Donald Trump’s Shadow War

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Five days after taking the oath of office, President Donald Trump dined with some members of his national security team. During the meal, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford roughly outlined a plan for a risky counter terrorism raid in Yemen targeting Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula the terrorist group’s most dangerous local affiliate.

In previous administrations, multiple levels of subordinates would have vetted this sort of mission before it was briefed to the president in the White House Situation Room with the full national security team present. Mattis and Dunford’s presentation to Trump was much more informal, but the new president nevertheless gave his conditional go-ahead. Then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn convinced Trump to sign off the following morning, saying the audacious raid would distinguish him from his more deliberative predecessor.

Members of the Navy’s elite SEAL Team 6 and special forces from the United Arab Emirates were soon advancing on the compound in Yemen’s al-Bayda province. But AQAP militants detected their presence, and an intense firefight broke out. Chief Petty Officer William Ryan Owens, a longtime member of SEAL Team 6, was killed. Another five special operators were injured. One of two Marine Corps Osprey aircraft dispatched to provide air support crashed and was destroyed by U.S. forces to prevent any sensitive equipment from falling into Al Qaeda hands. At least 16 Yemeni civilians, most of them children, were killed.

Much of the media attention in the immediate aftermath focused on the president’s attempts to unload responsibility for the mission onto senior military leaders, saying, “They lost Ryan.” The lack of accountability startles, even today. But the Yemen raid also raised questions about how aggressive Trump might be when it comes to using lethal force outside of conventional warzones, and whether he would continue to sign off on these types of risky operations in such a nonchalant manner.

Since then, operations might no longer be approved over dinner, but the Trump administration has relaxed both the policies and oversight processes governing “direct action”—the term used to describe air strikes, often by unmanned drones, and raids by U.S. special operations forces outside of conventional war zones. The military has ramped up these operations aggressively since Trump came into office, while transparency about their conduct has declined. Evasiveness and opacity about the use of force has been one of the few consistent themes of Trump’s approach to national security.

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