James Bond is the model for our mad geopolitical strategy

Should we base our geopolitical strategy on killing our enemies? Will this make us safer, or make more likely what we most wish to avoid? The answer is obvious, if we care to see. These stories were written nine years ago but could be today’s news.

CIA assassinations

Many nations have used assassination in exceptional circumstances. Some nations have made occasional use of assassination (e.g., our Phoenix Program in Vietnam). Some nations have made extensive – even routine – use of assassination (e.g., the USSR, Israel).

During the Cold War, America moved from first group to the second group. Now we are moving from the second to the third. This post discusses the history of assassination as a geopolitical tool (i.e., by government against foreign enemies), how we embraced it after 9/11, and what this might mean for America. At the end are links to the other chapters in this series.

(1)  History of assassination

Assassination as a tool of statecraft has a long pedigree. Sun Tzu wrote about it in Chapter 13 of The Art Of War.

“Whether the object be to crush an army, to storm a city, or to assassinate an individual, it is always necessary to begin by finding out the names of the attendants, the aides-de-camp, and door-keepers and sentries of the general in command.”

Fast forward to our time and see the Wikipedia entry about the history of assassination.

“However, the 20th century likely marks the first time nation-states began training assassins to be specifically used against so-called enemies of the state. During World War II, for example, MI6 trained a group of Czechoslovakian operatives to kill the Nazi general Reinhard Heydrich

“The Cold War saw a dramatic increase in the number of political assassinations …During the Kennedy era Fidel Castro narrowly escaped death on several occasions at the hands of the CIA (a function of the agency’s “executive action” program) …At the same time, the KGB made creative use of assassination to deal with high-profile defectors such as Georgi Markov, and Israel’s Mossad made use of such tactics to eliminate Palestinian guerrillas, politicians and revolutionaries …

“{M}any accuse Russia of continuing to practice it in Chechnya and against Chechens abroad, as well as Israel in Palestine and against Palestinians abroad (as well as those Mossad deems a threat to Israeli national security, as in the aftermath of the Munich Massacre during “Operation Wrath of God“). Besides Palestine Liberation Organization members assassinated abroad, {Israel’s military} has also often targeted Hamas activists in the Gaza strip.”

Are attacks on military leaders during wartime called “assassinations”? See the answer here.

Making assassination routine

Tom Engelhardt describes how America is “Filling the skies with Assassins”, 17 April 2009.

“Our drone wars also represent a new chapter in the history of assassination. Once upon a time, to be an assassin for a government was a furtive, shameful thing. In those days, of course, an assassin, if successful, took down a single person, not the targeted individual and anyone in the vicinity (or simply, if targeting intelligence proves wrong, anyone in the vicinity). No more poison-dart-tipped umbrellas, as in past KGB operations, or toxic cigars as in CIA ones – not now that assassination has taken to the skies as an every day, all-year-round activity.

“Today, we increasingly display our assassination wares with pride. To us, at least, it seems perfectly normal for assassination aerial operations to be a part of an open discussion in Washington and in the media. Consider this a new definition of ‘progress’ in our world.”

Gareth Porter at Asia Times explains why they picked a new leader for the US expedition to Afghanistan: “US choice hardly McChrystal clear“, 14 May 2009.

“The choice of Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal to become the new United States commander in Afghanistan has been hailed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and national news media as ushering in a new unconventional approach to counter-insurgency.  But McChrystal’s background sends a very different message from the one claimed by Gates and the news media. His long specialization in counter-terrorism operations suggests an officer who is likely to have more interest in targeted killings than in the kind of politically sensitive counter-insurgency program that the Barack Obama administration has said it intends to carry out.

“Media reporting on the choice of McChrystal simply echoed the Pentagon’s line. …The New York Times cited unnamed ‘Defense Department officials’ in reporting, ‘His success in using intelligence and firepower to track and kill insurgents …made him the best choice for the command in Afghanistan.’ …

“These explanations for the choice of McChrystal equate his command of the special operations forces with expertise on counter-insurgency, despite the fact that McChrystal spent his past five years as a commander of special operations forces focusing overwhelmingly on counter-terrorism operations, not on counter-insurgency.  Whereas counter-insurgency operations are aimed primarily at influencing the population and are primarily non-military, counter-terrorism operations are exclusively military and focus on targeting the ‘enemy’.

This is greeted with applause by some experts. Such as Pat Lang (Colonel, US Army, retired) in a post at Sic Semper Tyrannis, 12 May 2009.

“What is the message in this change? McChrystal’s background, his “issues” over supposed abuse of prisoners by his commandos in Iraq and a reputation for operational aggressiveness do not “telegraph” the coming of a policy aimed at a political settlement in Afghanistan.

“This sounds like a paradigm shift in which Obama’s policy of destroying the leadership of Al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan and Pakistan takes priority over everything else.

“I might like this.”

Every new generation of US leaders in Afghanistan promise to kill our way to victory. Here Ralph Peters gives more of his endless cheers for assassinations in “Afghan Graveyard“, 14 May 2009 — Well worth reading in full, if you like fantasy.

“The conflict in Afghanistan was a special-operations war in 2001, and it’s a special-operations war in 2009. Everything in between was deadly make-believe. …

“Dave McKiernan didn’t fail the Army. The Army failed him. Sent to Afghanistan to herd NATO cats, he operated by the book. But the book the Army gave him was wrong. That book – our Counterinsurgency Manual – was midwifed by Gen. David Petraeus, who did a dazzling job of turning around the mess Rumsfeld-era policies made in Iraq. …

“Of all the factors that enabled the turnaround in Iraq, the first was the speed with which al Qaeda alienated the locals. The second was the incisive, relentless elimination of terrorists by our special-ops forces: Killing works. …

“Getting it right in Afghanistan — and across the frontier in Pakistan — means digging fewer wells and forcing our enemies to dig more graves.”

(3)  A world where assassination is a routine tool

Does it work strategically as well as tactically?

“Killing works” as a tactic. But wars are won by good strategy, not just good tactics (that’s why everyone in Europe isn’t singing Deutschland Uber Alles before their soccer games). Basing our operations on “killing works” violates COIN theory and fatally compromises our key strategic interests.

David Kilcullen (Lt. Colonel, Australian Army, retired) gently but clearly discusses debunks the “kill to victory” advocates in “Death From Above, Outrage Down Below, co-authored with long-time Afghan war booster Andrew McDonald Exum (US Army, retired) in an op-ed in the New York Times, 16 May 2009.

“The use of drones in military operations has steadily grown – we know from public documents that from last September to this March alone, C.I.A. operatives launched more than three dozen strikes.

“The appeal of drone attacks for policy makers is clear. For one thing, their effects are measurable. Military commanders and intelligence officials point out that drone attacks have disrupted terrorist networks in Pakistan, killing key leaders and hampering operations. Drone attacks create a sense of insecurity among militants and constrain their interactions with suspected informers. And, because they kill remotely, drone strikes avoid American casualties.

“But on balance, the costs outweigh these benefits for three reasons. First, the drone war has created a siege mentality among Pakistani civilians. …Second {such strikes} offend people’s deepest sensibilities, alienates them from their government, and contributes to Pakistan’s instability. Third, the use of drones displays every characteristic of a tactic – or, more accurately, a piece of technology – substituting for a strategy.”

About the author: for Kilcullen’s bio and links to his many articles about counter-insurgency, see The Essential 4GW reading list: David Kilcullen.

Do our assassinations encourage attacks on the US?

There is another possible result. It’s not clear – except in the nightmares that substitute for strategic thought in the US – that any Afghanistan tribes have an objective interest in attacking America. What would be the military objective, the potential benefit? But each killing adds to the number of people with a reason to do so among the friends and relatives of the dead. Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired) states the awful truth.

“The pointlessness of attacking the US might not stop them from trying.  History shows that all sides in every war are vulnerable to the temptation of putting tactics ahead of strategy.”

Routine use of assassination might make inevitable what we most wish to avoid, an attack on America will be – unlike 9-11 – a legitimate operation of war.  America has made it so.

What does it do to us?

We are shaped by our actions as well as our aspirations and beliefs. Assassination is a form of war, but it differs from war as we usually think of it in the West. The effects of routine use of assassination on our hearts, minds, and souls might prove to be the most important long-term result.

Our routine use of assassination puts us on a dirty roster of nations. Few of those nations are successful nations, by any standard.

Conclusions

All of this was written nine years ago and could be written today. It is a tragedy for Afghanistan and America, in different ways. Two nations on dark paths, pulling each other down – like two children drowning.

How long will this continue? I doubt it will end well.

Legalities

As has been shown in elaborate detail, both on this site and many others, the US government asserts the right to kill whoever it wants to, US citizens included (incidents such as Waco and especially Ruby Ridge demonstrated that to all but the exceptionally slow learners among us). However, for anyone who cares about dead legalities.

Assassination section of the Lieber Code, U.S. Army General Order No. 100, 1863.

Executive Order 11905 — United States foreign intelligence activities, 18 February 1976.

  • “(g) Prohibition of Assassination. No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.”

Executive Order 12333 — United States intelligence activities, 4 December 1981.

  • “2.11 Prohibition on Assassination. No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.
  • “2.12 Indirect Participation. No agency of the Intelligence Community shall participate in or request any person to undertake activities forbidden by this Order.”

DoD Directive 5240.1 – DoD Intelligence Activities, 25 April 1988.

  • “4.4. Under no circumstances shall any DoD employee engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.”

Assassination Ban and E.O. 12333: a Brief Summary by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), January 2002.

Good sources for more about assassinations

The two best reports I have found of these issues are the CRS report (above) and Operations against Enemy Leaders by Stephen T. Hosmer, RAND, 2001 (151 pages).   This report was sponsored by US Air Force. I recommend reading it if you are interested in learning about these complex issues. From the summary:

“An analysis of some 24 cases of leadership attacks from World War II to the present provides insights about the comparative efficacy of different forms of leadership attacks, the potential coercive and deterrent value of such operations for shaping future enemy policy and behavior, and the possible unintended consequences that may result from the ill-considered use of such attacks. …

“With the single exception of the shoot-down of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s aircraft in World War II, all U.S. operations to neutralize senior enemy leaders by direct attack have failed.”

To learn about Obama’s assassination programs see this series at The Intercept: “The Drone Papers“. Also see “Former Drone Operators Say They Were “Horrified” By Cruelty of Assassination Program“.

For More Information

Ideas! For shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about assassinationabout counterinsurgency, and especially these…

  1. Important: Darwin explains the futility of killing insurgents. It makes them more effective.
  2. Obama + assassination + drones = a dark future for America — by Mark Mazzetti.
  3. Assassination as Policy in Washington: How It Failed Then and Fails Now — by Andrew Cockburn.
  4. Should we use our special operations troops as assassins? Is it right, or even smart?
  5. Stratfor asks Why al Qaeda survives the assassination of its leaders?
  6. 14 years of assassinations: Stratfor describes the result.
  7. Another assassination of a jihadist leader. Here’s what comes next.
  8. Obama’s last gift to America: a global assassination program.

12 thoughts on “James Bond is the model for our mad geopolitical strategy

  1. Doesn’t our present culture, such as no long apprenticeship but saving the world …movies you have critiqued, also is reflected by a mythical belief in stopping the destroyers of our world (culture)? Many of the excellent points made here about American society seem to also have collaries for our approach to military solutions. In particular, our support of certain leaders as thought he huge problems and costs of rebuilding a war torn country will be minimized if we just get the right leader who happens to like USA.

    1. Info,

      I had forgotten about the Mexican’s use of the decapitation strategy! Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Dear Editor,

    I’m surprised you didn’t frame this as “another bad idea of Heinlein,” considering his enthusiasm for it in “Gulf” and “Friday.”

    The myth of the Hydra seems appropriate, also.

    On a completely different topic, when are you going to do a column on Jordon Peterson? He seems to be new “Enemy #2” after Trump for the left, mostly for stating things about gender that echo many of your opinions…seems like a natural topic for you!

    1. Christopher,

      Thanks for the reminder about assassination in Heinlein’s stories! I had forgotten about that. It’s also mentioned as a favorable tactic in Revolt in 2100 and Starship Troopers.

      As for Peterson, I’m unfamilar with the story. I’m buried in good material, half written notes – and have very little time to write. Bottom line: it’s getting dark out there.

    2. Christopher,

      Ditto for the myth of the Hydra. That is a very apt metaphor.

  3. This reminds me of a movie I saw a while ago called ‘Cidade de Deus’ which is about a group of young criminals who lived in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.
    One of the major themes of the movie that stuck out to me in particular, was how an escalating cycle of revenge killing, in the context of organized crime, eventually produced a leadership group that was younger, more innovative, and more indiscriminately violent.

    1. Todd,

      That’s a great insight, one that I hadn’t seen! History shows countless examples of this sad story of escalating revenges, often echoing down thru centuries. It seldom ends well.

    2. Reminds me of what is happening to young men’s role models as well. Good point Todd.

    3. A good fictional example: on The Wire, when the cops finally bring down the Barksdale drug dealing organization, it is almost immediately replaced by the much more homicidal group headed by Marlo.

      The Drug War was sort of the prototype for the War on Terror.

  4. Look at who stopped Turkey from invading Europe – Vlad the impaler. Who stopped Islam from invading – Charles the hammer. Nether we nice both were effective. Both saved millions of Christians. If you forget killing has its place the reread the Bible and see what Jesus returns with. Its not placating Gods enemies and turning the other cheek. Its a sword ready for battle.

    1. Dvd,

      Please read the post before commenting. This post is about assassination, not warfare.

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