Americas

Trump unleashes the generals. They don’t always see the big picture

Trump unleashes the generals. They don’t always see the big picture
In a handout photo, the USS Carl Vinson sails in the Sunda Strait near Indonesia, April 12, 2017. Photo: US Navy via The New York Times
Published: 6:15 PM, April 21, 2017
Updated: 6:20 PM, April 21, 2017

WASHINGTON — When Admiral Harry Harris, the military’s top commander in the Pacific, ordered the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson “to sail north” from Singapore this month, he was oblivious to the larger - and incorrect - impression that he was rushing a naval strike force to confront an increasingly belligerent North Korea.

Four days later, when General John Nicholson dropped the most powerful conventional weapon in the United States arsenal on Islamic State (IS) fighters in a tunnel complex in eastern Afghanistan, he not only seized headlines around the world but also unintentionally signalled to dictators in Syria and North Korea that they might be the next target of what the Defence Department called the “mother of all bombs.”

Instead of simply achieving tactical objectives, the timing of their actions surprised their bosses at the Pentagon, upset edgy allies and caught the White House flat-footed. Taken together, the episodes illustrate how even the military’s most seasoned four-star field commanders can fail to consider the broader political or strategic ramifications of their operational decisions, and some current and former senior officials suggested that President Donald Trump’s decision to unshackle the military from Obama-era constraints to intensify the fight against terrorists risked even more miscues.

“There are lots of decisions that military commanders make every day on their own without asking ‘Mother, may I?’” said Mr Robert Scher, a former senior Pentagon official. “But they have to realise and take into account that their actions can have strategic impact outside of their areas of responsibility.”

US officials said on Thursday (April 20) that Gen Nicholson had not requested permission from Mr Trump, Defence Secretary James Mattis or General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before dropping the giant bomb, a GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, or MOAB.

And it does not appear the White House was aware of the location of the carrier group when Press Secretary Sean Spicer, or the National Security Adviser Lieutenant General H R McMaster, made their public comments about it. White House officials said both men were relying on talking points supplied by the Pentagon.

Gen Nicholson already had the necessary authority to bomb the tunnel complex and had it during the Obama administration as well, US officials said.

But current and former Defence Department officials said that if President Barack Obama were still in office, Gen Nicholson would probably have checked with his bosses before calling in what is the country’s most powerful non-nuclear bomb because the Obama White House had made clear to the Pentagon that the president wanted to be consulted on major strike decisions.

“Nicholson should have been a little more aware that using that weapon for the first time would be a big story,” said Mr Scher.

Mr Trump has made clear that he does not want to be consulted on every strike, and that he wants commanders in the field to have more authority to move swiftly against foes.

The timing of the episodes, at the beginning of the Trump administration, most likely played a part, one Obama administration official noted.

“Once the previous administration’s political appointees have departed, the balance of power in the Pentagon always shifts away from the civilians and toward the uniformed officers,” said Mr Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger and top Pentagon Middle East policy official.

“That’s not necessarily dangerous, but until you get the new administration’s team in place, you miss the policy oversight that can sometimes help field commanders - who are appropriately focused on operations - think through the political and strategic ramifications of their actions.”

The bomb was dropped at an already fraught time for US security, with a narrative that had begun to take hold of an untethered Pentagon, freed from Obama-era restrictions.

Only days earlier the US had fired dozens of missiles at the airfield in Syria from which President Bashar Assad had launched a chemical weapons attack. Mr Trump authorised that strike.

And the country was bracing for a possible showdown with Pyongyang as the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, was expected to launch another missile test amid incorrect talk from Mr Trump that a US “armada” was headed toward the Korean Peninsula.

In that atmosphere, the announcement April 13 that the US had just dropped the MOAB was itself a dramatic development and was interpreted by many news organisations and national security experts as evidence that the Trump administration was sending Mr Kim, or Mr Assad, a message.

That was not so – an American commander in Afghanistan had simply taken it upon himself to use a particularly large bomb on a cave complex in the remote province of Nangarhar.

“Commanders always want more freedom to act within their own judgment,” said Admiral James Winnefeld, a retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Sometimes those same commanders may not sense which of their decisions will bleed over into the strategic level.”

Asked Thursday whether Gen Nicholson discussed the bombing with him beforehand and had considered the larger strategic message he was sending, Mr Mattis said: “We take into account the strategic effect of everything we do”.

In Tel Aviv, speaking with reporters who have been travelling with him throughout the Middle East this week, Mr Mattis said that overall he had been kept informed on the war effort in Afghanistan. But, he added that “you have to delegate.”

He did not criticise Gen Nicholson publicly. But one Defence Department official, who was not authorised to speak publicly, said that Mr Mattis had questioned the purpose of the strike afterward.

In fact, the Pentagon still has not assessed how much damage was done by the bombing, a routine step after major strikes in Syria and Iraq. Afghan officials initially said that they believed only 36 IS fighters had been killed, but have since revised that number to just under 100. Afghan forces are still battling IS fighters in the area.

Asked why no damage assessment had been done, Mr Mattis said, “Frankly, digging into tunnels to count dead bodies is not a good use of our troops’ time”.

For the wayward Carl Vinson, the confusion began April 9 when the public affairs office of the Navy’s 3rd Fleet issued a news release saying that Adm Harris had ordered the Carl Vinson, a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered carrier, and its strike force - two destroyers and one cruiser - to leave Singapore and “sail north” to the Western Pacific.

As is customary, the Navy did not say exactly where the carrier force was headed, when it would get there or its precise mission.

Navy officials said the main reason for issuing the release was to alert the families of thousands of sailors that Adm Harris had also cancelled a port call for the ships in Fremantle, Australia, where many relatives were planning to meet their loved ones.

Adm Harris feared that images of sailors on shore leave would be unseemly at a time when North Korea was firing missiles, Navy officials said.

But the news release omitted any mention of a secretive naval exercise with Australia that Adm Harris never meant to suggest he was cancelling, Navy officials said.

Thus, once the Carl Vinson left Singapore on April 8, it actually sailed south, toward the Indian Ocean, the opposite direction Adm Harris had said it was going.

At that point, some Pentagon officials said on Thursday, it would have been embarrassing and possibly damaging to US interests to publicly correct the narrative, and send mixed messages to the North Koreans. But some former officials disagreed.

“Words matter, and there will be a cost to US credibility in Asia for this mistake,” said Mr Brian McKeon, the Pentagon’s top policy official at the end of the Obama administration. “Given the stakes, senior officials should have taken greater care to understand the facts, and to correct the record once they learned them.” THE NEW YORK TIMES