Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Why Killing Insurgent Leaders Backfires

I find this analysis persuasive. Unfortunately, when the only tool the DoD has is a hammer...

NightWatch Comment: The death of Baitullah Mehsud produced a leadership gap that lasted less than 36 hours. That is the downside of decapitation tactics – billed as strategies -- against tribal insurgencies and uprisings. Decapitation has never proven to be a permanent solution that produces the destruction of a pre-modern armed opposition movement.

The western model of leadership posits that elimination of the leader collapses the opposition. That is mythology in the West as well as everywhere else. More importantly, decapitation appears to strengthen organizational commitment to the remaining leaders.

Poisoning the host, as in the Sri Lankan anecdote above, is a more durable and devastating strategy for suppressing insurgency and terrorism than decapitation because of what Professor Bob Jervis describes as Systems Effects, in his book with the same name.

A new study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace highlighted another down-side of decapitation. The author of the study pointed out that in killing the more experienced Taliban field commanders the Forces of Order denied themselves opportunities to fracture the insurgent movement, by exploiting the grounds for disagreement.

Experienced field commanders are prone to balk at unreasonable orders and break away from senior religious leaders who fail to appreciate their operational problems, responding with platitudes and suras (i.e., Quranic verses) to requests for ammunition and explosives.

On the other hand, new leaders strive to prove their loyalty to the cause, however unreasonable its directives. This results in greater organizational integrity in the short term.

Decapitation is a useful short term tactic, but no one should confuse it with a strategy. At every level of targeting wisdom the drone campaign has been an expensive, long term failure in the sense that it has produced dead men but no measurable reduction in the threat to US interests in Afghanistan or Pakistan; no reduction in the determination of anti-US fighters to die for the Taliban; no reduction in the spread of Taliban influence and attacks in Afghanistan or in the fighting in Pakistan; no disincentive to other terrorist groups in attacking pro-US interests anywhere in the world and it has made Pakistani hostility to the US nearly nation-wide. It has backfired for eight years.

In the National Security Advisor’s search for metrics, this program is a negative model. It is tempting to imagine what might have been accomplished in Afghanistan by devoting the drone resources and finances to simpler proven tactics, like bribery and good old fashioned human source intelligence work.


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