James Mattis, a Warrior in Washington
On January 22nd, two days after President Trump was inaugurated, he received a memo from his new Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, recommending that the United States launch a military strike in Yemen. In a forty-year career, Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general and a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, had cultivated a reputation for being both deeply thoughtful and extremely aggressive. By law and by custom, the position of Defense Secretary is reserved for civilians, but Mattis was still a marine at heart. He had been out of the military for only three years (the rule is seven), and his appointment required Congress to pass a waiver. For the first time in his professional life, he was going to the Pentagon in a suit and tie.
Mattis urged Trump to launch the raid swiftly: the operation, which was aimed at one of the leaders of Al Qaeda in Yemen, required a moonless night, and the window for action was approaching. Under previous Administrations, such attacks entailed deliberation by the National Security Council. Instead, the request was discussed over dinner three days later at the White House, where Trump was joined by Mattis and several advisers, including Mike Flynn, who at the time was the national-security adviser, and Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The target of the raid, they explained, was a mountain camp where the Al Qaeda leader was holed up. The military hoped to apprehend him and capture his comrades’ computers and phones, which could be scoured for intelligence.
A plan for the operation had been developed under the previous Administration, but President Obama didn’t want to commit to a risky mission at the end of his term. Obama’s restraint was in keeping with an over-all preference for caution, which often rankled leading generals at the Pentagon. For eight years, the White House had tightly managed the Pentagon’s operations in the Middle East and in South Asia; even something as mundane as moving helicopters from one part of a war zone to another might require top-level discussion. “The Pentagon said they had to crawl through glass to get anything out of the White House,” a former defense official told me. Now the generals wanted to move. “There was an eagerness in the military to do something quickly,” a senior official with knowledge of the strike told me. “There was a frustration because a lot of operations had been held up.” When Trump heard the plan for the Yemen strike, he gave the order to go.
Four days after the dinner meeting, seal Team Six landed in Yemen, under dark skies, expecting to surprise the Al Qaeda encampment. Instead, the seals came under attack the moment they landed. “They were waiting for us,” the senior official said. The mission devolved into a firefight, which involved seals, Harrier jets, helicopters, and armed jihadis. At least fourteen members of Al Qaeda, including the targeted leader, were killed. But a seal commando also died in the fighting, and an aircraft was irreparably damaged. As many as twenty-five civilians were killed. Among them was an eight-year-old girl, the daughter of the American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who had been killed by a U.S. drone strike six years ago.
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