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October 06, 2009

Do Surgical Strikes Work?
Posted by Michael Cohen

One of the arguments that you hear from supporters of the current mission in Afghanistan is that an off-shore, pre-9/11-esque strategy of drone strikes and other surgical attacks will not work in minimizing the terrorist threat from al Qaeda. As the argument seems to go; you need to have boots on the ground to stop terrorist attacks. As the White House seems to be weighing a new mission in Afghanistan that would involve greater reliance on surgical strikes its an issue that deserves greater exploration.

Right on cue, in the Washington Post today, Michael O'Hanlon argues that without a robust presence in Afghanistan we will be unable to contain the threat from al Qaeda:

A counterterrorism option would lead to a loss of crucial human intelligence networks; once NATO forces drew down, the Kabul government would probably fall, and the resurgent insurgents would take revenge on those previously associated with us. Air bases from which we fly unmanned vehicles today over western Pakistan would also be lost, meaning that remote strikes would have to come from ships several hundred miles away.

It needs to be said that few people are suggesting that the US should be pulling troops out of Afghanistan or even significantly drawing down NATO forces and thus setting up the doomsday scenario proffered here by O'Hanlon. In fact, just yesterday Robert Gibbs went to great lengths to make clear that the US will not be withdrawing troops from Afghanistan any time soon. It was a point picked up on by the New York Times today:

Even the option advocated by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. for a scaled-back approach would not reduce the current force of 68,000 troops, officials said.

So O'Hanlon is arguing here with a well-constructed strawman.

It's virtually impossible for me to imagine a situation where even if the US does shift from a population centric counter-insurgency to a more restrained counter terrorism approach that the US would not maintain some troop presence in Afghanistan (and if O'Hanlon and others are to be believed that the Taliban represents an existential threat to the Afghan government then one would imagine the Afghan government would be more than happy to host such a military presence). 

But to the larger question of whether surgical military strikes work it's worth considering the Wall Street Journal's comprehensive overview yesterday of al Qaeda's current capabilities:

Hunted by U.S. drones, beset by money problems and finding it tougher to lure young Arabs to the bleak mountains of Pakistan, al Qaeda is seeing its role shrink there and in Afghanistan, according to intelligence reports and Pakistani and U.S. officials. Conversations intercepted by the U.S. show al Qaeda fighters complaining of shortages of weapons, clothing and, in some cases, food. The number of foreign fighters in Afghanistan appears to be declining, U.S. military officials say

The New York Times goes even further:

But one official who has been involved in the struggle with terrorism under both administrations said Al Qaeda had been significantly degraded. Fewer than 100 Qaeda fighters are left in Afghanistan, according to American estimates, and many foreigners who fought with Al Qaeda in Pakistan have begun leaving.

Even more interesting is the impact of the US-led drone war on al Qaeda:

A U.S. campaign of missile strikes by pilotless Predator aircraft has decimated al Qaeda's second- and third-tier leadership.

One example cited by U.S. and Pakistani officials: Usama al-Kini, a Kenyan citizen believed to have been al Qaeda's operations chief inside Pakistan and a key architect of the September 2008 truck bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, which killed at least 50 people. He was slain along with his deputy, Sheik Ahmed Salim Swedan, a Kenyan, in a Jan. 1 missile strike, officials say.

Both men's history with al Qaeda stretched back to the group's first major strike, the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

The drones, operated by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, have so far killed 11 of the men on the U.S.'s initial list of the top 20 al Qaeda targets, the official said. The U.S. has since drawn up a fresh list, including the nine holdovers from the first one. Four of the men on the new list are now dead, too. Those who remain are focused on finding sanctuary, possibly at the expense of operations and training, say officials and militants with links to al Qaeda.

I'm surprised that the increased effectiveness of the drone war in Pakistan hasn't received more attention; because it does appear that since the ratcheting up of that war last year it has demonstrated extraordinary effectiveness and wreaked havoc with al Qaeda's already existing safe haven in Pakistan. Now I realize that what works in Pakistan may not work as effectively in Afghanistan; and that intelligence sharing may not be as robust . . .  but the increased effectiveness of the drone war must be considered as the possibility of a CT approach is weighed.

In addition, if the WSJ is to be believed the effectiveness of the US war against al Qaeda has been bolstered by improved HUMINT:

At the same time, U.S. intelligence collection in Pakistan has vastly improved, officials say. Western intelligence services have had more success penetrating al Qaeda groups lately, according to Richard Barrett, the United Nations' coordinator for monitoring al Qaeda and the Taliban. "There's many more human sources being run into the groups," Mr. Barrett, a former official with Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, told an audience at a Washington think tank last week.

Critics of the off-shoring approach like to argue that this strategy didn't work before 9/11, but back then the US was relying largely on cruise missile fired from the Indian Ocean. Pilotless drones have increased the effectiveness of these attacks and the very presence of a military base on Afghanistan's territory - one that would likely continue no matter what decision President Obama makes on future policy - suggests that the a comparison to pre-9/11 counterterrorism strategy just isn't even that relevant. And over the past 8 years in Afghanistan it sure does seem as though attacks from the air - first in supporting the Northern Alliance and later in harassing al Qaeda - have been a heck of a lot more effective than a sustained and prolonged military occupation.

Off-shore attacks are not by any means panacea and without a sustained US presence on the ground it might blunt their effectiveness - although even that conclusion is a bit unclear - but it sure seems a lot more efficient than a counter-insurgency campaign that has a dubious chance at success. It's a point made quite nicely by Rick Nelson at CSIS:

Targeted strikes do, in fact, serve the greater strategic purpose of disrupting the planning and execution of terrorist attacks. Unlike COIN—which seems to harbor the grandiose notion of eliminating terrorism by transforming societies, regardless of cost—counterterrorism acknowledges that radicalism will always exist and that policymakers should directly seek to contain it.

Hmm, containment rather than COIN - not a bad idea.


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Hi Michael,

"U.S. intelligence collection in Pakistan has vastly improved, officials say."

And, when we look at where the AQ and Taliban safe havens are in Pakistan, we find that intelligence collection has improved where no-one has ever done any COIN - Waziristan and Baluchistan. In fact, Pakistan says that "Waziristan is like a black hole for intelligence" in respect of its own collection abilities. Yet still the US strikes: "the erosion of the Pakistani military's intelligence capacity has also meant an increasing reliance on the CIA-guided drone attacks"

Which confirms what I've suspected for some weeks now: the COINdinistas and especially the neocons who used to love drones made up the meme of strike intelligence collection suffering without a COIN presence out of whole cloth when they realised that the choice might become drones or their beloved troop escalation.

Regards, Steve

Not even a brief mention that we kill, on average, 10 innocent people per bad man in a drone strike? Nothing?

Not even a brief mention that we kill, on average, 10 innocent people per bad man in a drone strike? Nothing?

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Great comments! You are so nice, man! You never know how much i like'em!

Perhaps the point is not worth belaboring, but surgical strikes and precision bombing fail an awful lot. When they fail, people get hurt, and that undermines the rationale behind it

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