The first military operation of the Trump presidency did not go as planned, but, in this case, no blame attaches to the president. It was simply one of those things that happen amid the “fog of war.”
Accounts are still sketchy but, according to NBC News and the New York Times, SEAL Team Six operators infiltrated Yemen to attack the home of an al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader in the hopes of seizing computer equipment that would provide details on future terrorism operations. In the subsequent battle, at least 14 al-Qaeda fighters were killed but so, too, was one of the SEAL operators– Chief Special Warfare Operator William “Ryan” Owens, a 19-year Navy veteran. Three other SEALs were injured in the gun battle, and three more service members were injured when a MV-22 Osprey experienced a “hard landing.” The aircraft had to be destroyed in place.
Among the civilians killed in the fighting was an 8-year-old girl, Nawar al-Awlaki, the daughter of radical Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a CIA drone strike in 2011 just two weeks before his son was killed in another such strike. Some women who were in the al-Qaeda camp were also killed, with some of them apparently having fired on the SEALs.
In spite of President Trump’s bluster about targeting the relatives of terrorists, the civilian deaths were undoubtedly accidental—an unfortunate byproduct of the fact that terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda hide among non-combatants, including women and children. But that is not the message that will go out to much of the Muslim world. Already, rumors are circulating that at least 59 people were killed in the raid and that the Americans killed an innocent eight-year-old girl because they were bent on exterminating the entire al-Awlaki clan. The danger of such collateral casualties is that they can wind up creating more terrorists than they eliminate.
Nevertheless, it’s important to take risks in the battle against terrorists and Trump deserves credit for approving the raid. The challenge now will be to manage the “battle of the narrative” about what happened, which will in many ways be even more important than the actual events. The president has unfortunately handicapped himself in this struggle because of his record of telling falsehoods and by the perception, which his rhetoric creates, that he is animated by anti-Muslim animus. This is one area where Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis will be forced to take the lead even if he lacks a megaphone of the kind that the president commands.