The Value of Killing Terrorists

tags: terrorism

Max Boot, a regular contributor to Commentary, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author, most recently, of "Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present Day."

The death of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor in a U.S. drone strike, has led to premature triumphalism on the part of the administration and to premature defeatism on the part of many national security analysts.

The administration seems to think that Mansoor’s replacement with one of his deputies, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, will magically lead the Taliban to embrace peace. Such hopes are nothing more than wishful thinking. The only thing that could convince the Taliban to give up their armed struggle is the realization that they will not succeed on the battlefield. Given the American drawdown in Afghanistan, they have plenty of reason to be optimistic about their chances today.

But does that mean that killing Mansoor or other terrorist leaders is useless? There have been many articles like this one by the estimable Rosa Brooks, who argues that targeted killings change nothing and can even make the situation worse by bringing more militant leaders to the top.

It is certainly possible to point to lots of terrorist leaders that the U.S. has killed, as Brooks does, without killing their movements. Israel has had the same experience with Hamas and Hezbollah, which have thrived after the deaths of senior leaders. I have written in my book Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present Day that “decapitation” strategies rarely work. But that does not mean they NEVER work or that they are useless.

There are examples throughout history of insurgencies more or less folding after the death or capture of their leaders. The Philippine insurrectos fighting American rule were essentially defeated after their leader, Emilio Aguinaldo, was captured in a 1901 U.S. Amy raid. The Shining Path in Peru was essentially defeated after their leader, Abimail Guzman, was captured in 1992. ...

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