Sorry drone critics, but refraining from attacking enemy leaders who are targeting U.S. troops and helpless civilians is a terrible idea

Drone critics seem to be getting ever more desperate to delegitimize what is increasingly proving to be one of the most effective tactics against terrorist organizations: neutralizing their leaders.  For a while the critics were simply miscasting civilian casualty figures, but now they are apparently claiming that the recent killing of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour is some sort of setback in the fight against terrorism.

No one has rebutted the President’s conclusion that Mansour “was specifically targeting U.S. personnel and troops inside of Afghanistan” and was a person who “has been resistant to the kinds of peace talks and reconciliation that ultimately could bring an end to decades of war in Afghanistan.”  In his formal statement, the President added that Mansour’s killing “sent a clear message to all those who target our people and our partners – you will have no safe haven.”

But for some critics, protecting U.S. troops, eliminating an impediment to the peace process, and sending a stress-inducing message to terrorists isn’t enough.  It almost seems as if they fear that a successful strike with no civilian casualties against an acknowledged enemy leader would hasten a further decline in their fortunes.  And, actually, they may be right, especially as it comes so recently after a staple of the anti-drone gang – the “blowback” theory – was devastatingly deconstructed (even though other scholars have been trying to do so for years – see e.g., here, here, and here).

In any event, several critics (pardon the expression!) drone on in today’s Wall Street Journal that killing enemy leaders like Mansour won’t change anything and, they speculate, will actually make things worse.  Predictably, the inveterately anti-drone New York Times’ editors claim that Mansour’s death “has only made peace talks with the Afghan Taliban more remote.”

Really?  So, are we to suppose – based on the ruminations of these “expert” academicians and op-ed writers – that instead of hunting down the leaders of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and ISIS, what we really ought to be doing is figuring out ways to actually protect them – even though they are planning attacks on US troops as well as helpless civilians?  Is that what we should infer from their criticism of the strike on Mansour?

Let’s deal with the obvious: no one worthy of respect is saying that the problem of terrorism in Afghanistan or anywhere in the world is solvable exclusively through the tactic of drone strikes.  It is just one element of a larger effort that, like many other military operations, may need to be repeated against the Taliban’s new leader.  As discussed below, we need to keep the pressure on the enemy’s command and control.

Still, it is absurd to suggest that killing leaders makes no difference to the realities of war.  Does anyone seriously think that if Alexander the Great, Napoleon, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Adolph Hitler, or Osama Bin Laden were killed early in their careers that history would be the same?

Of course, Akhtar Mansour is not in the same category as those above, so we can’t expect the Taliban’s strategic collapse based solely upon his death.  But simply because an entire conflict can’t be resolved by a single tactical victory doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t attack the enemy’s command and control structure, especially when it presents a manifest threat to our forces in the field.  Let’s not forget that the view from perches in editorial board rooms and/or faculty lounges is rather different from that of the troops in the field who are under a near-term physical threat from the fighters these terrorist leaders command.

Moreover, the idea that killing terrorist leaders doesn’t make a difference is belied by the irrefutable fact that we haven’t yet suffered another 9/11 attack.   As former Deputy Director of the CIA Michael Morell – a career civil servant who served leaders of both parties – put it in his book last year:

[Drone] operations have been the single most effective tool in the last five years for protecting the United States from terrorists.  There is no doubt in my mind that these strikes have prevented another attack on the scale of 9/11.

The fact of the matter is that killing people like Mansour not only removes a specific command capability from the battlefield, it also injects what the great military theorist Carl von Clausewitz called “friction” into the gears of a terrorist organization.  Consider what the New York Times said on Tuesday about a “shaken” Taliban scrambling to try to keep leaders protected after Mansour’s death:

“Since we heard the incident with Mullah Mansour, it is really affecting our thoughts and we are feeling frustrated,” said Mullah Shafiullah, a Taliban commander from the Musa Qala district in Helmand Province. “The Taliban were almost repaired from the serious blow of losing our supreme leader Mullah Omar, and now another big loss. It is becoming risky, and we need to make a stand to protect our leaders.”

This is this kind of indirect – but militarily significant – “blow” to Taliban morale too many (but not all) academicians and editorial writers can’t seem to appreciate.  The effect is very real. In her Foreign Affairs article analyzing documents found in Bin Laden’s lair Jennifer Williams concluded not just that the “letters show that the tactic of targeting top al Qaeda leaders had profoundly crippled the organization,” but also that the drone strikes would have a vitally important psychological effect on the remaining terrorist leaders.  She point out:

Because drone strikes have been effective and because the United States targets them carefully, al Qaeda operatives have taken to restricting their own movement, staying inside, and avoiding gathering in large groups—all activities that are fairly integral to running a successful terrorist organization.  It’s not easy to train legions of recruits on how to fire RPGs, build bombs, and shoot guns with any accuracy when you have to stay inside the house and can’t have more than five people gathered together at one time. (Italics added.)

That’s the sort of debilitating mindset beyond that produced by the death of any particular individual that drone strikes can impose upon terrorists.  It is, to me anyway, part of the “clear message” the President said is being sent to the enemy by these operations.

Again, no one says that killing enemy leaders is the whole solution, but the notion that letting them live unmolested and without fear so they can continue to plan and lead their followers in committing all kinds of mayhem is somehow a good idea is utter nonsense.  We need to keep the pressure on the terrorists, and drones are one of most effective means of doing so.


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