FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Assassination Blowback

2011 has been a banner year for taxpayer-funded assassinations — Osama bin Laden, Anwar Awlaki, five senior Pakistani Taliban commanders in October and many more. Given the crucial U.S. backup role in Libya, and the ringing exhortation for the Libyan leader’s death issued by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton just before the event itself, Uncle Sam can probably take a lot of credit for Moammar Gaddafi ‘s messy end too.

Once upon a time, U.S. officials used to claim that they were merely targeting “command and control centers,” rather than specific individuals, as in the hunt for Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Persian Gulf War or the raid on Gaddafi  in 1986. Nowadays no one bothers to pretend. Successful assassination missions, whether by elite special forces or remote-controlled drones, are openly celebrated.

Clearly, the sentiment prevalent among our leaders is that eliminating particular enemy leaders is bound to have a beneficial effect. Thus in recent wars, the U.S. has made the pursuit of “high-value targets,” the principal objective of so-called human network attacks, a priority. “The platoon’s mission is to kill or capture HVTs,” recalled Matt Cook, a sergeant in the 101st Airborne based in northern Iraq in 2005. “That is all we do.”

By 2008, according to a U.S. Strategic Command study, the U.S. military was simultaneously engaged in no fewer than 285 human network attack programs.

So, now that assassination is an official tool of U.S. foreign policy, along with trade embargoes and overseas aid, it is surely time for an open debate on whether it is indeed effective. Surprisingly for some, evidence based on hard numbers demonstrates unequivocally that the answer is No.

The numbers are derived from a study conducted in Iraq during the “surge” campaign of 2007-08 that enabled the U.S. to declare victory and wind down the war. Key to the surge was an intensive and ruthless hunt for key individuals in the “IED networks” that were organizing homemade bomb attacks against U.S. troops. Cause and effect — more dead network leaders leading to fewer bombs — seemed so self-evidently obvious that nobody bothered to check.

Early in 2008, however, Rex Rivolo, an analyst at the Counter-IED Operations/Intelligence Center attached to U.S. headquarters in Baghdad, briefed his superiors on some hard realities of the campaign. With access to any and all information relating to U.S. military operations in Iraq, he had identified about 200 successful missions in which key IED network individuals had been eliminated. Then he looked at the reports of subsequent bomb attacks in the late insurgent leader’s area of operation. The results were clear: IED attacks went up, immediately and sharply. One week after the hit, on average, incidents within about three miles of the dead leader’s home base had risen 20 per cent.

Why, with the commander dead, did the enemy fight with such reinforced vigor? Eliminated enemy commanders, intelligence revealed, were almost always replaced at once, usually within 24 hours. “The new guy is going to work harder,” Rivolo told me. “He has to prove himself, assert his authority. Maybe the old guy had been getting lazy, not working so hard to plant those IEDs. Fresh blood makes a difference.”

Once posited, this consequence may appear obvious, but Rivolo’s study, so far as I am aware, was the only time that anyone with access to relevant data had looked at the consequences of our principal national security strategy in a systematic way. However, even as he submitted his conclusions, the same strategy was being exported to Afghanistan on a major scale. Ever-increasing special forces “night raids” have indeed subsequently succeeded in killing large numbers of insurgent commanders (along with many civilians), but the consequences have been depressingly predictable.

“I used to be able to go talk to local Taliban commanders,” a journalist long resident in Afghanistan told me, “but they are all dead. The ones who replaced them are much more dangerous. They don’t want to talk to anyone at all.”

Nongovernmental groups similarly report that the new breed of Taliban leadership is unwilling to allow the free passage of aid workers permitted by their assassinated predecessors. Neither in Afghanistan nor Pakistan, where high-value targets are the responsibility of the CIA‘s burgeoning killer-drone bureaucracy, is there any indication that the enemy’s military capability has been diminished.

As Matthew Hoh, the foreign service officer who quit in protest at the futility of the Afghan war, told me recently, “War is a breeding ground for unintended consequences.”

President Obama should think about that.

Andrew Cockburn is an investigative journalist and author. His article, “Search and Destroy: The Pentagon’s Losing War Against IEDs,” appears in the November issue of Harper’s magazine.

Exclusively in the New Print Issue of CounterPunch

THE SLOW DEATH OF THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH – Nancy Scheper-Hughes on Clerical Sex Abuse and the Vatican. PLUS Fred Gardner on Obama’s Policy on Marijuana and the Reform Leaders’ Misleading Spin.  SUBSCRIBE NOW

Order your subscription today and get
CounterPunch by email for only $35 per year.

More articles by:

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).

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
August 16, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Uncle Sam was Born Lethal
Jennifer Matsui
La Danse Mossad: Robert Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein
Rob Urie
Neoliberalism and Environmental Calamity
Stuart A. Newman
The Biotech-Industrial Complex Gets Ready to Define What is Human
Nick Alexandrov
Prevention Through Deterrence: The Strategy Shared by the El Paso Shooter and the U.S. Border Patrol
Jeffrey St. Clair
The First Dambuster: a Coyote Tale
Eric Draitser
“Bernie is Trump” (and other Corporate Media Bullsh*t)
Nick Pemberton
Is White Supremacism a Mental Illness?
Jim Kavanagh
Dead Man’s Hand: The Impeachment Gambit
Andrew Levine
Have They No Decency?
David Yearsley
Kind of Blue at 60
Ramzy Baroud
Manifestos of Hate: What White Terrorists Have in Common
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The War on Nature
Martha Rosenberg
Catch and Hang Live Chickens for Slaughter: $11 an Hour Possible!
Yoav Litvin
Israel Fears a Visit by Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib
Neve Gordon
It’s No Wonder the Military likes Violent Video Games, They Can Help Train Civilians to Become Warriors
Susan Miller
That Debacle at the Border is Genocide
Ralph Nader
With the Boeing 737 MAX Grounded, Top Boeing Bosses Must Testify Before Congress Now
Victor Grossman
Warnings, Ancient and Modern
Meena Miriam Yust - Arshad Khan
The Microplastic Threat
Kavitha Muralidharan
‘Today We Seek Those Fish in Discovery Channel’
Louis Proyect
The Vanity Cinema of Quentin Tarantino
Bob Scofield
Tit For Tat: Baltimore Takes Another Hit, This Time From Uruguay
Nozomi Hayase
The Prosecution of Julian Assange Affects Us All
Ron Jacobs
People’s Music for the Soul
John Feffer
Is America Crazy?
Jonathan Power
Russia and China are Growing Closer Again
John W. Whitehead
Who Inflicts the Most Gun Violence in America? The U.S. Government and Its Police Forces
Justin Vest
ICE: You’re Not Welcome in the South
Jill Richardson
Race is a Social Construct, But It Still Matters
Dean Baker
The NYT Gets the Story on Automation and Inequality Completely Wrong
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela Retains Political Control After New US Coercive Measures
Gary Leupp
MSNBC and the Next Election: Racism is the Issue (and Don’t Talk about Socialism)
R. G. Davis
Paul Krassner: Investigative Satirist
Negin Owliaei
Red State Rip Off: Cutting Worker Pay by $1.5 Billion
Christopher Brauchli
The Side of Trump We Rarely See
Curtis Johnson
The Unbroken Line: From Slavery to the El Paso Shooting
Jesse Jackson
End Endless War and Bring Peace to Korea
Adolf Alzuphar
Diary: What About a New City Center?
Tracey L. Rogers
Candidates Need a Moral Vision
Nicky Reid
I Was a Red Flag Kid
John Kendall Hawkins
The Sixties Victory Lap in an Empty Arena
Stephen Cooper
Tony Chin’s Unstoppable, Historic Career in Music
Charles R. Larson
Review: Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime
Elizabeth Keyes
Haiku Fighting
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail