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Is Killing Insurgent Leaders an Indicator of Progress?

An article in the New York Times announced the death of Abdul Hasib. Hasib was the commander of the faction of ISIS operating in Afghanistan. In addition to the death of Hasib, the article enumerated several tactical achievements over the last month. Specifically, 94 ISIS fighters killed when the US dropped its largest non-nuclear ordnance on a cave network, 35 additional Islamic State fighters were killed in a raid on April 27th, and the significant number of fighters killed or captured has enabled Afghan government forces to re-take half of the districts previously controlled by ISIS militants.

All of these achievements are the product of the dedicated men and women of America’s armed forces, who are undoubtedly working incredibly hard to achieve these impressive victories. Yet we must ask the hard question – are we getting closer to victory? Killing leaders of extremist organizations, such as ISIS, is certainly justifiable, but is it progress?

General John Nicholson believes that it is a measure of progress. He is quoted in USA Today as saying “When the leader is killed, it causes a degree of disruption that you wouldn’t see in a Western army.”

Andrew Bacevich would disagree with the above assessment regarding the effectiveness of killing insurgent leaders. His position is not without merit, we have been killing Taliban leaders for 15 years and the insurgency stubbornly remains. In Iraq we killed Zarqawi, and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, rose to prominence. To Bacevich, it is a strategic blunder to focus on the destruction of leaders. Bacevich asserts that the American penchant for removing leaders is a substitute for developing strategies to address the intractable problems that lie beneath the surface, a phenomenon of which he accused American leaders in Kosovo of. By implying that killing or capturing leaders will resolve the issue, American leaders avoid the hard work of developing creative solutions to problems.

In my assessment, there is a balance between short term tactical gains and long term strategy. Killing leaders is a short-term tactical success, but that does not imply that it replaces the need for a long-term strategy. As leaders are killed, organizations adapt by replacing the necessary personnel or modifying the distribution of tasks and responsibilities. By targeting leaders relentlessly, the US military is constantly disrupting the processes and decision-making of the insurgent groups. Even if the conditions that enable insurgency persist, the pressure applied by such actions denies these groups the ability to overtly recruit, plan operations, or control territory. I see no reason to perceive the targeting of ISIS leaders as a distraction from the hard work of developing legitimate institutions, training Afghan National Security Forces, or fostering economic development – all actions designed to address the conditions that enable insurgency. These things can work together, and they must if we are to be successful.

Image credit, ABC news.


3 Comments

  1. Tiffany Wang says:

    “By targeting leaders relentlessly, the US military is constantly disrupting the processes and decision-making of the insurgent groups”

    Can this potentially be a negative thing? When we engage in targeted killings, we risk resetting ongoing political negotiations.

    Daniel Byman, a Brookings Institution scholar who researches Israeli counterterrorism, found that “decapitation” led to the decentralization of Palestinian terrorist groups, which ultimately making them more of a threat.

    In your experience, has this been the case with Islamic terrorist groups?

    Like

    • warforourtime says:

      Tiffany, that’s a great point and I think it gets right to the heart of the question. My main contention is that the killing of insurgent leaders does not qualify as a strategy, but it can be a useful tactic. I think we have to take a measured approach as we would with any tactical operation. Every operation brings risk. For leaders to navigate that risk effectively they must have an understanding of the enemy and the environment. I think killing insurgent leaders can absolutely be beneficial, but there are second and third order consequences that must be considered as well. The example cited by Daniel Byman reveals why targeted killings cannot be a substitute for a strategy that addresses the conditions under which insurgency thrives.

      Like

  2. tiffanywang1995 says:

    “By targeting leaders relentlessly, the US military is constantly disrupting the processes and decision-making of the insurgent groups”

    I think you’re assuming that the disruption of decision-making from killing a leader is always positive. Can it be the case that the short-term disruption of decision-making could be potentially harmful? In certain cases, targeted killings risk resetting ongoing political negotiations.

    Daniel Byman, a Brookings Institution scholar who studies Israeli counterterrorism, also found that killing insurgent leaders caused the decentralization of Palestinian terrorist groups, ultimately making them more dangerous.

    What are your thoughts on that?

    Like

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