Benjamin Runkle, a former U.S. Defense Department and National Security Council official, is the author of Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to bin Laden, forthcoming in August.
The Navy SEALs' surgical dispatch of Osama bin Laden on May 2 local time in Abbottabad, Pakistan, ended the 13-year hunt for the terrorist mastermind. But despite the current fascination with the satellite surveillance, stealth helicopters, and signal intercepts that may have enabled the raid, strategic manhunts themselves are almost as old as organized warfare itself. Alexander the Great pursued Darius III all the way from Mosul to eastern Iran in 331 B.C. to cement his conquest of Persia, and the Romans targeted Hannibal for two decades as he fled eastward in exile after the Second Punic War. The United States has deployed forces abroad with similar objectives nearly a dozen times since the 6th Cavalry was sent into Mexico to pursue Geronimo in 1885.
Yet the killing of bin Laden (who, coincidentally, was code named Geronimo in the Navy SEAL operation) has raised the question of whether killing an individual actually matters. Some have argued that decapitation strategies are ineffective or actually counterproductive, especially when it comes to the drone-strike attacks that have taken out al-Qaida members in Pakistan and Yemen. Some commentators have gone so far as to suggest that bin Laden's death offers an opportunity to end the "war on terror" itself. Having just finished a book on the history of strategic manhunts in which I found that killing or capturing an individual seldom correlates to strategic success, I think the manhunt skeptics may have a point. And yet, it is unlikely that such campaigns will disappear from America's arsenal. Even if bin Laden had never been found, the manhunt is simply ingrained too deeply in the American psyche and in the technology of modern war. The manhunt is here to stay — and if anything, we're entering an era in which it will become a more prominent policy tool.
As Colin Powell lamented in his 1995 memoir, reflecting on the manhunt for Panamanian drug lord Manuel Noriega, "a President has to rally the country behind his policies. And when that policy is war, it is tough to arouse public opinion against political abstractions. A flesh-and-blood villain serves better." Beyond the American tendency to personalize conflicts, there are several reasons that manhunts are likely to increasingly tempt future U.S. policymakers. For one, the immensely destructive nature of modern warfare — as well as the immediacy offered by modern communications technology — has increased the long-standing American aversion to causing collateral damage. The ravages of war are now infinitely more visible to the public, with the 24-hour global media particularly eager to act as watchdogs for violations of noncombatant immunity and often manipulated by weaker forces in order to gain a strategic advantage by generating international sympathy.
This creates a potentially serious tactical dilemma for democracies like the United States, whose military operations are conducted under the intense scrutiny of lawyers, judges, opposition politicians, and human rights activists. Consequently, U.S. forces do not enjoy the latitude that European democracies once possessed in suppressing colonial insurgencies in the 1950s and 1960s or that an illiberal state such as Russia had in brutally crushing Chechen rebels in the 1990s. This encourages policymakers to focus on as narrow a target as possible when considering how to enter a conflict.
At the same time, since the end of the Cold War, individuals — and not just states — have increasingly been perceived as posing a threat to U.S. strategic interests. Traditionally, the dominant paradigms of international relations theory dismissed the importance of individual leaders in world politics. Structural realists, for example, did not perceive of World War II as being driven by leaders such as Hitler and Stalin, but as representing disequilibria in the European balance of power. By the 1990s, however, it appeared that U.S. interests were being threatened not so much by countries or socially mobilized populations as by a handful of autocratic and aggressive leaders (i.e. Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Raoul Cedras in Haiti, and Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia). In such cases, it was argued, U.S. policy should focus on an individual rather than trying to compel an entire population or reconfigure a regional balance of power.
These days, individuals have only become more dangerous. For more than two decades, experts have acknowledged that any relatively well-financed terrorist group could feasibly obtain the expertise necessary to build a crude nuclear device, thereby matching the destructive power of all but a handful of nation-states. In 2005, scientists in a lab in Atlanta resurrected the extinct 1918 Spanish flu and published its genome, meaning that people with resources well below those of nation-states would theoretically be able to re-create one of the most lethal disease agents in history. Far more dangerous biological weapons are on the horizon, and the technologies to develop them are steadily becoming cheaper and more prevalent.
The diffusion of lethal technology, however, and particularly the increased lethality of dual-use technology, will allow increasingly smaller organizations, possibly even individuals, to threaten U.S. interests. Terrorists do not have to obtain weapons of mass destruction in order to attack the United States, but rather can utilize a wide array of dual-use or commercial technologies to conduct attacks. The explosive device used in the 1993 World Trade Center attack, for example, was made out of ordinary, commercially available materials, including lawn fertilizer and diesel fuel. It cost less than $400 to construct. And this is just the tip of the iceberg: In 2009, the Government Accountability Office concluded that "sensitive dual-use and military technology can be easily and legally purchased from manufacturers and distributors within the United States" and illegally exported without detection to rogue states and terrorist suppliers.
The information revolution has spread these technologies of destructive power even farther. Thanks to the Internet and widely available encryption technology, anyone with a few thousand dollars can now create a secure, worldwide communications system accessible from any Internet cafe or public library around the world. The information revolution also allows terrorists or other nonstate actors to collect and disseminate intelligence on targets and on their enemies, including U.S. forces. Iraqi insurgents used Google Maps to plot ambushes and emplacements of improvised explosive devices. In November 2008, 10 terrorists from Lashkar-e-Taiba, armed only with easily obtainable small arms, used cell phones, BlackBerrys, and GPS locators to coordinate a three-day rampage that killed 173 and wounded 308 in Mumbai, India.
Taken together, Washington's aversion to collateral damage and the importance of single individuals to U.S. interests create a strong motivation to kill or capture individuals who threaten national security. Arguably, the "surgical strike" is a more humane option than the destruction of modern war, and it's certainly quicker — if it works. As the Washington Post editorialized recently regarding Libya, "Thousands of civilians have been killed, and more are dying every day.... [T]argeting Mr. Gaddafi may be the quickest way — and maybe the only way — to stop his carnage."
The final element is the issue of ability. Whereas in 1991's Operation Desert Storm less than 8 percent of bombs dropped were precision-guided munitions, this figure rose to 68 percent during the major combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Since then, nearly all bombs or missiles fired in Iraq or Afghanistan have been precision-guided. With weapons of this type, any locatable object can be precisely targeted and probably destroyed, with less risk of collateral damage to civilian noncombatants. Moreover, with new assets in space and the increasing sophistication of airborne sensors, the number of objects that can be targeted has increased as well. Thus, while individuals pose a greater threat to America than ever before, the United States likewise has a greater ability than ever before to target individuals and eliminate them.
And yet there is a danger in relying too heavily on such operations. Forcing an individual to go to ground renders him strategically ineffective and creates space for other actors to step to the fore. The successful targeting of an individual is probably less important from a strategic standpoint than successfully targeting the network that supports him or will carry on the struggle in his absence. While occasionally simple justice will demand that the United States target individuals, America's preoccupation with technological gadgetry and lightning raids risks leading it to overlook the broader human terrain that actually determines whether a campaign succeeds or fails.