Targeted killings inside Pakistan — are they working?

August 12, 2009

The death of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in a U.S. Predator strike last week – now considered a certainty by U.S. and Pakistani security officials – and subsequent reports of fighting among potential successors would seem to justify the strategy of taking out top insurgent leaders

The Taliban are looking in disarray and fighting among themselves to find a successor to Mehsud, the powerful leader of the Tehrik-e- Taliban  Pakistan, the umbrella group of militant groups in the northwest, if Pakistani intelligence reports are any indication. Top Taliban commanders have since sought to deny any rift, but they certainly look more on the defensive than at any time in recent months.

So is decapitation or targeting the heads of militant groups, as a strategy to destroy these organisations, beginning to work in Pakistan ?

A considerable amount of research has gone into such a snake-head strategy, or the killing or capture of militant leaders, since Israel went down this road decades ago and the results are mixed.

Daniel Byman, Director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University, says that while the U.S. strategy  could tamp down the threat from al Qaeda, it can neither defeat the group nor remove it from its stronghold in Pakistan.  In a piece for Foreign Affairs, Byman who previously studied the Israeli campaign of targeting enemy leaders, lays out the gains as well as the limits to such a strategy.

– A sustained campaign of targeted killings can disrupt a militant group tremendously, as slain leaders are replaced by less experienced and less skilled colleagues. This can lead the group to make operational and strategic mistakes, and over time, pose less of a danger. Moreover, constant killings can create command rivalries and confusion. Most important, the attacks force an enemy to concentrate on defense rather than offense.

And the limits as in Pakistan’s case are:

– The Predator strikes can force al Qaeda to watch its step in Pakistan, but it can still carry out some operations.  Moreover, their local jihadi partners (such as Lashkar-e-Taiba) remain unaffected. So far, the strikes have been confined to tribal areas near the Afghan-Pakistani border, meaning that al Qaeda and the Taliban have been able to relocate parts of their apparatus further inside Pakistan, which may work to actually widen the zone of instability

– Although Israel achieved some success through its campaign of targeted killings during the second intifada in the early years of this decade, it was able to fully shut down Palestinian militancy only by reoccupying parts of the West Bank and building a massive security barrier between itself and much of the Palestinian territories — options that are not available to the United States in Pakistan, Byman notes.

Over the longer term the results of  the decapitation strategy are even more mixed.  Aaron Mannes, a researcher at the University of Maryland,  says his study “in general found that the decapitation strategy appears to have little effect on the reduction of terrorist activity.”

In fact he found a distinction between groups that are ideologically driven or nationalist- separatist ones like the IRA and ETA  – and religous groups such as al Qaeda or Hezbollah.  While the ideological groups were forced to restrict acivity following  a decapitation strike, the religious groups actually grew even more deadly.  Hezbollah and Hamas are more reboust organisations, which is an important criterion for surviving the loss of a leader, his study found

Revenge also plays a key role in upsurge of violence following the loss of a leader. Another explanation might be the rise of the most violent elements within a religious militant group to the fore.  “Based on this data, decapitation strikes are not a silver bullet against terrorist organisations. In the case of religious groups, they may even be counter-productive,” he says.

Ultimately, as Nighwatch intelligence here notes, there is no alternative but to destroy the sanctuaries in which militant groups operate. And it is hard to see that being done through these “bolts from the blue.”

[File photograph of Baitullah Mehsud at a news conference, and a village in South Waziristan cleared of fighters loyal to him]


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You say: “Hezbollah and Hamas are more reboust organisations, which is an important criterion for surviving the loss of a leader, his study found”
Does this study take in the relative price of oil in it’s analysis? Since these proxy groups are largely supported by Iranian oil and in the run up of oil more funding probably flowed more freely.

Posted by Steve Real | Report as abusive

Unlikely that his killing will have any meaningful impact on eliminating the organisation. If I remember right, when his predecessor Nek Mehmud(?) was killed, Mehsud came up and wrought greater violence. That being said, getting rid of Zarqawi, did effect the Al Qaeda in Iraq. However, it is one thing to remove the leadership, it demoralises the cadre, but unless one can physically take over territory it would be extremely difficult to eliminate an organisation. That is where the efficacy of drone attacks comes into question. Physical occupation is necessary subsequently to take it to its logical end.

Posted by Dara | Report as abusive

when replacements of eliminated leaders appear that much more quickly and the followers vouch for revenge, what good comes from removing the leaders alone. Choking funding channels is more important.

Posted by Azad | Report as abusive

Knocking out the heads is a very effective method. It slows down the momentum of insurgency. If Pakistani military was not pushed into the act, the US would not have been this successful in killing Mehsud. I think they are slowly twisting the arms of the Pakistani military to turn against the Afghan Taliban and the siege is nearing. It is only a matter of time before the US dismantles the terror network inside Southern Afghanistan and cuts off its links with the Pakistani military. I am expecting to see changes in the Pak military or leadership after a major success is accomplished in the joint efforts by the US and its allies. The US has been orchestrating these changes for sometime now – bringing in democratically elected leaders inside Pakistan, changing the strategy to Af-Pak instead of Afghanistan only approach, getting rid of Musharraf, consolidating Kayani, turning the Pakistani military against its own creation – the Taliban and so on. Now Pakistani military cannot go back to its terror mates. They want revenge. So there is only one option left for the military – to cleanse itself of all the Jihadi elements. And this is the change I expect to see soon. Without this change, the US war on terror in this region will not succeed. I am sure Obama’s generals know this too well and they are slowly inching their way towards accomplishing that goal. They have managed to keep Pakistan focused on its survival and protecting its territorial integrity as the first step. And it is working. So the next step will be to make the situation worse enough for the military to get rid off its conservative elements in order to survive. Good plan and execution so far.

Posted by Mauryan | Report as abusive

2nd Bangladesh in the making!

Balochistan declares independence and Council of Independent Balochistan announced ewspaper-daily-english-online/Politics/1 2-Aug-2009/Council-of-Independent-Baloch istan-announced

Posted by Irfan – Iran | Report as abusive

Irfan… your link did not work but sounded interesting. A free Baluchistan should definitely prevent attacks like the one in Zahedan. Anyways, an interesting article from Guardian: 2007/aug/15/pakistancelebratesbaluchista

Posted by Rohit | Report as abusive

The Baluchistan dimension appears to be a part of the US strategy. The CIA’s aims in the region seem to be to create an independent Baluchistan to further destabilise and weaken Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran and increase US control of the region. I am worried that the Baluchi leaders, who the CIA are promoting to accomplish this, may be as reactionary as the heroin dealing warlords and the islamists who they promoted in Afghanistan, before the Soviet invasion in 1979, to destabilise the socialist government of Afghanistan, encourage the Soviet Union to invade, and give them “another Vietnam”. The US government also installed the islamist dictatorship of Zia-al-Haq in Pakistan. Those events were closely related to the origins of the Taliban. According to Craig Murray (ex UK ambassador to Uzbekistan) “three of the world’s five biggest heroin dealers are members of the Afghan government” (recorded at NO2ID hustings in the recent Norwich North by-election). So long as the US and UK governments are promoting the careers of these people and destabilising the region for control of the oil pipelines, and the for the profits of Halliburton, ‘decapitation’ of selected islamists will make little difference. But every expensive drone used to do it represents a bit more ‘economic growth’, ‘planned obsolescence’ and profit for the arms trade, while it further increases US public sector debt. I guess they’ll carry on doing it, anyway.

Posted by Farnaby | Report as abusive

After 1.5 years of drone attacks and hundreds of civilians killed, finally the drones net a HVT. Its a pretty huge price to pay. Better methods need to be implemented.

Posted by Bangash | Report as abusive

One name that always comes to mind especially during independence day celebrations of India/Pakistan is Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, also know as Frontier Gandhi for his embracing the non-violent ways for indpendence of India. 11/gayatri.html

Excerpt from the link:

Long after partition, in a public speech Gaffar Khan said:

“Where is the democracy that British gave us? Ayub Khan robbed us of it. And what did he give us in return ? He gave us his own version of democracy which does not even deserve the name of democracy.

Look at our financial position, look at our language, culture, society. He has taken it all. Look at our schools, our colleges, the education and instruction of our children. And look at his manners. I am always surprised at these people who keep telling us:”We are making such progress. Pakistan has a target and we are fast approaching it.” Actually there are several jokes in circulation about that. I will tell you one. It goes like this:

A woman said to her husband, warmly embracing him: “Darling, I want a diamond nose-ornament!” The husband replied: “Actually I was considering how I could cut off your nose altogether.”

All we are asking is for a nose ornament, it does not even have to be diamond. But Pakistan is thinking how they can cut off our nose altogether.”

Jokes aside, he was very frank and candid about the seriousness of the dangers facing Pathans. Continuing the speech he said: “I want you and the Pakistani leaders to take a look at the misery which our Balochi brothers are living in. They have been asking and crying and shouting for their rights for the last twenty years. When nobody listened to them they had no choice but to take up arms. You all know what happened to them, the tyranny they had to suffer, the cruelties that were committed. Now Pakistan has found that the question cannot be solved by cruelty and oppression, and these poor people are told; Come on, let us sit down together and settle our dispute. It did not take me long to find out that in the heart of Pakistan there is no room for any Baluchi or Sindhi or Bengali or Pakhtun. Therefore I want my Baluchi brothers to know that the Sindhis and the Pakhtuns are just as oppressed and that our aim and objectives are the same. Pakistan’s real design will be clear if you look at Punjab. The Punjab leaders met and had discussions and consultations with their Jirga. They said “look at the Pakhtuns, they are all very rich. They have electricity you know. Then they said; look at the Sindhis, they have so much land. About the Baluchis they said, they have in their country wealth of mineral resources and gas.”

“Brothers, all this is trickery and they are only saying all this because they want it for themselves: the electricity of Pathans, the land of Sindhis and the minerals of Baluchis. Then they have this idea of “one unit”. Work it out for yourselves, is this in harmony with Islamic belief? Does Islam tell you to rob one brother of electricity, another brother of his fertile land and take possessions of the mines and minerals of another?

And you, ignorant and misguided Pathans, you do not even stop to think whether this is Islam or not, you just swallow anything you are told.”

“On August 11 1947, the British protectorate of Baluchistan declared its independence. Three days later, Pakistan also became an independent nation. But the two states coexisted for less than a year.”

“In March 1948, Pakistan invaded and seized Baluchistan. Under threat of imprisonment, the traditional Baluch leader, the Khan of Kalat, Mir Ahmed Yar Khan, was pressured to sign a treaty of integration. This treaty was, however, never agreed by the Baluchistan parliament and never mandated by the Baluch people.”

“Ever since, for six decades, Baluchistan has been subjected to Pakistani military occupation, political domination, economic exploitation and cultural hegemony. Pakistan is an oppressed nation turned oppressor nation. It now adopts the imperialist tactics of its former colonial overlords to subjugate and exploit the Baluch.”

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive

Can anyone please tell me where does the taliban get weapons (including RPGs, anti aircraft etc.)from?

Posted by Nick | Report as abusive

PM Gilani calls for urgent US aid for IDPs without strings -content-library/dawn/news/pakistan/09-g ilani-calls-for-aid-without-strings–szh- 09
PM Gilani urges U.S. to write-off debt nistan-Pakistan/idUSTRE5543JX20090605

Pakistan Air Force will induct four Chinese midair refuellers, four Chinese AWACS, 250 Chinerse JF-17 Thunder fighter aircraft soon tm

New Pakistani Govt Motto: “US feeds us proudly, We feed Chinese Proudly”

Posted by Andy | Report as abusive

there is more to pakistan then this violence and extremism

Posted by Redonka | Report as abusive

easy, restrained and stylish

Posted by fifa 15 coins ps | Report as abusive

It depends on what you call leaders. The long term movers to radical Islam are money bags and clergy. Kill the radical clergy and financiers the movement lacks recruits and tools. But besides rich religious people providing the money, there are classes of people that will benefit from radical Islamic state such as those making Islamic fashions (loss of competition from Western firms), people with degrees in Islamic law (they can get clients that need them), Islamic banks (loss of competition from Western style banking), all organizations that will benefit from enforcement of titing incomes. So there are lots of people who should support Islamic militants for self interest if the destruction of war stays low.

The cure for religious wars in Europe was most likely the destruction of such wars like the Thirty years War and need of the protestants to make alliances among themselves. Which makes equalizing the military strength of warring militants and killing off their Clergy, teachers and Money Bags the best tactic against them.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive