U.S. commandos set out on a mission last August to rescue two professors kidnapped from American University in Afghanistan.
The commandos couldn't find the hostages, and some associated with the mission expressed frustration at what they saw as delays in the Obama White House, which centralized such military decisionmaking.
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 in terms of giving our commanders on the ground the freedom to exploit opportunities they saw on the battlefield," Exum said.
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" McElhattan, former director of the Office of Hostage Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
McElhattan, now senior vice president for government affairs at the Amyntor Group, which provides and manages security programs for the United States and its allies, helped craft the current U.S. hostage rescue policy but has no direct knowledge of the ongoing decisionmaking 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.
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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 starting to settle in with the naming of Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster to replace former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who resigned after it was revealed that he misled Vice President Mike Pence and other top White House officials about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
But regardless of how he reorganizes the White House security team, 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 responding to calls from the new administration for options on 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.
The State Department and FBI, which play key roles in the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, created in 2015 to serve as the single government entity responsible for coordinating the recovery of U.S. hostages abroad, declined to comment. The White House had no comment.
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The professors are being held in Afghanistan by a criminal syndicate and insurgent organization known as the Haqqani group, said McElhattan, the former hostage rescue official. The Haqqani group was rounding up vulnerable foreigners as bargaining chips to prevent the execution of Anas Haqqani, son of the group's founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani.
In August, two professors were captured from American University in Afghanistan. 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.
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 if they ever were, but those on the mission were furious that the White House called them back.
There's at least one more American being held by the Haqqani network. In 2012, Caitlin Coleman, a pregnant woman from York, Pa., along with her husband, Canadian Joshua Boyle, were kidnapped while traveling in Afghanistan. The couple has since given birth to two children in captivity.
One saving grace for the hostages, McElhattan 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.
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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.
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 in Yemen — 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. 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].