Following the high-profile raid in Yemen last week by SEAL Team Six to capture/kill a number of Al Qaeda high value targets, the question is now being asked as to whether the raid was a success or a spectacular failure. The real answer is probably somewhere in between.
The loss of Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owen is tragic. This SEAL had literally served through the entire length of the war on terror and men with that level of combat experience are literally impossible to replace. However, Special Operations are dangerous by their very nature and combat losses will occur regardless of how well planned missions are. Owen is hardly the first American casualty in the war on terror, and sadly he will not be the last.
While humans are more important than hardware, the destruction of a $72 million dollar Osprey aircraft is also a loss, one that could have resulted in a much more dangerous situation than what actually occurred. When an aircraft goes down, memories emerge from Operation Gothic Serpent in Somalia. When birds start crash landing, the potential for disaster quickly escalates but thankfully it appears that the pilots and SEAL Team Six operators mitigated the risk and prevented this from happening.
Several high value targets were killed on the objective including Abdul Raouf al-Dhahab and Seif al-Nims, both of whom were AQAP leaders. In total, around 14 Al Qaeda fighters were killed to include several women who took up arms. Also killed were somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty civilians. However, SOFREP broke the news that the primary target of the raid was Qassim al-Rimi who was not captured or killed. He may not have even been on the objective.
White House spokesmen Sean Spicer remarked that, “The raid that was conducted in Yemen was an intelligence-gathering raid…that’s what it was. It was highly successful. It achieved the purpose it was going to get, save the loss of life that we suffered and the injuries that occurred.”
So how do we judge if the mission was successful or not? If the mission was to capture/kill al-Rimi than it was a failure. If it was an intelligence gathering operation, than it may have been a success depending on what documents, hard drives, and other data were pulled off the objective by the operators. If it was an intel gathering mission, this is a reversal of the Special Operations strategy and mandate that intelligence drives operations, rather than the other way around. If we are now using operations to drive intelligence, the SOF community could be entering into a very dangerous cycle.
Whatever the real objective of the mission was, the Yemen raid is hardly a debacle as some in the press have made it out to be. In real life, war is not sterile, static, or predictable. Military planners, intelligence gatherers, and operators do the best they can with what they have. Often times everything goes according to plan. In other instances, everything comes apart at the seams. Some failures such as Eagle Claw in 1980 or the Extortion 17 crash in 2011 were high-profile examples of Special Operations failures, but missions fail for a variety of reasons and most never get made into movies or even hit the headlines.
When these failures do hit the papers, a type of nation wide hand wringing occurs as the limitations of American power are brought into question. Three years ago SEAL Team Six launched an operation to capture/kill a al-Shabaab leader in Somalia. The operation was compromised and the SEALs had to withdrawal. Pulling out was probably the right decision, rather than get the operators fixed in position and engaged in a massive firefight. It’s just Somalia, and jihadi leaders are a dime a dozen. Another raid or a drone strike can take care of the problem down the line.
The Yemen raid was at best partially successful. Whether or not the intelligence needed to be further developed, if the mission should have been aborted when the SEALs learned they were compromised while still in the air, or if the units involved needed to display greater tactical patience is something that can only be known after conducting a in-depth review of the operational details.
Sean Spicer also remarked to the press that, “anyone who would suggest that it is not a success is doing a disservice to the life of Chief Ryan Owens.” Arm chair quarterbacking without knowing the details could do a disservice to our troops, but questioning operations is not slanderous or treasonous to our military. Questions should be asked about America’s role in the world and the effectiveness of our counter-terrorism operations in keeping our country safe. Internally, the units involved always question themselves. It is a formal process called an After Action Review designed to sharp shoot potential flaws in how the mission was executed and ways to correct them.
From the White House’s point of view, the Yemen raid was absolutely a success based on the intelligence information collected on the objective, a process that the operators call Sensitive Site Exploitation (SSE). Think of it as tactical detective work.
Thus far, the only intelligence information from the mission released by the Department of Defense was a ten-year old Al Qaeda training video that has been available on the internet for years. DOD quickly realized their mistake, and removed the video from their website.
Image courtesy of NBC News
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