Update on Strategic Manhunting/Studying Special Operations

Benjamin Runkle, author of the forthcoming Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to Bin Laden, about which I wrote the other day, has a brief but thought-provoking article about the topic here at Foreign Policy.  In it he asks why we are attracted to the notion of strategic manhunting.  (HOTEL TANGO to Elizabeth Nathan.)

He finds that “killing or capturing an individual seldom correlates to strategic success” but assesses nevertheless that the idea of manhunting is likely to remain attractive to us.  Two of the several  reasons for this, he suggests, are that the idea of inducing strategic paralysis is attractive and that we manhunt because today’s technology means that we can.

These reasons, which I think are quite right, remind me of those other technologically-enabled theorists who have proposed other ways of achieving strategic paralysis: Fuller, and Boyd, and Warden, for instance.  One might also add Harlan Ullman in there.  For a book that is well worth reading and that casts a lot of cold water on such ideas (thought it doesn’t address Ullman), see James Kiras’ Special Operations and Strategy:  From World War II to the War on Terrorism.  Kiras basically argues that we have given too much attention to one-off “special operations and great raids” and their alleged ability to induce strategic paralysis and other dramatic effects.  In part this has happened because there is a great deal of literature about such operations.  He maintains that we should instead understand the strategic importance of special operations forces as lying primarily in their ability to induce “moral and material attrition in conjunction with conventional forces.”  He seeks to align himself against those who are attracted to ideas of “strategic annihilation” and alongside those who purportedly really understood the strategic dimensions of attrition.  In this latter category he puts Clausewitz, Delbrück, Mao, and T. E. Lawrence.

I’m still undecided on whether I really agree with Kiras, but it does seem to me that the idea has some obvious congruence with counterinsurgency efforts like the one in Iraq where special operations were ubiquitous and apparently indispensable but seldom dramatic stop-the-presses kinds of affairs.  Rather, they were a key part of the effort to hold the enemy in check while the broader Coalition force made blandishments to the population as a whole.

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