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:
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:
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:
The New York Times goes even further:
Even more interesting is the impact of the US-led drone war on al Qaeda:
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:
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:
Hmm, containment rather than COIN - not a bad idea.