Death by Drone: A Policy That Gets Results?

09/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Wednesday August 5th, a CIA predator drone fired a missile into the roof a modest house in the village of Zanghara, in South Waziristan. On the roof sat a woman with her diabetic husband, who was receiving a drip infusion. That man was Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of Pakistan's murderous Taliban movement. Although American and Pakistani government officials have been reluctant to confirm the kill, thanks to Taliban informants and imagery captured by the drone it seems all but certain that it was Mehsud and his wife that the drone executed.

For the sake of argument, let's assume it was actually them.

Was this a victory for the joint efforts of the United States and Pakistan? Mehsud's organization has been credited with such feats as the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team, the bombing of the Marriot Hotel in Islamabad, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, and an indefinite but assuredly huge number of suicide bombings. Baitullah Mehsud was officially designated as Pakistan's enemy no. 1, and now he's dead. Gazing through the bureaucratic, statistical lens of counter-insurgency, Mehsud's death was an indubitable victory for Pakistan and the United States and their cooperative efforts against the Taliban.

But when you evaluate our policy of assassinating terrorist leaders in its entirety, the practically unchallenged wisdom behind this most recent killing is cast under a shadow of doubt as dark as Mehsud's terrible exploits. I'm not going to bother with the moral argument against targeted killing -- it's a weak one in any situation, and in the case of the ruthless Mehsud it is especially pointless. Nor am I going to bother with the old trope "if we assassinate their leaders, they'll assassinate our leaders." It's not necessarily untrue, but it doesn't critique assassination as counter-insurgency policy, it merely suggests that the assassination of your leader impedes the achievement of your goals and therefore sees assassination as an effective counter-insurgency policy. That is the notion in need of evaluation.

The first problem with the policy of assassination has to do with credibility. Bush's infamous September 17th, 2001 assertion in reference to Osama bin Laden -- "There's an old poster out West, as I recall, that said, 'Wanted: Dead or Alive" -- now reads more like a bad satire of navel-gazing American hubris. When our government makes public our intention to kill or capture figures like bin Laden, and then we fail to do just that, we look ineffectual. After 9/11, the American people were if nothing else clamoring for bin Laden's head on pike. The government's failure to deliver just that (let alone a fair trial) cannot but weaken the already too-diminished faith that the American people place in their government. Moreover, such a failure tarnishes American credibility abroad -- especially in the Afghanistan and Pakistan -- and thereby makes victory against the Taliban a more distant and complex objective.

(In the case of Mehsud, on the other hand, he was not an enemy that the American people were by and large familiar with, so to expect that his death will be even a domestic political victory is a misconception at best.)

Of course, evaluating any policy within the larger context of a war without a clear mission, such as our War in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is a real challenge. But the fact that no one is quite sure as to what exactly we want in Afghanistan has made the second major problem with assassination -- excessive bureaucratic emphasis -- even more severe. Counter-insurgency experts and military officials have an oft-noted tendency to focus excessively, to obsess, really, on killing or capturing a single pivotal individual. In Iraq, military officials made the elimination of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi a top priority. His death in 2006 was initially hailed as a landmark on the path to victory. Yet it soon became clear that his death had done virtually nothing to halt the violence across Iraq. (Even though today our government is chomping at the bit to proclaim victory, at least 43 people were murdered by a bombing attack just 3 days ago.) In a war where our goals are undefined, assassinations of enemy commanders is an enticing but ultimately facile and misleading metric for success, and it distracts from the crucial task of defining our strategic objectives. Our policy of "kill or capture" (read: assassination) is in reality nothing more than great man theory masquerading as counter-insurgency. All the evidence suggests that assassination has been about as helpful in Iraq and "AfPak" as Strategic Hamlets and the Phoenix Program were in our last abortive effort at counter-insurgency.

The Phoenix Program and the Strategic Hamlets -- failed programs both -- hinged on the idea that the United States could fight insurgents while effectively ignoring the "hearts and minds" of the South Vietnamese. Today, our policy of assassination suffers from a similar one-sidedness. (And, by the way, the "kill or capture" policy was further enshrined in a report to be released sometime this week which places 50 drug traffickers with ties to the insurgency on the "kill or capture" list. The recent revelation that Cheney hid an assassination program from Congress is further evidence of this tactic's central role in our counter-insurgency strategy). We have to consider how it looks to the people of Waziristan when we kill a sick man while his wife is giving him medical treatment (with a predator drone's missile no less), even if that man is a killer of the worst order, as Mehsud surely was. At best, it makes us look ruthless and/or desperate. We are definitely NOT doing ourselves any favors in the "hearts and minds" department by assassinating Mehsud and others like him, who often command not inconsiderable public support. On the other hand, given the wealth of historical evidence (exemplified by al-Zarqawi's death) demonstrating that assassination is an ineffective military component of counter-insurgency, our government ought to consider other methods for winning the counter-insurgency campaign, methods that eliminate terrorists like Mehsud and make us look good.

The essential policy change this would require can be encapsulated by a shift in language: the "kill or capture" list needs to be simply the "capture" list. The leaders of the counter-insurgency are invaluable sources of information -- sources that would be available if only their owners were captured. Their deaths constitute effectively no progress in the war on terror, yet preoccupy counter-insurgency experts and military officials. And, if insurgent leaders were to be killed in the process of their capture, that would at least not make us look quite so ruthless as death by predator drone. Finally, the victory we would gain from giving enemies like Mehsud (or, God willing, Osama bin Laden) a fair and speedy trial would far surpass any supposed benefits that could derive from the same enemy's assassination.

There have been some promising shifts in our counter-insurgency policy in "AfPak". For example, instead of continuing our blind, Vietnam-era adherence to the insurgent body count, we now use such metrics as the frequency of local cooperation with allied and Afghan forces and the growth of Afghanistan's legitimate economy to measure the success of the counter-insurgency. But until we stop using assassination and other ineffective counter-insurgency tactics, and start devoting vastly more of our resources to a serious and concerted effort to win hearts and minds than we do to violence, we'll be fighting the Taliban and their allies with one hand tied behind our back.