The feasibility of capture raids over time

Ken Anderson wrote at Lawfare a couple days past on the distinction between feasibility as a legal and operational term, as it applies to special operations kill-or-capture missions. The main thrust of his post is on whether specifically capture-oriented SOF raids decline in feasibility over time:

The more convinced a terrorist target is that the US will attempt a capture operation, then, the greater the incentive he has to surround himself with civilians, and to prepare a gauntlet that a US special forces team will have to run to carry out the attack.  As terrorist targets of US special operations refine their tactics – as they will – the likelihood of civilian and special forces casualties increases and the likelihood of capturing the target decreases – indeed, killing the target might itself become difficult or infeasible.

First, I want to point out that such a trend may not necessarily detrimental to broader U.S. objectives. For while the immediate objective of a SOF raid is the capture and subsequent intelligence exploitation of a given target, each raid also acts as a deterrent and behavior modification tool. If, as Anderson correctly argues, terrorists or insurgents quickly adapt to new tactical realities, increased usage of capture raids will force them to adopt the “always be near civilians” force protection posture. This sounds bad for U.S. practice at first, but increased civilian presence will hamper the target over time. It burdens him with a larger logistics tail, adds a bevy of hangers-on that are not trained in operational security, and increases the sheer number of interactions that could lead to internecine struggle. Further, such benefits apply equally in both rural and urban settings. The deterrent effect of drone strikes works mainly against road travel and congregating in rural villages. The U.S., unwilling to fire AGM-114 Hellfire missiles into Karachi or Sana’a day after day, effectively cedes the cityscape. But the capture-wary target must have a coterie of civilians at all times, no matter the place.

Baraawe, Somalia, the coastal town where two U.S. raids occurred in 2009 and 2013. Courtest Ali Yusuf, Google Maps.

Baraawe, Somalia, the coastal town where two U.S. raids occurred in 2009 and 2013. Not cool to loose Hellfires on. Courtesy Ali Yusuf, Google Maps.

Second, even failed capture raids can appreciably benefit the U.S., if integrated into an intelligent information operations campaign. Strategically, the U.S. isn’t simply operating in the physical sphere. Late October’s tranche of human rights reports on “drone strikes” [sic, not my fault they can’t distinguish policy from platform] was just the latest in an ongoing war of attrition over U.S. moral leadership. One of the most striking, ubiquitous features of “anti-drone” rhetoric is the complete absence of discussion on U.S. rules of engagement and targeting practice. It’s a fair characterization to say that perhaps the majority of people do not know or believe that Washington makes considerable effort to avoid civilian casualties. As a platform, the unmanned aerial vehicle is irreparably tarred with this belief in indiscriminate killing. By contrast, Washington called off October’s Baraawe raid because it feared civilian casualties. If, as Anderson suggests, the U.S. should maintain uncertainty in its policy on capture-or-kill, it can simultaneously squeeze IO potential out of failed raids. It won’t always be able to do this—the bin Laden raid ended with several civilian casualties—but we should put a premium on highlighting the discriminating nature of SOF raids as early as possible. Last month’s acknowledgment was a start, but USG needs to do far more to give the message wide and credible play.

With such an IO strategy, SOF raids may achieve even greater feasibility over time. A general belief that the U.S. makes all attempts to avoid civilian casualties could open space for SOF raids on insurgents or terrorists that adhere to Anderson’s thesis. Outside maintaining policy ambiguity, I can’t see any other way to combat the trend he describes.

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