I am a big fan of Daniel Drezner and really enjoy his blog. But, just for fun (and because I am bereft of ideas for my own blogging and possibly because I am jealous of people that blog proficiently and write serious academic stuff), I am going to take issue with something he wrote a week ago.
Drezner criticizes the administration’s decision-making over a targeting al-Qaeda operative Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan who was wanted for his role in the 1998 bombing of the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and other attacks, along with serving as a link between al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab. The options, in order of least to most risky were an offshore strike by Tomahawk missile, a strike by attack helicopters, or a “snatch and grab” by Special Forces. The final option, while risky would have the huge pay-off of possibly bringing in a high-level al-Qaeda operative who would be a source of intelligence. However, the memory of “Black Hawk Down” weighed heavily on the decision-makers and State’s counter-terror coordinator said, “Somalia, helicopters, capture. I just don’t like the sound of this.”
Here’s the thing though — as analogies go, this one seems somewhat ill-suited. The most obvious difference was that this raid wasn’t going to take place in a city but a remote desert road. It was extremely difficult and bloody for U.S. forces to battle their adversaries in the urban anarchy of Mogadishu. In the open, with no civilians to use as shields, I would think JSOC has the advantage. Even if the snatch-and-grab option was the riskiest option, it does not seem as risky as U.S. efforts to rescue the downed Black Hawk crew back in 1993. In this instance, the worst-case scenario would have been some JSOC soldiers killed — but given the terrain, the lack of civilians and cover, and the likely firepower advantage held by the Americans, a Black Hawk Down II outcome sounds unlikely.
Despite these differences, analogical reasoning triumphed. The mission succeeded in taking out Nabhan, but it sounds like the slightly riskier option would have yielded greater rewards.
I am interested decision-making. The reality is that rarely are options carefully weighed for each issue, often decisions are made with all kinds of injudiciously included inputs. Basically, every time force is used, is a roll of the dice. Special Operations have lots of moving parts and lots of opportunities for things to go wrong. Undoubtedly, US Special Forces do everything they can reduce those risks, but there are always unknowns. The question is, when does the President choose to roll the dice?
To get OBL – roll the dice! But for a lower-level target, consider carefully if the risks are worth it. Finally, consider the overall context – in this Somalia. It isn’t that the situation is the same as 1993, but that if something does go wrong it could resonate both domestically and internationally – a shot in the arm to the bad guys. A similar operation in Afghanistan, for example, where US forces are constantly involved in an ongoing campaign might not resonate the same way.
This doesn’t detract from Drezner’s argument, but perhaps the flawed analogy still served a purpose in high-lighting bigger picture risks.