Wanted Dead or Alive? When We Don't Get Our Man


Mar 3, 2009

This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on March 3, 2009.

On his first day in office, President Barack Obama issued a dramatic series of executive orders intended to symbolize a change of direction in America's "war" on terrorism. Despite the headlines these orders generated, a more significant policy shift may have been the one signaled the week before his inauguration, when Obama declared: "My preference obviously would be to capture or kill (Osama bin Laden). But if we have so tightened the noose that he's in a cave somewhere and can't even communicate with his operatives, then we will meet our goal of protecting America."

This is a significant break from his vows during the presidential debate — "We will kill Bin Laden" — and in a post-election interview with CBS that killing or capturing Al Qaeda's mastermind is "critical" for the United States.

As visceral as the urge may be to bring Bin Laden to justice — dead or alive — history shows that Obama's redefinition of "success" is correct. At least 10 times since 1900, the United States has launched sustained military or covert campaigns in which the strategic objective has been to kill or capture an individual.

Although the failed campaigns (i.e. the Mexican rebel and bandit Pancho Villa, the Somali warlord Farah Aideed, and, to date, Osama bin Laden) remain prominent in our collective memory, more often than not American forces have successfully tracked their quarry, from capturing the revolutionary General Emilio Aguinaldo in the Philippines in 1901 to the aerial targeting of the Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq in 2006.

Nevertheless, killing or capturing the targeted individual frequently has not achieved the intended outcome. For example:

  • In 1901, American forces captured the Filipino insurgent leader Aguinaldo, but fighting continued for nearly a decade and the most brutal phase of the counterinsurgency campaign occurred after he had sworn a loyalty oath to the United States.
  • U.S. intelligence and Special Forces assisted indigenous forces in tracking and eventually killing the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara and the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, yet neither Communist insurgencies nor narco-trafficking in Latin America abated after their deaths.
  • U.S. forces captured Saddam Hussein and killed al-Zarqawi, but neither success marked the turning point in defeating the Iraqi insurgency that was hoped for at the time.

Conversely, there are cases where the United States failed to apprehend the targeted individual, but the mere act of pursuing them led to strategic success, such as:

  • General John Pershing failed to apprehend Pancho Villa in 1916, but Pershing's expedition forced Villa into hiding, and cross-border incursions from Mexico were never again a strategic threat to the United States.
  • From 1927 to 1933, American forces failed to capture the Nicaraguan revolutionary leader Augusto Sandino, but the U.S. military presence led to the establishment of a stable, pro-American government.

To be sure, there are cases where the success or failure to apprehend the targeted individual corresponds with broader strategic success. The invasion of Panama and the arrest of Manuel Noriega in 1989 allowed that country to make a successful transition to democracy, and the failure to capture Aideed helped further the descent of Somalia into its present Hobbesian nightmare. Yet these cases are exceptions.

This is not to say the United States should not target individuals, or more specifically, should stop devoting military and intelligence assets to hunting Osama bin Laden.

Although some argue that elevating a single figure to such prominence makes the United States look impotent should we fail to catch him, our persistence in targeting Bin Laden has resulted in the deaths of numerous secondary Al Qaeda leaders. Their removal has weakened the organization's ability to execute terrorist attacks.

Others argue that killing Bin Laden would make him more powerful as a martyr. While theoretically plausible, killing Bin Laden could just as likely damage jihadi morale. And, of course, simple justice demands that Bin Laden, Ayman al- Zawahiri and other Al Qaeda leaders be brought to account for the murder of more than 3,000 Americans and countless other civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

However, it is important to acknowledge that the strategic value of campaigns against individuals comes not necessarily from whether we kill the target, but whether the enemy leader is rendered ineffective by having to go to ground. On this point, Obama is absolutely correct.

The irony of his new position, however, is that Al Qaeda's very failure to attack any major American targets outside Iraq appears to vindicate the Bush administration's seven-year hunt for Bin Laden. In the end, President Obama is inadvertently giving President George W. Bush credit for the very same policies which Candidate Obama condemned.

Benjamin Runkle, a former official in the Defense Department and a director at the National Security Council, is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation.

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