Yemen Wants US to Reassess Counter-Terrorism Strategy after Botched Raid
MIDDLE EAST & NORTH AFRICA, 13 Feb 2017
Julian Borger and Ben Jacobs – The Guardian
Sidelining of Trump’s national security council worries experts, who liken decision-making process that led to civilian deaths to ‘shooting from the hip’.
8 Feb 2017 – The Yemeni government said on Wednesday [8 Feb] it wants a rethink of US counter-terrorist operations on its territory after a botched commando raid on 29 January that left 25 civilians dead.
The Navy Seal operation, aimed at gathering intelligence on al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap), has shone light on chaotic decision-making in the Trump White House, where presidential aides, many with little foreign policy or national security experience, are competing for influence.
The Yemeni foreign minister, Abdul-Malik al-Mekhlafi, denied overnight reports that his government had ordered a halt to all ground operations by US troops in Yemen.
But he added that his government, which is also fighting a civil war against Houthi rebels, “is involved in talks with the US administration on the latest raid” which it wanted “reassessed”.
An official statement on Wednesday said: “ The government of Yemen reiterates its firm position that any counter-terrorism operations carried out in Yemen should continue to be in consultation with Yemeni Authorities and have precautionary measures to prevent civilian casualties. Yemen believes that terrorism is a global menace that has no borders, religion or nationality; one that only a collective and well-coordinated response can address.”
Despite the US partnership with the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, Yemen was one of seven predominantly Muslim countries whose nationals were barred entry to the US in a Trump executive order.
US central command, which oversees operations in the Middle East, said there had been no change to its operations.
“Currently, we have not been ordered to stop conducting any operations nor have been directed to halt any operational planning,” Centcom spokesman Maj Josh Jacques said. “We will continue to conduct operations consistent with international law and in coordination with the government of Yemen. We will not relent in our mission to degrade, disrupt and destroy al-Qaida.”
In the White House press briefing on Wednesday, the press secretary, Sean Spicer, insisted that the raid in Yemen was a success and said anyone questioning its success owed an apology to the family of Chief Petty Officer Ryans Owens, the Navy Seal killed in the operation.
When asked if that criticism applied to Senator John McCain, who deemed the raid a failure after receiving a classified briefing on the operation, Spicer repeated: “Anyone who undermines the success of that raid owes an apology and a disservice to the life of Chief Ryan Owens.”
The night raid on a village in the central Yakla region appears to have gone wrong from the start, with the crash landing of an Osprey aircraft. According to the accounts of local villagers, about 50 US troops began by shooting villagers and tribal elders, and Aqap militants camped nearby only joined the fight after many civilians were already dead.
Villagers told the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) that 25 civilians died alongside a group of militants, including nine children under the age of 13. Of the nine young children who died, the smallest was only three months old. Seven women were killed, including one who was heavily pregnant. Seven more women and children were injured.
The dead also included the eight-year-old daughter of al-Qaida propagandist and American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a September 2011 US drone strike in Yemen, her family said.
“It is true they were targeting [al-Qaida] but why did they have to kill children and women and elderly people?” Zabnallah Saif al-Ameri told the BIJ. He said he lost nine members of his extended family, five of whom were children. “If such slaughter happened in their country, there would be a lot of shouting about human rights. When our children are killed, they are quiet.”
Villagers also told the BIJ that people trying to flee the gun battle between US commandos and Aqap militants were cut down by helicopter gunfire.
“They killed men, children and women and destroyed houses,” said Mohsina Mabkhout al Ameri, who lost her brother, nephew and three of her nephew’s children. “We are normal people and have nothing to do with [al-Qaida] or [Yemeni rebel movement] the Houthis or anyone. The men came from America, got off the planes and the planes bombed us.”
Although the US has carried out frequent drone attacks aimed at Aqap in recent years, this was the first raid involving US ground troops since 2014. According to a senior Obama administration official, a US military proposal to escalate ground raids like the Yakla operation had been reviewed in the last weeks of the administration, but a decision on whether to give it a green light was deferred to the incoming Trump team.
The circumstances of Trump’s authorisation of the raid, at a dinner on 25 January, have drawn scrutiny of how the new White House makes such life and death decisions. The plan was presented to Trump at the dinner by the defence secretary, James Mattis, and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen Joseph Dunford.
The president was flanked by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his chief strategist and former Breitbart news executive, Steve Bannon. Apart from Bannon’s seven years as a navy officer more than three decades ago, neither has foreign policy experience.
The casual format differed markedly from previous practice, where such decisions would have been taken in the White House situation room and involved top officials from the state department and intelligence agencies, convened by the national security council (NSC).
“In the Obama administration, there would have been a lot of debate, possibly too much,” said Loren DeJonge Shulman, who was a senior adviser in Obama’s NSC. “The people at the White House would have known the risks and the details of the raid backwards and forwards, but in this case it seems to have been fairly cursory, and left to political advisers and the military.”
“The question is – is this going to be the normal process, when a couple of folks get together and cook up operations? Are we just shooting from the hip?” Shulman, now at the Centre for a New American Security, asked.
Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was also at the dinner, but the decision did not going through the normal NSC channels, through which heads or deputy heads of all agencies with a stake in the operation would be convened. A deputy principals session was held on 26 January, but according to sources familiar with the meeting it was simply asked to rubber-stamp the president’s decision.
The incident has heightened fears that the NSC could be sidelined when it comes to important decisions. According to reports emanating from the White House, senior directors of specialist departments are not being asked to give briefings directly, but rather formulate short bullet-point summaries. They are rarely, if ever, called into the Oval Office when the president calls foreign leaders.
Bannon and Kushner have set up a separate body inside the White House called the strategic initiatives group, viewed by some in the NSC as a potential rival centre of decision-making power. Flynn told the Washington Post that 60 of 230 staff posts in the council are still unfilled, a possible sign that senior officials in other agencies are not prepared to work in a Trump White House.
Recent political appointments to the NSC have also reflected the influence of a prominent Trump backer and venture capitalist, Peter Thiel. Kevin Harrington, the former manager of a Thiel investment fund with minimal foreign policy experience, was named last week as deputy assistant to the president for strategic planning.
- This story was updated on 9 February to correct the number of civilians killed in the raid.
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