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Published on December 2nd, 2013 | by Jack Cowell
Image © Photo: Corporal Steve Follows RAF/MOD


Did killing Hakimullah Mehsud help or hinder the war on terror?

It was some weeks ago now that Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in a CIA drone strike. While his death has been mistakenly reported in the past, reliable sources including the Taliban themselves have declared him officially dead, along with 5 other people also killed in the attack, including his bodyguard and driver.

This news seems to have been taken as a great victory for the CIA and counter-terrorism forces more generally. Mehsud was indeed a very welcome and high profile target for the CIA to have successfully “neutralised”, particularly in light of the rather dismal results of the drone campaign and the fierce public, not to mention judicial, backlash the government faced when the extent of their drone activities became apparent.

Yet one is forced to ask, just how conducive to the war against terror is such a tactic as leadership decapitation? Targeting key individuals who are seen as the charismatic and ideological heart of certain organisations has been the modus operandi of the US for many years; yet this approach has very little theoretical support. Many empirical studies into this tactic have in fact shown that, rather than helping to disturb activities, the use of such a tactic against such religiously motivated, complex and well established entities such as the Taliban has been enormously counter-productive. I argue here that, for several reasons, killing of the leadership of religiously dogmatic and established terrorist groups makes matters worse both generally and in this particular instance. It should therefore be dropped as a viable policy option.

Jenna Jordan’s 2009 paper When heads roll: Assessing the effectiveness of leadership decapitation is unequivocal in it’s conclusions that “organisations that have not had their leaders removed are more likely to fall apart than those that have undergone a loss of leadership”, and the “utility of decapitation is negative for many groups, particularly for larger, older, religious, and separatist organisations”. It is not difficult to find more hard empirical, statistical support for these conclusions. It is little wonder that the US is finding the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda and affiliates such an uphill one.

The contention that the tactic of leadership decapitation makes matters much worse also has substantial support. Max Abrahms in Why Terrorism does not work (2006) explains how terrorists who primarily target civilians will often frustrate their own goals because the public will always perceive their goals as much more radical and extensive than they necessarily are. In addition, the use of Drones, rather than soldiers on the ground, for targeting leaders of terrorist organisations, only heightens the belief that their attacker’s desire is to destroy THEM, their way of life, their beliefs, and to do so indiscriminately.

This would be especially damaging if, as in the case of Mehsud, the leader in question is currently engaged in peace negotiations with the government of the state in which they operate. How ameliorable the Taliban will be to peace talks in the near future is highly questionable, due in part to the actions of the CIA about a month ago in North Waziristan.

The Taliban has not had the same leaders for it’s entire existence; the group is already lining up replacements for Mehsud. The group will continue its activities with an invigorated leadership and a ground force embittered by their leader’s murder as he attempted to negotiate with the government. It is thus clear that the very costly, dangerous and simply inefficient tactic of leadership decapitation should be dropped as soon as possible. The US does not need to keep reinforcing it’s image as a murderer on the Muslim world, and the support of Western nations for such decapitation tactics will only make matters worse. There are much better avenues to be pursued. Until then, murder will continue, the peace process will remain where it is, and the lives of many people will be significantly worse off.

The only real way to stop governments from carrying out murders and assassinations (and by governments I mean the US in particular) as a viable foreign policy is to make the legal processes by which members of government are indicted much stronger, easier to implement and more public. Humanitarian cries always fall on deaf ears of governments. It is when a Committee member is looking at a 2 year court battle and the chances of punishment that policy direction begins to change. Such processes do exist, but they are weak and complicated. The group of people allowed to pursue litigation against the government for immoral foreign policy could be widened to include all citizens; we all surely have a say over what happens in our name abroad, especially if it is murder.

Of course this suggestion has its problems. Yet they remain a good starting point for thought, and a much better avenue to pursue than that of cold-blooded murder, only ever resulting in hatred and radicalisation.

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About the Author

Jack Cowell

Jack is from Liverpool and has a Politics degree from Sheffield University. He is mainly interested in domestic politics but also has a keen interest in Africa and Latin America. He also like Formula One, Everton FC, films and ska, reggae and metal music. He is currently spending his time working his way through Asia (the Continent, not the 1980's Prog Rock Band).

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