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.