Five days after taking the oath of office, President Donald Trump dined with some members of his national security team. During the meal, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford roughly outlined a plan for a risky counterterrorism raid in Yemen targeting Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—the terrorist group’s most dangerous local affiliate.
In previous administrations, multiple levels of subordinates would have vetted this sort of mission before it was briefed to the president in the White House Situation Room with the full national security team present. Mattis and Dunford’s presentation to Trump was much more informal, but the new president nevertheless gave his conditional go-ahead. Then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn convinced Trump to sign off the following morning, saying the audacious raid would distinguish him from his more deliberative predecessor.
Members of the Navy’s elite SEAL Team 6 and special forces from the United Arab Emirates were soon advancing on the compound in Yemen’s al-Bayda province. But AQAP militants detected their presence, and an intense firefight broke out. Chief Petty Officer William Ryan Owens, a longtime member of SEAL Team 6, was killed. Another five special operators were injured. One of two Marine Corps Osprey aircraft dispatched to provide air support crashed and was destroyed by U.S. forces to prevent any sensitive equipment from falling into Al Qaeda hands. At least 16 Yemeni civilians, most of them children, were killed.
Much of the media attention in the immediate aftermath focused on the president’s attempts to unload responsibility for the mission onto senior military leaders, saying, “They lost Ryan.” The lack of accountability startles, even today. But the Yemen raid also raised questions about how aggressive Trump might be when it comes to using lethal force outside of conventional warzones, and whether he would continue to sign off on these types of risky operations in such a nonchalant manner.
Since then, operations might no longer be approved over dinner, but the Trump administration has relaxed both the policies and oversight processes governing “direct action”—the term used to describe air strikes, often by unmanned drones, and raids by U.S. special operations forces outside of conventional war zones. The military has ramped up these operations aggressively since Trump came into office, while transparency about their conduct has declined. Evasiveness and opacity about the use of force has been one of the few consistent themes of Trump’s approach to national security.
In place of a well-informed public debate about how and when American should deploy lethal force, two competing narratives have taken hold. One is that Trump has liberated the military and CIA from Obama-era restrictions that hamstrung operators in the field and made it harder for them to fulfill their mission of capturing or killing terrorists who threatened the United States. The other contends that the president has removed reasonable, prudent constraints necessary to protect innocent bystanders and ensure that direct action is used legitimately.
There are elements of truth to both narratives. But neither accounts for how the use of direct action has evolved since 9/11 in response to the changing nature of the threat and of cooperation with counterterrorism partners—and what that tells us about the consequences of the changes Trump has made.
The use of direct action is a product of the post-9/11 world, but its current incarnation took time to evolve in the years since the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. It all began, less than a week after September 11, when Bush signed an order expanding the CIA’s authority to conduct covert operations and use deadly force. Shortly thereafter, CIA Director George Tenet provided the president with a counterterrorism campaign plan that included a matrix detailing proposed operations against terrorists around the world. The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which integrates different special operations units, was subsequently given the authority to go after Al Qaeda and its allies in a number of countries, not always with the host nation’s knowledge or consent. In those instances, they often operated under CIA sponsorship, which made it easier to work in secret.
Although the Bush administration was prepared to deploy U.S. forces for manhunting missions, it also pressed other countries to conduct their own campaigns to capture or kill Al Qaeda members. Pakistan and Yemen, the two countries with the largest Al Qaeda presence once the group was driven from Afghanistan, became critical direct action battlefields, and Washington used a mix of incentives and coercion to secure cooperation from them. Both countries conducted operations against Al Qaeda militants in the first several years after 9/11, and provided access to U.S. special operations forces and intelligence officers to assist with these efforts. In Somalia, home to a much smaller Al Qaeda network, Washington had no functional government with which to partner. Instead, CIA and JSOC operators relied heavily on local warlords to help carry out a capture-or-kill campaign.
Initially, the results appeared positive. Al Qaeda networks were decimated in Yemen and the group was on the ropes in Pakistan. But the Bush administration, preoccupied with Iraq, took its eye off the ball in both countries. Al Qaeda leveraged its connections to the state-sponsored Taliban and Haqqani network in Pakistan as well as to tribal militants whom the government appeased. This enabled it to regenerate by the middle of the decade. In Yemen, 23 prisoners, including bin Laden’s former personal secretary Nasir al-Wuhayshi and other senior al-Qaeda leaders, escaped from prison in 2006 with the help of a dozen Yemeni intelligence officers.
The U.S.-sponsored campaign in Somalia may have helped foil terrorist attacks, but it also contributed to fostering the conditions that enabled Al Shabaab, which subsequently became an al-Qaeda affiliate, to emerge. Veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad and Islamist sympathizers who converged to retaliate against U.S.-backed warlords formed its nucleus. Al Shabaab subsequently leveraged nationalist outrage at the U.S.-supported Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006 to grow into a full-fledged jihadist organization that ultimately seized control of large swaths of territory. In the meantime, Al Qaeda was taking advantage of the Iraq invasion to expand its presence and influence across the Middle East and North Africa.
In response, U.S. officials put more and more emphasis on building the capacity of partner forces to contain the growing threat. Under the banner of “building partnership capacity,” they designed new programs for training and equipping foreign security forces outside of conventional war zones so that they could conduct their own counterterrorism operations.
But where capacity can be built, political will cannot be. This was especially true in Pakistan and Yemen. The Bush administration was slow to wake up to Al Qaeda’s regeneration in both countries, and to recognize that their governments were no longer committed to combating the group and instead were pursuing policies that enabled it. Pakistan was the more egregious of the two. It actively supported the Taliban and Haqqani network, which were not only allied with Al Qaeda but also waging an insurgency against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
When Bush was presented with evidence of collusion between Pakistani intelligence and Haqqani network, which has been a close ally of Al Qaeda for several decades, he ordered an escalation in air strikes by unmanned drones in Pakistan in June 2008. These had been used sparingly outside of Afghanistan and Iraq during most of Bush’s time in office: one strike in Yemen in 2002 and 14 in Pakistan since 2004. Between June and December 2008, the CIA executed 32 more. These targeted Al Qaeda as well as the Taliban and Haqqani network, which Pakistan was supporting against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Bush also directed that American officials provide the Pakistanis with “concurrent notification” of strikes, meaning that they were told only when an operation was underway or already over.
It was Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, who radically expanded the use of direct action outside of conventional war zones. Obama’s broader strategy was to make U.S. counterterrorism efforts more sustainable as he sought to end large-scale military deployments and work with partner nations wherever possible. But where he couldn’t, Obama used direct action to bypass them.
Obama oversaw the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. He surged troops into Afghanistan, but also announced they would not stay indefinitely and ramped up efforts to train Afghan forces to take over the fight. He simultaneously sought to get other countries to carry more of the costs and risks of fighting terrorism on their own soil. His goal was to expand America’s reach while conserving resources and military strength, as well as to make gains more lasting by enhancing the legitimacy of the host governments and giving these countries ownership over the aftermath of military operations. So efforts to build partnership capacity expanded considerably under Obama’s watch, with an emphasis on expanding the non-military components of such efforts and promoting good governance to address the underlying risk factors for terrorism.
Direct action was the steel fist in this velvet glove. Air strikes, most of them launched from unmanned drones, became the primary instrument for working around partners that were unwilling or unable to conduct effective counterterrorism operations against terrorists who directly threatened the United States.
The majority of drone strikes outside a conventional war zone occurred in Pakistan, which was simultaneously friend and foe: a critical partner because of the access it provided to supply U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and a state sponsor of the Taliban-led insurgency against these forces.
Obama had little success in using economic and security assistance to change Pakistan’s strategic calculus about supporting the Taliban and Haqqani network and ignoring Al Qaeda. But he unleashed a withering assault of drone strikes against these militants that severely degraded Al Qaeda and helped protect U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Yemen was another critical, but problematic partner. After having cooperated with the United States to decimate Al Qaeda’s networks in the wake of 9/11, President Ali Abdullah Saleh began appealing for security assistance in 2005 to fend off a local insurgency. These entreaties were rebuffed. This experience likely led him to conclude the United States was a fickle partner that would only provide assistance in the face of an active jihadist threat. Thus, once the Al Qaeda threat reemerged in Yemen around this time, Saleh’s regime had a stake in making sure it was never totally resolved.
Less than a week after Obama’s inauguration, Al Qaeda in Yemen announced its merger with remnants of Saudi Arabia’s Al Qaeda organization to form Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. As the United States ramped up its training of Yemeni forces, it simultaneously sought Saleh’s approval to expand joint operations and unilateral strikes against AQAP. John Brennan, who was Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser and known within certain circles as the “Saleh-whisperer” for his felicity with Yemeni president, secured Saleh’s agreement to allow U.S. direct action on Yemeni soil. This took the form of manned and unmanned air strikes.
This kind of direct action is a double-edged sword, simultaneously decreasing American reliance on other countries in some ways while increasing it in others. On the one hand, drone strikes allowed the U.S. to work around nation who weren’t capable of or willing to fight terrorists on their own, like Pakistan and Yemen. On the other hand, U.S. operations still almost always required buy in from the host nation. Legally, the United States was within its rights to use direct action in self-defense, including in some circumstances without the host nation’s consent. Yet although technically legal, launching strikes or conducting counterterrorism raids without consent would violate the host nation’s sovereignty. This risked setting a dangerous precedent internationally, and could lead the host nation to end other forms of counterterrorism cooperation or retaliate by other means. For example, because drones hover in the air for hours, a host nation with antiaircraft capabilities could shoot one down if it chose. As a result, the Obama administration obtained consent from Yemen and Pakistan for most of the drone strikes it conducted on their territory.
In addition to consent to launch drone strikes, the United States also needs bases for its pilotless aircraft. Drones require U.S. government personnel or private contractors to perform maintenance, load and unload munitions, and guard them. Bases may be located in the country were strikes occur, as was the case with Pakistan for several years, or a neighboring one. U.S. drones operating in Yemen and Somalia have taken off from airfields in Djibouti, Saudi Arabia, the Seychelles and Ethiopia. In these cases, relying on drone strikes in one set of countries has created dependence on others. Numerous states, especially in Europe, also provide other logistical assistance and intelligence cooperation to enable the use of armed drones.
Obama’s advisers cast this expanded drone war as a “light footprint” approach, but it wasn’t without costs. Reports of civilian casualties began to multiply, despite the administration’s insistence its strikes were carried out with utmost precision and care.
Increasingly, human rights advocates began to question the very legitimacy of Obama’s shadow war against Al Qaeda and associated groups. The president took these concerns seriously, and oversaw the development of a framework that divided countries where the United States was using lethal force into “conventional war zones” and “areas outside active hostilities,” and placed new restrictions on the use of drone strikes and counterterrorism raids in the latter. This framework was codified in the 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG) “Procedures for Approving Direct Action Outside the United States and Areas of Active Hostilities.”
Before lethal action could be taken outside areas of active hostilities, the PPG required an operational plan that provided the legal and policy basis for the action. This included the counterterrorism objective and duration of time the authority would remain in force. In many cases, operational plans went through multiple levels of review, with vetting procedures intended to ensure a careful, deliberate assessment of decisions regarding the use of force. Once a strike against a high-value target was authorized, it did not require additional presidential approval, unless American citizens were involved. Similarly, the PPG also mandated that strikes against unidentified terrorist suspects—presumably including so-called “signature strikes,” which targeted a pattern of suspicious behavior, not a specific individual—could only be executed after an operational plan was submitted and written presidential authorization was granted.
In both cases, the PPG required a strict set of conditions be met. Capture could not be feasible. The host nation had to consent (preferably) or to be either unable or unwilling to address the threat, and no other reasonable alternatives could exist. The relevant U.S. commander also had to assess with “near certainty” that the approved target was present and that civilians would not be harmed. Finally, the lawful terrorist target had to pose a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons.
The requirements Obama put in place, although sometimes onerous, brought a needed level of restraint and bureaucratic oversight to the use of force outside of conventional war zones.
But the PPG was also a product of its time, written before the Islamic State (ISIS) emerged or the full effects of the bloody civil wars that erupted in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings had manifested. Since then, jihadist groups have transformed into larger war-fighting militias that pursue state-building enterprises, often amid larger civil conflicts that blur lines on the battlefield. ISIS was the most successful group in terms of fighting close to the conventional level of war while administering territory, but it was not the only one. Al Qaeda affiliates temporarily seized territory and engaged in rebel governance in various countries.
The evolution of the jihadist threat contributed to changes in where and how the United States employed direct action. One change was the geographic expansion of strikes by manned and unmanned aircraft. At the height of the counter-ISIS campaign during the final years of the Obama administration, the vast majority of counterterrorism strikes took place in areas of active hostilities, not outside them. Most of these were in Iraq and Syria. However, the United States also expanded its use of direct action strikes to Libya and Somalia. A second change was the shift from using lethal force outside of war zones as a way to work around difficult partners to employing it to protect local partners and, in some cases, the U.S. special operators embedded with them.
For years, special operations forces outside of conventional war zones had been involved mainly in “train and equip” missions intended to build partnership capacity. By the end of the Obama administration, they increasingly were also assisting local forces with logistics, medevac and intelligence, among other things. In some cases, U.S. troops were accompanying local forces on operations, exposing U.S. soldiers to greater risks. Troops were authorized to respond if they come under attack by the enemy. This meant that strikes—whether by manned or unmanned aircraft—might be used to protect U.S. forces engaged in partnered operations outside of war zones.
The PPG did not permit the United States to provide intensive air support to partner forces on the ground against ISIS militants who individually might not have met the standard of posing a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons. To work around this constraint, Obama declared a portion of Libya to be an active area of hostilities in the summer of 2016. These developments suggest that Obama’s guidelines might have been due for some revisions. Trump’s surprise victory raised questions about whether any framework would survive at all.
Fears that Trump would tear up all Obama-era regulations governing the use of direct action were not unfounded. On the campaign trail, he said his plan for dealing with ISIS was to “bomb the shit out of ‘em,” and argued that to defeat terrorists, “you have to take out their families.” Upon visiting the CIA’s drone operations floor during his first full day in office and watching a previously recorded strike, Trump reportedly asked why the agency had held off on firing until the target had walked away from a house with his family inside.
The president kept up the tough talk, but the new set of rules governing direct action (called the Principles, Standards, and Procedures, or PSP) his administration reportedly produced in late 2017 was not nearly as transformative as it could have been. To begin with, the Trump administration replaced the Obama-era architecture with a framework of its own in a tacit acknowledgment of the need to govern the overall use of direct action, rather than simply dealing with operations piecemeal. The PSP framework also reportedly preserved two important policy components: Obama’s distinction between war zones and other countries where terrorists operate but higher protections for civilians still apply; and the need to meet the standard of near certainty that civilians would not be harmed before a direct action operation could be executed in the second set of countries.
There reportedly were two significant changes, however.
First, Trump removed the standard that a terrorist target has to pose a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons to be individually targeted outside traditional war zones. This lowers the threat standard applied to people the United States can kill, although how low is unclear. The Trump administration has not released the PSP, or provided information on the new threshold for action or whether this threshold is uniform. The new framework also reportedly reduced the required confidence that the intended target is in the strike zone from “near” to “reasonable” certainty.
Trump’s other major change is bureaucratic: Proposed drone strikes and counterterrorism raids no longer undergo the same high-level vetting they did under Obama. Instead, Trump permitted the delegation of decision-making to lower levels of seniority. Higher-level approval from the White House is still reportedly required to begin using direct action in a new country, and the process for securing it is through country reports submitted annually. Doing reviews annually may be intended to reduce micro-management, but it also leaves the White House with fewer mechanisms to adjust policies that are not working. It is also unclear who in the White House blesses requests to begin using direct action and which departments have the chance to weigh in.
Together, these two changes mean the threshold for when to conduct strikes is lower, and there is not nearly as much high-level oversight of their conduct. In the meantime, drone strikes have also escalated considerably in Yemen—jumping from 37 in 2016 to over 127 in 2017 according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism—and increased in Somalia as well. (Reports also suggest that some of these strikes, although each is counted as one, actually entailed multiple missiles being fired.)
These changes have also occurred amid a similar directive to the military to relax the rules of engagement in traditional war zones, and the delegation of authority to the Pentagon to manage troop deployments. The numbers of special operations forces operating in Syria, Somalia, Yemen and the Sahel has reportedly increased, and these forces appear to be conducting more aggressive operations with less oversight. Numbers are hard to come by, however, because the Trump administration provides considerably less information than its predecessors about troop movements.
The Trump administration’s deliberate opacity makes it harder to evaluate or debate how the changes it has made to the oversight process and the standards governing direct action impact U.S. national security. But it is still possible to assess these changes, which can have positive and negative consequences.
Removing the continuing, imminent threat standard and departing from the Obama process of creating a set of workarounds by exempting key areas from the PPG could have two notable counterterrorism benefits. First, it enables the United States to more consistently use force as a way to support partner forces in their fight against shared threats. Previously, this standard had put the United States in the position of protecting its own people, but not the partner forces bearing the brunt of the fighting. This was especially problematic in cases where the United States was encouraging, and sometimes even pressuring, a partner to launch an operation.
Second, this standard impeded U.S. efforts to degrade terrorist networks. Sometimes, eliminating specific couriers or propagandists can be incredibly disruptive to the enemy, but these individuals, although lawful targets on a traditional battlefield, do not on their own pose a continuing, imminent threat to Americans.
Streamlining the oversight process has potential benefits too. The nature of many counterterrorism operations is that they involve time-sensitive targets. Holding things up in Washington can lead to missed opportunities downrange, and delegating operational decision-making authority can speed up military gains against Al Qaeda, ISIS and other associated militants. In addition to enabling the individuals at the tip of the spear to be more nimble on their own, this can also facilitate more responsiveness when working with partners.
But these benefits must be weighed against the significant costs the United States could incur. The potentially heightened risk to U.S. troops, who are more likely to find themselves in engaged in combat under the new guidelines, is the most notable. There are others.
First, although using lethal action to support partners has its benefits, there are also risks that this could warp these relationships. There’s a danger that direct action becomes even more of a proverbial self-licking ice cream cone, with civilian officials and the military even more focused on operational requirements, especially host nation access, at the expense of other aspects of counterterrorism cooperation.
Some partners will be happy to open their doors to U.S. forces to kill the bad guys if it liberates them from having to do the hard work of dealing with the underlying risk factors that drive militancy or making the structural changes necessary to combat terrorism more effectively.
Even where this is not the case, U.S. direct action could become a crutch for partner forces, sucking America further into conflicts where it does not have vital interests. It’s a slippery slope from using direct action as a force multiplier in support of a partner to becoming a combatant. The appeal of removing militants from the battlefield in order to achieve tactical objectives, as opposed to the strategic imperative of directly protecting Americans, increases this likelihood.
Second, the increased involvement of U.S. forces in partnered operations combined with the policy and process changes Trump has implemented also creates risks that the United States will suffer blowback as a result of its partner’s behavior. It is one thing to execute a counterterrorism strike that has few operational benefits for the United States, but will help a partner. It is another to execute a strike that has potentially negative strategic effects for the United States for the same reason. Yet the chances of this rise as the threshold for action and opportunities for political and diplomatic input shrink. The fact that some of these partner forces do not share the military's commitment to the Law of Armed Conflict grows enhances the risk that U.S. forces will be exposed to operations that could tarnish America’s reputation. Moreover, the administration’s policies also could make it harder to hold other countries accountable for human rights violations or for flouting international rule of law.
Third, civilian casualties in areas outside of active war zones do appear to have risen under Trump’s watch, although it is not clear whether the proportion of bystanders killed per strike is higher or if this is mainly a function of conducting more operations. It’s hard to tell because the White House has ignored an Obama-era executive order, which is still in place, requiring it to issue an annual report on the number of civilians and enemy fighters killed by counterterrorism strikes. Trump’s Defense Department missed the same deadline for its own statutorily required report to Congress on civilian casualties in the previous year.
The United States has a moral, ethical and legal obligation to prevent civilian casualties where it is possible and limit them where it is not. But avoiding bystander deaths is not solely a values issue. There are real security reasons for doing so, which both the Bush and Obama administrations recognized.
Depriving terrorists of a rallying cry is the most obvious one. There are genuine risks to putting U.S. forces or intelligence officers in a position where they conduct or are complicit in operations that provide terrorists with propaganda for recruitment.
Preventing civilian casualties is also important for preserving relationships with allies and partners. Counterterrorism raids and drone strikes are tough for host nation governments, and especially their populations, to tolerate. Higher civilian casualties, especially when they are combined with Trump’s bombastic rhetoric, create the potential for greater tension from partners whose populations are being targeted.
Even if bystander deaths in a single country do not rise significantly, one errant drone strike or botched raid that kills a lot of civilians could lead a host nation to close the door on U.S. operations or other forms of cooperation. After the Yemen raid Trump approved during his first week in office caused a high civilian death toll, the Yemeni government in exile reportedly threatened to suspend permission for the United States to mount ground operations.
Fourth, removing the continuing, imminent threat standard risks complicating cooperation for direct action from European countries, many of which do not accept the legality of a worldwide, armed conﬂict against any and all Al Qaeda- and ISIS-affiliated targets. Some experts suggest the Europeans have backed away from pushing their more stringent theory of international law since ISIS burst on the scene, but divergences still exist over how to regulate the use of force outside of warzones. The new U.S. standard could widen this gap. Trump’s zero-sum approach to European allies, which often entails attempting to bully them into burden sharing, heightens the risks because it puts cooperation on a more transactional and therefore potentially more fragile footing.
Finally, the changes the Trump administration put in place are not being implemented in a vacuum. The president is granting the military and CIA greater latitude while simultaneously hobbling diplomats and development experts. Collectively, these policies send powerful messages to partner countries in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia: that U.S. military objectives should be afforded primacy over diplomatic ones; and that America’s over-riding objective is a military one: killing terrorists.
Direct action is a single tool in the counterterrorism toolkit; and lethal force, used by itself or when divorced from a political strategy does not make for a coherent CT strategy that should also include diplomacy, non-military assistance, a focus on promoting governance and rule of law, and other non-military components. In addition to coherence, an overwhelmingly militarized approach to counterterrorism is not sustainable: it risks minimizing the benefits that might accrue from the use of force because the United States is not primed to capitalize on any gains made. Removing diplomats and policymakers who focus on political issues from the decision-making process further heightens the risks that the military’s operational requirements take precedence.
Critics argued that Obama’s highly centralized process hamstrung operators in the field, making it harder for them to fulfill their mission of capturing or killing terrorists who threatened the United States. Advocates viewed it as a way to put necessary checks on the use of direct action and to ensure its use was as effective and legitimate as possible. Both sides would probably agree the Obama process was tailored for a president with a legalistic mindset who was interested in scrutinizing the evidence for individual operations.
It’s hard to imagine anyone would argue apply this description to Trump.
The Trump administration does not need to micromanage counterterrorism operations to the extent the Obama team did. One could imagine the operational benefits of parts of Trump's approach, but it still needs to be grounded in a strategy and a framework that provides a theory of success. But we haven’t seen that. Instead, Trump has swung the pendulum too far in the other direction: removing policy constraints and reducing oversight of lethal action while pursing a military-centric approach to counterterrorism where operations are divorced from the political-strategic environment in which they are occurring. History tells us this will prove counterproductive and unsustainable.