Afghan intelligence officials confirmed May 22 that Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor was killed in a US drone strike in southwest Pakistan, near the Afghan border. This is the second leadership crisis for the Afghan Taliban in less than a year.
Mansoor took control of the Taliban in July 2015, replacing founder Mullah Mohammad Omar. Under his leadership, the group launched large scale attacks on Afghan security forces in several parts of the country. He also silenced splinter groups and is credited by his followers for containing Islamic State offshoots.
The targeted killing of Mansoor is interesting. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or “drones” have become a central tool in modern warfighting. Drones presently have human operators, and while there is some automation, a person ultimately tells the machine what to do. There is an ethical argument here: does the distance between human operator and target make it easier to kill?
While ethics is worth discussing, it cannot address whether the use of drones to kill high-value militant targets is an appropriate strategy for the US in the fight against Islamic extremism. It is efficacy, not morals, which is at the heart of the drone debate.
Two things are true about drones: the machines are the most efficient method of warfare ever devised, and they are equal parts useful and detrimental in the fight against terror. Fast-moving fighter jets will never attain the same level of situational awareness as drones, but hovering for days over a target at 25,000 feet isn’t the same as capturing the target to learn his secrets either.
Drone strikes in Pakistan – a country the US is not at war with – have skyrocketed during Mr Obama’s presidency. In 2008 the number of attacks increased from five to 35, according to the Long War Journal. In 2009 it rose to 53, before doubling in 2010 to 117, dropping to 64 in 2011 and then 46 in 2012. The total has continued to drop over the last few years, but still not to zero.
A similar ratcheting occurred in Yemen against al qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants. Yet a major issue with these strikes, highlighted by CIA directors and US generals together, is that drones are the easy option when capturing the individuals for intelligence is far more important.
The Obama administration is not willing to capture terrorists because it and the American public have displayed revulsion at either enhanced interrogation techniques or the permanent internment of terrorists at sites such as Guantanamo Bay. Politically and ideologically, the option of killing terrorists is more attractive but it denies the critical component of intelligence gathering and therefore limits the overall efficacy of the strategy.
US war goals are laser-focused on collapsing the capability of jihadist organisations to launch major attacks against its homeland and strategic interests. From Washington’s perspective, killing jihadists is not morally wrong if the US is officially at war, which it considers itself as being. So with criticism aside, after 15 years of uninterrupted military conflict, is the drone strategy working?
Judging by the number of jihadists in the world, the answer is no. There are more operational jihadists alive today than in 2001. But the quantitative argument is not as important as the qualitative or narrative arguments. And by those measures, the strategy of targeted killing is more successful.
Killing extremists will never destroy al qaeda, but it does remove its fighters from the battlefield. The idea is not so much to kill an individual, but to remove the capability and experience personified by the individual. Many senior leaders and high-value targets possess impressive terrorist or militant skills. To let these people continue wandering the earth in search of prey is to endanger innocents.
The question that paints this correctly is why, with so many terrorists alive today, has there been so few actual attacks? And there has been relatively few attacks in the West. The answer, and this is to my point, is that those people are no longer in a position to do so because of kill/capture campaigns.
Many individuals, such as AQAP bombmaker Ibrahim al-Asiri, are innovative fighters. Just because his bombing attempts, such as the 2009 Christmas Day bombing or the November 2010 parcel bombing, were unsuccessful doesn’t make al-Asiri any less important. His vehicle bombs, sticky bombs, suicide vests and roadside bombs used in Yemen are responsible for high casualties.
There are two types of bombmakers: operators and innovators. Al-Asiri is the latter. An operator can follow instructions but it is not easy to construct viable improvised explosive devices. An innovator creates devices using existing ingredients in new ways to thwart security. Those people must be removed because they lift the overall capability of terror or militancy.
And these new bombing techniques are spread easily with the internet. Quite different to Cold War terrorists, al qaeda isn’t structured hierarchically so killing its leadership is like punching water. After a time, someone else is elected leader – water rushes back to fill the void and the puddle remains.
As this column argues the war against Islamic extremism is not actually a fight between Islam and the West. It is a conflict between and amongst the strands of Islam: Sunni, Shia and westernised “moderate” Muslims. The West is collateral damage in this movie, playing as extras to Islam’s main character. The US can keep killing people forever without affecting this conflict because the conversation is not the West’s to have.
The only way to get rid of a puddle is by either evaporation or changing the geography so the water cannot pool. Since evaporation is impossible with jihadists, then the only option is to alter the geography which, in this case, is the landscape of people and ideas across the Muslim world.
Where possible, the US should remove high-value targets such as al Asiri or Mansoor. Preferably with capture operations, not kill. But the real fight, the one that doesn’t get the airtime, is the encouragement and containment of the Islamic modernity conversation.
So the question is not whether the drone strategy is moral or practical. The question, it seems, is whether the impact of the programme will negatively affect the larger goal of facilitating the modernity conversation in the Arab world, and containing the spillover of that conversation at a manageable level.
The answer will depend on the willingness of the US to maintain this strategy over time and the progress of the conversation away from the battlefield. It is not obvious that either of those factors are receiving the requisite resources. This then, not the moralising about targeted killings, is where concerned humanist parties should be focusing their energies.