Thought for the Day

"By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest." - Confucius

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The anatomy of a failed hostage rescue deep into Islamic State territory

The bin Laden raid is not the decision making model for in extremis rescues of American citizens especially where intelligence is fluid and fleeting (and of course the question is where is our vaunted persistent ISR capability to maintain surveillance on a target? - of course this shows the difficulty of gathering intelligence against hard targets where we have few assets, let alone boots, on the ground).   The bin Laden raid model leads to strategic decision making paralysis.  Furthermore, we should keep in mind that the risks being assessed by political appointees (deputies and principles) can only be political risk, i.e., risk to the administration as they may not have requisite experience and capability of assessing risk to mission, risk to force, or risk to the hostages.  However, I have heard that some of the principles are fond of asking why one more person cannot be added to a CV-22 or what is the last covered and concealed position for the assault force.

But the administration is on the defensive and these comments are illustrative.

Instead, four senior officials directly involved in the decision, and several others with close knowledge of it, said that one of the most complex and dangerous such efforts ever undertaken had moved through the planning, approval and execution process at what one called “warp speed.”
To prove their point, the officials revealed new details about a rescue mission that, once it failed, was never intended to be made public.
“For us, the clock starts when they tell us they have an operation that they want the president to review and approve,” said Susan E. Rice, Obama’s national security adviser. The clock on the mission to rescue James Foley,Steven SotloffPeter Kassig and Kayla Mueller “began on a Friday and ended on a Saturday evening” when the president, meeting with his top advisers, gave the “go” order.
“It can’t happen any faster than that ... particularly given the complexity of the risk,” Rice said.
A senior Defense Department official said he understood the frustration of intelligence operatives, planners and “the guys ready to go.”
But this “was a risky operation, deep into Syria, where we hadn’t been before,” he said. “It involved a lot of people,” with substantial danger to both the troops and the hostages themselves. “It wasn’t a nice little surgical operation.”
Moreover, while the rescuers found evidence at the site that the hostages had been there, the mission was launched with no definitive intelligence confirming their presence.
But in the administration's defense, they did order the mission executed without "definitive intelligence."  And I believe the administration is also correct in hostage policies (e.g., no ransom payments and I am glad they are holding firm on that in the face of criticism from hostages' families) .  But this also shows how difficult hostage rescue is as well as the difficulty of the required supporting intelligence operations.  

Maybe we need a force with supporting intelligence capabilities that is solely dedicated to hostage rescue and is not saddled with multiple other missions from capture and kill (which many military forces can do) and the myriad other missions that have been added to the force that once had hostage rescue as its primary mission.  I wonder if our hostage rescue capability has been diminished because of the war on terrorism?  Sure it is easy to make the argument that all the skills for capture/kill and hostage rescue are similar if not the same and that training and preparing for one mission is similar if not the same as for other mission.  But with the seeming proliferation of hostage taking of Americans maybe our premier hostage rescue force should be divested of other extraneous missions and it should focus on hostage rescue.  I think that the concept of "counter" and  "terrorism" that brought about the establishment of a hostage rescue capability following the rise of terrorism in the 1970's developed because at the time our thinking was that terrorism led to hostage taking and we needed a capability to rescue American hostages and that idea guided the development of the capabilities forces that were developed for "countering terrorism" e.g., the counter to terrorism was rescuing American hostages.  But after 9-11 we have focused on capturing and killing terrorists and disrupting the terrorist networks.  But the question should be asked if whether our expanded focus has led to a decline in our hostage rescue capability?  And I think we can also make the case that we are seeing a growth in the numbers of Americans being taken hostage since 9-11 so perhaps we need to ensure we have the best capability to rescue Americans.  

Of course this argument is analogous to the air power arguments of CAS versus air interdiction or strategic targeting - hostage rescue is reactive and like CAS addressing the threat after it is has executed it operations or directly attacked our frontline forces whereas counterterrorism focusing on destroying terrorist networks is like air interdiction or strategic targeting and provides the opportunity to destroy them before they can take hostages or in the air power analogy it precludes the need for CAS as sufficient numbers of the enemy are destroyed before they reach ground forces and the ground forces will be able to defeat or destroy the enemy forces without need for CAS.  So where should we put our priorities?  Of course we want both capabilities for both counter terrorism forces and air power.  But the real question is should the same forces (or platforms) be responsible for the full range of missions either in CT/Hostage rescue or CAS and air interdiction?  Or, eschewing costs (perhaps the real driver), should we have have forces optimized for specific missions?

The anatomy of a failed hostage rescue deep into Islamic State territory


By Karen DeYoung February 14 at 6:20 PM  
On the evening of Thursday, June 26, the Pentagon sent a bold hostage rescue plan to the White House for approval. Dozens of Special Operations forces would fly into Syria under the barest sliver of moonlight, set down in the heart of Islamic State territory and snatch four Americans being held by the militants.
The landing took place almost exactly a week later. Yet the commandos who rushed through gunfire into the makeshift prison found only half-eaten meals and a wisp of hair. The hostages had been there. But they were gone.
By the end of the year, the Islamic State had brutally killed three of the Americans, posting their videotaped beheadings online. The last hostage and the only woman, Kayla Mueller, was declared dead last Tuesday after the militants sent photographs of her body to her family.
The finality of that news has given rise to painful questions about whether more could have been done to save them. Grieving relatives of the victims, some of whom have accused the administration of waiting too long to launch a rescue mission, have also criticized the U.S. policy of non-negotiation with hostage-takers.
The administration has acknowledged it could do better at communicating with the families, notwithstanding its ongoing rejection of paying ransom, and has launched a review led by the National Counterterrorism Center. “We will do everything we can, short of providing an incentive for future Americans to be caught,” President Obama said in an interview last week with BuzzFeed.
Friends, family remember Mueller for her compassion(1:09)
Friends and family of Kayla Mueller mourned her death on Tuesday after receiving confirmation that the U.S. hostage being held in Syria by the Islamic State had been killed after months in captivity. (Reuters)
But some of those who worked on the rescue mission say they believe the White House itself is at least partly to blame for the failure. They charge that there were delays in bringing the plan to Obama’s desk, and that, as a result, the rescuers missed the hostages by a matter of days, or even hours.
(Continued at the link below)

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