Friday, October 26, 2012

The Limits of Action

Sometimes our military options are just too limited to be effective. The limits may be the result of previous decisions, but at the time of crisis the limits are no less real. I'm not sure we could have affected events on the ground in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.

I can be upset with the Obama administration on pre-9/11 decisions regarding Benghazi, the administration's failure to level with us about what happened in order to bolster a political claim that al Qaeda is defeated, the administration's efforts to blame a video for the regional unrest around our embassies, the administration's failure to retaliate against jihadis for the Benghazi attack, and the general impression that the Obama administration doesn't give fighting the war a high priority, but I can't blame the administration for failing to rescue the consulate or the safe house while they were under attack.

Unless we were prepared to quickly drop in a battalion of paratroopers or Marines, any force we could get on the ground fast would have been under threat of being overwhelmed without changing the outcome.

We simply couldn't have gotten any forces to the consulate in time.

And we couldn't have gotten a significant force to the safe house before that fight was over.

The only thing we could have done is try to scare the jihadi attackers that forces were on the way to buy time to get a significant force there. Had we buzzed the area around the safe house with high speed fighter passes, while dropping flares (both to protect against SAM fire and to spook the jihadis)--which have sometimes been effective in Afghanistan in scaring off insurgents--we might have bought time.

I don't think drone attacks would have been effective even if we had armed drones nearby. It takes time to identify targets. And cruise missiles aren't the appropriate weapon to defend a safe house in a city full of people who aren't hostile to us.

I haven't brought up defending our people before since I didn't think we had options. But this issue is getting more play now. In good conscience, I can't jump on this to hammer the president. So I thought I'd comment.

There is much to condemn or question in this incident about how the administration handled the situation. I won't make more than a mild complaint that we didn't do what we could with our military, as limited as that was. I can't know whether that limited use of force would have worked. But I can wonder why we didn't at least try.

UPDATE: I may have been hasty in assuming our options were quite as limited. If an annex defender had a laser designator, as it is said, then firepower could have been used. And even if options for use were limited, if we could have used it even once, it might have prompted enough caution by the attackers to buy the time we needed to deliver significant force to the scene or even scare the attackers away from the annex.

The consulate was a goner. Nothing we could have done there, I think. But the annex is another question, I think.

Although the pause after the consulate was overrun might have been key in keeping help from going to the annex that wasn't attacked until hours later.

UPDATE: More on refusals to send help. The CIA denies the CIA was responsible for denying help.

One of the reasons I want a robust American ground presence in Europe is that it is a convenient staging area for American forces to react to crises in an entire arc of crisis from the West African Gulf to Central Asia.

But we have to be willing to send forces. And we have to keep forces ready to be sent.

Once the night of 11 SEP 2012 arrived, there was little we could do to save the consulate. That was over too fact to intervene. But the annex is another story. Air power could have arrived quickly either to scare the jihadis with low level, high speed jet passes or to attack jihadis around the annex. If the few defenders really had laser designators to call in air strikes, it could have made a difference. It is even possible that orbiting gunships could have made sense of the area around the annex to deliver accurate firepower without ground communication.

There may have been good reasons not to intervene. Sending insufficient ground forces might have been unwise. But I don't see the downside of committing air power. It may have been too risky to fire, but maybe not. And maybe lesser actions could have saved the day or bought time to clarify options and move sufficient ground power closer.

Were our actions limited that day by capabilities or lack of information? Or was our willingness to fight to save the annex defenders limited?

UPDATE: When asked, President Obama refused to say that we did not deny help to our people in Benghazi.

UPDATE: RUMORINT (rumor intelligence) says the head of AFRICOM was relieved while attempting to respond to the attacks after being ordered not to take action. While only a rumor, it would at least partially answer the question of whether our limits on action for capabilities- or command-based. Tip to Instapundit.

UPDATE: If the "reports" cited in this article are right, we had drones and AC-130 gunships available with the ability to designate targets by the annex defenders. And we did not use those air assets. Tip to Instapundit.

In light of the AFRICOM command change, Instapundit also wonders if this unusual recall of a carrier battlegroup commander is related to Benghazi. But the article says the battle group didn't enter the CENTCOM area after crossing the Pacific until mid-October, making a connection to Benghazi implausible, I'd say.

All these updates should teach me not to give the president the benefit of the doubt when it comes to defending his resolve to wage war. That's been my basic complaint, all along, after all.