. However, NPR reported that: "A terrorist video released on Friday by the Pentagon to show what it called intelligence gleaned by the recent raid in Yemen actually was made about 10 years ago, it acknowledged."

Speaking more generally, the US has small teams of Special Forces in at least thirty countries in Africa and the Middle East. There is a naïve assumption that they can engage in "capacity building", in getting the locals to build up their military forces to the level that they will be able to fend for themselves. A Pentagon official explained to me that one of the most important missions of these teams is to curb corruption. This is much called for because a good part of the monies allotted to the various local military forces ends up in the pockets of the generals and lower ranking officers, to the point that troops are often sent to fight with little ammunition and even limited amounts of food. It is hard to imagine how an American Seal team, well-trained in the art of killing, will get the locals to curb corruption. The record of the 15 years of such efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, which entailed much large-scale American involvement, shows how futile such drives are. The raid in Yemen should serve as opportunity to ask the greater question: should the US engage in a small way in scores of nations, demonstrating weakness or -- either withdraw or engage on the level success requires?

As far as Iran is concerned, which is helping the insecurity in Yemen, one must ask where the Yemen raid fits into a general strategy of dealing with this rising power. Tackle it in the various proxies wars in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen -- or confront the beast head on?

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University. His most recent position paper, "The China Options," has just been published at The George Washington University.

This post first appeared in The National Interest.