Donald Trump’s first military raid into the Middle East was, even after the most generous application of “alternative facts”, a full-blown disaster. If we are to believe the US media, the target of the raid was Al-Qaeda leader Qassim Al-Rimi, who escaped unharmed. Al-Rimi is the commander of “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” (AQAP), a fearsome organisation which has endured years of drone strikes under Barack Obama, and has now been gifted yet more recruiting propaganda by Trump’s ill-advised foray into the conflict.
The photogenic daughter of Anwar Al-Awlaki, aged eight, adorned most of the international front pages after the raid. She was killed and, like her father, was a US citizen; she has now become a rather unlikely poster-girl for America’s lack of concern about civilian casualties during military operations. Numerous other civilians, including a child whose photo the BBC broadcast on Wednesday evening, are thought to have been killed in the botched raid. The Pentagon has already accused Al-Qaeda of using female fighters, perhaps in a bid to extricate itself from the current public relations nightmare.
A US Special Forces soldier was also killed, and his colleagues were forced to destroy a multimillion dollar helicopter after it underwent a “hard landing”; a military euphemism for “crash”, perhaps. Nevertheless, Sean Spicer — the Trump Administration’s very own Comical Ali press secretary — has called the raid a success. The Yemeni government hasn’t; it is, apparently, banning the Americans from conducting any more ground operations in the country, although reports about this are unclear.
Most recent military operations in Yemen have been drone strikes, not risky escapades by helicopter and boots on the ground. While Britain’s Royal Air Force has, at least in theory, a zero tolerance level for civilian casualties — if there is a risk of even one casualty, the planners should hold fire — the US, like the French, does not. Civilian casualties from drone strikes are therefore built into US planning; there must be, somewhere in a classified Pentagon filing cabinet, an “acceptable” figure for drone strike civilian casualties.
There is an argument which then says that sending troops on the ground to kill or arrest nasty people is a more appropriate way of dealing with the problem. It is more “surgical” by allowing soldiers to make decisions about risking civilian casualties while they are in situ, rather than from thousands of miles away in a windowless bunker controlling a drone joystick. However, a rare ground raid into Yemen of late, to save the life of an American journalist being held hostage, ended in ignominious failure; the journalist was killed. The Special Forces involved were no doubt very capable, but it demonstrated the inherent risk of inserting foreign troops into Yemen directly. These were the same risks that were shown during the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia in the nineties, which led to a US withdrawal from the country. There can be successes of course — the raid to kill Osama Bin Laden did, in technical terms, deliver on its objective — but they are not too common. More mundane Special Forces operations tend to go off well, not least because they are always well planned and far better prepared than the disaster that Trump has just signed off.
Given the risks, it is essential that the commander-in-chief of America’s armed forces — the president of the USA — is making decisions to send in ground troops based on military considerations and not to bolster flagging popularity ratings at home. On this occasion, disgruntled and concerned military officials were straight on the phone to Reuters and the New York Times to suggest that Trump had ordered the Yemen attack “without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations.” This operation had all the hallmarks of an impetuous new president with no military or government experience wanting to portray himself at the first opportunity as a glorious crusader in the fight against anti-US terrorism, regardless of the risk to civilians and American soldiers alike. When political urges and military matters mix too closely, the results are never great.
More bombastic escapades may be on the horizon. Trump infamously promised to “bomb the s*** out of ISIS,” which stands in stark contrast to the relatively careful Iraqi-led approach to retaking Mosul, for example. With international scrutiny — and very unlike successive assaults on Fallujah — the Iraqis have taken a much-needed dose of restraint. This is, ironically, exactly what is needed with a group as horrific as Daesh/ISIS. If Trump does go in with all guns blazing, all of this groundwork will be undone. Daesh wants anyone and everyone to bomb its forces, because that plays nicely into the extremists’ narrative. Trump doesn’t seem to understand this.
And even if he did, this was clearly the wrong raid to order. The plan for it had been sitting in the White House during the Obama administration but it had not been approved, with good reason, as it turns out.
Trump seems to have the same gung-ho attitude towards Iran. His rhetoric against Tehran is only empowering the hardliners there, and there is a presidential election on the horizon. The careful work of the imperfect but decent nuclear deal will be undone if and when Trump sends the troops in.
Starting a war to get re-elected is the oldest trick in the book. If we remember what Trump said in order to become president, imagine what he will do once he has to fight to stay in the White House. The early signs are that he will be trigger-happy, literally. Yemen is simply a sign of things to come.