February 1, 2011  

Hunt to kill

Targeted warfare has a legitimate place on the irregular battlefield

In increasingly complicated security dilemmas, some states are finally and overtly coming to grips with the reality that blunt military responses are the path to progress. The engagement in an attempted “kinder, gentler war” to quell severe and irregular warfare is simply not working, nor should it have ever been expected to work in places such as Afghanistan. After all, war is not the realm of benevolence — it is the realm of violence, and the whole point of engaging in war is to subdue the enemy’s will to fight to bring about a better situation than previously existed. War is not, despite what many experts are putting forth, some form of bridge-building contest.

Changing military doctrine so that soldiers become construction workers, or worse, baby sitters, straddles the insane, and America is not alone in this area. Counterinsurgency (COIN) efforts have mutated into extremely costly and lengthy wars — wars that the U.S., for example, cannot sustain for much longer. If states battling violent and irregular actors want to win (e.g. reach policy objectives), they must fully embrace certain strategies however unpalatable they may seem. This is where targeted warfare has come into play.

Targeted warfare, at least for the purpose of this article, is simply a blanket term that refers to the application of targeted killings carried out by a state against irregular violent actors through various tactics — whether by drones, fighter jets, combat helicopters or on-the-ground special operations forces.

A targeted killing is a state-level, intentionally focused operation using every resource that intelligence agencies and armed forces have at their disposal with the objective of forcefully and permanently eliminating specific individuals from armed conflict, or at the very least deterring them from partaking in armed hostilities. While targeted warfare has and will continue to result in unintentional noncombatant casualties, it is overall the most surgical military force possible.

In fact, targeted warfare is probably the most humane application of warfare in the whole bloody realm of armed conflict. Despite this, much of the American military and political leadership, not to mention the American public, is being told that such activity is illegal, unethical and ineffective — none of which is correct.

The U.S. is embroiled in what can be best understood as irregular warfare. This is happening in Afghanistan, with hostilities occurring in areas of Pakistan — the latter being the prime hot bed of violent, irregular and highly ideological militants. There are a number of other theaters of operations in which the American military is active and where targeted warfare is occurring.

COIN is proving to be a better theory on paper than in practice, so the U.S. security establishment has returned to other, more logical methods, and rightfully so.

There are other examples of a state engaging in correct strategy. The Israel Defense Forces and its symbiotic relationship with domestic intelligence and police agencies have resulted in necessary and effective targeted warfare against those who belong to irregular armed organizations that use violence as a means to set policy. Even the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled in favor of the use of targeted warfare, albeit under specific conditions. That progressive ruling is recognition of unique security dilemmas facing the Israelis.

Nevertheless, this is not an article on the efficacy of targeted killings. Rather, this is about providing “recognitions” directly related to targeted warfare — recognitions on law, conflict, strategy and examples from others’ experiences in targeted warfare. The purpose of these four basic recognitions is to help bring a better understanding to a widely misunderstood topic to both military and political leadership and, in turn, the very people they are protecting: the American public.

Generally speaking, one of the major problems that Americans suffer from is the misunderstanding of the type of conflict in which they are involved. This misunderstanding leads to much confusion about an applied strategy of targeted warfare. For Americans, a surface-level explanation sees the mass media being the main culprit in ”context confusion.” Reporters often borrow specific military terminology in a fast and loose manner, using terms interchangeably, applying multiple and varying terms at once, or simply using incorrect terminology. However, a deeper-level explanation can be understood as mainly emanating from three spheres: legal commentary, military leadership and a misunderstanding of the strategy.


Legal commentary often offers the view that unless American military commanders and their forces engage in the new, nicer theory of war (meaning full embracement of international law and, to a lesser extent, COIN), their actions are illegal, unethical or ineffective. This could not be further from the truth. Moreover, Americans are now subject to highly respected legal and human rights organizations bringing forward ludicrous lawsuits on behalf of known terrorists who have been plotting attacks against Americans, or at the very least inciting others to engage in terrorist activity.

In a specific case related to targeted warfare, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union stated that because a known terrorist (who happens to be American) is hiding in Yemen and not in Afghanistan or Pakistan, the government is breaching its legal limits by targeting him. The ACLU’s case is at best spurious and, ultimately, legally irrelevant, as will be shown. Moreover, lest legal experts forget, Yemen has been a haven to hundreds of al-Qaida members; it was the location of the bombing of the destroyer Cole, and terrorists operating out of Yemen were in contact with the so-called Christmas Day bomber and alleged Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan. Sheik Anwar al-Awlaki is also believed to be hiding in Yemen. He is on a CIA most-wanted list for his role in inciting (and allegedly being connected to) terrorism.

U.S. leaders and the American public are led to believe that because al-Awlaki holds American citizenship, the CIA and the military cannot legally target him. Rather, they believe that according to the law, he must be arrested and allowed to stand trial — which is incorrect. It also shows their misunderstanding of the armed conflict, as arrest is most often not a viable option.

In testimony last year before a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee, William C. Banks, director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University, noted that Congress has sanctioned CIA covert operations “if findings are prepared and delivered to select members of Congress before the operation described, or in a ‘timely fashion’ thereafter.” He added that as long as oversight committees on intelligence are always up-to-date and in the loop, “the intelligence laws permit the President broad discretion to utilize the nation’s intelligence agencies to carry out national security operations, implicitly including targeted killing.” The wording cannot be more explicit. For whatever reasons, many legal and human rights organizations have not come to grips with a simple, yet crucial notion: Legalities need to fit the realities of modern irregular warfare, not the other way around.

One of the main areas of contention and confusion centers on the use of the word “assassinations,” a term that is often used by the media and opponents of targeted warfare. In many cases, the phrase “targeted assassinations” is used — a gross revision of specific terminology. Many Americans are under the false impression that targeted killings were banned in the 1970s during the tenure of President Gerald Ford, brought back to life following the 9/11 attacks and that the American military along with the CIA is running around the world assassinating people. In fact, CIA complicity in assassinations was banned, but not targeted killings.

To be clear, targeted killings are not the same as assassinations — a term that is nowhere found in international legal documents. This is not a game of semantics. “Assassination” does not exist in the Geneva Conventions, the United Nations Charter, international case law or the International Criminal Court. There is an abundance of discourse regarding the 1907 Hague Convention IV–23(b). Some hold that these important international legal documents banned assassinations. According to the convention, it is prohibited “to kill or wound treacherously individuals belonging to the hostile nation or army.”

The U.S. strategy of targeted warfare is far from treacherous — it could not be more overt. Some go further and state that killing individuals in occupied territory is also prohibited. This is true, but only to a point. If individuals are physically attacking the military occupiers, plotting to attack them or directing others to attack them with the aim of killing, then it is legal and ethical to fire first.

Ultimately, “assassination” is an extremely loaded term. Targeted warfare, which includes preventive action involving the deliberate death of an individual to ultimately save lives, is not equivalent to an assassination, such as those committed against nonviolent political leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Patrice Lumumba, Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. Targeted warfare is specifically aimed at those involved in violence; it is geared toward those who can be understood as the “helplessly unappeasable” or “irreconcilables.” It is overt, perpetrated with severe discrimination, calculation and precision, and while most operations do not result in a “one-hit kill,” the intention for precision (e.g., a specific, nonrandom target) is a clear and crucial element of targeted warfare. The principles of proportionality and discrimination are always applied.

American military and intelligence personnel are not running around the world assassinating people –— they are involved in legal use of force that is “perfectly proper under the laws of war.” Or, as Banks told the subcommittee: “In a time of war, subjecting individual combatants to lethal force has been a permitted and lawful instrument of waging war successfully.” The American military, along with the CIA, is doing nothing illegal or unethical when carrying out targeted killings, even against American citizens who are participating in violence against American interests.


Some military experts are no less guilty of confusing the American public. For an example, look to this quote from David Kilcullen, former COIN adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, in his book “The Accidental Guerrilla”: “Effective counterinsurgency provides human security to the population, where they live, 24 hours a day. This, not destroying the enemy, is the central task.”

No wonder Americans are confused. They should be after reading statements like that. Destroying the enemy may not be the central task, but destroying his will to fight is, and to think otherwise is to ignore the whole history of warfare. If the history of warfare has shown us anything, it is that breaking the enemy’s will is best facilitated by constant physical attrition — something that America’s enemies in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan seem to grasp well. Sapping the enemy of his will to continue engaging in armed violence is — and must always be — the prime goal. On this, there should be no compromise.

What military leaders must understand and subsequently help others comprehend — something rarely accomplished — is to acknowledge that they are involved in war, albeit irregular warfare. Calling it something other than war not only confuses the people on whose behalf you are fighting, but it is also a futile attempt at changing the nature of war.

Either way, regular or irregular, the American military and its allies are engaged in nothing less than armed coercion to force those they are fighting to heed to their political intentions, to paraphrase the great Prussian. It is also an activity where your opponent is forcefully attempting to coerce you to his heed to his political will. Targeted warfare is simply one strategy in the U.S. arsenal that aims at breaking the enemy’s will to fight, and if given enough time, patience and resolution, then theoretically the strategy has high potential for success.


Targeted warfare is not a policy; it is a strategy that exists in viable tactics, all of which are subordinate to policy. Policy and strategy are not synonymous. Policy, as Christopher Bassford put it, is best described as “the rational subcomponent of politics, the reasoned purposes and actions of the various individual actors in the political struggle.” Strategy, on the other hand, refers to the use or threat of use of all instruments of power to secure political objectives. Colin Gray has expressed it as “the bridge that purposefully should connect means with ends, most especially military force with the political purposes for which it is applied.”

The policy of the U.S. government regarding militant members of the Taliban and al-Qaida in Pakistan and elsewhere is to persuade them to forgo the use of armed violence and, hopefully, to keep them out of power. Targeted warfare is just one strategy in pursuit of that policy, albeit with violent objectives. The goal of targeted warfare is therefore twofold: to violently remove armed militants from war and to serve the overall policy of convincing militants to abandon armed violence. To put it in simpler terms: The whole purpose of your government engaging in targeted warfare is to attempt to save your lives by killing people who want to kill you.

Further, there is no evidence to suggest that a strategy of targeted warfare is solely responsible for any form of “boomerang effect.” The truth is that any U.S.-led coalition action against militants may result in retaliatory action. That means that the results from targeted warfare would be no different from any other type of U.S. military activity, and it is far more likely to be surgical. And, as stated earlier, it is aimed at irreconcilables. In irregular warfare, the section of the population that is overtly taking up arms against you is rarely able to transition to neutral status. Additionally, it is a fallacy that violence always begets violence.

Throughout most of human history, violence used for political objectives always ends at some point and usually results in some form of peace, assuming that the policy is rational. What the American military, with assistance of the CIA, is attempting to do by engaging in a strategy of targeted warfare is to use limited force in pursuit of rational policy, ultimately leading to some type of peace.


Targeted warfare, in the context of modern irregular warfare, has proven to be successful. Assuming that the policy is rational, and if the strategy and tactics are applied correctly, one can expect positive gains. Americans have already experienced this, given that they have successfully targeted more than half of al-Qaida’s top leaders. Yet, looking to others for examples never hurts, and the Israelis are a good example that Americans should be emulating, specifically Israeli targeted warfare against Hamas between 2000 and 2005. It is true that the Israelis are a different case from the Americans, but for the most part this is in relation to intelligence gathering — not in relation to policy, nor the strategy and tactics of targeted warfare.

In late September 2000, an armed conflict erupted in the Palestinian Administered Territories and eventually within Israel proper. From the Israeli perspective, the conflict can be viewed as counterterrorism backed up by pure military muscle. Ultimately, it was irregular warfare that involved a regular army against violent irregular politico-militant actors. While the Israelis have always dabbled in targeted killing operations, targeted warfare became highly and overtly operational during the five-year armed conflict.

The main reason that the Israelis chose to take this path was a reaction to the waves of suicide bombings against Israeli noncombatants that engulfed Israel proper. While the Israelis “hit” just about every militant organization in the territories, the bulk of targeted warfare was saved for the most effective Palestinian organization: Hamas.

Throughout the five-year conflict, leader after leader, engineer after engineer, and bomber after bomber were relentlessly pursued. The result was a decline in suicide bombings and calls from Hamas for ceasefires and “calms.” The decline in suicide bombings is also attributable to other Israeli counterterrorism activity, but by 2004 calls for ceasefires were, according to Israeli military and political leadership, as well as a number of studies on targeted killings, a direct result of targeted warfare. The Israelis were relentless in their strategy, and it eventually bore the fruits of policy objectives, albeit for a limited period.

American military and political leaders need to continue approaching targeted warfare with an open mind and beware of those exclaiming that the action is illegal, unethical or ineffective. This strategy has the potential for being the most surgical and limited military force that any state can apply. As such, one might inquire why it is not applied more often. As is known, a one-off kill rarely produces immediate results; the strategy must be given time and applied with patience and resolution. While it is true that targeted warfare might inflame a population, the alternatives must be weighed. As Anthony Cordesman rightfully noted: “We have no alternative way to fight and all of the other options would be far worse even if they were available.”

Breaking the enemy’s will to continue fighting is the goal, and one way to achieve that goal is through the incessant and unyielding targeted killing of violent irregular actors, with a special focus on the leadership over “foot soldiers” — though all options should remain on the table. As strikes are being ramped up, it is high time that Americans embrace simple recognitions. First, a strategy of targeted warfare is legal. Second, it is proving to be effective. Third, the strategy is ethical, assuming of course that protecting American lives is a moral activity. Lastly, it is neither wrong nor taboo to observe others’ experiences in targeted warfare to better your own approach in warfare. Americans need to seize on this strategy, not squirm because of its application. AFJ

A.E. STAHL is a doctoral candidate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and a research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism.