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Why Obama’s Hopes of Decapitating the Islamic State Won’t Work


Unveiling “Operation Inherent Resolve” against the Islamic State back in September, President Obama made it clear that his principal strategy would be the same as that pursued in other recent campaigns: assassination. Deploying his preferred macho euphemism, he reminded us “we took out Osama bin Laden, much of al Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and leaders of al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia.” Thus would we “degrade and destroy” this latest threat.

Six months later, no one seems to feel much in need of a rethink despite the fact that swaths of territory have fallen to the enemy, now mounting battalion-strength attacks on Kurdish positions uncomfortably close to Irbil, while making steady inroads not only in Libya, but Turkey. It took three months, 700 air strikes, and a battle-hardened force of Syrian-Kurdish guerillas to lift the siege of Kobani, the Kurdish town on the Turkish border besieged by the Islamic State. Despite hopeful bulletins, there is little sign that enemy cohesion or resolve is weakening.

Nevertheless, the mystique of “high value targeting,” especially when inflicted by supposedly unerring precision weapons or super-elite Special Forces commandos, isn’t going to go away any time soon. The public loves it of course, which comes as no surprise given our steady diet of Hollywood promotion in movies like Zero Dark 30, Lone Survivor, American Sniper. But so do our leaders, and they ought to know better. Decades of experience indicate that striking at enemy leadership in expectation of significant beneficial effect invariably leads not only to disappointment, but also to unexpectedly unpleasant consequences.killchain2

Most people are familiar with high-profile “decapitation” efforts in recent wars, such as the unsuccessful efforts to kill Saddam Hussein in the first gulf war (in that euphemistic era it was called “command and control targeting”) and again in the second (when we made no bones about it.) Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was also on the list in the Kosovo war, at least if the precision-guided munitions that destroyed his house were anything to go by. Osama bin Laden of course went straight to the top of the target list post 9/11. All of the above of course survived U.S. attacks unscathed (at least, in bin Laden’s case, into retirement) but in a campaign in yet another war, where the strategy of targeting enemy leadership was explicitly and intensively pursued, the results were less obviously clear, certainly not to the uninquiring minds of a bureaucracy growing fat on the policy.

In 1992, the Drug Enforcement Administration adopted the “Kingpin Strategy,” focusing on the elimination, one way or another, of the leadership of the infamous Colombian cocaine cartels. The strategy soon yielded impressive results. Medellin cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar was gunned down in December 1993 as he fled across a rooftop in his native city; other narco-leaders soon followed him into the grave or lifelong incarceration in American “Supermax” jails. In 1995 the DEA crowned a long manhunt against the formidable Cali cartel with the arrest of six of its seven chieftains. Such a triumph against the largest and most efficient drug trafficking organization in history should have yielded immediate results in the form of a cocaine famine on the streets of America. But the very opposite happened; studies conducted in the 1990s by the Pentagon’s Institute for Defense Analysis revealed that cocaine supplies for American customers did not decline, they actually increased.

We can be sure of this counter-intuitive fact thanks to a hard and fast metric. Price is a function of supply, the greater the supply of any commodity, the lower the price. In the period when Escobar lost control of his business while being hunted down and killed, the US street price of pure cocaine dropped from roughly $80 to $60 a gram. Prices suffered a similar decline when the Cali cartel was dismantled. The explanation is simple: cartels, by definition, restrict supply in order to control price. The elimination of top-down control inevitably induced splits in the organization into groups that compete for market share, thus flooding the market. Accordingly, after ten years of successful implementation of the kingpin strategy, with many major traffickers dead or behind bars, the US street price of cocaine, according to UN figures, had dropped by almost 40 percent.

Such pertinent truths about high value targeting made little difference, either to the increasingly budget-rich DEA, or to U.S. strategy in the post 9/11 wars, where “HVT” was pursued with ever-mounting determination, aided by supposedly revolutionary technology such as drones.   In the bitter battle against Iraqi insurgents fighting with home-made bombs, for example, “IED Cell Leaders” were a high priority target. No one questioned the efficacy of this approach until 2007, when a secret study of 200 cases in which such cell leaders had been killed or captured in the previous ten months revealed a startling result. The study, conducted in an intelligence cell attached to military headquarters in Baghdad, looked at attacks on nearby American forces in the period following a local leader’s death. In almost every case they went up – sharply. Five days after a successful HVT operation, for example, the rate showed on average a twenty percent increase. The explanation, so the analysts concluded, was that dead leaders were invariably and immediately replaced, and almost always by someone (often a relative ready for revenge) younger, more aggressive, and eager to prove himself. The same held true on a wider scale. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Iraqi al Qaeda leader widely cited as the source of all our troubles in Iraq, was duly targeted and killed in 2006, only to be succeeded by Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who turned out to be an even more deadly opponent. He too was duly killed, and instead we got Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who created the Islamic State, now lord of six million people and an area the size of Great Britain.

Again, there was no impact on policy. Too many habits and budget justifications had become ingrained. Indeed the CIA ramped up its own drone offensive against Al Qaeda leaders lurking in Waziristan, and was soon proudly issuing claims of successful “kills.” Quite apart from attendant civilian casualties and consequent PR disasters, the campaign would appear to have had little effect on the spread of jihadi terrorism, as demonstrated by the rise of the Islamic State. Nor may it have had quite the success claimed by Obama and others even against “core Al Qaeda.” As revealed by a recent Al Qaeda defector to the Islamic State, the older organization, despite the drones, maintains an elaborate committee-run bureaucratic structure in its home area, including a functioning payroll system from which errant members can be cut when they misbehave.

It is hard to find a conclusive explanation for our fascination with this approach to conflict, unless it be a misplaced belief that war can be rendered tidy, painless (for our side) and above all predictable – does Kerry think that when the other fifty percent of enemy commanders are gone, we will have won?

History suggests otherwise.

Andrew Cockburn is Washington Editor of Harper’s Magazine and author of Kill Chain, The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (Henry Holt, 2015)



Andrew Cockburn is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine.  An Irishman, he has covered national security topics in this country for many years.  In addition to publishing numerous books, he co-produced the 1997 feature film The Peacemaker and the 2009 documentary on the financial crisis American Casino.  His latest book is Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (Henry Holt).

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