Bring­ing Amer­ica’s en­e­mies to jus­tice

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

In strate­gic man­hunts, the United States tends to get its man. These are op­er­a­tions in which killing or cap­tur­ing an in­di­vid­ual is a key (and of­ten the) ob­jec­tive of a mil­i­tary de­ploy­ment. Four months ago, Navy SEALs closed per­haps the most re­mark­able chap­ter in the his­tory of U.S. strate­gic man­hunts by storm­ing a com­pound in Ab­b­otabad, Pak­istan, and killing Osama bin Laden. Yet suc­cess did not pro­vide clo­sure; it gen­er­ated ques­tions and con­tro­versy. Why, with the best tech­nol­ogy and soldiers, did it take so long to get him? What ac­counts for a man­hunt’s suc­cess or fail­ure? Does a suc­cess­ful strate­gic man­hunt trans­late to strate­gic suc­cess?

Ben­jamin Run­kle, a former De­fense Depart­ment and National Se­cu­rity Coun­cil of­fi­cial, pro­vides in­sight nec­es­sary to ad­dress these ques­tions and oth­ers in “Wanted Dead or Alive.” The con­clu­sions he reaches are of­ten sur­pris­ing, but they are well sup­ported by his anal­y­sis of eight strate­gic man­hunts in U.S. his­tory. Mr. Run­kle’s vivid and, at times, grisly ac­counts are book­ended, appropriately enough, by the pur­suit and cap­ture of the Apache leader Geron­imo dur­ing the 1880s and the May demise of Osama bin Laden, code-named “Geron­imo.”

The book’s man­hunts span the globe and its ter­rain, from the Sierra Madre Oc­ci­den­tal range and its sur­round­ing deserts along the U.S.Mex­ico bor­der; to the rocky beaches, dense forests and sheer cliffs along the north­east­ern Philip­pine coast; to the nar­row streets and al­leys of Mo­gadishu, So­ma­lia’s ur­ban jun­gle and more. Yet Mr. Run­kle finds that ter­rain alone does not de­ter­mine suc­cess or fail­ure. Though ter­rain posed a chal­lenge in most U.S. man­hunts, the United States cap­tured or killed its tar­get in six of Mr. Run­kle’s eight cases.

“More im­por­tant than phys­i­cal ter­rain is hu­man ter­rain,” Mr. Run­kle em­pha­sizes, and hu­man ter­rain means, most im­por­tantly, hu­man in­tel­li­gence. He de­tails how the lack of in­tel­li­gence re­gard­ing Mex­i­can rebel Pan­cho Villa and So­mali war­lord Mo­hammed Farah Aideed pre­vented their cap­ture. The ab- sence of re­li­able lo­cal sources can ham­string even the most elite U.S. forces. The con­trast is no­table when one con­sid­ers the flow of hu­man in­tel­li­gence that en­abled the cap­ture of Sad­dam Hus­sein and the killings of Abu Musab Zar­qawi and Osama bin Laden.

The hu­man ter­rain ex­tends to tech­nol­ogy and, more specif­i­cally, an ad­ver­sary’s re­ac­tion to it. The United States en­joyed tech­no­log­i­cal su­pe­ri­or­ity in most of the man­hunts dis­cussed in the book. Yet Mr. Run­kle ar­gues that the im­pact of such su­pe­ri­or­ity was at best “pe­riph­eral.” Sup­pos­edly prim­i­tive tar­gets of­ten found ways to counter the tech­no­log­i­cal edge. En­e­mies driven by ide­o­log­i­cal or­tho­doxy or long-stand­ing so­cial and tribal dy­nam­ics none­the­less proved ca­pa­ble of clever adap­ta­tion and im­pro­vi­sa­tion.

And it is in the hu­man ter­rain that Mr. Run­kle ex­plains the fail­ure to kill or cap­ture bin Laden at Tora Bora in 2001. Con­trary to con­ven­tional wis­dom, ex­pressed in writ­ings such as a Novem­ber 2009 Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee re­port and a De­cem­ber 2009 ar ticle by Peter Ber­gen, Mr. Run­kle main­tains that U.S. troop lev­els did not de­ter­mine Tora Bora’s out­come. In­deed, he brings into ques­tion both the fea­si­bil­ity and the wis­dom of de­ploy­ing a larger force in pur­suit of bin Laden.

The United States was forced to de­pend upon in­dige­nous Pash­tun forces, who proved un­re­li­able. Bin Laden had won the loy­alty of lo­cal Pash­tuns through many years of fi­nan­cial sup­port. No avail­able com­bi­na­tion of U.S. forces and tech­nol­ogy could have over­come the mu­tu­ally re­in­forc­ing hu­man and phys- ical ter­rain.

Even in suc­cess­ful cases, Mr. Run­kle ob­serves, “the out­comes of strate­gic man­hunts rarely cor­re­late with the achieve­ment of Amer­ica’s broader strate­gic ob­jec­tives.” Filipino re­sis­tance con­tin­ued for 10 years af­ter the cap­ture of in­sur­gent leader Emilio Aguinaldo. The cap­ture of Sad­dam Hus­sein and the killing of Zar­qawi failed to quell Iraq’s in­sur­gency. Bin Laden’s killing does not end the ter­ror­ism prob­lem or chal­lenges in Afghanistan. Fur­ther­more, it is dif­fi­cult to as­sess the im­pact of a man­hunt in iso­la­tion — as is il­lus­trated in the his­tor­i­cal de­bate about the rel­a­tive im­por­tance of forced Apache re­lo­ca­tion and Geron­imo’s sur­ren­der in qui­et­ing Apache re­sis­tance.

Though his­tor­i­cal ev­i­dence seems to bring the value of strate­gic man­hunts into ques­tion, Mr. Run­kle thinks the United States will con­duct more such man­hunts in the fu­ture.

He at­tributes this to ca­su­alty and col­lat­eral-dam­age aver­sion, the se­duc­tive­ness of tech­nol­ogy and the U.S. ten­dency to per­son­al­ize con­flicts, among other fac­tors.

Justin Polin is a re­search as­so­ci­ate at the Hud­son In­sti­tute’s Cen­ter for National Se­cu­rity Strate­gies and a 2010-11 National Re­view In­sti­tute Washington fel­low.

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