Michael Davies is an Independent Contractor with Booz Allen Hamilton working as a Research Associate with the Center for Strategic Research, The Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, Washington, D.C.
As the financial and political burdens of the War on Terror continue to mount into the campaign’s tenth year, it is unsurprising that attention has turned to tactics that advertise both tangible outcomes and a low operational footprint. The merits of perhaps the emblematic example of such approaches - High-Value Targeting (HVT) – have been recently been defended by John Hardy. However, the contribution of such tactics needs to be kept in strategic perspective. From Afghanistan, to Iraq, to Gaza, Southern Lebanon, and Yemen, HVT teams have had important tactical successes, but they have been unable to achieve the conditions necessary to declare victory unassisted. The utility of HVT is constrained by the unique operating environment in which it has been deployed. The overlapping hierarchy of tactical, political, social and ideological challenges does not admit simple ‘silver bullet’ solutions. This is not to claim that HVTs don’t work; it is to claim they are only ever part of the solution provided their use conforms to the operating environment they are engaged in.
Conventional wisdom suggests that by attacking and neutralizing the leadership caste, an organization will collapse. Such a view is the product of many decades of counter-terror theorizing, culminating in the February 2003 U.S. National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. Declaring that “the loss of the leadership can cause many organizations to collapse,” this foundational counter-terrorism document reflected belief in the idea that the enemy’s political and military leadership forms a Clauswitzian ‘center of gravity,’ the disruption of which will generate strategic effects. Problematically, many organizations targeted by the U.S. in this area have subsequently decentralized their operating procedures, making decapitation strikes by themselves ineffective, even counter-productive.
It is in this context that Hardy’s focus on Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) as a universal example is worrying, particularly as his article only uses the 2002 Bali Bombing cell as the unit of analysis. The Australian Government capabilities gained from a decade of war in the Middle East and South Asia against Western forces. The destruction of a single cell of an organization is not a universal signifier of organization-wide defeat, especially when that organization has survived previous attempts at leadership suppression, and undergone evolution to counteract such threats in future.
Consideration of the value of HVT requires an appreciation for the ambiguous strategic importance of leaders within terrorist and insurgent organizations. Jenna Jordan’s When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation concludes that military or policy action to achieve leadership decapitation “does not increase the likelihood of organizational collapse.” Indeed, the evidence suggests that groups that have not had their leaders removed suffer a higher rate of collapse than those who are consistently subject to leadership changes because of a range of other factors; mainly age, organizational rot, and ideological entropy. Multiple variables help to define an organization’s ability to absorb assaults on nodes and leaders. In Jordan’s words, “decapitation is actually counterproductive, particularly for larger, older, religious, or separatist organizations” because it increases the frequency of attacks. As many of the groups most targeted by Western HVTs conform to this definition, - old, large, multi-nodal, religious, and civil-focused – the use of HVTs as a strategic silver bullet is marginal at best.
Furthermore, the institutionalization of a group matters more to its survivability than any other variable. In HVT teams have played a role in this process, but not a strategically determinative one.
Hardy also over-steps in assuming a decentralized network is a priori weak. campaign throughout the Afghan War, the network still claims several hundred hardcore members and 10,000-15,000 fighters to draw from. Crucial to enabling the survival and regeneration of the cadres of this network are the underlying bonds of “tribal solidarity, deep personal ties and pragmatic considerations.” As recent events have indicated, the Haqqani network has lost none of its ability to leverage costs against ISAF forces.
In wars defined by discussing a pact with members of the Taliban. Such actions demonstrate clearly the paradox of a HVT campaign: while any attempt made to destroy the leadership of an amorphous enemy is likely to have little impact on organizational performance, the negative impact on the willingness of those leaders to engage in compromise restricts the ability to end the conflict.
HVT attacks can be useful in attacking nodes between groups. This, however, can only be temporary if groups are operating at the numerical and organizational strengths of Haqqani and the Taliban. HVT attacks can also provide key tactical and morale victories by neutralizing leaders as shown by Israeli attacks on Yemen, the variable that has usually driven the disruption, dismantlement or destruction of al-Qaeda elements has either been the organization’s own operational overreach, incompetence, or effective action by the local populace.
Both Jordan and Long showed that the organizational structure of the group being targeted is the prime factor in determining the effectiveness of HVT as a tactic. The younger, weaker, more decentralized and less effective such a group is, the more likely a strike against the leadership caste will destroy it. Against older, civil-based, strong decentralized groups with a hybrid of capabilities, HVT attacks against leaders and nodes become symbolic raids. Just as the killing of Bin Laden was a necessary and cathartic act, contend that it did little to deter, dismantle or destroy Al Qaeda itself. The operational environment and organizational structure of the group are the variables that matter most when attempting to destroy a group. As such, HVTs will have limited value unless those two variables conform to create the right conditions to make HVT attacks the silver bullets Hardy advertises them to be.