Trump may give CentCom greater authority on hostage rescues

Posted by Nick Cauley on February 20, 2017

Army Gen. Joseph Votel, on a visit here to the Middle East last summer, heads Tampa-based Central Command, which may be given more authority in hostage rescues under the Trump administration. [HOWARD ALTMAN | Times]

One mission, never publicly revealed until now, involved a couple kidnapped in 2012 who gave birth to two children in captivity. The other involved two professors from American University in Afghanistan.

The commandos couldn’t find either set of hostages and some associated with the missions expressed frustration at what they saw as delays in the Obama White House, which centralized such military decision-making.

That process — deploying commandos like Navy SEALs and the Army Delta Force — may be changing, perhaps giving more authority to the Tampa-based U.S. Central Command.

The Obama administration “had a very deliberate, very thoughtful” process that reduced a lot of the political risk and physical risk to the operators,” said Andrew Exum, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy under Obama.

Speaking in general terms, because Afghanistan was not his specialty, Exum called the process “very slow, very methodical.”

“I think it is fair to question whether or not it carried some opportunity costs,” he said, “in terms of giving our commanders on the ground the freedom to exploit opportunities they saw on the battlefield.”

On Jan. 28, President Donald Trump gave Defense Secretary James Mattis 30 days to deliver a comprehensive plan to defeat the so-called Islamic State. Military experts contacted by the Tampa Bay Times say it is likely Trump is considering putting more authority in the hands of commands like CentCom.

Headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base and headed by Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the command oversees U.S. military operations in 20 nations in the Middle East and South and Central Asia. Officials in Tampa develop plans for missions, including recovery and high-value target raids that have required White House approval.

Under the Trump administration, commands like CentCom “are going to have much more leeway and act on intelligence in a much more streamlined manner than before,” said Dale “Chip” McElhatton, former director of the Office of Hostage Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

McElhatton, senior vice president for government affairs at the Amyntor Group, which provides and manages security programs for the United States and its allies, said he has direct knowledge of the two unsuccessful hostage rescue efforts in Afghanistan in August.

McElhatton helped craft the current U.S. hostage rescue policy but has no direct knowledge of the ongoing decision-making process. Still, based on Trump’s history, the new administration is likely to give a greater role to “the people who have been doing this for years,” he said.

• • •

That view was echoed by Mike Jones, a retired Army major general from Tampa and CentCom’s chief of staff under Mattis.

Jones sees a greater role for commands like CentCom to authorize hostage rescue and high-value target raids.

Trump’s national security apparatus is up in the air with the firing of National Security Adviser Mike Flynn and the decision by Robert Harward, former CentCom deputy commander, to turn down the position.

But regardless of who replaces Flynn, the Trump administration will “likely micromanage less than the previous group,” Jones said. “It appears to me that they already have reduced the size of the National Security Council staff, reorienting more toward coordinating the departments and creating overarching policy instead of micromanaging the day-to-day execution.”

Jones, now with the Spectrum Group, a Washington-based strategic advisory firm with more than 100 top civilian and retired military leaders, said “part of that may be the president’s style.”

CentCom officials are in the process of responding to calls from the new administration for options on different ways of conducting business, said Air Force Col. John Thomas, CentCom spokesman.

While there has been no specific discussion about hostage and high value target missions, the Trump administration “may ask for CentCom’s thoughts about” delegating authority “to gain efficiencies and agility in military operations across many functions,” Thomas said.

Delegating authority to lower level commanders is the kind of proposal the Trump administration “seems to be willing to entertain right now” Thomas said.

The State Department and FBI, which play a key role in hostage recovery efforts, declined comment. The White House had no comment.

• • •

In one of the two unsuccessful rescue attempts, commandos were convinced they had the intelligence they needed to find Caitlin Coleman, her husband Joshua Boyle and the two children they had while in captivity.

They were being held, said McElhatton, the former hostage rescue official, by a criminal syndicate and insurgent organization known as the Haqqani group, which was rounding up vulnerable foreigners as bargaining chips to prevent the execution of Anas Haqqani, son of the group’s founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani.

The commandos waited for permission to hit the target but by the time the White House approved the mission, the family they sought was gone.

Also in August, two professors were captured from American University in Afghanistan. Once again, intelligence was gathered. The target was assessed with confidence. The team boarded a helicopter with the expectation they would reach a stronghold, sneak in and rescue the hostages — an American and an Australian.

CentCom officials gave the initial go-ahead, but needed final approval from the White House.

But while they were in the air, the team was called back. There was disagreement on the value of the intelligence. It would be another 24 hours before the team could set out again under ideal conditions of a moonless night.

When they landed, a firefight broke out and seven of the enemy were killed. The hostages, however, were not there. It was unclear they ever were, but those on the mission were furious the White House called them back.

One saving grace for the hostages, McElhatton said, is that the captors must abide by “Pashtunwali,” a code of conduct within their Pashtun tribe that calls for the protection of those under their control.

• • •

In general, the military likes to give authority for action to the lowest practical level.

“It is certainly part of the military culture to delegate to the lowest level appropriate,” said Thomas, CentCom spokesman.

But that is ultimately a policy issue for the White House to consider, he said.

Military experts, including people who have performed or overseen rescues, say frustration is natural among those carrying out the assignments. And there are arguments to be made on both sides of the issue.

“I am personally more comfortable assuming some risk politically in order to give commanders the freedom of maneuver they need,” said Exum, the former Pentagon official.

But commando raids often involve foreign policy implications and should still require senior-level deliberations, said Seth Jones, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corp.

Last month, the Trump administration experienced the complexities involved, authorizing a commando raid — initially planned by CentCom and Obama’s national security team — against a leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

Navy SEALs lost the element of surprise and got bogged down in a heavy firefight that killed William “Ryan” Owens, 36, as well as several civilians, including children and a Yemeni leader friendly to U.S. interests. A $75 million V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft had to be destroyed.

“It’s easy to armchair quarterback at the tactical level,” said retired Delta Force Col. Jim Reese, speaking in general terms about these types of missions. “Sometimes what we miss are all the other elements of national power that have to be aligned to make these things go off.

“Unfortunately for the tactical guys, that’s all noise to us. We don’t care.”

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

Trump may give CentCom greater authority on hostage rescues 02/18/17 [Last modified: Friday, February 17, 2017 5:27pm]


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