Targeted Killing

Denial of Territory to Terrorist/Insurgent Groups in Counterterrorism Strategy

By Kenneth Anderson
Sunday, January 27, 2013, 4:57 PM

Jack and Ben have already flagged their entries in a Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law series on national security challenges for the second Obama term (Hoover is adding one essay per day, all very short opinion piece of 1200 words of so).  My contribution points out that US "counterterrorism-on-offense," as I've sometimes called it, consists of much more than simply drone strikes; much of it is denial of territory to terrorist groups.  The Obama administration needs to emphasize the broader strategy to journalists, policy folks, activists, and general public, because its utilization of drone warfare is not really comprehensible save in this broader strategy.  It also needs to articulate the legal and political legitimacy of these intertwined counterterrorism activities, as well as to "own" some things it has not really emphasized in the past (presumably out of concern for the political repercussions both domestic and international), if only because they are likely to grow in strategic importance to the US.

These activities beyond drone strikes include, in particular, active, forcible measures to deny territory to terrorist groups. As the piece explains, US counterterrorism strategists recognize fully that counterterrorism does best when there is a capacity to attack individual leaders - so called high value terrorist targets - and so continually undermine and degrade the group's organizational possibilities.  But US counterterrorism strategists likewise recognize fully that in tandem with attacks on individuals, it remains essential to deny the terrorist group territory - places to establish safe havens, places to which to retreat, regroup, train, and plan and launch offensive operations.  The US counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan was, after all, from the beginning aimed at denying territory to Al Qaeda and terrorist groups; the conventional war of, first, toppling the Taliban government as hosts to AQ, and second, seeking to establish governance conditions in Afghanistan such that it would not fall back into being a haven state for terrorist groups.  The US has pursued CI war in the long-run service of CT.

Drone warfare has long played a role in CI conventional war support.  You can't prevail in a CI war, goes the strategic view, if your adversaries can easily retreat to genuinely safe havens - and so, in the surge in Afghanistan, however restrictive the ROE in Afghanistan proper, much greater force and latitude to attack was extended to missions over the border to attack Taliban havens in Pakistan.  But that was, and is, essentially drone strikes - including so-called "signatures strikes" against groups presenting indicators of being "hostile forces" within the meaning of conventional war ROE - functioning as just another air platform in conventional CI warfare.  From a strategic standpoint, in theory one could use manned aircraft and military assets directly; the reasons for using drones and the CIA include force utilization and the utility of combining drones in surveillance and strike capabilities, intelligence assets, and political sensitivities in Pakistan leading to the continued formality of non-acknowledgment.

That's territorial denial, but its strategic function is still to the ends of existing CI conflict.  Thus, the US attacks Taliban camps over the border so that those forces can't easily come and attack US forces engaged in on-the-ground CI in Afghanistan.  But territorial denial is equally important for CT, even where there is not (in strategic, not legal, terms) a CI war underway.  The problem going forward for the second Obama term is this:  The US does not want to engage in more conventional ground wars.  But its strategists recognize that CT requires that terrorists not retain safe havens, which is a territorial issue.  The idea that the US could step back to merely over the horizon drone strikes and special forces against transnational terrorist groups was at most a passing thought in 2009 from Vice-President Biden, and never a driver of US strategic thinking, so far as I can tell.  The "drone-strikes-alone" view, however, has taken alarming root among many journalists and pundits (though not, I'm happy to note, at the national security reporting teams of the WSJ, WaPo, the NYT, or Eli Lake), and that misperception accounts for many of the stranger criticisms of drone warfare; criticized as though it were ever intended to exist in a strategic vacuum.

What to do, however, if you understand the strategic necessity of denying safe havens but you don't want more US ground wars?  As the short essay points out, this leads to the largely ignored, but increasingly important, role of US military and intelligence advisors and assistance to governments seeking to prevent, or dislodge, terrorist groups on their territory.  It also leads to proxy forces - I would estimate an important role of the CIA in the post-US military formal role in Afghanistan.  These are mechanisms for denying territory to terrorist groups, without the US having engage in CI conventional war itself.  In that regard, drone warfare and targeted killing remain as vital as ever - maintaining an offensive directly against terrorist groups unmediated by ground territory - but it is intertwined with territorial denial CT.

The core observation of this essay, however, is that territorial denial really consists of two different geographical concepts:  On the one hand, denial of mere physical space in which to establish safe havens and, on the other, denial of the much more ambitious aim of mingled transnational terrorist-internal insurgent groups to seize "governance control" over a whole swathe of territory in a political sense, and govern that territory and its population.  Denial of "physical" geography and denial of "governance" geography.  Denial of "governance" geography is what the French are doing in Mali - but it is not, in that particular strategic regard, very different from what the US has been doing in Yemen, where US drones serve as the air arm of the Yemeni government's war against its insurgents-transnational terrorists.    Here is the essay's opening:

Over the last four years, nearly all the attention of commentators—supportive and critical alike—regarding US counterterrorism operations abroad has been focused on drone strikes. While drone warfare issues are important, it is a mistake for the public debate over US counterterrorism operations abroad to be so narrowly confined to targeted killing without considering the broader objective of denying terrorists territory.

Increasingly, the US government’s counterterrorism strategy has embraced the view that although targeted killing of identified terrorist leaders is highly successful and essential, long-term strategy must also ensure that terrorist groups neither gain control of territory nor maintain territorial safe havens in which to regroup, train, rebuild, and finally launch attacks abroad.  Counterterrorism thus has a territorial element separate from targeted killing.

Territorial denial takes two distinct forms.  One form targets terrorists who establish safe haven in some ungoverned or lightly governed part of a weak state, or who are allowed such by a sympathetic state.  The terrorist group is able to inhabit territory as a matter of “physical” geography—it gets a place to hide—but it does not politically govern the territory or its population. The other form of territorial denial focuses on terrorists attempting to establish governing control of the areas they inhabit.