High Value Targeting: Organization Vs. Leadership

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. 

Image by flickr user The U.S. Army

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. 


Does Gaddafi's Death Undermine US Interests?

Richard Cleary is a Research Assistant at the Center for Defense Studies and the Program on Advanced Strategic Studies, American Enterprise Institute.

Image courtesy of Bill Leak, published in The Australian, 22 October 2011

Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi’s killing has resurrected an argument made at the time of NATO’s intervention: that, by removing Gaddafi from power, the United States would send the wrong message to rogue states. Countries considering engagement with the West will be dissuaded from doing so by America’s unseating of Gaddafi. In the words of Clifford May, “It is more dangerous to be America’s ally than its enemy.”

Being an American “ally”—and this term is a stretch for Gaddafi’s regime—does not entitle one to butcher one’s own people, however. We agreed to do business with Gaddafi because of what Condoleezza Rice called a “strategic change of direction”; beginning with Tripoli’s giving up WMD aspirations, renouncing terrorism and compensating the families of victims of the Lockerbie bombing. These acts were never sufficient to absolve Gaddafi of future crimes. Rather, Gaddafi’s improved behavior was understood as the first steps of a new Libyan foreign policy.

Even more, Gaddafi understood the importance of politics within Libya to the United States. Saif al-Islam’s calls for democracy and human rights were part and parcel of Tripoli’s engagement strategy. Still, in its 2011 issue of Freedom in the World, Freedom House wrote “(Libyan) diplomatic and economic shifts were not accompanied by noticeable improvements in political rights or civil liberties.” Gaddafi was less than remorseful on the Lockerbie issue, as well, giving a hero’s welcome to convicted bomber Abdelbaset al-Meghrahi in 2009. Meanwhile, Gaddafi’s repression of internal dissent continued through the Arab Spring, when public uprising was met with public crackdown.

Whatever “alliance” existed with Gaddafi’s Libya was shattered by the “mad dog” himself when he dispatched troops to crush protestors. When American administrations have allowed human rights violations by allies, they have done so out of strategic calculus: not out of an “alliance contract.” For an immoral contract cannot be binding.

This article originally appeared on the blog of the Centre for Defense Studies, American Enterprise Institute


Interview: Christopher Coker on Geopolitics

Christopher Coker is Head of Department and Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics.



See below for questions and correspnding start-times.

 1. Now that the first Phase of the war in Libya is drawing to a close, how do you think the Western Intervention will be remembered? - 00:08

2. What Strategic Benefits do you think the US and its’ Western Allies have gained from the 10 years on conflict in the Middle East since 9/11. - 00:52

3. Contemporary wisdom has it either that Al-Qaeda is defunct, or that we should re-focus our efforts on AQAP in Yemen. What are your thoughts? - 02:10

4. So then can the US claim to have achieved something significant in the War On Terror? 03:23

5. Can or will the United States continue to focus so much on the Middle East as Asia becomes more contested? - 04:55

6. If China manages to eclipse the US, first economically and then in other spheres, should the US accommodate a rising China? Will it be able to? - 05:57

7. What kind of international system does/will this new world most closely resemble? - 08:45

8. Is there scope for major power conflict in this new international architecture? - 09:22

9. Finally, as these pressures mount, what do you think the prospects are for US relationships with its allies? - 11:49


Take, Hold, Build: Hope for Afghanistan?

John Hemmings is a Research Analyst with  the Asian and Transatlantic Security Programme at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

Image by Flickr user isafmedia

Flying over Afghanistan, one cannot help but be intimidated by the view from the air. Dry, brown craggy mountains reach into the horizon with few signs of human habitation or life. Below, small patches of greenery stubbornly cling to rivers basins, which meander through the bleak landscape. It is altogether too easy a metaphor for the conflict in Afghanistan – now in its 10th year, to suggest that the efforts of ISAF, the US, and UK are swallowed by such a landscape. But flying into Kabul presents one with another vision altogether, an ever-expanding cityscape, with new roads, newly-built apartment blocks, and office blocks next to traditional walled houses. And littered throughout this landscape, are parks of cargo containers, in their hundreds of thousands. Whole neighbourhoods seem to be built out of the heavy metal containers, and the sheer scale of their presence is a hint at the massive undertaking in supplying, feeding, clothing, and providing for the international effort that is Afghanistan. Flying over the airport, one sees lines of trucks bearing the cargo containers lining the highways, as traffic pushes as sluggishly as any Western city.

The population of Kabul in 2001 was around 500,000 and it is now almost 4 million. This growth shows itself in the haphazard nature of development that seems to have mushroomed along the road from Kabul Airport, with apartment complexes; marriage centres and shopping centres hugging the congested highway. While one is constantly aware of the security situation, one cannot help but be impressed by the hustle and bustle of the city. Certainly, the steely faces of Afghan National Police manning weapons at roundabouts and intersections reveal the underlying tension, but that is not the only story. As night falls, the city glows with light, an improvement in power generation from only a few years ago. Furthermore, side streets reveal busy night markets, with men sitting in doorways, fanning flames at kebab stalls. Yes, it is a city under siege, but it does not seem to be – odd as this may sound – a city at war. Certainly, the hotels, the embassies, and the government ministries are heavily fortified, but the overall sensation is one of business, commercial success and vibrancy.

image by Flickr user isafmediaNotable on the sidewalks are crowds of male and female students dawdling on their way home. In 2001, fewer than 1 million children attended some form of education. Now, according to the UK Department for International Development (DFID), more than five million attend school, and almost a third of them are girls. While Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world, its economic growth – bolstered by international aid – is impressive, with growth at 22.5% in 2009/10. Last year’s harvest also saw a growth of agriculture output of 36%. In 2006, President Karzai established the Independent Board for the Development of Kabul New City, brought together the private sector, urban specialists, and foreign donors like the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to carry out a massive redevelopment plan for the city. The project, it is estimated, will eventually end up costing some US$35 billion dollars, and push many of Afghanistan’s 35% unemployed into of the largest development projects in modern history.

While all of this is good news, there are still a lot of ‘ifs’ involved before such projects bear fruit. The main question is whether the current system is sustainable, and this is what donors in Afghanistan should be focused on. While agriculture has improved, Afghanistan’s arid landscape means that the sector is heavily dependent on rainfall and snowmelt, so while modern methods can continue to improve output, this will remain volatile.

This volatility will also be true in terms of the security situation and the commitment of international partners to the Karzai government. Around 47% of Afghanistan’s GDP is dependent on international donors, which means that Kabul will have to negotiate a continuation of funding for some years to come from countries already beginning to feel the pinch at home. One answer to this conundrum has been for Kabul to woo investment into its largely untapped mineral and mining sectors, aided by a 2006 government mining law and a 2010 US geological survey. According to a New York Times article, the US-backed survey discovered nearly US$1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits – including lithium, copper, iron ore, and cobalt – enough to fundamentally reshape the Afghan economy and make the country a world supplier. The Aynak Copper Mine in the mountainous region of Logar Pronvince is one indication of how things could go with a Chinese firm winning the bid by promising US$3 billion in direct investment and infrastructure projects.

What is clear, is that the world is doing something in Afghanistan aside from soldiering. It is building something, or trying to. The question is whether this will have a real effect, but certainly there are plenty of hopeful signs for those who would look for them. Easy metaphors aside, Afghanistan may stand as ‘a graveyard of Empires’, but this should not stop us from viewing the good being done there, however many ‘ifs' are required to keep it going.


China and the US F-16 upgrade sale to Taiwan

Sheryn Lee is a T. B. Millar scholar and student in Strategy and Defence at the Australian National University.

Image by Flickr user Buddy8d

The US confirmed last month that it will uphold a commitment to refurbish Taiwan’s aging F-16A/B jet fighter fleet in a US$5.85 billion arms package. This has once again sparked debate about whether Washington’s continued arms sales to Taipei serve the region’s interests in maintaining the cross-Strait status quo. September 2011 poll, which showed the KMT’s chairman, Ma Ying-jeou, only 1 per cent ahead of Tsai in the approval ratings. In the past two years, Ma’s administration has come under pressure to counter the DPP’s charges that he has gambled away Taiwan’s sovereignty and security in exchange for short-term economic benefits from China. Consequently, if Taiwan is indeed committed to maintaining its de facto independence, then a decision by Washington not to bolster Taipei’s capabilities would threaten regional stability. By not providing the tools for Taiwan to deter a PRC attempt to (re)unify, Beijing’s confidence would be bolstered by its ability to restrain US power projection in the region — increasing the likelihood of the next cross-Strait crisis.

Second, the argument that the stability of the region is not worth risking the cross-Strait status quo overlooks the geostrategic salience of Taiwan. The assumption is that Taiwan’s self-defence needs should be sacrificed, as the recognition of Taiwanese sovereignty is not worth any increase in geostrategic competition between the US and China, or the possibility of conflict in East Asia. But US allies in the region often use US weapons sales to Taiwan as a measurement of Washington’s commitment to the security of East Asia. PLA bases on the northwest and southwest coast of Taiwan — should the ‘One China’ policy be implemented — do not bode well for the national security of those sensitive to China’s rise; in particular, Japan and South Korea to the north, and Vietnam and the Philippines to the south.

The US’ credibility in providing security and stability is also at stake. The PLA is gradually eroding America’s military dominance in the region, and Washington has been encouraging its existing allies to increase their role in regional security as a result. This was demonstrated in the development of the ‘Air-Sea Battle’ doctrine — a concept relying on hardened bases in Northeast Asia and closer integration of key US allies and partners in the Asia Pacific. If Washington wants its allies to commit to such plans, it, too, must demonstrate its obligations to the region — one of which is helping to provide for Taiwan’s self-defence. And given the persistent Taiwanese desire for independence, deterring Beijing’s attempts to change the status quo by force will best serve Washington’s interest in regional stability.

This post originally appeared on East Asia Forum.

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