War, according to the great Prussian military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz was most profoundly a conflict of wills through an admixture of policy with “other means.” But Clausewitz never fully defined “other means.” There was little need.

For most of history, war was a contest between more or less like military forces. Defeating the enemy usually meant defeating his armies as a precondition for victory. Of course, insurgencies were as old as war. And, of course, insurgencies had relatively fixed geographic boundaries that, after the Duke of Wellington’s brilliant peninsula campaign during the Napoleonic Wars, became known as guerrilla or small wars.


The American way of war remains firepower intensive. We won World War II, with the Soviet army, literally blowing away the Wehrmacht with our superior firepower.

As technology improved dramatically, so did mobility and maneuver. The Iraqi military was shattered twice by this onslaught first in 1991 and then a dozen years later. And the initial and stunning success in Afghanistan in late 2001 demonstrated the effectiveness of this technology in support of Northern Alliance ground forces in routing the Taliban, at least for the moment.

Unfortunately, Clausewitz’s genius has been partially trumped by a critical question: How do even amazingly capable military forces defeat an adversary who lacks an army and uses insurgent, terrorist tactics, metastasized by a radical ideology in which suicide is a preferred weapon while possessing global reach manifested by the September 11th and other attacks against the U.S. and European allies?

Two answers: one has been to allow the military to take on nation-building missions designed to neutralize the attraction of the radical insurgents. Second is through a campaign of what the Israelis call targeted assassination by intelligence and special operations forces designed to kill the insurgent leadership.

Unfortunately, nation building is better accomplished by government institutions other than the military that Washington has dismally and consistently failed to mobilize for decades. And assassinations often create more new enemies than are killed off.

There is nothing new about killing top leaders in war as a means to shorten them. In 1943, U.S. Navy Adm. Chester Nimitz approved a mission that shot down and killed Japan’s greatest admiral, Isokuro Yamamoto. In Vietnam a generation later, the Phoenix Program assassinated tens of thousands of South Vietnamese suspected of being Viet Cong or agents of the North with mixed effects. Since Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. strategy has relied heavily on CIA and Joint Special Forces Operating Command assets to hunt down and kill Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani insurgents and al-Qaida.

The most visible program is the drones that are being employed in half dozen or so countries from Libya to South Asia. Many are controlled from Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas in the most antiseptic form of war imaginable with officers launching Hellfire missiles to kill human targets, hopefully “high-value,” from thousands of miles away. Some worry about the psychological effects of depersonalizing war. However, that isn’t the crucial issue. War in a technical age can be depersonalized.

Writing in 1991, 50 years after the Battle of Britain, British air force ace and hero Brian Kingcome coolly observed that he was fortunate to be stationed at Biggin Hill in the south of England which was “ideally situated operationally and socially,” meaning his Spitfire squadron was usually first to take on the Luftwaffe and that London wasn’t far away for a respite after the day’s fight. To some degree, the same situation existed in Vietnam and for the U.S. Air Force stationed in Thailand then.

The larger and more perplexing questions are to what degree has U.S. strategy become dependent on this interface of intelligence and special forces operations and the use of targeted assassinations against suspects who aren’t traditional military forces and hence fair game and indeed haven’t been accorded any sort of due process or juridical oversight and what are the long term consequences? Despite the best of intentions, CIA excesses and instances of misconduct by Special Forces in the past cannot be assumed away in the future.

Clearly, covert operations must be kept covert. This complicates oversight and makes legal and moral imperatives difficult to define and implement. What American, for example, would argue that the killing of Osama bin Laden was illegal or immoral on our part? Yet, killing a 15-year-old “Taliban” based on dubious intelligence is a different matter.

It is reported that in Afghanistan, like Iraq before, 10-20 raids a night are being carried out to eliminate Taliban and al-Qaida militants. No doubt the military has clear rules of engagement. However, the growing dependency on drones and intelligence/special operations forces could become perverted with grave moral and legal risks. We must ensure now that such outcomes won’t happen!

Harlan Ullman is Senior Advisor at the Atlantic Council, Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, and a frequent advisor to NATO. This article was syndicated by UPI.