Killing the leaders of our enemy. Is this the fast track to victory – or disaster?

Summary:  To compel the Taliban’s leaders to negotiate US forces (and the CIA) have begun intense efforts to kill them.  While superfically logical, have they research to suggest that it will work?  The long history of such programs suggests the odds of success are low.  Also, what of the danger of an attack being “catastrophically counterproductive” (in the words of one study).  What if they retaliate?

Distinguishing characteristic of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is their amateurism.  In planning, not in execution.  This is revealed by the frequent “strategic reviews” and changes of methods during the past nine years.  Now we’re conducting an extensive program to decapitate the Taliban’s leaders. From the Washington Post, 23 October:

October has been a calamitous month for the Taliban guerrillas waging war from sandy mountains and pistachio forests in this corner of northwestern Afghanistan.  The first to die was their leader, Mullah Ismail, hunted down and killed by U.S. Special Operations troops. Next came the heir apparent, Mullah Jamaluddin, even before he could take over as Taliban “shadow” governor. Within a week, several other top commanders were dead, a new governor had been captured and the most powerful among the remaining insurgents had lit out for the Turkmenistan border – all casualties of the secretive, midnight work of American commandos.

… The barrage launched against the Taliban by Special Operations forces here in recent weeks is part of a broader American effort that is clearly succeeding. As other U.S. goals in Afghanistan have faltered – reforming the government, winning hearts and minds – Gen. David H. Petraeus and his new troops have so far succeeded at killing their enemies. American officials have held up the example of the onslaught against the Taliban leadership as a clear sign of progress, a development sure to factor into President Obama’s December review of the Afghan campaign.  “We’re trying basically to squeeze the life out of the enemy,” Petraeus said in an interview Friday.

The increased military pressure in recent months has undoubtedly made life more difficult for Taliban leaders. Petraeus said the number of U.S. Special Operations troops doing targeted raids has continued to increase in recent months, even after a buildup under his predecessor, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal.  Among those insurgents killed in the past month are al-Qaeda’s No. 3 commander in Afghanistan and 15 shadow governors.

The Air Forces uses cutting edge 21st century technology.  On the ground we field special operations troops, amongst the most highly trained in the history of the world.   These are not assassinations (as defined by the US) when conducted by uniformed troops against an oppenent with whom we’re at war (against an amorphous non-state entities with deliberately vague Congressional authorization).   The CIA plays a large role in both drone and and ground strikes, raising a different and highly problematic set of issues.

But what of the planning?  What is the reason to believe these tactics will work?

The basis for much US military policy lies in the work of qausi-government think-tanks.  Such as RAND.  Oddly, however, much of the war on terror relies on methods that RAND studies show as ineffective or even counterproductive.  Some examples:

  1. Operations against Enemy Leaders“, Stephen T. Hosmer, RAND, 2001
  2. ”Eighty-Nine Insurgencies: Outcomes and Endings”, Martin C. Libicki — Appendix A to  “War by Other Means – Building Complete and Balanced Capabilities for Counterinsurgency“, 2008
  3. How Terrorist Groups End – Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida“, Seth G. Jones and Martin C. Libicki, RAND, 2008
  4. The Maritime Dimension of International Security“, Peter Chalk, RAND,  June 2008 — Terrorism, Piracy, and Challenges for the United States
  5. How Terrorist Groups End – Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida“, Seth G. Jones and Martin C. Libicki, RAND, 2008

Here we look at the first on this list, a typically thorough analsis of the attacks we’re using in Afghanistan.

The RAND study

The RAND study describes our current operations, their potential and risks.  Two excepts are shown; red emphasis was added.


Operations that threaten the person and power of senior enemy decisionmakers have long been considered to have a high payoff potential. They target a key enemy center of gravity and place at risk the individuals considered responsible for initiating and sustaining assaults on U.S. interests. Most important, they are thought to be a promising instrument for shortening wars, effecting other changes in enemy policy and behavior, and degrading enemy war-fighting capability.

Leadership attacks are seen to have significant deterrent and coercive value in that they threaten the things almost any enemy leader should value most: personal power and safety. Such attacks are also thought to send a message to other would-be malefactors about the types of punishment they might expect in the event that they were to harm U.S. interests.

The promise of such benefits has led U.S. civilian and military officials over the years to propose, sanction, and order attacks against senior enemy leaders.

Chapter 2:  Attacking Leaders Directly.

Assumptions Underlying Direct Attacks

Any decision to conduct a direct attack on an enemy leader is likely to be predicated on several key assumptions. In sanctioning such action, the decisionmaker will expect the attack to

  • conform to existing moral, legal, and political constraints
  • stand a reasonable chance of producing the physical, coercive, or deterrent effect desired
  • produce no harmful, unintended consequences.

The experiential data on direct leadership attacks accumulated to date suggest that the decisionmaker would be well advised to approach the last two of these assumptions with considerable skepticism. Indeed, experience shows that direct leadership attacks are usually unsuccessful and, even when successful, rarely produce the effects intended. Moreover, some leadership attacks can be catastrophically counterproductive. …

Assessing the Risks and Benefits of Direct Attacks

As noted above, one of the key assumptions underlying attacks on leaders is the belief that the attacks will produce the coercive or deterrent effect desired. Most such attacks aim either to force a change in enemy policy by intimidating a leader to change his policy (if the attack misses) or to bring to power a successor who will adopt a different policy (if the attack succeeds). There may also be the assumption that even if the enemy’s policy does not change, the elimination of a leader will weaken the enemy’s war effort by causing a succession struggle or by bringing to power a leader with less charisma or competence.

Before ordering a leadership attack, decisionmakers must try to assess the potential risks and benefits of the attacks. Typically, such assessments will be hampered by gaps in the decisionmaker’s information about the situation in the enemy camp and by his limited insight into the potential unintended  consequences of the attack.  One key question will be the probable orientation and competence of the leader who is likely to succeed to power in the event the incumbent were to be killed. …

As the following analysis will show, leadership attacks rarely produce positive outcomes even as modest as that of Yamamoto. An examination of past cases shows that direct attacks on leaders

  • rarely produce wanted policy changes
  • often fail to deter unwanted enemy behavior
  • sometimes produce harmful unintended consequences
  • frequently fail to kill the leader.

{Each of these is discussed in detail, with numerous case studies}

This chapter also explains why operations by uniformed troops are not assassination (in terms of US policy), and the US government’s refusal (until now) to admit to targeting senior enemy leaders (even when they do so).

The most important possible result ignored by the RAND study

The authors of the RAND study, like almost all US experts discussing attacks on enemy leaders, assume that they will not retaliate.  That’s an odd omission after 9-11.  Al Qaeda differs from our other foes since WWII, as no others have devoted so much effort to attacking the US homeland.  Sustained attacks on enemy leaders in Af-Pak and Yemen might incite others to directly attack us.  Especially after we kill so many of their friends and relatives.

Our attacks might bring about what we seek to prevent.  If so, we will not be innocent victims.  Tit for tat is the most basic law of the jungle.  For more about this, see the next post — Will the Taliban Give us a Taste of Armageddon?

Addendum:  about the effectiveness of killing enemy leaders

From the same WaPo article quoted above:

And yet what has happened here in Badghis province also shows how large a gap remains between killing commanders and dismantling an insurgency. Nearly half of the province remains under insurgent control, an Afghan intelligence official estimated. A new Taliban governor has already been dispatched to the province, Afghan officials say, even though NATO portrayed Mullah Ismail’s killing as a “huge blow” that would “significantly reduce Taliban influence throughout the region.”

“Fighting in Afghanistan is like hitting coals with a stick, it just spreads to other places,” said Delbar Jan Arman, who as provincial governor is trying to stave off the Taliban advances. “It will continue.”

For more information

“Killing leaders supports an illusion of progress, but not the reality. … Each successive leader is more virulent than his predecessors.  One might be tempted to think that perceptive people could see a lesson here.”
— John McCreary, former strategic analyst for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, quoted at the Huffington Post

A good place to start:  “Backgrounder:  Targeted Killings“, Eben Kaplan, Council on Foreign Relations, 2 March 2006

When to Target Leaders“, Catherine Lotrionte, The Washington Quarterly, Summer 2003 — A balanced analysis, drawing no useful conclusions.  Unlike most such analysis, she at least mentions the possibility that the enemy will strike back:  “A state that engages in plots to kill leaders also faces some short-term consequences that would be harmful to the interests of its leaders and to the interests of the state itself.”  We kill leaders and change the course of history; they strike back with only “short-term consequences.”  We’re so great!

Targeted Killings: Evaluating the Effectiveness of a Counterterrorism Policy“, Asaf Zussman and Noam Zussman, Bank of Israel, January 2005 — “We evaluate the effectiveness of this policy indirectly by examining Israeli stock market reactions to assassinations.”

Targeted Killing of Suspected Terrorists: Extra-Judicial Executions or Legitimate Means of Defence?“, David Kretzmer, The European Journal of International Law, April 2005 — “The author examines the legality of such killings under norms of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.”

Do Targeted Killings Work?“, Daniel Byman, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006 — “One of the tactics Israel has used in responding to terrorism has been to seek out and kill individual enemies. Now Washington has started doing the same. The United States and Israel face different circumstances, however, and so the Bush administration should think twice before proceeding.”

When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation“, Jenna Jordan, Security Studies, October 2009 — Excellent data; the analysis gives little support for our current operations.  Esp note “The marginal utility of decapitation is negative for many groups, particularly for larger, older, religious, and separatist organizations.”

Other posts about directly attacking enemy leaders

The key post in this series:  James Bond is not just our hero, but the model for our geopolitical strategy, 18 May 2009.  Other posts:

  1. “Filling the skies with Assassins” by Tom Engelhardt, 12 April 2009
  2. America’s dominance of the sky slowly erodes – inevitable or avoidable?, 22 September 2009
  3. The march of technology brings “The Forty-Year Drone War”, 26 January 2010
  4. Stratfor looks at “The Utility of Assassination”, 26 February 2010
  5. The biggest re-branding exercise in the history of the world, 21 August 2010 — A new image for America.
  6. America plays the Apollo Option: killing from the sky, Chet Richards, 26 August 2010

2 thoughts on “Killing the leaders of our enemy. Is this the fast track to victory – or disaster?”

  1. America's secret license to kill

    A Secret License to Kill“, David Cole, New York Review of Books, 19 September 2011 — Excerpt:

    On Friday, a front-page New York Times story reported that a rift has emerged within the Obama Administration over whether it has authority to kill “rank-and-file” Islamist militants in foreign countries in which there is not an internationally recognized “armed conflict.” The implications of this debate are not trivial: Imagine that Russia started killing individuals living in the United States with remote-controlled drone missiles, and argued that it was justified in doing so because it had determined, in secret, that they posed a threat to Russia’s security, and that the United States was unwilling to turn them over. Would we calmly pronounce such actions compliant with the rule of law? Not too likely.

    And yet that is precisely the argument that the Obama Administration is now using in regard to American’s own actions in places like Yemen and Somalia—and by extension anywhere else it deems militant anti-US groups may be taking refuge. On the same day the Times article appeared, John Brennan, President Obama’s senior advisor on homeland security and counterterrorism, gave a speech at Harvard Law School in which he defended the United States’ use of drones to kill terrorists who are far from any “hot battlefield.” Brennan argued that the United States is justified in killing members of violent Islamist groups far from Afghanistan if they pose a threat to the United States, even if the threat is not “imminent” as that term has traditionally been understood. (As if to underscore the point, The Washington Post reports that the US has “significantly increased” its drone attacks in Yemen in recent months, out of fears that the government may collapse.)

    In international law, where reciprocity governs, what is lawful for the goose is lawful for the gander. And when the goose is the United States, it sets a precedent that other countries may well feel warranted in following.

    … The legal parameters defining the use of military force against terrorists are unquestionably difficult to draw. On the one hand, no one disputes that it is permissible to kill an enemy soldier on the battlefield in an ongoing armed conflict. On the other hand, absent extreme circumstances, constitutional and international law bar a state from killing a human being in peacetime without a trial (and even then, many authorities hold that capital punishment violates international human rights law).

    … But are al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or al-Shabab the same “enemy,” or merely sympathetic adherents of a terrorist philosophy? They certainly did not attack us on September 11, nor are they harboring those who did. Can we summarily execute all terrorists who we fear might someday commit a terrorist act against us? Brennan’s speech offered no answers.

    And that makes it especially disturbing that the contours of US policy and practice in this area remain largely secret. Presumably the administration has developed criteria for who can be killed and why, and a process for assessing who fits those criteria and when their targeting is justified. But if so, it hasn’t told us. Instead, it exercises the authority to kill, not only in Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan, but in Yemen,Somalia, and presumably elsewhere, based on a secret policy.

    We learn more about its outlines from leaks to The New York Times than from the cryptic comments of US officials in speeches like Brennan’s. If we are engaging the enemy within the rule of law, as Brennan insisted we must, we should have the courage to make our policies transparent, so that the people, both in the United States and beyond, can judge for themselves. And if, by contrast, we continue to justify such practices in only the vaguest of terms, we should expect other countries to take them up — and almost certainly in ways we will not find to our liking

  2. Pingback: Friday Puzzler: Why the US Kills Its Enemies, Answered | Political Violence @ a Glance

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