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Target Neutralized

The mixed history of strategic manhunts.

May 16, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 33 • By BENJAMIN RUNKLE
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This explains the strategic success of the Geronimo campaign, the Che manhunt, and Operation Just Cause in Panama. In August 1886 the United States cruelly exiled all Chiricahua and White Springs Apaches, denying Geronimo potential sanctuary and recruits and leading him to surrender. The operation that captured Che Guevara was part of the Bolivian Army’s broader counterinsurgency campaign. And, recognizing the difficulty of targeting a dictator who specialized in counterintelligence, U.S. planners intentionally sought to neutralize key units of the Panamanian Defense Forces to render Noriega a general without an army once he evaded the initial snatch operation.

Which category will best describe bin Laden? The ultimate strategic significance of bin Laden’s killing depends on several questions about al Qaeda, the answers to which will become apparent only with time. 

Was bin Laden strategically irrelevant by the time of the SEALs’ raid, or will the computers seized from the Abbottabad compound show that he still exerted operational control over al Qaeda and its affiliates? Will another charismatic leader emerge to unify the al Qaeda franchises that have grown up over the past decade? Are these groups more dangerous as a decentralized network, or will the lack of a common strategy undermine their effectiveness? Is “bin Ladenism” an ideology gone viral that cannot be suppressed, or will the Arab Spring blunt its violent appeal?

Bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. forces was an important moment for American morale in the broader struggle against al Qaeda and its affiliates, and it represents a triumph of justice over evil. Whether it turns out to be a strategically significant turning point depends in part on choices the United States makes as it continues to prosecute the war.

Benjamin Runkle is a former official of the National Security Council and the author of Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to Bin Laden (forthcoming August 2 from Palgrave Macmillan).

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