Thursday, June 08, 2006

# Posted 11:12 PM by Patrick Porter  

THE UTILITY OF FORCE? How useful is killing single figureheads when fighting a complex insurgency?

This recurrent question has sharpened with today's news that Zarqawi is dead. It is tempting to assume, as some commentators do, that this falls into a futile and self-propelling cycle of violence.

To be sure, we are dealing with a very messy, complicated and protean situation here. The fall of the tyrant Saddam, and the delay in fashioning a coherent strategy for the aftermath, cleared the decks for some demonic forces to rip through Iraq.

Even before we get to the fighting, there was a surge in criminal activity: kidnappings, extortion, daily violence. The liquidation of many of Iraq's administrative personnel and the army dramatically increased unemployment (I think the level in some areas is now 60%).

Then there are Saddamist dead-enders, sectarian militias, both native and foreign jihadists, and tribal warlords.

In other words, a multipolar set of conflicts, and changing allegiances, in which the insurgency is not a single, regimented body with a clear command structure or hierarchy.

So how useful, in that context, is it to assassinate the leader of one cell?

Actually, while the US-led coalition has a long way to go, this kind of strike is potentially hugely valuable. Taking down the leaders even of loosely-formed organisations can damage their operational effectiveness:

it degrades their pool of talent and experience. John Robb's fascinating website on postmodern war makes clear the set of skills that Zarqawi had: co-ordinating attacks with high shock and propaganda value, weapons training, exploiting the global media, he proved tactically flexible, and adept at helping to renegotiate and realign the whole nature of the insurgency from native subversion to sectarian conflict.

In other words, this guy was skilful. entrepreneurial and strategically-minded. Such talent cannot be replicated endlessly. Killing such godfathers slows down, disrupts and demoralises organisations. The experience of Israel with its targeted assassinations is that in combination with other policies, they can dramatically reduce attacks made by the enemy.

It can also sow distrust. The USA's claim that some of Zaqarwi's insiders provided intelligence may or may not be true. But this fosters doubts and unease, which has a knock on effect. Recruitment becomes more selective. Conflict can break out within a group. The fear of infiltration breeds paranoia, and efforts to communicate less and trust fewer people in turn retard operations. The need for a sudden transfer of power can breed more internal conflict. Their prestige and morale may suffer.

The cumulative effect, in other words, is to hurt the cohesion of the group. Its not so much about a cycle of violence, but about an ultimately finite number of seasoned and clever warriors.

All this is tempered by the chaotic situation much of Iraq faces. Were this one highly structured enemy organisation operating within a population living in greater stability and with basic services working, etc, who could be effectively divorced and separated from such groups, this kill would be more valuable.

Instead, they are operating in a wilderness of multiple groups. So its one valuable blow, but we should be careful about claiming a 'turning point.' Its still a long long road, and a measure of force will only finally succeed in combination with the restoration of both infrastructure and civil society.

Though the appointment of two new ministers in key areas is encouraging: a stable negotiation of power between the fractured Iraqi people.

The reality of chaos and disintegration continues, but removing the experts at subversion is surely a step in the right direction.
(8) opinions -- Add your opinion

Organizational structure does not matter much within the terror movement. Charisma and a figure's dramatic successes do. Al. Z.'s subordinates are thinking golly gee if they can get the boss they can get me. And he thought he was so great. Back to selling copper pots in the souk until this thing cools down.
However, a loose organizational structure prevents a group from having a well-defined program and especially from changing its goals and structure quickly. One could well ask what the insurgency's goals are. What exactly have they accomplished since the liberation except nearly random killing? Now, without the head of the snake, it will thrash around even more. But it won't get anywhere.
I know its not an exact parallel, but Hamas was severely set back by Israel's targeted assassinations. Even if the structure is loose, losing one of the lynchpin figures hurts its cohesion as well as its morale.
It took Israel a while before they decided to kill Sheikh Yassin of Hamas, but another example might be the killing of Fathi Shekaki, the leader of the Islamic Jihad. It didn't cripple the organization, but it apparently did knock it off balance for some time. Although I am not sure that the killing of Sheikh Mussawi of Hizzbalah was worth the apparent retaliation (the blowing up of the Jewish Community Center in Argentina).
The death of Stonewall Jackson had lasting repercussions for the Confederacy. Great leaders, wartime generals, are not easily replaced.
This is a fine post overall. But I have one caveat. Zarqawi was, undoubtedly, a venerable (though despicabl) warrior with qualities that won't be easily replaced. But the primary work of his organization was already accomplished a year ago: start a sectarian civil war. Removing him from the equation now certainly helps, because he was still a propagandist for militan anti-Shi'ism. But the sectarian war had already progressed to a degree that he had minimal direction over it. Had this happened in 2004, it would have been much more significant. But now I think it's too late to matter.
Israel never really crippled Hamas. After all, Hamas did win an election AFTER most of its top leadership was killed. And today Hamas called off its 15-month truce. The reason violence in Israel has abated is that Israel has finally built a security barrier.
dear anonymous,

I agree that Israel's offensive has not finished Hamas as a political organisation.

But in damaging or at least temporarily reducing its capacity for violence, the figures are suggestive:
I refer to

"After the second intifada broke out in September 2000, Israel dramatically stepped up its targeting of Palestinian terrorists, killing more than 200 of them.

This campaign worked. Targeted killings - combined with the border security barrier, military operations and improved intelligence - reduced Israeli deaths from a high of 172 in 2002 to less than 40 in 2005.

Even more telling, this decline in deaths occurred during periods when the number of attempted attacks by Hamas increased, suggesting that the organization became less capable even though its hatred did not diminish."

there's a good quote from 2004, when one Hamas source claimed 'There is no money to finance operations…Many of the leaders are gone and it is difficult to replace them. Hamas needs at least two years to rebuild.'
In other words- it wasn't just the security barrier which hurt them, it was the draining of their leadership.

Elrod: good point, although he probably still had a significant role in fuelling sectarian conflict and possibly continued attacks on US troops.
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