Leaked CIA report says targeted killing programs could backfire

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Drone strikes and other targeted counterinsurgency programs aimed at capturing or killing “high-value targets” belonging to militant groups could be effective if coupled with larger strategic goals, the CIA believes, but they could also backfire.

That’s the conclusion the agency came to back in 2009, when it completed a review of the positive and negative consequences of targeted assassinations on counterinsurgency efforts. Published online by WikiLeaks on Thursday, the document – dubbed “Making High-Value Targeting Operations an Effective Counterinsurgency Tool” – details operations and outcomes in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, Northern Ireland, and more.

These types of high-value targeting (HVT) operations were said to involve taking aim at individuals whose death, or “removal,” as the CIA termed it, “disproportionately degrade[s] an insurgent group’s effectiveness.”

While HVT efforts were found to have worked in some cases – the simple fact that they were ongoing significantly reduced Osama bin Laden’s ability to lead Al-Qaeda, the report found – they were not as effective in others. For example, the Taliban was able to keep replenishing leadership positions and keep its structure intact despite “sustained” targeted operations begun in 2001.

Notably, the review’s release online comes as the Pentagon announced that American airstrikes in Iraq have killed three senior Islamic State military leaders. The United States and its coalition partners are trying to beat back the extremist group in Iraq and Syria, where it has made significant gains over the past year.

“It is disruptive to their planning and command and control,” Gen. Martin Dempsey said. “These are high-value targets, senior leadership.”

In the leaked analysis, the CIA said the positive effects of HVT efforts include “eroding insurgent effectiveness,” disrupting strategies and support to the point that the central government gains an advantage, reducing morale and insurgent will, and “fragmenting or splitting the insurgent group.”

The CIA pointed out that in the case of Osama bin Laden, HVT operations forced the Al-Qaeda leader into hiding and minimized his use of technology. This “affected his ability to command his organization” by making it difficult to meet with other members in person and direct them.

Also detailed is what the CIA called a “pruning approach,”which involves killing select individuals based on their importance to a group’s functionality rather than simply taking aim at senior leadership. In Iraq, the CIA found that “removing individuals who are important to the organization’s core functions—such as those running its car-bombing networks—has had a more demonstrable effect” when it came to reducing the effectiveness of Al-Qaeda groups.

This approach could also be used to “protect incompetent leaders or restore them to positions of authority” by killing more effective subordinates.

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