Entries Tagged "Taliban"

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Defeating al Qaeda

Rare common sense:

But Gen Richards told the BBC it was not possible to defeat the Taliban or al-Qaeda militarily.

“You can’t. We’ve all said this. David Petraeus has said it, I’ve said it.

“The trick is the balance of things that you’re doing and I say that the military are just about, you know, there.

“The biggest problem’s been ensuring that the governance and all the development side can keep up with it within a time frame and these things take generations sometimes within a time frame that is acceptable to domestic, public and political opinion,” he said.

[…]

Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy told the BBC Gen Richards was “right” that there was no purely military solution and said there would be “no white flag surrender moment”.

“This is a complicated issue. It will be for the long haul. It’s got to do with history.

“But I think he’s right to talk about the different ways that this has got to be taken on – militarily yes but diplomatically and in a peaceful sense of nation building in Afghanistan is also important,” he said.

Posted on November 22, 2010 at 1:08 PMView Comments

The Continuing Incompetence of Terrorists

The Atlantic on stupid terrorists:

Nowhere is the gap between sinister stereotype and ridiculous reality more apparent than in Afghanistan, where it’s fair to say that the Taliban employ the world’s worst suicide bombers: one in two manages to kill only himself. And this success rate hasn’t improved at all in the five years they’ve been using suicide bombers, despite the experience of hundreds of attacks — or attempted attacks. In Afghanistan, as in many cultures, a manly embrace is a time-honored tradition for warriors before they go off to face death. Thus, many suicide bombers never even make it out of their training camp or safe house, as the pressure from these group hugs triggers the explosives in suicide vests. According to several sources at the United Nations, as many as six would-be suicide bombers died last July after one such embrace in Paktika.

Many Taliban operatives are just as clumsy when suicide is not part of the plan. In November 2009, several Talibs transporting an improvised explosive device were killed when it went off unexpectedly. The blast also took out the insurgents’ shadow governor in the province of Balkh.

When terrorists do execute an attack, or come close, they often have security failures to thank, rather than their own expertise. Consider Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab — the Nigerian “Jockstrap Jihadist” who boarded a Detroit-bound jet in Amsterdam with a suicidal plan in his head and some explosives in his underwear. Although the media colored the incident as a sophisticated al-Qaeda plot, Abdulmutallab showed no great skill or cunning, and simple safeguards should have kept him off the plane in the first place. He was, after all, traveling without luggage, on a one-way ticket that he purchased with cash. All of this while being on a U.S. government watch list.

Fortunately, Abdulmutallab, a college-educated engineer, failed to detonate his underpants. A few months later another college grad, Faisal Shahzad, is alleged to have crudely rigged an SUV to blow up in Times Square. That plan fizzled and he was quickly captured, despite the fact that he was reportedly trained in a terrorist boot camp in Pakistan. Indeed, though many of the terrorists who strike in the West are well educated, their plots fail because they lack operational know-how. On June 30, 2007, two men — one a medical doctor, the other studying for his Ph.D. — attempted a brazen attack on Glasgow Airport. Their education did them little good. Planning to crash their propane-and-petrol-laden Jeep Cherokee into an airport terminal, the men instead steered the SUV, with flames spurting out its windows, into a security barrier. The fiery crash destroyed only the Jeep, and both men were easily apprehended; the driver later died from his injuries. (The day before, the same men had rigged two cars to blow up near a London nightclub. That plan was thwarted when one car was spotted by paramedics and the other, parked illegally, was removed by a tow truck. As a bonus for investigators, the would-be bombers’ cell phones, loaded with the phone numbers of possible accomplices, were salvaged from the cars.)

Reminds me of my own “Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot.”

Posted on June 18, 2010 at 5:49 AMView Comments

The Effectiveness of Political Assassinations

This is an excellent read:

I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me 20 years ago that America would someday be routinely firing missiles into countries it’s not at war with. For that matter, I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me a few months ago that America would soon be plotting the assassination of an American citizen who lives abroad.

He goes on to discuss Obama’s authorization of the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American living in Yemen. He speculates on whether or not this is illegal, but spends more time musing about the effectiveness of assassination, referring to a 2009 paper from Security Studies: “When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation“: “She studied 298 attempts, from 1945 through 2004, to weaken or eliminate terrorist groups through ‘leadership decapitation’ — eliminating people in senior positions.”

From the paper’s conclusion:

The data presented in this paper show that decapitation is not an effective counterterrorism strategy. While decapitation is effective in 17 percent of all cases, when compared to the overall rate of organizational decline, decapitated groups have a lower rate of decline than groups that have not had their leaders removed. The findings show that decapitation is more likely to have counterproductive effects in larger, older, religious, and separatist organizations. In these cases decapitation not only has a much lower rate of success, the marginal value is, in fact, negative. The data provide an essential test of decapitation’s value as a counterterrorism policy.

There are important policy implications that can be derived from this study of leadership decapitation. Leadership decapitation seems to be a misguided strategy, particularly given the nature of organizations being currently targeted. The rise of religious and separatist organizations indicates that decapitation will continue to be an ineffective means of reducing terrorist activity. It is essential that policy makers understand when decapitation is unlikely to be successful. Given these conditions, targeting bin Laden and other senior members of al Qaeda, independent of other measures, is not likely to result in organizational collapse. Finally, it is essential that policy makers look at trends in organizational decline. Understanding whether certain types of organizations are more prone to destabilization is an important first step in formulating successful counterterrorism policies.

Back to the article:

Particularly ominous are Jordan’s findings about groups that, like Al Qaeda and the Taliban, are religious. The chances that a religious terrorist group will collapse in the wake of a decapitation strategy are 17 percent. Of course, that’s better than zero, but it turns out that the chances of such a group fading away when there’s no decapitation are 33 percent. In other words, killing leaders of a religious terrorist group seems to increase the group’s chances of survival from 67 percent to 83 percent.

Of course the usual caveat applies: It’s hard to disentangle cause and effect. Maybe it’s the more formidable terrorist groups that invite decapitation in the first place — and, needless to say, formidable groups are good at survival. Still, the other interpretation of Jordan’s findings — that decapitation just doesn’t work, and in some cases is counterproductive — does make sense when you think about it.

For starters, reflect on your personal workplace experience. When an executive leaves a company — whether through retirement, relocation or death — what happens? Exactly: He or she gets replaced. And about half the time (in my experience, at least) the successor is more capable than the predecessor. There’s no reason to think things would work differently in a terrorist organization.

Maybe that’s why newspapers keep reporting the death of a “high ranking Al Qaeda lieutenant”; it isn’t that we keep killing the same guy, but rather that there’s an endless stream of replacements. You’re not going to end the terrorism business by putting individual terrorists out of business.

You might as well try to end the personal computer business by killing executives at Apple and Dell. Capitalism being the stubborn thing it is, new executives would fill the void, so long as there was a demand for computers.

Of course, if you did enough killing, you might make the job of computer executive so unattractive that companies had to pay more and more for ever-less-capable executives. But that’s one difference between the computer business and the terrorism business. Terrorists aren’t in it for the money to begin with. They have less tangible incentives — and some of these may be strengthened by targeted killings.

Read the whole thing.

I thought this comment, from former senator Gary Hart, was particularly good.

As a veteran of the Senate Select Committee to Investigate the Intelligence Services of the U.S. (so-called Church committee), we discovered at least five official plots to assassinate foreign leaders, including Fidel Castro with almost demented insistence. None of them worked, though the Diem brothers in Vietnam and Salvador Allende in Chile might argue otherwise. In no case did it work out well for the U.S. or its policy. Indeed, once exposed, as these things inevitably are, the ideals underlying our Constitution and the nation’s prestige suffered incalculable damage. The issue is principle versus expediency. Principle always suffers when expediency becomes the rule. We simply cannot continue to sacrifice principle to fear.

Additional commentary from The Atlantic.

EDITED TO ADD (4/22): The Church Commmittee’s report on foreign assassination plots.

EDITED TO ADD (5/13): Stratfor blog since 2004, and in my monthly newsletter since 1998. I'm a fellow and lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School and a board member of EFF. This personal website expresses the opinions of neither of those organizations.

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