As many of you are probably aware, the United States recently conducted a successful drone strike on Mullah Mansour, leader of the Afghan Taliban. Many pundits and administration officials heralded this as a major step toward peace in Afghanistan. Sadly, the scholarly literature on the efficacy of decapitation strikes is far more mixed than one might imagine. Decapitation strikes are often ineffective; indeed, in some cases they can even backfire, allowing a movement to re-energize and start anew. Thus, we need to consider a more nuanced approach towards drone usage. Moreover, we need to take a more holistic view toward counterterrorism that includes diplomacy and state development. The assassination of major terrorist leaders can, of course, be tremendously useful and serve as an important component of a broader strategy. However, decapitation strikes are rarely sufficient on their own, and they can even be counterproductive.
The reason that decapitation strikes often fail is that most large-scale terror networks are resilient. Just like the governments and militaries of most countries, many highly organized terror networks like the Taliban and ISIS have hierarchical command networks that are designed to take losses. If the U.S. president is assassinated, there is a clear line of succession that ensures the continuity of government. Often, similar features exist in terror networks. When a leader is killed, there is another commander or mullah to take his place. As Max Weber of Politics as a Vocation fame might argue, terrorist networks are often based around legal-rational leaders (bureaucracy builders), not charismatic individuals (people who hold the entire movement together; see, for example, Hugo Chavez). Rarely do entire networks collapse due to the death of one leader. Moreover, the networks that do collapse after the death of a single leader are often so small and disorganized that they don’t pose a serious threat to U.S. interests in the first place.
It is true that some assassinations lead to major fragmentation within organizations, creating infighting and degrading a network’s capabilities. However, fragmentation usually only succeeds in making the process of countering extremists more difficult. Instead of one group to fight and negotiate with, there are four or five smaller groups muddying the water. As a loose analogy, consider post-Saddam Iraq: While the brutal Hussein dictatorship was eliminated, small groups of insurgents, displaced Iraqi Army veterans, and Islamic radicals proliferated, making the post-war reconstruction a nightmare. Decapitation strikes also don’t necessarily guarantee the degradation of terrorist groups. Indeed, they can often reinvigorate flagging terrorist networks by creating a martyr. After the U.S. took out Taliban leader Mohammad Omar in 2013, for example, the Taliban had one of its strongest showings in many years. Moreover, assassinations don’t necessarily increase a terrorist network’s willingness to negotiate – a major reason for the killing of Mansour. After all, as Vanda Felbab-Brown and Bradley S. Porter from Brookings point out, “Mansour’s successor, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s former minister of justice who loved to issue execution orders, is unlikely to be in a position to negotiate (if he even wants to) for a considerable time as he seeks to gain control and create legitimacy within the movement.”
To be clear, I’m not a specialist in counterterrorism strategies or insurgency fighting; I prefer studying state behavior to analyzing the activities of non-state actors. However, I think there are a number of clear and obvious strategies that need to be pursued. First, the U.S. needs to move beyond simply killing whatever mullah is in power at any given time. Playing “wack a mole” is an endlessly frustrating and ineffective strategy that will fail to yield long-term results. Instead, the U.S. should pursue policies that discredit terrorist ideology, provide stability and security, and create more cohesive and effective civil society. Obviously, none of these tasks is easy or cheap, but if we want a durable peace in the Middle East, they are vital. Moreover, as Haroro Ingram and Craig Whiteside point out in their War on the Rocks piece, the U.S. should focus on taking out the “middle-management.” In essence, Ingram and Whiteside argue that while individual leaders and figureheads can be easily replaced, losing multiple combat commanders and regional governors will be more challenging for even entrenched and highly bureaucratic networks to contend with. As they explain, “Such strikes would simultaneously make it harder for senior leaders to efficiently make command and control orders, while potentially damaging ISIL ties with its foot-soldiers and broader supporter base.”
I’m not arguing that the Mansour’s death was a setback for the United States. We should all rejoice in the knowledge that a brutal and despicable human being is no longer around to terrorize and oppress the people of Afghanistan. However, we shouldn’t believe for a second that his death portends a major improvement in Afghan security.