Is the chain of command imposed on field commanders in the theater of war too restrictive? According to unnamed U.S. intelligence sources mentioned by Seymour Hersh in an article published by the The New Yorker, they are. As the reporter relays, an incident that occurred on the first night of bombing in Afghanistan proves “emblematic … of the constraints placed by the government on the military’s ability to wage war during the last decade.”
According to Hersh, a CIA Predator airplane (one of those immensely expensive unmanned aircraft) armed with Hellfire anti-tank missiles came across a convoy of cars and trucks on Oct. 7, the night the bombing of Afghanistan began. Those interpreting the pictures beamed back from the plane came to the conclusion that the convoy was carrying the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar. Here, these intelligence officials concluded, was an opportunity to kill Mullah Omar, but because of restrictive procedures they weren’t given permission to so. As Hersh explains: “Under a previously worked-out agreement … the CIA did not have the authority to ‘push the button.’ Nor did the nearby command-and-control suite of the Fifth Fleet, in Bahrain, where many of the war plans had been drawn up. Rather, the decision had to be made by the officers on duty at the headquarters of the United States Central Command, or CENTCOM, at MacDill Air Force Base, in Florida.”
According to the sources quoted by Hersh, political correctness and/or bureaucracy ensured that Mullah Omar would not be killed that night. “Days afterward, top Administration officials were still seething about the incident. ‘If it was a fuckup, I could live with it,’ one senior official said. ‘But it’s not a fuckup—it’s an outrage.’ … The failure to attack has left Defense Secretary Rumsfeld ‘kicking a lot of glass and breaking doors,’ the officer said …”
What’s remarkable about these comments and observations is the arrogance of those who made them. And the incident, rather than proving there should be fewer constraints on military field commanders, may illustrate the opposite. The arrogance begins with willingness of these sources to talk to Hersh in the first place—anonymously, of course. More importantly, why are those sources so sure that the assassination of Mullah Omar was a goal of the bombing that night? Wouldn’t that explain why the order to kill him was never given? Sure, military and intelligence commanders can fume about a missed “target.” Yet surely it’s not up to those commanders to make what is as much a political action as it is a military one, which leaves us to conclude that on the night of Oct. 7 the procedures that ensure that the military remains subordinate to the political realm may have in fact worked very well.
(To read a “Chatterbox” on Sy Hersh’s thoughts on the CIA, click here.)