The death of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor in a U.S. drone strike, has led to premature triumphalism on the part of the administration and to premature defeatism on the part of many national security analysts.
The administration seems to think that Mansoor’s replacement with one of his deputies, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, will magically lead the Taliban to embrace peace. Such hopes are nothing more than wishful thinking. The only thing that could convince the Taliban to give up their armed struggle is the realization that they will not succeed on the battlefield. Given the American drawdown in Afghanistan, they have plenty of reason to be optimistic about their chances today.
But does that mean that killing Mansoor or other terrorist leaders is useless? There have been many articles like this one by the estimable Rosa Brooks, who argues that targeted killings change nothing and can even make the situation worse by bringing more militant leaders to the top.
It is certainly possible to point to lots of terrorist leaders that the U.S. has killed, as Brooks does, without killing their movements. Israel has had the same experience with Hamas and Hezbollah, which have thrived after the deaths of senior leaders. I have written in my book Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present Day that “decapitation” strategies rarely work. But that does not mean they NEVER work or that they are useless.
There are examples throughout history of insurgencies more or less folding after the death or capture of their leaders. The Philippine insurrectos fighting American rule were essentially defeated after their leader, Emilio Aguinaldo, was captured in a 1901 U.S. Amy raid. The Shining Path in Peru was essentially defeated after their leader, Abimail Guzman, was captured in 1992.
More recently and more to the point, al-Qaeda central in Pakistan has been badly hurt, if not eliminated, by the unrelenting American attacks on its leaders, culminating in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The victory is far from complete, and al-Qaeda has spread its tentacles far around the world, but its central core in Pakistan was so small that killing leader after leader really did greatly hurt its capabilities.
There are, of course, trade-offs in drone strikes — if there is collateral damage that could create more enemies than you eliminate. But drone strikes are the most precise form of warfare ever and they are conducted with scrupulous regard for civilian casualties, as dramatized in the movie “Eye in the Sky.” There is no compelling human-rights case against drone strikes, even if human rights activists protest anyway because all of the other alternative forms of warfare so much messier and bloodier.
It’s true that drone strikes in and of themselves will not usually defeat an entrenched terrorist group, and even groups in the past such as the Philippine insurrectos or the Peruvian Shining Path that were crippled by leadership targeting were also on the receiving end of far more comprehensive counterinsurgency campaigns. But is that an argument for ending drone strikes or is it an argument for increasing other lines of operation?
Many social scientists who study the issue seem to argue the former case; I argue the latter.
Even if drone strikes cannot defeat a terrorist group, they can keep it distracted and off balance – and, from the U.S. standpoint, that’s a good thing. Otherwise, those groups might be carrying out terrorist strikes on American targets.
Of course, such strikes have to be repeated so as to get rid of the new leaders that come along to replace the old.
To be really effective, drone strikes — or even better operations to capture and interrogate terrorist leaders — need to be nested within a larger counterinsurgency strategy that seems largely MIA today. But again that’s not an argument for ending drone strikes; it’s an argument for doing more in other areas.