How drone killings back­fire

Pakistan Observer - - OPINION - An­drew Cock­burn is au­thor of the newly pub­lished Kill Chain: The Rise of the High Tech As­sas­sins. He is the Wash­ing­ton ed­i­tor of Harper’s Magazine. An­dew Cock­burn

AC­CORD­ING to Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Haidar al-Abadi and other sources, the coali­tion fight­ing ISIS has scored a no­table vic­tory. Hit by an airstrike on his con­voy and badly wounded two months ago, Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi, the self-styled “caliph” of the so-called Is­lamic State (ISIS), now no longer has op­er­a­tional con­trol of the ter­ror­ist group. AlBagh­dadi has been No. 1 on a US kill list of about two dozen se­nior ISIS lead­ers drawn up af­ter the group’s stun­ning con­quests in Iraq and Syria last year. He thus joined a long line of ter­ror­ist lead­ers in that spot, go­ing back to Osama bin Laden.

In 2001, then-Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush said the al-Qaeda leader was wanted “dead or alive,” and the hunt has been on for lead­ing ter­ror­ists ever since. There have been many suc­cesses: Abu Musab al-Zar­qawi, the fear­some com­man­der of al-Qaeda in Iraq; his suc­ces­sor Abu Ayyub alMasri; Bin Laden him­self, of course; along with many of “core al-Qaeda” hid­ing out in Pak­istan. Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry an­nounced in Jan­uary that we have “elim­i­nated” 50% of ISIS’s “top com­mand.” With a suc­cess rate like that, we should pretty much have won war on ter­ror by now.

Ex­cept that in many ways, things have got­ten worse. For ex­am­ple, since the ISIS leader was put out of ac­tion, re­port­edly with se­vere spinal in­juries, back in March, his group has con­quered or as­saulted large swathes of western Syria, the Iraqi city of Ra­madi and Iraq’s ma­jor oil re­fin­ery at Baiji. It has also gained fresh ad­her­ents in Ye­men, Libya and even Texas. In the same way, al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’s fore­run­ner that fought US forces, reached its great­est ef­fec­tive­ness af­ter Zar­qawi was killed.

How could this be? How could the loss of ca­pa­ble and charis­matic lead­ers not de­grade their group? The an­swer may lie in a lit­tle-known study car­ried out in Iraq in 2007 by a small semi-se­cret unit, Com­bat Op­er­a­tions In­tel­li­gence Cen­ter. Tar­get­ing “high value in­di­vid­u­als” was prin­ci­pal US strat­egy in Iraq, and the COIC an­a­lysts were in­ter­ested to see whether it worked. They took the list of 200 “IED cell lead­ers” elim­i­nated be­tween June and Oct 2007 and looked at re­sults.

They were dra­matic, in the worst way. Re­mov­ing the lead­ers did not lead to a de­cline of vi­o­lence in the area where they had op­er­ated. In­stead, at­tacks on US and coali­tion forces went up, sharply. Af­ter three days, they were up by an av­er­age of 40%. Five days later, they were still run­ning 20% above “nor­mal” (de­fined as the av­er­age for the pre-strike 30 days). Af­ter 10 days, they had fallen back to the pre-strike level, and the sit­u­a­tion was as bad as be­fore. The rea­son for this un­ex­pected re­sult, so the an­a­lysts con­cluded, was that the dead leader was al­most al­ways re­placed im­me­di­ately. The new man would be ea­ger to “show his bones,” by mak­ing a big im­pres­sion as well as to avenge his pre­de­ces­sor as well as learn­ing from the mis­takes that had got­ten him killed.

In fact, this star­tling re­sult should not have come as too much of a sur­prise. In the 1990s, the Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion had adopted the “king­pin strat­egy” — tar­get­ing the king­pins head­ing up the in­fa­mous Colom­bian co­caine car­tels. On pa­per, and in the head­lines, it was a great suc­cess. Pablo Es­co­bar, leader of the in­fa­mous Medellin car­tel, was hunted down and killed in De­cem­ber 1993. Twenty months later, the chiefs of the equally pow­er­ful Cali car­tel were cap­tured and jailed. Other tri­umphs fol­lowed, all of which should have at least put a crimp on the drug trade.

It had the op­po­site ef­fect. Co­caine sup­plies to the US ac­tu­ally in­creased, as ev­i­denced by lower prices — thanks to the king­pin strat­egy. Re­moval of the car­tel lead­ers had opened the way for new com­peti­tors, who pushed for mar­ket share and com­peted with in­creased sup­plies and lower prices. Back in Iraq in 2007, the in­tel­li­gence an­a­lysts briefed their find­ings to the high com­mand with the con­clud­ing com­ment, “Our prin­ci­pal strat­egy … is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive and needs to be re-eval­u­ated.” Maybe it’s time we took those words to heart.

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