We have mastered the art of hunting men. Refined over nearly two decades of nonstop counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations, and enhanced by a suite of increasingly powerful technological tools, the United States military has developed an extraordinary ability to find, fix, and finish targets worldwide.

The manhunt has been a central thrust of our military strategy since the 9/11 attacks. We have hunted Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Anwar al-Awlaki, an entire deck of cards worth of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and countless other lesser-known targets around the world. In the early years of the Global War on Terrorism, it became a running joke that the most dangerous job in the world was to be the number three man in al-Qaeda—such was the frequency with which that position was violently vacated.

Counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan eventually adopted a variation of the manhunt approach, with the rise of network-centric targeting. The mentality of hunting the enemy remained the same, while our target set expanded from the individual to the network. With a growing reliance on link-analysis software and technical collection platforms, we set about mapping the organizational structures of militant groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Mehdi Army, and the Taliban. The resulting insights illuminated critical nodes and weaknesses within these networks, which directed the application of lethal force.

Fast-forward to the present day: our targeting capabilities are as much science as art, with the military’s Joint Special Operations Command as the standard bearer of lethality. We can connect the dots faster than ever before, combing through data sets of staggering size and diversity, feeding a ruthlessly efficient operational process that we are executing on a global scale.

Why isn’t it working?

Considering our resources, talent, and reach, shouldn’t we have more to show for our efforts? We have proven ourselves highly effective at killing our enemies, but we have done so to limited overall effect. Why are we unable to showcase a single operational theater in which our exceptional lethal targeting prowess at the tactical level is delivering a commensurate strategic result?

Some argue that the whole enterprise has been misguided, and that the Global War on Terrorism has, in fact, been counterproductive. According to this argument, our wide-ranging application of lethal force has created more problems than it has solved. Others disagree with the premise that we have not been successful; they define “success” on more limited terms, and observe that relentless pressure against an array of global threats has prevented another 9/11-style attack on the United States. We have successfully degraded enemy networks and disrupted active plots, this argument goes, by keeping our foes off balance. In this reading, we are engaged in a long-term war of attrition, where an “off balance” enemy is a reasonable strategic outcome.

There are merits to both of these arguments, which have been laid out in great detail elsewhere. What is most striking, however, is the rarity of a third argument: that we are actually winning.

For all of our “mowing the grass” along the Afghanistan–Pakistan border, what have we actually achieved since September 12, 2001? Is jihadist violence any less of a threat? What about the relative strength of the Taliban?

Irrespective of our formidable lethality in the fight against the Islamic State, what does the future hold for our faltering campaign in Syria, or our tenuous partnership with Iraq? Who, apart from politicians, would claim that we are on the cusp of eradicating the Islamic State?

How many drone strikes have been launched into Pakistan and Yemen? Has our ability to find, fix, and finish targets improved the threat profile of either country?

What has been the net effect of our more recent—yet sprawlingly expansive—direct action campaign across Africa’s northern tier? Are we achieving substantive results in Somalia, Libya, or Niger?

Lethal Targeting is Here to Stay

Lethal targeting is, obviously, only one of the weapons that the US government brings to bear against its enemies. Diplomatic engagement, security force assistance, economic development, and numerous other lines of effort (to include the credible threat of large-scale conventional military action) are all meant to combine in an integrated approach that secures our interests abroad. Yet lethal targeting has become our go-to response to a host of post-9/11 challenges, and this has remained consistent through successive presidential administrations.

There are no indications that this will change. The cold reality is that many of the threats we face appear amenable to a targeting-led solution. From the Sahel to Syria and beyond, we face discrete organizations that can be attacked via the network-centric targeting paradigm. Meanwhile, the failure of multi-billion-dollar development, stabilization, and capacity-building campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq dictates that there will be no “Marshall Plan” for the Middle East, Africa, or any other geography from which threats may emerge. The United States government cannot afford such an effort, and the American people would not support one. Moreover, even in a scenario where we could mobilize the requisite resources and political will, our performance in Afghanistan and Iraq offers no hope of achieving even a modest return on investment.

The bottom line is that low-cost, low-profile lethal targeting will remain a central pillar of American foreign policy. This is understandable, in light of the nature of our enemies, and also of powerful domestic political and fiscal pressures against large-scale interventionism. Yet a growing reliance on lethal targeting as a core instrument of foreign policy should be worrying (irrespective of whether or not one supports a militarized Global War on Terrorism), because of the limitations of the approach outside of a larger, integrated campaign.

Targeting Success Strategic Success: Case Studies from Iraq & Mexico

Two examples will help illustrate the disconnect between the successful prosecution of targeting-based, manhunt-style campaigns and the achievement of strategic results.

First, look back to the Surge in Iraq. Prevailing wisdom still cites the successes of the Surge as the product of full-spectrum counterinsurgency. Conventional forces, the argument goes, drove a bottom-up campaign to improve security, development, and governance, while special operations task forces led a top-down lethal targeting barrage against high-value targets within al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Mehdi Army, and the Iran-backed Special Groups.

As someone who played an active role in the nonlethal side of the Surge (as a social scientist in Baghdad with the Human Terrain System), reality on the ground bore little resemblance to this narrative. The peace that was established in Baghdad between 2007 and 2009 had relatively little to do with local engagement, community outreach, or economic development. Instead, it was born of our ability to apply overwhelming lethal pressure against the relatively small Shia and Sunni militant groups who were responsible for the great majority of both intra-Iraqi and anti-coalition violence (with significant help from the simple fact that the intra-Iraqi sectarian war drew to a close during this time, with a decisive victory by Shia partisans). The local engagement, development, and security provision that occurred in Baghdad were not the driving forces behind the city’s pacification—they were lines of effort that played out in the space created by a hyper-aggressive lethal targeting campaign against very specific target sets.

The Surge’s extraordinary short-term achievements should not be understated. Yet they proved to be as fleeting in duration as they were expensive to achieve. Sustained lethal pressure enabled us to suppress violence dramatically, but only for so long as that pressure was maintained. In retrospect, the speed with which the Islamic State emerged from the ashes of al-Qaeda in Iraq was stunning. The moment that our elite forces reduced their operational tempo, al-Qaeda mutated into the Islamic State, thereafter evolving into something far more formidable than its predecessor had ever been.

Second, and closer to home, consider the counternarcotics campaign of the past decade in Mexico. Starting in 2006, the Mexican government adopted an aggressive “decapitation” strategy against drug cartels. Security forces captured or killed high-value targets like the Sinaloa Cartel’s Juan “El Chapo” Guzman, along with another 107 of the country’s 122 most violent criminals. This was an extraordinarily efficient targeting operation by the Mexican government (with an unspecified level of support from Uncle Sam), which was hailed as a hammer blow in the long-running war on drugs. Yet in the aftermath, cartel influence increased dramatically across Mexico, and the country’s murder rate exploded. The successful decapitation of cartel networks did not kill them, but instead caused a splintering that fueled intra-cartel power struggles and inter-cartel turf battles.

These two examples played out simultaneously, on opposite sides of the world. Both featured impressive near-term successes in the execution of manhunt-style targeting campaigns, followed by the rapid onset of a “new normal” that was demonstrably worse for all involved.

A Paradigm Shift: Clouds vs. Trees

As we recalibrate the Global War on Terrorism for our own “new normal” of limited budgets and lowered ambitions, we must start by preserving the genuine breakthroughs that have been achieved. Over the past two decades, for example, we have made tremendous organizational and procedural adaptations. As a result, we are more agile and efficient than ever before in how we execute the targeting process.

Yet there is a deeper problem to be addressed, which helps explain why extraordinary gains in speed and efficiency have not generated strategic results to match—and why we have, instead, grown ever more skilled at an interminable game of whac-a-mole. This relates to the inputs that drive the targeting process, and the way that we think about our enemies.

At present, we take a two-dimensional view of enemy organizations, visualizing them in link-analysis diagrams as isolated, standalone networks. The lethal targeting process treats these organizations like clouds floating above the landscape, or like molecules in suspension. The intelligence professionals who feed the targeting process are zeroed in on the features of these networks, as they identify vulnerabilities and attack nodes and linkages with ruthless efficiency.

The problem is that this produces a dangerously incomplete and ultimately misleading view of our enemies. Networks like the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban do not float, cloud-like, above the terrain. They cannot be understood as something distinct from the societies in which they operate. A lethal targeting campaign that is structurally blind to the connections between our enemies and the human terrain is inevitably doomed to fail.

Instead, these organizations are better thought of as trees, with elaborate root structures that sink deep into local social, economic, and political ecosystems. These root structures are not captured in the link-analysis diagrams that drive our lethal targeting—we see only the limbs and branches. As such, the analytical and strategic decision-making processes that drive lethal action are blind to them, and to their second- and third-order implications. The result is that we wind up hacking away at entities that we do not fully understand. Instead of destroying these groups and the threats that they represent, we wind up pruning them.

Tear Down This Wall

It is a truism that we cannot “kill our way to victory” against the asymmetric threats that we face. At the same time, it is inevitable that lethal force will remain a central element of our campaign against the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, et al. The challenge will be to find the correct balance between lethal and nonlethal approaches (in an environment where the United States military will be asked to “do more with less”).

This balance can be best achieved through integration—by aligning the analytical and intellectual processes that drive our actions—so that our decision making about lethal force is fully merged with our nonlethal efforts. Full integration will create synergies, efficiencies, and economies of scale.

This will require an adjustment to the targeting process, and the demolition of a wall that we have built within our intelligence function. At present, the analysts who find and fix targets for direct action are effectively quarantined from those who assess social, economic, and political dynamics. The two groups ask entirely different questions, driving parallel analytical processes. In theory, these processes are aligned and complementary. In reality, however, they are stovepiped and unintegrated.

Both efforts are poorer as a result. Consider the vast resources that have been brought to bear on nonlethal engagement and development programs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now consider how shamefully little we have to show for these efforts. Consider the incredibly prolific lethal targeting campaigns that have been enacted in both theaters. Now consider that every one of the networks that we have attacked remains a formidable threat to American interests.

A critical factor in this systemic failure is the bifurcation of analytical processes noted above. On the lethal side, we have targeted networks without due consideration for their connectivity to the operating environment. It is one thing to hunt Iranian-backed Special Group networks in Iraq. It is quite another thing to check the strategic influence of these groups in Iraqi politics and disrupt their lines of support in Iraqi society. We were highly successful at the former, but failed completely at the latter. Which matters more?

On the nonlethal side, we have spent staggering amounts of money to drive economic development, ostensibly as a part of a unified campaign plan. But how many spending decisions were the products of granular analysis regarding, for example, the Haqqani network’s specific position vis-à-vis local tribal dynamics in key villages of southeastern Afghanistan? How might such an effort have been integrated with a lethal targeting campaign against the network’s key liaisons to these villages, in an effort to disrupt local lines of support? In another context, to what extent was Surge-era CERP (Commander’s Emergency Response Program) spending in Baghdad targeted with a specific objective of, for example, lessening the grip of the Mehdi Army on the neighborhoods surrounding Sadr City, by leveraging detailed knowledge of mahallah-level dynamics, and the relationship between the militia’s cadre and local franchise commanders?

This sort of integrated action requires that we break down the silos that have been erected within our intelligence apparatus. The two ends of the intelligence spectrum—network-centric lethal targeting and human terrain analysis—should be fused in a way that compensates for challenges that have limited the efficacy of each discipline. The end result would be to broaden the focus of an integrated targeting process, supplementing our view of the nodes and linkages within a network with an equally detailed view of its connectivity to the human terrain.

This analytical shift would not require any changes to our current (and extremely efficient) network-centric targeting methods. We would be simply adding additional layers of analysis onto the network-centric view, as we map out the root structures of a given network, and then examine contiguous features of the human terrain. For example, imagine a link-analysis diagram of Boko Haram’s core network in northern Nigeria, represented as a two-dimensional wire diagram on a piece of paper. The analytical shift advocated here can be conceptualized by lifting up that piece of paper, holding it parallel to your desk, and then visualizing in the root structure that connects the network to the human terrain below. By mapping out these connections, and then conducting a structured analysis of Boko Haram’s touchpoints into Nigerian society, we would achieve a three-dimensional understanding of the network in context. The synthesized result of these layers of analysis would feed seamlessly into an integrated target selection and course of action development process.

In addition to adding vital contextual understanding to the lethal targeting process, we would be adding structure and methodological consistency to human terrain analysis. The Human Terrain System was decommissioned for a number of reasons. Paramount among them was inconsistency. Far too often, contextual reporting on social, economic, political, and cultural dynamics was “interesting” or “nice to know,” but not actionable. This was, arguably, the inevitable result of an impossibly broad mandate—to provide “sociocultural insights” into societies that were complex and dynamic—that was not accompanied by a structured process or method.

It is a straightforward proposition to assert that “the human terrain is the decisive terrain,” and that the local population is “the center of gravity.” But what do the men and women at the tactical level do with these observations? How does someone act on this sort of platitude in a real-world situation? The “fill in the blanks” approach of our ASCOPE and PMESII frameworks drives a closed, reductive intellectual process that is ill suited to delivering granular, actionable insights. We need a roadmap to guide exploration, not analytical boxes to tick. Without structural focus and methodological consistency, where and how do we begin to map out the civil considerations of a city like Mosul, or a country like Mali? An anthropologist or sociologist could spend an entire career exploring either of those geographies, generating “interesting” but unactionable insights.

An integrated targeting process would offer that structure and consistency. By using a focused view of the enemy’s connectivity into local society as our framework, and by institutionalizing a process and method for collection and analysis of a consistent set of key indicators, we would ensure operational relevance. The full integration of analytical processes would enable targeting and human terrain analysts to collaborate in the development of coordinated campaigns to cut away branches and limbs, disrupt root structures, and reshape the surrounding terrain to deny vital sustenance. Our depth of contextual understanding would enable the anticipation of second- and third-order effects. A holistic view of the enemy in context, captured within the targeting process (and, ideally, visualized within the software platforms that enable our analysis), would give rise to genuinely integrated action. It would drive a more focused and measured approach to lethal and nonlethal action alike. This would provide the operational framework for a refined approach to the Global War on Terrorism, wherein direct action, influence operations, economic development, and civil engagement are all driven by a fully integrated, shared analytical process. Such an approach would enable the US military to better harness its tactical prowess in the pursuit of strategic ends, while simultaneously facilitating interagency cooperation. The end result would enable us to move beyond hunting men, and start winning wars.


Dr. Nicholas Krohley is the founder of FrontLine Advisory and a former non-resident fellow at the Modern War Institute. He can be reached at nkrohley@frontlineadvisory.com.


Image credit: Spc. Ryan DeBooy, US Army