Rumsfeld Stopped Raid on Qaeda Chiefs in 2005

Donald Rumsfeld pulled the plug on a 2005 mission that might have taken out several top al Qaeda leaders for fear of alienating Pakistan, Mark Mazzetti reports in today’s NYT.

A secret military operation in early 2005 to capture senior members of Al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas was aborted at the last minute after top Bush administration officials decided it was too risky and could jeopardize relations with Pakistan, according to intelligence and military officials. The target was a meeting of Qaeda leaders that intelligence officials thought included Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s top deputy and the man believed to run the terrorist group’s operations.

But the mission was called off after Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary, rejected an 11th-hour appeal by Porter J. Goss, then the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, officials said. Members of a Navy Seals unit in parachute gear had already boarded C-130 cargo planes in Afghanistan when the mission was canceled, said a former senior intelligence official involved in the planning. Mr. Rumsfeld decided that the operation, which had ballooned from a small number of military personnel and C.I.A. operatives to several hundred, was cumbersome and put too many American lives at risk, the current and former officials said. He was also concerned that it could cause a rift with Pakistan, an often reluctant ally that has barred the American military from operating in its tribal areas, the officials said.


Pentagon officials familiar with covert operations said that planners had to consider the political and human risks of undertaking a military campaign in a sovereign country, even in an area like Pakistan’s tribal lands, where the government has only tenuous control. Even with its shortcomings, Pakistan has been a vital American ally since the Sept. 11 attacks, and the militaries of the two countries have close ties.

The Pentagon officials said tension was inherent in any decision to approve such a mission: a smaller military footprint allows a better chance of a mission going undetected, but it also exposes the units to greater risk of being killed or captured.

Officials said one reason Mr. Rumsfeld called off the 2005 operation was that the number of troops involved in the mission had grown to several hundred, including Army Rangers, members of the Navy Seals and C.I.A. operatives, and he determined that the United States could no longer carry out the mission without General Musharraf’s permission. It is unlikely that the Pakistani president would have approved an operation of that size, officials said.

Some outside experts said American counterterrorism operations had been hamstrung because of concerns about General Musharraf’s shaky government. “The reluctance to take risk or jeopardize our political relationship with Musharraf may well account for the fact that five and half years after 9/11 we are still trying to run bin Laden and Zawahri to ground,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.


In early 2005, after learning about the Qaeda meeting, the military developed a plan for a small Navy Seals unit to parachute into Pakistan to carry out a quick operation, former officials said. But as the operation moved up the military chain of command, officials said, various planners bulked up the force’s size to provide security for the Special Operations forces. “The whole thing turned into the invasion of Pakistan,” said the former senior intelligence official involved in the planning. Still, he said he thought the mission was worth the risk. “We were frustrated because we wanted to take a shot,” he said.


That criticism has echoes of the risk aversion that the officials said pervaded efforts against Al Qaeda during the Clinton administration, when missions to use American troops to capture or kill Mr. bin Laden in Afghanistan were never executed because they were considered too perilous, risked killing civilians or were based on inadequate intelligence. Rather than sending in ground troops, the Clinton White House instead chose to fire cruise missiles in what became failed attempts to kill Mr. bin Laden and his deputies — a tactic Mr. Bush criticized shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Given that the details remain classified and the story is based on leaks from disgruntled “former military and intelligence officials,” we can presume we’re not getting the whole truth. Still, this is a fascinating insight into the bureaucratic decision-making process.

Kevin Drum notes this is “eerily similar to what happened to Bill Clinton whenever he asked the Pentagon about special ops missions. Almost inevitably, what he got back was a battle plan involving hundreds or thousands of troops, which made it politically impossible to consider implementing.” Indeed.

Military planners are, at the end of the day, bureaucrats. They’ve spent a lifetime developing their expertise and are good at what they do. At the same time, however, they face institutional pressures to get everybody a piece of the pie which are reinforced by a strong CYA mentality. The result is that what could be accomplished by a single Special Forces A Team or a SEAL Task Unit winds up bloating into a giant operation involving carrier battle groups, fighter squadrons, and 15 general officers.

All officer cadets are taught Clausewitz’ dicta that war is a continuation of politics by any means and that war has its own language but not its own logic. That wars are fought to achieve political objectives and that “victory” is defined in political, not military, terms is reinforced throughout an officer’s career, from pre-commissioning training to command and staff school to the war colleges. Anyone who wears general’s stars can lead a graduate seminar on the topic.

The trouble is, few of them really believe it. They are much more comfortable with variants of the so-called Powell Doctrine, which demands overwhelming force and missions where total annihilation and the unconditional surrender of the enemy are the only acceptable outcomes. As satisfying as that may be from the standpoint of those asking their troops to risk everything, it seldom comports with the very murky and limited political objectives at hand.

This clash between politicians and their military leadership leads to mixed outcomes. In Desert Storm, we needlessly delayed operations while we massed far, far more troops than were needed for the mission. Fortunately, Saddam allowed it to happen rather than launching a preemptive strike into Saudi Arabia. In Kosovo, we killed far more civilians than necessary because we decided (and it’s not clear yet who “we” was in this case — the politicians, the generals, or both) to eschew ground action for weeks while fighting from the safety of the air.

In Iraq, Rumsfeld rebuffed the advice of the generals who told him that we needed a much larger troop presence to topple the regime. He correctly insisted that our advantages in speed, technology, and training obviated the need for mass. Of course, sometimes the generals are right: We clearly needed a much larger force for the post-war stabilization operation.

Most of the blame for that goes to Rumsfeld’s stubborn insistence on sticking with his theory of modern warfare long after the facts pointed in the other direction. One wonders, though, how much of that was because of the military leadership’s long tradition of overselling the enemy and always pleading that they need more resources.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jim Henley says:

    Great piece, James.

    This is a case where I have a fair amount of sympathy for Rumsfeld.

    On the larger issue, I think the Powell Doctrine is Clauswitzian in the best sense – it baked in the larger politics (metapolitics if you prefer) ahead of time. Powell and his brain trust recognize what the neoconservatives tacitly or explicitly deny: that war is extraordinary. Most countries are not at war most of the time. Wars that don’t meet the Powell test are better not fought, for political reasons that transcend the immediate politics of the dispute in question. I think Powell was right about that and Iraq is “proving the rule” in the real, original sense of what exceptions do.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Thanks, Jim.

    And, yes, the Powell Doctrine was just a turning of the wheel on Caspar Weinberger’s Doctrine.

    1. The United States should not commit forces to combat unless the vital national interests of the United States or its allies are involved.

    2. U.S. troops should only be committed wholeheartedly and with the clear intention of winning. Otherwise, troops should not be committed.

    3. U.S. combat troops should be committed only with clearly defined political and military objectives and with the capacity to accomplish those objectives.

    4. The relationship between the objectives and the size and composition of the forces committed should be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary.

    5. U.S. troops should not be committed to battle without a “reasonable assurance” of the support of U.S. public opinion and Congress.

    6. The commitment of U.S. troops should be considered only as a last resort.

    It’s classic post-Vietnam Realism and I agree with it wholeheartedly in principle. The 5th principle is especially difficult to achieve in the contex of a peacekeeping-type mission, in that high public support tends to evaporate over time.

    The thing is, though, presidents from both parties routinely see the use of force as being in the U.S. national interest despite the situation at hand often not being amenable to military solution. At some point, either the public is going to have to insist that not happen or the military is going to have to adapt to that reality.

  3. ken says:

    5. U.S. troops should not be committed to battle without a “reasonable assurance” of the support of U.S. public opinion and Congress.

    The American people will not support a war based upon lies.

    Powell lied in order to convince the world that Bush had legitimate reason to launch his war on Iraq.

    Powell lied by remaining silent as torture and other war crimes where perpetuated and the Geneva Convention was discarded as ‘quaint’ by his pals in the Republica party.

    Screw Powell. His so called ‘doctrine’ was nothing but a bunch of meaningless words when it came down to a real world test. His ‘doctrine’ meant nothing to the man who claimed it as his own.

  4. Jim Henley says:

    At some point, either the public is going to have to insist that not happen or the military is going to have to adapt to that reality.

    Absolutely. I feel comfortable in saying I’ve made my choice and I’m doing my bit! 😉

  5. graywolf says:

    Hey, Ken:

    How would YOU defend America from another 9/11?
    OR, are you one of the many left-wing traitorous scum who throw a party each 9/11 because we “deserved it?”

  6. carpeicthus says:

    Gotta be a spoof.

  7. Andy says:

    Yep, a lame spoof at that. That’s just a rehash of your basic redstate commentary. I want to see some originality.

  8. legion says:

    The result is that what could be accomplished by a single Special Forces A Team or a SEAL Task Unit winds up bloating into a giant operation involving carrier battle groups, fighter squadrons, and 15 general officers.

    Unfortunately, James, a “simple” SOF unit doesn’t just magically appear at the target zone, cap the bad guys, and then beam out ala Star Trek. They typically go by helo or paradrop, which needs the support of all sorts of AF or Army aviation assets; not to mention air refueling & airborne intel assets. Even if they walk to the target, they still have to get to the country (or an amenable neighbor) somehow. Not to mention that the rescue units in case something bad happens (above & beyond the planned extraction method) can put even the simplest op into the ‘hundreds of people’ category.

  9. James Joyner says:

    “simple” SOF unit doesn’t just magically appear at the target zone, cap the bad guys, and then beam out ala Star Trek.

    True enough. I’m concerned here with the footprint on the ground, though, not the logistical tail. A small SOF raid may have hundreds of people behind it but only a handful of them are actually in country breaking things. That’s a lot easier to keep quiet.