Distinguishing High Value Targeted Killing and “Signature” Attacks on Taliban Fighters

The estimable Adam Entous and Siobhan Gorman of the Wall Street Journal’s national security reporting team have a good discussion of the targeted killing-drone strike on August 22, 2011 that killed Attiyah Abd al-Rahman, Al-Qaeda’s second in command.

A considerable part of the Pakistani government’s irritation with the conduct of drone strikes is that the US not only does not seek permission – it no longer needs to, from an operational standpoint.  After years of sustained effort, it has been able to establish its own ground level intelligence operations to provide it with targets and intelligence.  The US has become less and less dependent upon the highly compromised intelligence provided by Pakistan; the hobbling of the Pakistan government’s ability to “steer” targeted killing in ways congenial to it is part of the sore point of US-Pakistan relations.

From the US standpoint, it is partly that it does not depend as much as it did on Pakistan’s intelligence.  But it is also partly, as a couple of well-publicized incidents a few months ago made clear, that sharing targeting decisions with Pakistan’s military and ISI runs a very considerable possibility of having the targets tipped off (as even The Onion has observed).  The article notes in this regard, the U.S. worries that “if they tell the Pakistanis that a drone strike is coming someone within Pakistani intelligence could tip off the intended target.”  However, the Journal’s reporting goes from there to emphasize an aspect of targeted killing and drone warfare that is not sufficiently appreciated in public discussions trying to assess such issues as civilian collateral damage, strategic value and uses, and the uses of drones in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency as distinct activities.  The article explains:

The CIA carries out two different types of drone strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan—those against so-called high-value targets, including Mr. Rahman, and “signature” strikes targeting Taliban foot-soldiers who criss-cross the border with Afghanistan to fight U.S. forces there.

High-value targets are added to a classified list that the CIA maintains and updates. The agency often doesn’t know the names of the signature targets, but it tracks their movements and activities for hours or days before striking them, U.S. officials say.

Another way to put this is that, loosely speaking, the high value targets are part of a counterterrorism campaign – a worldwide one, reaching these days to Yemen and other places.  It is targeted killing in its strict sense using drones – aimed at a distinct individual who has been identified by intelligence.  The “signature” strikes, by contrast, are not strictly speaking “targeted killing,” because they are aimed at larger numbers of fighters who are targeted on the basis of being combatants, but not on the basis of individuated intelligence.  They are fighting formations, being targeted on a mass basis as part of the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, as part of the basic CI doctrine of closing down cross-border safe havens and border interdiction of fighters.  Both of these functions can be, and are, carried out by drones – though each strategic function could be carried out by other means, such as SEAL 6 or CIA human teams, in the case of targeted killing, or manned aircraft in the case of attacks on Taliban formations.  The fundamental point is that they serve distinct strategic purposes.  Targeted killing is not synonymous with drone warfare, just as counterterrorism is analytically distinct from counterinsurgency.  (I discuss this in the opening sections of this draft chapter on SSRN.)

This analytic point affects how one sees the levels of drone attacks going up or down over the years.  Neither the total numbers of fighters killed nor the total number of drone strikes – going up or down over months – tells the whole story.  Total numbers do not distinguish between the high value targets, being targeted as part of the top down dismantling of Al Qaeda as a transnational terrorist organization, on the one hand, and ordinary Taliban being killed in much larger numbers as part of counterinsurgency activities essentially part of the ground war in Afghanistan, on the other.  Yet the distinction is crucial insofar as the two activities are, at the level of truly grand strategy, in support of each other – the war in Afghanistan and the global counterterrorism war both in support of the AUMF and US national security broadly – but at the level of ordinary strategic concerns, quite distinct in their requirements and conduct.  If targeted killing against AQ leadership goes well in Pakistan, those might diminish at some point in the future; what happens in the war against the Afghan Taliban is distinct and has its own rhythm, and in that effort, drones are simply another form of air weapon, an alternative to manned aircraft in an overt, conventional war.  Rising or falling numbers of drone strikes in the aggregate will not tell one very much without knowing what mission is at issue.

Moreover, to the extent that one can have confidence in counts of civilian casualties (though there is a convergence on accepting that drone warfare is gradually producing far lower civilian casualty counts than alternative means), it is still crucial to distinguish between the two types of strategic uses of drones.  Totals that run the two activities together are not analytically very useful.  Moreover, there is some reason to believe that the kind of targeting that might produce the most civilian casualties is, under some circumstances (and perhaps counterintuitively) targeting a single, individual terrorist leader, rather than a larger group of fighters.  The reason is that a terrorist leader in Al Qaeda might well deliberately surround himself with many women and children all the time, as human shields, thus raising at least the possibility of greater civilian harm, should political authorities decide that a strike is warranted despite the civilian presence.  The Taliban formation might consist of more fighters, but fewer civilians.

These are analytic possibilities; the publicly available data does not seem to me sufficiently robust to draw strong conclusions about the kind of activity and civilian casualties. My point is an analytic one – one has not said very much about drone warfare without disentangling the distinct strategic uses to which the weapon is put.

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