Predator vs. Max Weber in South Asia

By Austin Long The recent death of Baitullah Mehsud from a missile attack launched by a U.S. drone and the ensuing succession controversy for the leadership of the TTP can rightly be scored a tactical success for the United States and Pakistan. It also provides an opportunity to reflect on one of the major elements ...

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581535_090831_drone22.jpg

By Austin Long

The recent death of Baitullah Mehsud from a missile attack launched by a U.S. drone and the ensuing succession controversy for the leadership of the TTP can rightly be scored a tactical success for the United States and Pakistan. It also provides an opportunity to reflect on one of the major elements of U.S. counterinsurgency since 2001, a set of operations against so-called "high value targets" (HVTs) or "high value individuals" (HVIs). These operations are intended to capture or kill key leaders or facilitators of insurgent activity.


By Austin Long

The recent death of Baitullah Mehsud from a missile attack launched by a U.S. drone and the ensuing succession controversy for the leadership of the TTP can rightly be scored a tactical success for the United States and Pakistan. It also provides an opportunity to reflect on one of the major elements of U.S. counterinsurgency since 2001, a set of operations against so-called “high value targets” (HVTs) or “high value individuals” (HVIs). These operations are intended to capture or kill key leaders or facilitators of insurgent activity.

In addition to the drone attacks in Pakistan, these operations have been conducted by special operations task forces and CIA in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, these operations have achieved numerous tactical successes, most notably the death in 2006 of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Similar results have been achieved in Afghanistan, including the death in 2007 of senior Taliban (meaning here Quetta Shura affiliates) commander Mullah Dadullah.

However, these tactical successes have not always translated into more operational or strategic level success. According to a leaked 2006 Marine Corps intelligence assessment, the killing of Zarqawi had “little impact on the structure and capabilities of AQI, especially in al-Anbar.” Likewise, the death of Mullah Dadullah had minimal effect on the Taliban, as it overran the district center of Ghorak in Kandahar province the month after his death. This limited effect is in stark contrast to the effects of Baitullah Mehsud’s death, which has at a minimum caused serious disruptions to the internal unity of the TTP.

The explanation for this disparity is in the differing nature of insurgent organizations and leadership. Both AQI and the Taliban are what German sociologist Max Weber termed “bureaucratic-rational” organizations. They are characterized by functional specialization, hierarchy, and the crucial ability to quickly promote individuals to replace killed or captured leaders. AQI also had robust internal reporting mechanisms with dedicated “administrative emirs” to oversee logistics.

The Taliban may not quite be to that level but nonetheless has considerable organizational acumen. The TTP, in contrast, combines elements of what Weber termed “traditional” authority, in the form of tribal links, with “charismatic” authority, embodied in Baitullah Mehsud. Rather than an integrated chain of command as with AQI or the Taliban, the TTP relied heavily on Baitullah’s personal authority to hold together a confederation of tribes and subtribes. Unless Baitullah’s successor can replicate his charisma and ability to mediate disputes the organization will likely splinter.

Understanding the implications of organizational structure for high-value targeting is important for at least three reasons.

First, high-value targeting is not cost-free. It often requires the commitment of large quantities of scarce resources, principally intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets and special operations personnel. If the pay-off from these operations is of limited strategic significance, then these assets may be better used elsewhere.

Second, there are often collateral effects of high-value targeting, be it civilian casualties caused by a missile strike or the disruption of efforts to build local trust caused by a raid. Prioritizing high-value targets above other counterinsurgency operations can exacerbate these collateral effects.

Third, the arguments above apply to U.S. and Pakistani allies as well as adversaries. Tribal lashkars and other militias rely on traditional and charismatic authority, making them vulnerable to high-value targeting by insurgents.

These organizations should be replaced by or incorporated into the state bureaucratic structure as quickly as is feasible to reduce this vulnerability.

Austin Long is an assistant professor at Columbia University’s School of
International and Public Affairs and co-author with William Rosenau of The
Phoenix Program and Contemporary Counterinsurgency
(RAND, 2009).

JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images

Austin Long is assistant professor in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.

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