Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 11/2012

Whack-a-Mole or Coup de Grace? Institutionalization and Leadership Targeting in Iraq and Afghanistan

Austin Long

October 2012

Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies


War is fundamentally a clash of organizations. Organizations provide the vital mechanisms that mobilize and convert resources into combat power as well as applying that combat power against the enemy. This is true not only of conventional militaries, but also of insurgent and terrorist groups. Organizational capacity is thus a crucial determinant of success in conflict. Stephen Biddle, for example, attributes heavy causal weight for success in modern conventional military conflict to the relative capacity of military organizations to employ a set of techniques he terms “the modern system.” Philip Selznick argues that organization is equally crucial for success in political combat, where subversion of other organizations is as important as brute force. Yet despite the acknowledged importance of organizations to determining success in war, policymakers and military/security personnel often attribute great importance to the role of specific individuals, particularly in the context of counterterrorism. This gives rise to an operational technique deployed against insurgent and terrorist groups that seeks to destroy or cripple the organization by targeting senior and mid-level leadership. In particular, this technique has been a major component of the U.S.-led campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.6 A January 2011 assessment by then commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, specifically noted the importance to the campaign there of “…the relentless pace of targeted operations by ISAF and Afghan special operations forces. Indeed, while there clearly is a need for additional work in numerous areas, it is equally clear that ISAF and Afghan forces inflicted enormous losses on mid-level Taliban and Haqqani Network leaders throughout the country and took away some of their most important safe havens.”