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The Logic and Risks of Capture Operations

Marisa Porges has a forceful op-ed in today's NYT making the case for beefing up the capture component of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Read the whole thing:

At the moment, the United States has nowhere to hold and interrogate newly captured terrorists. America just handed over control of its detention facility at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, a significant step toward transferring security operations to Afghans. And while Guantánamo Bay remains home to nearly 170 men that the United States believes are still a threat, no captured terrorist has been transferred there since August 2008. Yet in the past four years, drone strikes and airstrikes targeting Al Qaeda affiliates in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia have increased dramatically.

Since 2010, there have been about 2,000 such strikes in Pakistan alone, with hundreds more in Yemen and North Africa. Meanwhile, only one alleged terrorist outside of Afghanistan — a Somali named Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame — was captured, held and interrogated. He was later flown to New York to stand trial.

....

The fact that the United States now has nowhere to hold a terrorist — and no policy to deal with him once captured — means that a dangerous suspect might very well be let go. At present, there is no standard course of action approved by the president and relevant government agencies for what to do in the days and months following capture.

This situation creates disturbing incentives for troops on the battlefield. It encourages soldiers and policy makers in Washington to opt for the “five-cent solution” — a bullet. Rather than shooting people, we should be exercising due process, and bringing transnational terrorists to justice. That’s an approach that would help America maintain the moral high ground in the ongoing fight against Al Qaeda.

That there needs to be more human intelligence collection in U.S. CT is beyond dispute. So too are the issues currently wracking American detention policy. Warsame, for example, spent a good deal of time onboard the USS Boxer, which Spencer Ackerman fairly described as a "floating Gitmo" when put to this use. But that's not the worst of it. Warsame was lucky enough to make it to a U.S. courtroom, but as Jeremy Scahill has documented, Somalia's NSA and the CIA run some dreadful sounding facilities where not just fighters found in Somalia, but alleged terrorists from Kenya face interrogation and detention. If U.S. detention policy ultimately ends up relying on building Bagrams and Guantanamos across AFRICOM and CENTCOM, or else employing the U.S. Navy to this end, counterterrorism with a human face might not turn out all it's cracked up to be.

But even leaving aside navigating the legal and logistical issue of where to put terrorists once we capture them - an issue that Porges readily acknowledges - there is an issue of how to bring back warm bodies from where we currently have drones buzzing overhead. This is a critical question, because the means the U.S. employs to capture terrorists and suspected terrorists will have a great impact on the costs, benefits, and relative merits and demerits of capturing HVTs as opposed to the current targeted killing campaign.

In Afghanistan, the massive conventional presence of U.S. forces was and still is a significant enabler for capture operations. Afghanistan's infamous night raids, now under the control of the Afghan military or specialized CIA-trained elements, are a prime example. Yet many familiar issues emerged. Civilians resented property damage, casualties, mistaken targets, lack of transparency or accountable due process, and increasing the role of the ANSF may not have significantly improved the situation.

In many respects though, Afghan night raids are easy. Special operations enjoy significant legal and operational freedom of movement. Large amounts of on-the-ground intelligence and conventional forces enable better targeting and mitigate the risks of raids. Try to pick up targets in, say, Somalia, and things get much harder. JSOC raids into that country required air and naval fire support, while the enabling conventional force in question was the Ethiopian military, which did not do much to win Somali hearts or minds. Penetrating Somalia has required a patchwork of often unsavory partner military forces, militia proxies, private contractors, and covert operations. While America has learned much from 1993's most infamous attempt to conduct HVT capture, its foes in Somalia continue to pose stiff security challenges - though fortunately Shabaab seems to be losing ground.

In Yemen, the U.S. has a number of options for conducting capture operations, none of them particularly appealing. It can rely on Yemen's government and U.S.-trained troops, whose political loyalty and human rights credentials are not great. Though drone strikes are destructive, so are smash-and-grab expeditions into ungoverned or hostile space, particularly with a partner state's less, well, delicate touch (this is the country that named its counterinsurgency against the Houthis Operation Scorched Earth, after all). While we should always remember that U.S. airstrikes - manned or unmanned - rely on significant theater basing and local covert ground presence, capture missions would likely increase the footprint of U.S. operations. In Yemen, geography is favorable enough to allow sea-based raiding, but maintaining raids at the tempo of drone strikes would likely mean a vastly expanded U.S. military presence in the area. Or else it might rely on the Yemeni government, the prisons of which helped radicalize an earlier generation of al Qaeda.

In Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, too, we see similarly pressing problems. As C. Christine Fair rightfully points out, it's been Pakistani conventional offensives (which would provide the presumed enabling element for an increased tempo of capture raids) that have done the most damage and displacement to the region's population. A law enforcement approach's outlook is bleak because the entire region, whether the U.S. likes it or not, falls under the Frontier Crimes Regulation, a colonial piece of legislation which makes playing by host rules and occupying the moral high ground an ethical gymnastics act. While Pakistan is willing to tolerate, to some extent, drone strikes on its soil, will it be so willing to replace them with more cross-border activity from JSOC, the CIA-trained Counterterrorism Pursuit Team, or let the U.S. direct its own security forces to a degree amenable to U.S. interests?

In areas where government capacity is strong and politically pliant, using the FBI to capture terrorist suspects will likely remain viable. When the U.S. tried to capture the 1993 CIA headquarter shooter, Aimal Kasi, the FBI worked with the Pakistani government to render him to the U.S. But they could not capture him until he entered Punjab province, and even then the U.S. initially hid the extent of Pakistani government involvement due to the controversy of the extradition. This was one arrest in 1997 - conducting arrests and renditions at a high tempo today simultaneously demands a much larger host government role while straining the political space for it to participate.

All this said, on balance the U.S. still must reorient its HVT program towards collecting HUMINT. For pragmatic and ethical reasons, the U.S. also must do something to fix the current legal and logistical morass of its detention policy. Yet assessing the proper role of capturing terrorists, and the likely degree of practical and moral surplus derived from it, demands a frank assessment about the demands of substituting captures for kills, and the capacity and willpower of the U.S. to undertake such operations. Even with the legal problems sorted out, and a system of prisons without the lingering insidious reputation of Guantanamo, Bagram, or CIA black sites, we still have the matter of kicking down the doors of suspected terrorists in well-armed and unfriendly neighborhoods and spiriting them away to a host or foreign prison. This is a process that will still likely get civilians killed, families unjustly torn apart, and put armed men and military hardware in places where they are not wanted. Dealing in such generalities, it is extremely hard to say whether this would appear, to the broader population, more moral, more desirable, or less encouraging of radicalism than drone strikes, in part because it is already so difficult to accurately measure very much about drone strikes in these regions to begin with.

Just look at the Phoenix Program, the massive effort to capture suspected foes in Vietnam to dismantle VC infrastructure. As William Rosenau and Austin Long explain in their invaluable report on its relevance for modern operations, the Phoenix Program unduly gained a lasting reputation as an "assassination" campaign of marauding "death squads" - a reputation so widespread that even President Nixon thought this was what the CIA-handled Provincial Reconnaissance Units were really aiming for. Whether using local governments, proxy forces, special operations, or some other element, snatching somebody from their home at night at gunpoint is a risky proposition for seeking political kudos. Particularly when placed alongside host governments that engage in disappearing opponents, brutal methods of counterinsurgency, and generally repressive practices, the perceptual and counter-radicalization benefits of a similar-tempo capture campaign might rapidly wane.

Doubtlessly, expecting all of this from an op-ed is a curmudgeon's (and a blogger's) game, but shifting the frame somewhat is necessary from a policy perspective. We must at least broach the question of what kind of force commitments and operational guidelines we need to effectively conduct a capture campaign is essential, as well as when and where we ought to employ such means.  While it's undeniable the HUMINT value of capture operations are higher, the costs of undertaking them may well reduce or even eliminate the presumed ancillary benefits.

Afghanistan, detention, Drones, Somalia

12 comments

How much HUMINT has gone up

How much HUMINT has gone up in drone strike smoke in 4 years? Retaliation for a drone-killing was the stated reason for the Libya embassy attack, and perhaps we'd have known something about the plan ahead of time with more intel operators and fewer drone operations.

Still shocking to me that there is virtually no US public outrage over these freelance assassinations. Riots over 700-some Guantanamo prisoners, but silence over 2,500 un-Constitutional murders. Crazy.

Now that Bush is no longer in

Now that Bush is no longer in office, there seems to be substantially less outrage over Gitmo. We should probably just continue to use it. Problem solved.

This has been my key point in

This has been my key point in response to people decrying the Awlaki operation. What, exactly, was the alternative? To send a JSOC team to raid his compound, situated in territory exponentially more militant & hostile to America than sleepy suburban Abottobad? Rely on Yemeni security forces, at the time caught up amidst the Saleh gov't crackdown? Yemen doesn't even have an extradition treaty with the US, so even if they did arrest him he'd still be outside the reach of the US criminal justice system.

Even the Bin Laden raid, as brilliantly precise as it was, resulted in the crash of a helicopter, the death of at least one noncombatant, and carried the inherent risks of casualties to our own forces and perhaps a direct confrontation with the Pakistani military. And oh yeah, it still resulted in the death of the HVT.

Yeah, I wanted to see Awlaki stand trial for his crimes. And if he'd chosen as a hiding place a city or region where the police maintained security and not Al Qaeda-friendly tribesmen, that might have happened. But as it was, when you have to consider the lives of American civilians if he's let go, and the lives of American troops & Yemeni civilians if you attempt some Mogadishu-style raid (and balance that against the likelihood action would still result in his death)...simply killing him as he drove along a dusty, lonely road quickly becomes the most agreeable option.

How does the idiot behind the

How does the idiot behind the COIN strategy still write articles on defense?

"we should be exercising due

"we should be exercising due process"

So that they can be released, which is what the Left wants.

HUMINT: You would have to possess it yourself. For instance recognizing that Saudi and Pakistan are enemies who foully betrayed us. Understanding there aren't coincidences on 9/11. Being able to take the enemies motive and their name from their own lips.

And perhaps after you had such insights, which is simply a matter of removing your blinkers, recognize yourselves that you lack the stomach to see this - or most difficult things - through and that you should step aside.

There's no need to gather intelligence. Your HUMINT is straining at gnats in a cloud of gnats to see which one bit you while swallowing the elephants of your own nonsense. They tell us who they are, we know who they are, we know where they are, you simply lack the will to do the necessary.

By all means lets just kill them, at least that takes one or more out of circulation. It also solves logistical and moral problems.

I respectfully, wonder what

I respectfully, wonder what exactly is so powerful about this opinion. It posits a strategy that is fairly well worn, acknowledges myriad obstacles which reach into realms of difficulty far beyond the reach of the executive branch and trumpets advantages and benefits that are both speculative and ephemeral.

As for due process: The court system can't even protect us from toothless meth addicts and gang tatted illiterates represented by third tier burnouts. How in the hell is it supposed to handle a worldwide war network represented by the best the ABA public interest kumbaya crowd has to offer? We'd have to build 3 gitmos just to store the discovery motions. I early on contended that the ACLU et al were doing their potential clients in by advocating utterly absurd notions of due process for these guys.

How much humint went up in the smoke of drone strikes? Probably a lot but that doesn't mean you were ever going to get it anyway. These guys aren't drunk wife beaters or punk car thieves, they know how to remain silent when allowed to.

Maybe in the rarefied air of the Plaza Hotel, at the NCAFP Gala Dinner, posing for PanachePrivee they got to her, and with the string quartet in the background the old colonels ghost could not be heard.

"To be or to do"

Swerving off further into

Swerving off further into drones. This study about the effect of drones in Afghanistan is rather interesting.

http://livingunderdrones.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Stanford_NYU_LIV...

Let them live under drones.

Let them live under drones. It's exactly the least we can do. Perhaps growing up scared will influence young adults not to listen to the Iman's telling them of the glories of Jihad.

There is no History of effective repression, excessive repression, fear and terror lead to terrorism, revolution. That's all very romantic. It's also nonsense. The Revolution happens when the grip relaxes. Since even they must be dimly aware that powerful people from very far away who clearly care not to rule them have made a great effort to bring war to them - however much a tiny bit of that power it is - they will realize they bought this on their own heads. Literally.

Incorporate this into Pashtunwalli: if you harbor others enemies and murderers, don't be surprised when the others come to your village.

Visitor Redux: "Still

Visitor Redux: "Still shocking to me that there is virtually no US public outrage over these freelance assassinations. Riots over 700-some Guantanamo prisoners, but silence over 2,500 un-Constitutional murders. Crazy."

Don't worry. If Romney gets elected, then the the "outrage" will pick up where it left off when Bush left office.

So when is the US of A going

So when is the US of A going to get foreign aid from Africa and the ME for the service?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zd68AthoNIw&feature=related

The prisons went underground when Patreas changed jobs, no surprise. Talk to the spinner and chief if you do not like it. They still exist just look were the State Department gives military aid. Hillary can not wait until the end of the year to bail, she already has an "independent" investigation to investigate Stevens death with a panel of friends. Smart move cause the "independent" investigation will shield her from the responsibility that will be assigned in her Presidential run. Guess that is a privilege of office to call and staff an investigation of yourself. Eric Holder did it just recently. Is there anyone in this administration that is responsible for what their staff does?

Eric, from the above thread, thing is letting people rot in jail without a trial invokes an image of unfairness in many American's minds the discussion is not logical. Not to mention flying against what Americans preach as basic human rights. If the Air Force does the killing or if the action is black then the outcome is logical and based on a different set of values or no values cause the action is invisible.

Doesn't hurt to have your boy in the WH, that is the best "look away" there is because power is moral.

What happens when the the left become the haters?

Who is going to protest then?

Maybe the people with the Drones frightening them daily for political gain. Isn't that the legal definition of terrorism?

As for due process: The court

As for due process: The court system can't even protect us from toothless meth addicts and gang tatted illiterates represented by third tier burnouts. How in the hell is it supposed to handle a worldwide war network represented by the best the ABA public interest kumbaya crowd has to offer?

I'd like to remark that the government has not lost a single terrorism trial during the last two decades. The military commissions have actually given more lenient sentences than an ordinary US district court would give.

Don't rely on the New York

Don't rely on the New York Times for your intel. ISAF still has a holding areas. I suggest you read the MOU on detention operations in Afghanistan.

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