Earlier this year, the Colombian military whacked "32 high-value narco-terrorists" with the help of US Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconaissance (ISR) platforms. Today, we now know that they are all Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) members from FARC, ELN, and Peru's Shining Path.
Of course, this is hardly anything new. In some ways, outsourcing the means of coercion to trusted foreign partners actually predates the US as a country. It was always a part of the Anglosphere military tradition, and was frequently seen in the brutal battles from Columbus to the mid-19th century over who would control the Americas. The very 'shores of Tripoli" were stormed with help from local mercenaries. And, as Jeremy Scahill, Micah Zenko, or other chroniclers of the post-9/11 wars will tell you, it goes on today behind the spectacle of drones and special operations forces.
Previous posts here at Abu Muquwama have relentlessly pounded home the point that the policy is platform-independent, and that the idea that drones somehow have led to our current woes is faulty beyond measure. Previous posts have also established that when there is a national security policy consensus, the President will reward those who execute his will with symbolic and material resources and punish/marginalize those who will not.
If the large and amorphous movement to delegitimize current US counterterrorism policies continues, we'll be going back (apologies to my friend Joshua Foust) a decade later than the 90s. The hard truth that the US discovered during the Cold War was that an International Humanitarian Law (IHL)-compliant professional military that honors Huntingtonian civil-military norms is a luxury, not a basic condition. If you don't believe me, look at the continuing discipline and accountability problems among developing world militaries in UN peacekeeping organizations. Sure, they often get the job done, but a myriad forms of sexual misconduct and even cholera outbreaks follow them. Furthermore, governments that are actually incentivized to and capable of building a state that can protect its citizens, honor their rights, or refrain from robbing them blind don't exactly grow on trees either.
The hard truth is that many of the places the US government wants to play around in for either national security, economic, or humanitarian reasons are troubled (to put it mildly). Getting the results that the policy requires inevitably means moral compromises. However, those compromises are vastly more visible when the US itself is making them. It will be much harder to get leaks on "disposition matrices" from corrupt governments, sub-state militias, or rebel groups.
In fact, this hypothetical assumes that the median United People's Liberation Army (UPLA) of Anarchic Hellhole-istan fighter has something as formal as a disposition matrix guiding where his technical's rusting Warsaw Pact-era heavy machine gun points (as opposed to a qat-induced haze).
So no, Josh, you've got it only half right that we're going back to the 1990s. We may be going back from an already moronic 2013 debate over drones and SOF to an even more stupid 1980s debate over Contras, Guatelamans, and dead priests. We have a long history with the Colombian military, and thus we have much more leverage over their compliance with war law and norms. Many other governments, however, consider Bashir Assad's daddy to be a source of inspiration as far as counterinsurgeny, counterrorism, and everything else you can "counter" by reducing a city to rubble with massed artillery.
So say it with me again: there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. In war, particularly wars that involve messing with the internal politics of troubled regions of the world, there are no clean and conscience-free ways to destroy large numbers of irregular foes. That's why the policy itself ought to be getting most of the attention.
But with the way that commentators obsessively focuse on the tech and the personnel rather than the job done, I'm ready to start taking bets about which US military facility will be the new School of the Americas for Code Pink to picket. Winner gets gratis copies of my GDELT t-shirt.
As is wont to happen, the current forms of warfare the United States in engaging in and preparing for lend themselves easily to misrepresentation and simplification. As the U.S. appears to wind down the era of large scale U.S.-led land operations, particularly ones in which the U.S. is bearing the brunt of combat against insurgencies, the new form of U.S. operations against non-state actors has unsurprisingly been described in terms such as drone wars or components of an offshore or counterterrorism strategy, while conventional platforms and capabilities are viewed in reference to the apparent "pivot to Asia" and AirSea Battle. However, recent events in Yemen demonstrate that such these sorts of small war operations, while they have a significant covert component and often involve the use of remotely piloted aircraft, also involve boots on the ground and the use of what are often conceived of as conventional military platforms such as naval and aerial ISR and strike assets.
On Sunday, a U.S. special forces trainer embedded with Yemeni troops suffered a serious combat wound. This came on the heels of a LA Times piece last week which noted that several dozen U.S. military personnel were on the ground in Yemen embedded with Yemeni forces and assisting with targeting for U.S. strike capabilities. Also notable is a recent story by David Axe highlighting the work of bloggers who have publicized the presence of a unit of F-15Es based out of Djibouti. All of these developments reveal some uncomfortable truths about the nature of U.S. power projection.
Firstly, while drones are undoubtedly a significant portion of U.S. operations in its counterterrorism campaigns across the Indian Ocean rim, they are but one platform in one prong of the effort. The phrase "drone war" might be accurate for Pakistan, where by tacit agreement with the Pakistani government and military the U.S. has restricted its strike operations to drone activities. But even in Pakistan the presence of proxy forces such as the Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams and significant amounts of on-the-ground CIA and JSOC personnel supporting targeting are a major portion of the campaign. In Yemen and Somalia, where the U.S. has more flexibility diplomatically and geographically, expansions in strike campaigns have meant more U.S. forces operating on the ground, as well as the use of manned aircraft and naval vessels.
Despite the hype, even in politically sensitive counterterrorism options drones remain but one instrument in the U.S. arsenal. The primary perceived advantage of drones, that they keep service members out of harm's way, is really not a significant concern in these theaters. Pakistan is not in the habit of seriously defending its western airspace, nor does Yemen or AQAP have the will or capability of imposing significant military obstacles to U.S. standoff strikes. All these sentiments hold even more true for Somalia. Indeed, as the crash of the U-28 in Djibouti recently demonstrated, pilots of fixed-wing aircraft are at a greater risk for accidents than they are of being shot down in the Indian Ocean "shadow wars." And indeed, manned aircraft are frequently employed - AC-130 gunships were frequent features of U.S. operations in Somalia, along with helicopter gunshipsand JSOC assets. So too has the U.S. used cruise missiles to strike targets in Yemen and naval gunfire to support U.S. special operations on the ground in Somalia.
Ultimately, to a non-state threat in a conventionally permissive environment, a submarine, frigate, Strike Eagle or an AC-130 gunship is just as invulnerable as a drone, and offer a variety of other strike options drones cannot provide. Additionally, the use of manned aircraft such as the F-15E has likely allowed the U.S. to conduct mysterious airstrikes in support of Kenya's "Linda Nchi" incursion last fall, or conduct airstrikes which seemed implausible for Yemen's organizationally beleaguered air force. Nor are they necessarily significantly more costly. As Winslow Wheeler pointed out in an excellent series on the MQ-9 Reaper, when the cost of the additional infrastructure on the ground necessary to operate drones is factored in, similar overall maintenance costs make them fiscally competitive with many manned platforms.
Secondly, offshore strike campaigns are simply one prong of these so-called shadow wars. Supporting offshore strike, of course, are personnel on the ground, and often ones acting in support of foreign partner or proxy forces. As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and I noted earlier, in Somalia, for example, strike campaigns are simply one component of a larger effort that involved supporting Somali intelligence, a proxy war using Somali armed groups, and supporting partner nation counterinsurgency efforts. All of the thorny dilemmas of dealing with COIN remain, even if most of the blood price of grappling with them is passed on to foreign soldiers. While it may take longer for the U.S. to embroil large formations of conventional forces directly into another insurgency or civil war, the dilemmas of how to balance U.S. strike campaigns without endangering counterinsurgency efforts still remain.
Additionally, any change in one prong of the strategy necessarily effects the importance or execution of the others. For example, in controversy about Yemen, the issue of signature strikes has prompted understandable concern. However, improving intelligence products contributing to offshore strikes requires greater resources being put towards clandestine intelligence or special operations units acting on the ground, or towards greater work with partner nation intelligence services. However, partner nations often have their own agendas, and particularly in an era when the U.S. is at least publically reticent to work with strongmen and unsavory regimes for the sake of "stability," trading strikes for greater support of regime security and intelligence services may end up having even more debilitating - and long lasting - effects.
While offshore strikes in and of themselves are far less costly and resource intensive than large formations operating in land campaigns, they are not all that cheap or small, and they exist only as part of a larger constellation of programs to feed intelligence and address partner nation concerns. Counterterrorism is no more a strategy than is counterinsurgency. It is a capability, a set of tactical building blocks, aimed at political objectives which, more often than not, require the employment of other capabilities in a broader war strategy.
The new U.S. force posture does not mean the death of U.S. support of COIN campaigns, but it does change their character. The U.S. discomfort with the Arab Spring's outbreak in Yemen is emblematic of this reality. Because the conception of counterterrorism required working with partner nations, it required accepting regime stability, and accepting regime stability required involvement in the regime's efforts to maintain power against peaceful and violent attempts to overthrow it.
Thirdly, the prosecution of multi-pronged military operations from an offshore and covert posture is a reminder that rhetoric about AirSea Battle and the Pivot to Asia notwithstanding, conventional military forces will remain major assets in combat against irregular assets, and that these conflicts will continue to rage outside PACOM, political rhetoric notwithstanding. This should not, of course, be all that surprising. Hopes that reductions to land forces would somehow starve the beast and reduce the U.S. appetite for waging wars against irregular threats were obviously misplaced, and indeed the Asian "Pivot" really serves to increase U.S. freedom of action for prosecuting such campaigns by providing a host of platforms capable of projecting power into navally-accessible regions and reducing the level of political attention and controversy surrounding the Middle East and American activities there.
The supposedly offshore shadow wars in fact involve major ground operations by partners, an active ground presence by the U.S., and large amounts of conventional military assets. Rhetoric and planning aside, for the near future the U.S. will likely remain militarily engaged in and around the Africa and the West Eurasian rimlands against irregular foes. These operations will likely also likely involve greater degrees of ground combat troops in the future. As Brett Friedman explains in an excellent post at the Marine Corps Gazette, the USMC will likely take a larger role in these small wars, as it did during the early 20th century. A survey of British history also demonstrates that despite the portrayal of Britain as dispassionately concerned with offshore balancing, it frequently engaged in onshore warfare across its colonial area of interest.
Ultimately, fixation on specific platforms or their elemental nature (land, sea, air), or specific prongs and their shorthand typology (counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, etc) obscures more about the nature of these conflicts than they reveal. Ignoring this weakens quality and utility of the debate the debate for both proponents and detractors of America's present military undertakings.
The enemy of my enemy isn't really a terrorist if his lobbying is really, really good.
Shameful move by the Dept. of State.
Update: Former Obama Administration State official Tamara Cofman Wittes says I should be blaming the Congress, not the Dept. of State.
Focusing on a candidate's high school years strikes me as silly. As silly as focusing on a candidate's old girlfriends. But reading through this slideshow on Mitt Romney's years at Cranbrook Schools, you can see his name just below that of former CIA analyst Paul Pillar in the Class of 1965. Assuming this is the same Paul R. Pillar, high school reunuions must get awkward when talk turns to Iran or counter-terrorism.
On my way back from New York last night, I had the misfortune to catch a few minutes of CNN -- allegedly America's most serious cable news network -- while waiting around Penn Station. Those four or so minutes of cable television summed up how much farther we have to go as a nation before we can have a coherent debate about the appropriate ends, ways and means related to counterterrorism. Anderson Cooper was interviewing -- wait for it -- Paul Begala and Ari Fleischer about the death of Osama bin Laden and the effectiveness of U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
It should go without saying that neither Begala nor Fleischer -- partisan, bilious mouthpieces -- have anything substantive to offer with respect to issues related to counterterrorism. Both men are bottom-feeders in the U.S. public discourse. Even when Mitt Romney issues a classy statement on the anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden, you can always count on people like Fleischer to soil it with their partisan hackery.
I listened to these two clowns do their political theater and got on the train angry. That anger, though, turned to sadness when I ran into former Bush Administration counterterrorism official Michelle Malvesti* on the train. If there is anyone that should have been on the television talking to Americans about counterterrorism policy and strategy, it's people like her. I would love to have heard a substantive discussion between her and, say, Aki Peritz about Presidents Bush and Obama and their respective counterterrorism strategies. Instead, we get political hacks whose lines could have been scripted beforehand.
[For those seeking an antidote to cable news and not afraid to dig into some substance, check out the great back-and-forth between Will McCants and Mary Habeck on al-Qaeda.]
*The last name should sound familiar to graduates of the Ranger Course. You have her father to thank for the worm pit.
I spent part of my vacation reading the new book by Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda. Thom and Eric wrote the book while on a writing fellowship here at the Center for a New American Security, so I'm relieved that I a) very much enjoyed reading it and b) can recommend it to the readership. It's a brisk read -- short enough to read while trapped in your houses as a hurricane blows over, for example -- and has all the hallmarks of the great reporting you have come to expect from two of the NYT's finest.
This will come as no surprise to those who have followed your reporting for the New York Times, but this book was carefully and exhaustively reported. You guys face a tough dilemma, though: when reporting on secret programs, the best sources will often not talk. And although you have managed to interview some of the key decision makers, are you worried that your reporting is limited by its sources? How do you write “The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda” and not “The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda As Told To Us By The People We Got To Speak On The Record?”
It’s wonderful to be asked why we had so many people on the record! Usually we are criticized for too many confidential sources. In Counterstrike, we used both, extensively. Our book is drawn from more than two hundred interviews conducted with current and former military personnel, diplomats, and intelligence officers, as well as law enforcement, Pentagon, and White House officials who participated in the operations, intelligence analysis, and policy making in the decade following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. When possible, we named the sources. But because of the nature of reporting on sensitive operations and policies, often involving classified information, many of our sources spoke to us on the condition that they remain anonymous. In each case where we used anonymous sources, we carefully weighed the trade-offs between the need for transparency in reporting this book and the important information that confidential sources could provide. We also found that many sources who might be otherwise reluctant to talk to us for an article for the daily newspaper agreed to speak to us for the book. They wanted to ensure that their perspective on this historic period was understood and chronicled.
You guys cover a lot of breaking, Page A1 news. How difficult is it to step back and write a more reflective piece of journalism looking at a decade-long era?
The hardest part was time-management. We found that to make it all work we had to give 50 percent of our time to our reporting for the Times; 50 percent of our time to the book; 50 percent of our time to our loving and long-suffering wives; and 50 percent of our time to our kids (we each have two). Fortunately, all the time left over was ours, and we could use it to relax. In many ways, we began reporting the book on 9/11, even though we didn’t begin considering a book until about three years ago. But this is what we have done for the past decade. What we discovered in our first work of long-form narrative was the incredible amount of detail a reporter can develop when working on a two-year book project: The ability to return to sources not just once, but multiple times. The ability to check and cross-check stories, and really dig for details. The ability to trace a tip about an important counterterrorism raid and have time to track down participants from the small unit up to the senior commanders – and trace the effect and impact across the inter-agency. The ability to identify characters who had significant counterterrorism roles throughout the decade after 9/11, and were willing to talk to us. Those things you simply cannot do on a daily deadline.
If I had a complaint about the book, it’s that it often read, especially in the middle chapters, like a list of inputs and not effects. This is a real and common problem we researchers have in evaluating counter-terror programs. We know what we are doing. What’s tougher to tell is, what effect are we having on the enemy? To that end, what programs do you think are having the biggest effects on al-Qaeda? What is working? What is not?
You are a smart reader. The insurmountable problem is that we are covering counterterrorism missions from only one side. For obvious reasons, we could not bounce our reporting off of some Al Qaeda press spokesman or operations officer or financier to say, “Hey, we are writing about this mission. Is this how it went down against you? Is this how successful it was?” But we did our due diligence by comparing what sources told us to what responses appeared on jihadist Web sites, and it usually tracked with what we heard from sources here. Clearly, the kinetics have had an impact, as have missions to dry up sources of finances. What remains in the D- department, if not failing, are the efforts to counter the message of violent extremism. If the United States and its allies have been forced to offer an effective counterposing narrative to those who bomb and behead innocents, then the United States has lost before it has even started.
Along the same lines, you guys don’t outright grade the performance of the past few administrations on counter-terror, so I’m going to give you the chance to do that. On an A-F scale, what grade would you assign …
a. The Bush Administration, 2001-2003?
b. The Bush Administration, 2003-2005?
c. The Bush Administration, 2005-2007?
d. The Bush Administration, 2007-2009?
e. The Obama Administration, 2009-2011?
We think readers of our book would come away seeing that the Bush administration adopted a muscular if clumsy capture-kill strategy in the months after 9/11. Understandable, necessary, but not sufficient. And, as Rumsfeld noted in his famous October 2003 memo, kinetics alone risked creating more jihadists than were taken off the battlefield. By the second Bush administration, officials were adopting a more nuanced strategy, one that involved the whole of government to try and counter violent extremism with every tool available. Although Obama was certainly the un-Bush, it is historic fact that his administration has been as much continuity in the CT world as change. Drone strikes? Embraced and expanded. SOF raids? Tempo increased. But Obama certainly has changed the tenor of the discussion with the Islamic world, and even with European allies, and his efforts to close Gitmo, while still unsuccessful, set him apart, to be sure.
This book covers a lot of ground. What chapter do you wish you could have expanded on or dug deeper into?
Cyber and counter-messaging.
I usually end these interviews by asking people to name their favorite bars and such. For you guys, I’ll ask a different question: what are the three weirdest places you have ever met a source for an interview?
1. Radovan Karadzic’s chalet at Pale, his mountain redoubt above Sarajevo. He was not yet an indicted war criminal, but we were reporting extensively on the atrocities he had ordered, so it was difficult to get an interview with the Bosnian Serb leader. So we drove from Belgrade up into the mountains, and while my translator was speaking with his aides, I tried to strike up a conversation with his bodyguards, who were playing poker. “Hey guys. What’re the stakes?” I asked. One responded: “Winner gets to shoot the guy from the Trib.” At the time, I was the guy from the Trib.
2. When I was a Moscow bureau chief, dissidents and underground artists always wanted to meet foreign correspondents. So you’d choose a big public location, with signals to identify one another. One spot was a big toy store across Dzerzhinsky Square from the old Lubyanka KGB prison. Sort of hiding in plain sight, I guess. Many of those I met were legitimate outsiders who had a bona fide story to tell about the crimes of the Soviet state. But not always. And I guess the KGB didn’t want to send its stooges too far, because over the course of five years and hundreds of such meetings I went to Children’s World several dozen times -- and among those I met were a Ukrainian nationalist, a Jewish refusenik and a formerly imprisoned poet; but all three of these were the same guy, who obviously couldn’t keep track of which reporters he had tried to set up.
3. I have one defense industry source who likes quick meetings. He will drive up in front of our bureau on Farragut Square, roll down the darkened windows of his SUV and toss me documents. One day our bureau chief was heading out to lunch and saw the exchange, which was too bad. It made the job of Pentagon correspondent look way too easy.
1. Inside a sweltering reed hut in Al Turaba, Iraq, a dust-choked village 20 miles from the Iranian border. I was traveling with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz in July 2003. He had flown to the village to listen to a dozen wizened tribal elders from the area who asked him to restore a way of life that Saddam Hussein had taken away. Sitting cross-legged in his stocking feet on a Persian rug, Wolfowitz nodded in agreement as the old men chronicled the plight of the marsh Arabs, an ancient people whose homeland in southeastern Iraq had been drained into desert as punishment for their independence and Shiite faith. It was 120 degrees outside the hut and even hotter inside, but Wolfowitz still wore a blue blazer and red tie, both coated with dust. It was hard to hear him and the elders over the raucous banter of scores of villagers jammed inside the hut and a donkey's braying outside.
2. Several hundred feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean inside the U.S.S. Kentucky, one of the Navy’s Trident II ballistic-missile. When I was a young Pentagon correspondent in the early 1990’s, I tried to get out with troops as much as possible. I flew in an Air Force fighter jet. I rode in Army M1-A1 tank. But inside the submerged submarine on a training run in 1993 was eerie. Capt. Mike Riegel and his crew were amenable to talking about their vessel. But no loud voices, please. The cold war was over by then, but there were still reminders of a time when crew members feared that the slightest racket on board could give away a submarine’s position to the Soviets. Equipment was lined in plastic or rubber to avoid pings or banging. Signs in toilet stalls sternly warned crew members: "Don't Drop That Seat. Shhhhhh!"
3. On a very sensitive story several years ago that involved American spies, commandos and scandal, one of our main sources agreed to meet periodically at a coffee shop along a major Interstate freeway in a Western state. But we never met him in the same place twice. The source gave me and my colleague a cell phone. We never knew exactly when he was going to call. But when he did, he gave us the name of a highway exit and a coffee shop there. We met several times over about many months, each time collecting new information from him and corroborating (or rejecting) tips we heard from other sources. He was always spot on. After the article was published, we received a cryptic message, “Well done.” We never heard from him again.
Wow, who knew John McCain had gotten so paranoid about reporters! Anyway, thanks for the interview, guys. Buy Counterstrike here.
If you watch U.S. cable news in the aftermath of today's attacks in Norway -- and really, why are you watching U.S. cable news? -- you are likely to see various "terrorism" "experts" talking about what happened. If you are lucky, you'll see someone like Peter Bergen who has written extensively and well on various jihadi groups, but beyond that, the quality can go downhill pretty quickly.
As a service to the readership, the following is an incomplete list of several scholars who write and comment well on terrorism.
1. Will McCants. Will, an analyst at the Center for Naval Analysis, worked in the State Department's counter-terrorism shop until recently. Armed with excellent Arabic and a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton, Will is a serious scholar of both Islam and jihadi movements. He founded the website Jihadica and can be followed on Twitter at @will_mccants.
5. Brian Fishman. A research fellow at the New America Foundation, you might actually see Brian on television. He probably will not say anything ignorant. Which is more than you can say for most people you will see on television. @brianfishman
You will note my incomplete list of counter-terrorism experts is somewhat biased toward those with language skills and formal education in the subject and away from law enforcement and military experience. This is not an accident. Nothing wrong with the latter, of course. It's just that if you want someone to explain the origins of al-Qaeda, some guy who used to kick down doors is probably not your man. (Though he may be, I guess.) My list is also biased toward experts on Islamist terror. There are those in the field of strategic studies who focus more on terror and coercion as general subjects, but I have found they are less likely to be able to say something of consequence about specific groups than people who are experts on specific groups can say something of consequence about terror tactics and coercion in general. Anyway, do add your own names in the comments section.
P.S. This list was compiled after jihadi groups claimed responsibility for the Norway attacks. If the attacks were instead the acts of what we social scientists call an "LDA," or Lone Derranged A******, save this list for the next time there is an attack by bona fide terrorist group or you're just otherwise curious about terror and counter-terrorism.
An American friend from the Middle East who has recently spent time covering the war in Afghanistan had the same question I did upon reading this article in the New York Times: "How can my colleagues not understand that COIN involves killing?"
First off, I note this article was not written by Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, both of whom have reported extensively on U.S. special operations in Afghanistan and Iraq for the New York Times and who are writing a book together on the subject. Second, direct-action special operations played an integral and well-documented role in U.S. counterinsurgency operations in Iraq during the Baghdad security operations of 2007. They are most effective, in fact, when incorporated into a larger operational framework such as counterinsurgency. I wrote a short piece on the false dichotomy between "COIN" and "CT" for this blog's responsible cousins at the Small Wars Journal last year. Click here (.pdf) to read it. Because I was shaking my head as vigorously as anyone else as I read that article this past weekend.
Update: This Doonesbury cartoon does a nice job of illustrating the balance between the kinetic and non-kinetic.
I really need to do some editing today and have spent too much of the workday instead reading two documents. The first is the charge sheet of Capt. Mark Hamilton, USCG, which you can read here and which is totally NSFW (.pdf). (h/t Ricks) Officers carrying on sexually with subordinates is normally abhorent, given the obviously unequal nature of the relationships, which can lead to any number of abuses. But some of the things the U.S. Coast Guard considers to have "dishonored and disgraced [Capt. Hamilton's] position as an officer" are quite hilarious when read in the bureaucratic language of a DD Form 458.
The second document is the one you should actually spend your time reading this afternoon. I was tipped off to Jenna Jordan's "When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation" (.pdf) by an item on a NYT blog. (I made the mistake of googling "Jenna Jordan". Google, instead, "Jenna Jordan uchicago".) Jordan's findings support a lot of the conclusions that Matt Frankel has reached and which I blogged on a few weeks back. Some of her findings are not particularly surprising: Jordan demonstrates, for example, that smaller and younger organizations are more vulnerable to decapitation campaigns. But what I found interesting was her finding that decapitation campaigns often had a counterproductive effect. (Jordan measures the degredation of groups targeted by decapitation campaigns against groups not targeted by such campaigns.) Her really important and very serious and please-someone-in-the-Obama-Administration-read-this conclusion:
Decapitation is not ineffective merely against religious, old, or large groups, it is actually counterproductive for many of the terrorist groups currently being targeted. In many cases, targeting a group’s leadership actually lowers its rate of decline. Compared to a baseline rate of decline for certain terrorist groups, the marginal value of decapitation is negative. Moreover, going after the leader may strengthen a group’s resolve, result in retaliatory attacks, increase public sympathy for the organization, or produce more lethal attacks.
If I could make some constructive suggestions, I would ask Jordan to both a) increase her sample size, which is smallish and probably why she labels her findings "initial" and b) do some research demonstrating the effect of decapitation strategies when paired with broader, more comprehensive counterinsurgency or counter-terror strategies and the effect of decapitation strategies when conducted in isolation from other initiatives.
I do not usually make it to think tank events in DC, but I made the time today to sit in at the start of the Brookings Institute's Defense Challenges and Future Opportunities confab put together by the awesome Pete Singer, he of Wired for War fame. Dave Kilcullen moderated the first panel of the morning on irregular war, and the first presentation of that panel was a keeper.
Veteran intelligence analyst Matt Frankel, on leave from his service in the intelligence community as a federal executive fellow at Brookings, gave a compelling presentation on high value targeting (HVT) campaigns and their utility. His findings:
Frankel's presentation matches up with a lot of what I have often argued, which for the most part has been based either on my personal experiences (I learned the danger of ignoring Lesson #2 in Iraq in 2003, for example) or case study analysis (fun fact: Hizballah's HVT campaign against the SLA in southern Lebanon was more successful than the IDF's HVT campaign against Hizballah, lending support to Lessons #3 and #4). I am pretty sure Frankel's analysis supports a lot of the concerns Dave and I have had about the drone program in Afghanistan and Pakistan (namely, that it ignores Lessons #1, #2 and #6), but I would want to see Frankel's presentation in an article supported by footnotes and with methodology laid out in greater detail. Regardless, Frankel's presentation was a great one, and I was sorry that an obligation at CNAS kept me from hearing the discussion that followed it.