How the military's newfound independence could cause headaches for Trump

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Story highlights

  • 'What I do is I authorize my military,' Trump said earlier this month
  • The increased leeway has led to some communication mishaps

(CNN)President Donald Trump has made it clear he intends to give his commanders more authority when it comes to carrying out military campaigns, but that increased leeway could complicate the White House's messaging on key policy areas.

"What I do is I authorize my military," Trump said earlier this month, describing his policy of giving battlefield commanders more freedom than the Obama administration did.
Military leaders in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere do indeed have authority to do whatever they deem necessary, a point recently reaffirmed by Defense Secretary James Mattis.
"When you're in a conflict situation, you have got to leave initiative in the hands -- delegate initiative to those that you consider competent to do so to carry out the authorities that you're giving them," Mattis told reporters in Tel Aviv on Thursday.
Gen. John Nicholson, America's top general in Afghanistan, had complete authority to drop the Massive Ordinance Air Blast weapon, also known as the "mother or all bombs," against ISIS fighters there.
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Nicholson already had the bomb in his possession, and the authority to use it was granted by his chain of command during the previous administration. He didn't have to tell or get permission from anyone to drop it.
Similarly, Adm. Harry Harris, the commander of US forces in the Pacific, had complete authority to move the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group because it was already in his theater of operations.
But while Trump's generals and admirals have the authority to make these decisions, it's beginning to become apparent that those same decisions can have a secondary effect, potentially creating a disconnect between the administration's messaging and the military actions on the ground. 
The other effect, which the battlefield commanders are now being reminded of, according to several US officials, is that there needs to be an awareness that what happens within their areas of concern could have an impact on the global stage, and they need to take that into account.
"They are beginning to also realize that when they make these decisions there are also larger implications they've got to be aware of," CNN military and diplomatic analyst John Kirby told CNN's Wolf Blitzer Friday. 
Shortly after the MOAB was dropped, Nicholson held a news conference where he underscored that the decision to use the weapon was tactical and not a signal to any other potential US adversary, whether it be North Korea or otherwise.
But his comments came days before Vice President Mike Pence appeared to link the strike with other geopolitical events while appearing alongside the acting South Korean president, Hwang Kyo-ahn.
"The world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new President in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan," Pence said. "North Korea would do well not to test his resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region."
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And while Harris' announcement that the Vinson would be sailing north made headlines in Washington and South Korea, with Trump saying an "armada" was being sent, the carrier group first made a previously scheduled stop to conduct joint exercises with the Australian navy.
That stopover caused South Korean media to accuse Trump of "bluffing" with his announcement.
A senior administration official blamed a miscommunication between the Pentagon and the White House over reports that the aircraft carrier has not made its way to the region as an expected show of force.
The official blamed the mix-up on a lack of follow-up with commanders overseeing the movements of the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier.
"This could be considered a mistake or a miscommunication between the Navy and the Pentagon and the White House -- that's fine, you have mistakes sometimes in military operations," retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling told CNN.
"But when you have these kinds of mistakes, and it sends an indicator that there is a lack of coordination and a lack of coordinated effort, it could be problematic to friends and foes alike," he added.
There is no question that the Trump administration has given more running room to the Pentagon than the Obama administration did. 
Many military officers support that, with multiple senior officials telling CNN that it represents a marked shift from what they refer to as the Obama White House's "micromanaging."
"Everybody is getting used to that," Kirby said of the new Pentagon-White House dynamic.
On a practical level, however, commanders do generally tell the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, about significant actions taken in theater, who in turn tells Mattis, who then informs the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, and the President.
The thinking is nobody wants the President to be caught unaware, according to several US officials.