Much has been made of Monday’s announcement of the recent killing of the No. 3 man in all of al Qaeda. The consensus seems to be that Mustafa Abu al-Yazid’s death will be a significant blow in the war on terror, but it’s much more likely to have no effect at all. If the past seven years in Iraq is any indication, the removal of enemy leaders has little to no impact on the group’s ability to conduct attacks against us.
The recent killing of two top leaders of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Ayub al-Masri and Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, is a perfect example. "The death of these terrorists is potentially the most significant blow to al Qaeda in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency," said General Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, after the operation, which took place late last month.
Now that the number of U.S. troops in Iraq has dropped below the number in Afghanistan, it’s important to think about the implications of Iraq for other combat zones.
The good feeling lasted less than three weeks, however. A series of devastating jihadist-led coordinated attacks across Iraq, killing over 100 people, soon reduced Odierno’s comments to mere hyperbole. And the fact that Masri’s death didn’t mean the end of al Qaeda in Iraq shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has followed Iraq closely since 2003. In the past, whenever officials have pronounced upon the significance of an enemy killing, it has always proven premature.
So why hasn’t the removal of insurgent and terrorist leadership yielded more successful outcomes in Iraq? My research of 20 different high-value targeting campaigns from Algeria to Chechnya to Japan suggests that such operations have the greatest chance of success when conducted by local forces against a centralized opponent in conjunction with larger counterinsurgency operations. Until recently, American targeting efforts in Iraq failed to meet any of these criteria.
One needs to go back in time only four years to understand this dynamic firsthand. In June 2006, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was finally killed after a months-long manhunt. “Zarqawi's death is a severe blow to al Qaeda. It's a victory in the global war on terror,” President Bush said at the time. But the “victory”—such as it was—proved to be short-lived. Weekly attacks against coalition forces climbed from 950 in the week before Zarqawi’s death to 1,400 just three months later. High-profile attacks nearly doubled over the next nine months, according to U.S. military data.
And our struggles with high-value targeting operations in Iraq have hardly been limited to Sunni jihadist groups. Overemphasis on targeting operations plagued our efforts in the early years of the war. In the months following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, U.S. forces made finding the fugitive leader, his sons, and other holdouts from the infamous “deck of cards” their top priority, ignoring the fact that anti-occupation sentiment had spread to tribal and non-Baathist Sunni figures and spawned a broad decentralized insurgency.
Poorly conceived and poorly managed targeting efforts added fuel to the fire. Brazen midnight U.S. military raids sometimes led to the capture of an insurgent, but often created a new generation of enemies as a result of rough tactics and lack of sensitivity toward local customs.
Furthermore, since the Sunni insurgency was decentralized, with local commanders holding large amounts of autonomy, the targeting campaign did little to stem the levels of violence. The eventual capture of Saddam, and the deaths of his sons, had no effect on the growing insurgency. Instead, it took a combination of persistent attacks by Shia militias and the rise of the Anbar Awakening to defeat the bulk of the Sunni insurgency.
History has shown that a military force that fights insurgents far from its home turf, like American soldiers have done in Iraq, will have a severe disadvantage because troops don’t understand the local cultural dynamics and networks. Despite our technological superiority, the United States often falls short in the area of local intelligence collection, leading to poor target selection and unnecessary collateral damage as we have seen in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
In these cases, it is essential that the goals and strategies of the occupying force and the host government are aligned. A U.S.-led targeting campaign against Shia militants didn’t succeed in reducing violence until the Iraqi government finally decided to turn its attention against the Sadrists after months of blocking U.S. efforts. This also gets to the larger point that targeting operations can’t succeed in a vacuum. The Sadrists weren’t defeated until the Iraqi government conducted large-scale operations—backed by U.S. forces—in Al Basrah, Al Amarah and Sadr City in 2008.
This isn’t to say that the deaths of Masri and Baghdadi aren’t useful. Removing terrorist leaders from the battlefield will certainly have some positive impact, if only to demonstrate to the rest of al Qaeda that their leaders will continue to be in our crosshairs. But let’s not expect that their deaths will necessarily result in the demise of al Qaeda or even a reduction in high-profile attacks.
Now that the number of U.S. troops in Iraq has dropped below the number in Afghanistan, it’s important to think about the implications of Iraq for other combat zones. For targeting efforts—such as drone strikes campaigns in Pakistan—to bear fruit, the U.S. must work more closely with local governments and must include any targeting efforts within a broader counterinsurgency framework to have any hope of success. Because if we continue to conduct targeting operations in a vacuum, as we did in Iraq after the fall of Saddam, we will be doomed to failure.
Matthew Frankel is a federal executive fellow with the 21st Century Defense Initiative at The Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.