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Targeted Killings and Pakistan: Focus on the Policy

Some familiarity with strategic theory might not save the hopelessly confused debate on targeted killings in the "AfPak" region, but it might help. The basics: policy is a condition or behavior. Strategy is an instrumental device that accomplishes the policy. Policy, in turn, is created and continuously shaped by political processes. Even a good strategy can be rendered meaningless by bad policy. Targeted killing is not a "policy," as many have argued, as an action cannot be policy. Policy is a precondition to action. Strategy, in turn, is not entirely about fighting but is mainly based around the threat or use of military force. Hence targeted killing is a strategy of the state, not a tactic. All strategy takes empirical form in tactics but the art of strategy itself is arranging those tactics in a manner that achieves the political object.

Sometimes a strategy will be ineffective and cannot achieve the desired policy ends. The sudden collapse of the Japanese Empire in 1945 rendered irrelevant the Chinese Communist Party's strategy of building a conventional army around northern base areas while simultaneously building guerrilla bases farther to the south. Sometimes the policy itself is delusional and no strategy can save it, as was the case with the Islamic Republic of Iran's dream of conquering 1980s Iraq after it repelled Saddam Hussein's troops. Strategy and policy, however, have to be meaningfully separated and discussed in order to find clarity.

Most discussion about targeted killings in Pakistan revolve around questions of strategy--is a targeted killing strategy preferable, given the alternatives? By far, Joshua Foust is distingushing himself as one of the most thorough commentators on this question. A strategy of targeted killing may do less harm than the traditional Pakistani (and first British) method of exercising control over the regions criscrossed by American combat platforms: "butcher and bolt" punitive combined-arms raiding. It would certainly be preferbable if Pakistan would exercise its sovereignty with a method other than indirect rule and collective punishment. That's unfortunately as unlikely as Pakistan ceasing its support for militant groups engaged in armed aggression against its neighbors.

It also makes little sense to raise the cost of targeted killing if doing so will set back the policy the United States is seeking to achieve. If the policy is presumed to be correct, then the dominant concern should be ensuring that the right targets are selected. If greater transparency incentivizes this process, then we should all be for transparency. Strategy accomplishes the policy by either disarming the opponent or breaking his will to fight on. Killing the wrong people should be avoided, and if less and more precise strikes accomplish this goal then targeting authorizations should be tightened. But it makes little sense--if we feel the policy is correct--to limit the levels of force employed if the alternatives to achieving the policy goal are distinctly suboptimal.

Now, all of this presumes that the policy is correct. That proposition is in fact extremely debatable, and this uncertainty has implications for the implicit strategic and ethic calculations we are debating. First, US policy towards Pakistan has been, as Christine Fair notes, a case study in catastrophe. The United states has attempted to transform Pakistan's domestic politics through various forms of statecraft, all of which have ended in failure. If Bob Woodward is to be believed, the 2009 Afghan surge was built around the implicit idea that stabilizing Afghanistan would help the US better manage Pakistan. And as Greg Scoblete has noted, the intensity of the targeted killing campaign--and its attendant collateral damage--in part issues from the necessity of fighting the Pakistani border side of the war in Afghanistan.

Also embedded in the conversation about targeted killing is the problematic policy assumption that the greater problem is al-Qaeda rather than Pakistan itself. As Scoblete noted: "is the U.S. targetting militants that threaten the Pakistani state, or those sponsored by the Pakistani state. It's rather perverse to argue that drones are critical to protect Pakistan from militant violence when that country's intelligence service believes it is at war with you and uses militants to advance its own interests." This has immense implications for the American theory of victory behind the targeted killing campaign. There is no theory of victory if the policy presumes that we are unable to disarm or coerce the enemy because Pakistan's geostrategic postures make doing so impossible.

If the policy goal itself is flawed, then the targeted killing campaign may not, in fact, be the best way for the United States to defend itself from its declared enemies. Thus the ethical calculations that we presume when weighing air strikes vs. Pakistani air-ground offensives may be more complex than we think. Fair has outlined an alternative set of policies--containment and neglect--and a set of politico-military instruments that may obviate the need for the US to rely on targeted killings altogether. Or at least change the shape of how the United States employs force within Pakistan. A shift in regional posture, such as the United States adopting a different policy towards Afghanistan itself, may also open up different coercive options.

The question of policy is unfortunately rarely raised. Rather, we seem to prefer an circular conversation about the morality of machine warfare that was empirically decided a hundred years ago with the invention of Maxim guns, indirect fire systems, and ground-attack aircraft. Even talking about strategy may not necessarily yield insights. Let's focus on the policy.

UPDATE: James Joyner pointed out in Para 3 I use the phrase "policy" to refer to targeted killings. Mea culpa: the pervasiveness of the use of the public language has infected even my head. I have changed the paragraph.

AfPak, Strategy, targeted killings


But it is impossible to draw

But it is impossible to draw a line between the POLICY that drives an action and the STRATEGY that achieves it. We saw attempts at that sort of division in Vietnam with Phoenix. Right?

Citing yourself...not a good

Citing yourself...not a good policy. Though it appears that Adam has a decent grasp of policy theory, his understanding of reality is quite off base. Also, his writing style is no better his depiction of U.S. policy.

Tom B, Sure, all three

Tom B,

Sure, all three elements of policy, strategy, and tactics are interdependent in practice and also feed into each other. Still doesn't mean we shouldn't recognize them as separate things.

In the meantime while we have

In the meantime while we have debates on definitions and academic terms, lets teach FEAR to the regions harboring terrorists attacking us at home and abroad. While you're debating what you should debate and how to define the defintions. Yes Pakistan is at war with us, and we're paying for it. I daresay the Raj or the USSR would have known exactly what to do in response to attacks on London or Moscow. We however are ruled by academics and their frankly dimmer pupils, who graduate with C's based on family name or racial quota. Not that High Marks is qualification for...anything but more school.

Just keep killing people until you figure out what to figure out. The more I think about them looking up helplessly at the sky in fear, the more fitting and frankly Just a method this seems.

Is Joshua Foust paying you to

Is Joshua Foust paying you to link to him?

While our young fight wars in

While our young fight wars in foreign lands, we also have human parasites like below who vote to keep social welfare programs pumping money. Why don't we elected Chavez as our next President?




Aelkus isn't your argument

Aelkus isn't your argument really just about semantics and academics.

Humans are geared towards using their life experience to navigate the questions that your are sorting out. It may make the discussion more correct or order it within the neurons of your mind to strike definitions. In the end, "if it walks and quacks like a" I will let you finish the rest. Where the rubber hits the road is if “target killings” are working to end the war on terror no matter whom they focus on.

Be interesting to wrap up all the costs of supporting Special Ops and the CIA to run these missions and determine a bottom line number of cost-per-kill. I suspect the number would be in the 100's of millions per. No matter what the policy, strategy, or tactic the USG is working within the societies where the targets are located. The repercussion of the targeted killings is distrust of Americans. That distrust bubbles up in the form of the Anti-American riots that we have seen spread across 30 odd Muslim countries in the last month. Think about it, you are operating in countries were conspiracy rules that day with education levels that could not get a mind around your academic hierarchy of policy engagement.

You can add one more dimension to your list of scholarly definitions, perception. If “targeted killings” changes the perception of America in the countries, which we operate in, then I say that we had better carry two shovels on our journey of revenge. It is perception that moderates policy in a political sense and it is also what determines effectiveness of strategy and tactic. Consideration of perception is the divide in blending cultures.

It might be better to focus on why the enemy attacks America and address those issues. After ten years and 6,000 odd of our children dead, you would think that we would not need to split hairs in the discussion of our policy.

These countries are getting a great deal, foreign aid with no strings or expectations attached. With those conditions the expected results are known up front. The question is, do you know what the expected results are?

Comment by While our young fight wars, we now have the Obama Phone on September 28, 2012 - 3:38am

Those “Obama Phones” are used in illegal activity, American Police Departments can prove it. Problems is that once a program like free phones is put in place, no matter how good the intention, there is lack of oversight in its administration. You can say that about many of the freebees that the USG hands out. Sad thing is that the programs get votes and that is corruption. Be nice if we could help those that truly need it and want to better themselves and communities rather them just themselves. Insensitivity to perception adds to the terrorists narrative and strengthens their message.

The surge in Afghanistan was a failure. America is is stuffing money in pockets using a shot gun approach and hoping to raise the average performance. Meanwhile the Afghan people that got the money are looking at the future and heading out of Afghanistan these are the people that could make the difference.

People wanting to better their communities is a missing piece in this puzzle and is universal.

From above in the ending

From above in the ending paragraphs past "BTW"

"Insensitivity to perception adds to the terrorists narrative and strengthens their message."

Bad "cut and paste" on my part, will let you figure out where it belongs up thread. Think if it as an alternate ending.

Technically, the drone

Technically, the drone strikes are a Tactical operation with Strategic effects.

Policy is not a level of war but is the foundation of Strategy. As I am sure you know, there are three levels to War: the Strategic, Operational, and Tactical.

Strategy is "the art and science of developing integrated concepts and...courses of action directed toward securing the objectives of national and alliance or coalition security policy...by the use of force, threatened use of force, or operations not involving the use of force within a theater" (JP 1-02).

The Tactical level is "the ordered arrangement and maneuver of combat elements in relation to each other and to the enemy to achieve combat objectives" (JP 1-02).

And the most important level, which ties together Strategy and Tactics, is the Operational which is "the level of war at which campaigns and major operations are planned, conducted, and sustained to accomplish strategic objectives within theaters or other operational areas. Activities at this level link tactics and strategy by establishing operational objectives needed to accomplish the strategic objectives, sequencing events to achieve the operational objectives, initiating actions, and applying resources to bring about and sustain these events. These activities imply a broader dimension of time or space than do tactics; they ensure the logistic and administrative support of tactical forces, and they provide the means by which tactical successes are exploited to achieve strategic objectives" (JP 1-02).

Thanks for the opportunity to contribute...

Mako06, I am not saying


I am not saying policy is a level of war, but rather the object that strategy instrumentally accomplishes. I am aware of the JP definitions in US doctrine, but I also do not feel they are particularly useful or helpful. The phrase "tactical operation with strategic effect" is somewhat redundant, as strategy takes form in tactics. This was the primary problem with EBO theory--all operations have effects! Rather than a level of war, strategy is best conceptualized as a "bridge" between policy and tactics, connecting violence and statecraft. One does not "do" tactics while having a strategy, strategy is "done" as tactics. As Wilf Owen and Adam Stahl pointed out in a piece I linked, targeted killings are, within this frame, a strategy designed to accomplish the policy of the state to disrupt militant organizations. I draw most of these concepts from Clausewitz and his latter-day interpreters (like Colin Gray).

I did not mean to imply you

I did not mean to imply you thought policy was a level of war, but I can easily see how you could think that I meant as such...my apologies.

I think understand your point as I did read the Owen and Stahl paper, but not sure I agree as I believe we are making something more complicated than it needs to be. I believe the "bridge" you are talking about already exists at the Operational level of war. As an operational-level (3-4 star level) war planner, my job was to take policy and "grand strategy" and design a tactical campaign in order to achieve those objectives. Campaign design, I believe, is the "bridge" you, Stahl, and Owen are referring to. I see the drone operations as a campaign designed to tactically achieve the "policy of the state to disrupt militant organizations".

Additionally, I would say that not all Tactics have Strategic effects, so there is no redundancy. Most Tactics have Operational effects (ie. effects designed to forward/achieve the campaign efforts), but the drone campaign is a Tactical operation whose impact can be felt not only at the Operational level, like all tactical operations, but also at the Strategic level and even at the level of policy making/implementation. Not all Tactical operations have such an impact.

When I say something has an effect at the Strategic level, I mean that the effects begin to impact policy development and implementation. Another example of Tactical operations with an effect at the Strategic level would be the night raids. These raids impacted the Strategic relationship between the USGOV and the gov of Afghanistan.

I hope that helps to clear up my muddled point above. Would certainly like to hear your take on "campaign design" being the "bridge" between policy and tactics...or am I missing your idea of what a "bridge" should be?

And thanks for the response and the links. Interesting reading all around.

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