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Targeted Assassinations
Or The Pushbutton War
By Terrell E. Arnold
The arrival of General David Petraeus in command of forces in Afghanistan was accompanied by a fundamental change in strategy. The counterinsurgency, COIN for short, is now passé. Instead of trying to counter what the insurgents do and get them to change their habits, our goal is now to identify and kill their leaders. This strategy must be based on a first blush assumption that, without leaders, the Taliban will become harmless. This reduces the combat force need in Afghanistan to some as yet to be configured combination of intelligence officers and assassins.
Since the assassins are likely to be various remote weapons operators, flying drones into the appropriate target zone, the assassins mostly would not need to be in or even near Afghanistan. Rather, they could operate from the remote and safe surroundings of military bunkers in some US state. Or they could hover over their keyboards in the quiet spaces of a high flying aircraft. With this we have arrived at pushbutton war, remote, impersonal, and probably useless except as a way to justify buying billions of dollars worth of equipment.
Future modifications of their warfare obviously are called for by the other side. Warfare that depends on one side serving as a sitting duck obviously can be terminated quickly if the enemy simply decides not to put in an appearance. If the enemy, in this case the Taliban, decides to resort to similar tactics, their first list of targets obviously would be within Afghanistan. The Afghani, US and allied military leadership cadres would be obvious choices and the Taliban operational premise would be the same as the American one: If you kill the leadership, the followers will leave you alone. It would take considerable gearing up for the Taliban to compete successfully with US button pushers, but eventually they would acquire some suitable technology and get the hang of it.
The strategic question is: Why? Wars traditionally have well-defined on the ground objectives: Take a piece of valuable ground from its owner; take over a valuable mining or industrial property; establish control over what may become a slave, captive or subservient population; force changes of policies that are offensive; or modify the attitudes of other people toward who you are or what you do.  Such objectives traditionally have levied significant resource and capability demands on the war maker. Maxims such as "never attack unless your forces completely outnumber and/or outgun your enemy" were basic to the war maker's guide. But the basic rule of the game was your enemy had to be personally persuaded of the outcome. Making peace at a distance (or on the PC) was not in the cards.
World War II sort of changed that, but not really. To be sure, we invented carpet bombing and literally devastated cities such as Dresden in the process of convincing the Germans they had lost. But we then confined, brutalized and killed thousands of them after the fighting stopped to be sure that they had gotten the message. What we ultimately achieved was a peace in which generations of losers will remember our brutality. This is not really what one writes home about.
At best, targeted assassinations will make enemies of the victim's family, friends and maybe some of his tribal enemies. At worst, as eminently possible in the case of the Pashtun tribes, we will turn an entire society into long term enemies. The orders of variation in between are virtually all long term sources of enemies and troublemakers for the United States.
The hard question is: Will we succeed in Afghanistan? If we define peace as causing the Taliban to stop defending themselves or ridding the Pashtu community of its Islamic extremists, the answer is a resounding no. We must confront the fact that we have had thousands of combat troops in Afghanistan for nine, repeat nine years, and we have not destroyed al Qaida, our original goal, or cowed the Taliban, our current quandary. For military theorists, we have done a brilliant job of proving the ineffectiveness of conventional warfare strategies against insurgents; and we have done a superb job of demonstrating the resource burning asymmetry of the struggle against insurgency.  If there is a third lesson here, it most probably is that in this kind of warfare there is no clear-cut way of knowing when to quit.
At least seventy five years ago a science fiction writer whose name I cannot remember stumbled onto this problem. War between the two antagonists of his story had been going on for decades. It had drifted through a remorseless pattern of shifts in tactics and strategies on both sides, while neither gained any particular advantage. Meanwhile, warfare itself had escalated through stages of technology to a highly advanced level at which human forces never engaged or even saw each other.
Rather, the battle managers on each side had been reduced to one button pusher in a bunker for each side. In an acute turn of events, both button pushers pressed their buttons at the same instant. Each bunker was destroyed, but there were no other effects. The world could go on unarmed and unharmed.  The button pushers should be mindful of this danger from either their enemies or their bosses.
The writer is the author of the recently published work, A World Less Safe, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist on rense.com. He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State whose overseas service included tours in Egypt, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Brazil. His immediate pre-retirement positions were as Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College and as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counter Terrorism and Emergency Planning. He will welcome comment at

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