Before Osama bin Laden’s body was even cold—or wet, depending upon how quickly it was committed to the Arabian Sea—the debate over the significance of his demise at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs was underway. Some suggest he will prove irreplaceable to al Qaeda, a uniquely inspiring leader and fundraiser without whom the terrorist organization will succumb to centripetal forces. Others argue that because he had been in hiding for so long—ever since fleeing Afghanistan in late 2001—bin Laden had become operationally and strategically irrelevant, and that “Al Qaeda Central” had been eclipsed by dangerous franchises like Anwar al-Awlaki’s Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
History can shed some light on this discussion. When President George W. Bush declared he wanted bin Laden “dead or alive” in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, it was not the first time the United States had targeted an individual. Long before Washington offered $25 million for information on bin Laden’s whereabouts, the House of Representatives in May 1886 offered a reward of $25,000 for information leading to the capture or killing of Geronimo. In fact, the United States has deployed forces abroad to kill or capture one man to achieve a strategic objective almost a dozen times. Taken together, these campaigns show that there are three likely outcomes for a strategic manhunt.
• The target escapes, but we achieve our strategic objective. In 1916, 10,000 U.S. troops under General John J. Pershing invaded Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa, who had launched a deadly cross-border raid on Columbus, New Mexico. Although the “Punitive Expedition” failed to apprehend Villa, he was forced into hiding, and his operational capacity was degraded enough that cross-border incursions from Mexico were never again a significant threat to the United States.
Similarly, from 1927 to 1933, U.S. Marines pursued the Nicaraguan insurgent leader Augusto Sandino. Although Sandino was never captured, the U.S. presence led to the establishment of a stable, pro-American government.
• We capture or kill the target, but fail to achieve our broader objectives. In 1901 an American expedition led by Frederick Funston captured Filipino insurgent leader Emilio Aguinaldo. Fighting continued for nearly a decade, however, and the most brutal phase of the counter-insurgency campaign occurred after Aguinaldo swore a loyalty oath to the United States.
In the same way, U.S. intelligence assets and Delta Force assisted Colombian police in tracking and eventually killing drug lord Pablo Escobar, yet the nexus of cocaine trafficking from Colombia merely shifted from Medellín to Cali.
And U.S. forces captured Saddam Hussein and killed Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but neither success marked the turning point in defeating the Iraqi insurgency.
• We capture or kill the target, and achieve our strategic objective. In 1886, Geronimo surrendered to U.S. forces at Skeleton Canyon, marking the effective end of the Apache Wars which had once led General William Tecumseh Sherman to propose abandoning the Arizona Territory altogether.
In 1967, the capture and execution of Che Guevara by U.S.-trained (and clandestinely advised) Bolivian Army rangers ended the hemispheric threat of Cuban-exported Communist revolution.
And in 1989, the invasion of Panama and arrest of Manuel Noriega allowed that country to make a successful transition to democracy.
Thus, in the majority of cases, the success or failure in apprehending the targeted individual does not correlate with success or failure in achieving the broader strategic objective. An obvious exception is the failure to snare Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid and that country’s descent into its present Hobbesian nightmare. In retrospect, U.S. interests would probably have been better served by elevating Aidid to strongman than hunting him.
The reason for the disparity between the outcome of a manhunt and the achievement of our objective is simple: Pursuing an individual and forcing him to go to ground renders him strategically ineffective and creates space for other actors to step to the fore. From a strategic standpoint, the successful targeting of an individual is usually less important than the successful targeting of the network that either supports him or will carry on the struggle in his absence.