May 24, 2011

Ask a Think Tank: CNAS’s Andrew Exum on Targeted Killings

Alex P. from Vienna, Va. writes in with the following question:

How many targeted killings is the U.S. willing to carry out like bin Laden? There seems to be a lot of risk but not as much to gain, even politically, by taking out lower-level al-Qaeda members.

CNAS fellow Andrew Exum responds:

Direct-action special operations in which U.S. commandos capture or kill “high value” targets have been a feature of the U.S.-led “war on terror” since 2001. Often, these operations are integrated into a broader operational framework, such as a counterinsurgency campaign. In Iraq or Afghanistan, for example, direct-action special operations have been used to kill or capture leaders of the insurgent networks in each country. Other places, meanwhile, these special operations have been used to degrade or disrupt terrorist networks associated with al-Qaeda.

All of these operations carry risk as well as reward. In Afghanistan, for example, smart civilian analysts such as those at the Afghan Analysts Network or Erica Gaston at the Open Society Institute fret that these kinds of special operations could either alienate the broader Afghan population or could end up killing the very insurgent leaders with whom the United States and its allies will need to negotiate a peace. And in a place like Pakistan or Yemen, these operations might so offend the host nation that strategically important relationships are broken or at least severely strained.

But the United States will continue these operations in the face of acknowledged risks. In Iraq in 2007, for example, these operations were judged to have collapsed the mid-level leadership of the Sunni insurgency, while in Afghanistan, commanders believe groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani Network have been severely degraded over the past 18 months thanks in large part to special operations raids. The goal in both countries has not so much been to kill the lower-ranking soldiers or the high-level leadership (who you might need to preserve for negotiations) but instead the mid-level leadership that plans and executes operations. In Pakistan, meanwhile, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden may have been doubly useful: it both removed the world's most wanted and notorious terrorist and has created some necessary friction in the U.S. relationship with Pakistan. Our Pakistani allies must ask some tough questions of themselves in the aftermath of the raid, and even if U.S.-Pakistani relations temporarily suffer, it will be worth it if Pakistani leaders confront the consequences of their support for violent non-state actors within Pakistan's borders.