USA News, December 18, 2014
A CIA report in 2009 found that "high-value targeting" had limited utility in beating back the Taliban in Afghanistan, ahead of an increase in drone strikes against the group.
The internal agency report, released without official permission Thursday by WikiLeaks, analyzed the targeting of insurgent group leaders for capture or assassination by U.S. and other governments in various armed conflicts.
In Afghanistan, where the report said targeting emphasizes lethal attacks, government corruption, “endemic lawlessness” and the “egalitarian Pashtun structures” associated with the Taliban hindered the effectiveness of efforts, the report found.
“Senior Taliban leaders’ use of sanctuary in Pakistan has also complicated the [targeting] effort,” says the report, written by the CIA’s Office of Transnational Issues. “The Taliban has a high overall ability to replace lost leaders, a centralized but flexible command,” the report says, “and good succession planning and bench strength, especially at the middle levels,” further undermining the effectiveness of strikes. The CIA has led the covert U.S. drone war against the Taliban in neighboring Pakistan. That campaign is not mentioned in the report.
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism – a nonprofit based at City University London – the number of people killed in U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan increased from 471 in 2009, when the report was written, to 751 in 2010 before dropping. In Afghanistan, where the U.S. conducts drone strikes alongside Western allies, the overall number of coalition drone strikes increased each year from 2009 through 2012, according to the bureau. The CIA report described targeting efforts in Afghanistan as intermittent. " Short or inconsistently conducted [targeting] campaigns may weed out insurgents who are less security conscious or not as important, while sparing the most-talented ones," it says.
Targeting programs are most effective when there’s a centralized insurgent group such as Peru’s Shining Path – which receded after the capture of its leader – or if taking out leadership can fracture or discourage insurgents and strengthen government morale, the report says.
Such efforts also can be used to strategically prune groups, report authors wrote. They can be employed "to remove effective midlevel leaders, protect incompetent leaders or restore them to positions of authority, separate insurgent personalities from potential sources of government sponsorship, or protect human sources that are collecting intelligence."
But capturing leaders, rather than killing them, may fail to accomplish goals, the report says, “if members believe that captured leaders will eventually return to the group … or if those leaders are able to maintain their influence while in government custody, as Nelson Mandela did while incarcerated in South Africa.”
The report outlines several risks of targeting programs, noting they can strengthen insurgents’ bonds with local populations, radicalize group leaders and create a vacuum filled by more radical groups. The report found high-value targeting had a moderate contribution in throttling al-Qaida in Iraq, the forerunner of today’s Islamic State group, but only a limited contribution to the war effort in Afghanistan.