War is fundamentally a clash of organizations. Organizations provide the vital mechanisms that mobilize and convert resources into combat power as well as applying that combat power against the enemy.[1] This is true not only of conventional militaries, but also of insurgent and terrorist groups.[2] One operational technique deployed against insurgent and terrorist groups seeks to destroy or cripple the organization by targeting senior and mid-level leadership. In particular, this technique has been a major component of the U.S.-led campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.[3] This technique, termed leadership targeting, has attracted a modest amount of recent scholarship seeking to evaluate its effectiveness.[4]

Yet despite its policy importance, leadership targeting remains understudied. This is especially true of leadership targeting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it is in part due to the high levels of secrecy that surround these efforts as well as the general difficulty in evaluating the effects of such targeting on clandestine organizations operating in war zones. More can be done, however, to develop both the theoretical understanding of these efforts and also the empirical picture of what has and is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This article begins with the argument that the key variable in determining the overall effectiveness of leadership targeting is the level of institutionalization of the organization targeted. Moreover, this is true not only of insurgent or terrorist groups targeted, but also of groups opposed to such organizations that are targeted by insurgents or terrorists. This argument is then illustrated by evidence and vignettes from Iraq.

The Importance of Institutionalization
In combat, whether conventional or not, all organizations lose leadership at various levels. On the Eastern Front in World War II, for example, the German Army suffered massive losses among its officer corps. Omer Bartov estimates that from May 1942 to May 1945, the elite Grossdeutschland Division suffered casualties among its officers equivalent to three or four times its initial complement.[5] Yet even this is an understatement of the scale and speed of leadership casualties among the division’s frontline combat units. The division’s Sixth Grenadier Company had 10 different leaders from July 26 to September 5, 1943. During the course of fighting on March 8-9, 1944, the company had three different commanders.[6] In November 1942, the 2nd Battalion of the division’s 2nd Infantry Regiment “lost its commander, adjutant, as well as all company and platoon commanders in the course of one single Russian artillery barrage which lasted only twenty minutes.”[7] Despite these ferocious casualties, the Grossdeutschland Division was able to continually replace leaders and remained a coherent and effective combat unit, serving as a mobile reserve for much of the Eastern Front until almost the end of the war.[8]

What explains the Grossdeutschland Division’s ability to remain an effective combat force despite loss of leadership? The answer is that it could efficiently and effectively replace its lost leaders due to institutionalization.[9] Institutionalization requires two elements. The first is the existence of hierarchy and specialization in the organization. The second is that authority and position in the organization derives from that hierarchy. These two factors allow the organization to routinely and smoothly replace lost leaders.

This process is so normal and routine in conventional military organizations that it is simply taken for granted. Yet it is also applicable to other organizations such as insurgent groups or anti-insurgent militias. These organizations are not equally institutionalized, and therefore variation in the effects of the loss of leadership should be expected. This leads to a simple testable hypothesis. Organizations that are well-institutionalized should be expected to suffer only temporary disruption from losing leadership, while groups that are poorly institutionalized should be crippled or even collapse when subjected to a leadership targeting campaign.

The coding used for “institutionalization” will be based on whether an organization exhibits functional specialization, hierarchy, and bureaucratic processes for conducting operations.[10] An organization that possesses these attributes will be coded as “well-institutionalized,” while one that does not will be coded as “poorly institutionalized.” The remainder of this article tests this hypothesis with a series of vignettes from Iraq.[11]

The Iraqi Case
In Iraq, Anbar Province was the heartland of the Sunni insurgency from 2003-2007. The insurgency in Anbar had multiple organizations, with some more institutionalized than others. Al-Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI) was, in 2004, a new organization but one that was rapidly institutionalizing, creating hierarchy and specialization through a system of amirs (leaders), who by 2006 were functionally specialized and existed in a hierarchical order with bureaucratic processes for conducting operations (as evidenced by copious captured documents and computer records).[12] For example, AQI in a given town or region would be led by an overall amir, who was supported by an administrative amir, a military amir, a media amir, and possibly others depending on the time and place. There were also specific sub-units within the organization dedicated to bringing foreign fighters into the country and to generating revenue through various licit and illicit activities. These amirs both directed local cells beneath them and reported to more senior leadership. In short, by 2006 at the latest AQI was a well-institutionalized organization.

Yet in 2004 other organizations existed and were at least as potent in terms of raw manpower and assets. One organization in particular was the Falluja Shura Council, headed by Abdullah Janabi, a prominent cleric. Yet unlike AQI, which was seeking to institutionalize, the Falluja Shura Council relied heavily on Janabi’s personal gravitas and charisma (wasta) to hold the organization together. There is no evidence it developed functional specialization or more than a very loose hierarchy, much less any bureaucratic procedures. Janabi, along with AQI’s Omar Hadid, was one of the primary leadership targets when coalition forces launched Operation al-Fajr (The Dawn) to retake Falluja in November 2004. Omar Hadid was killed and Janabi was forced to flee Iraq and has not returned. As a result, the Falluja Shura Council collapsed, while AQI regrouped in other parts of Iraq, including Ramadi and al-Qaim.[13]

In Ramadi, AQI, led by an Iraqi known as Abu Khattab, came into conflict with local tribal leaders as well as other insurgent groups. By the end of 2005, this conflict had turned violent, with AQI engaging in skirmishes with members of the nationalist 1920 Revolution Brigade affiliated with the cleric Muhammad Mahmoud Latif, and with tribal elements including the Anbar People’s Committee affiliated with the prominent Shaykh Nasir al-Fahadawi. Like the Falluja Shura Council, the Anbar People’s Council relied heavily on the wasta of Shaykh Nasir and Muhammad Mahmoud Latif, with little evidence of institutionalization.

AQI’s response to this resistance was to unleash its own leadership targeting campaign, which killed both Shaykh Nasir and nearly killed Mohammed Mahmoud Latif, who was forced to flee Iraq. In the same time period, Abu Khattab was killed along with other AQI leaders. The effects of these leadership losses varied greatly. AQI continued to grow in strength in 2006, while the Anbar People’s Committee collapsed and other tribal leaders were cowed into ceasing resistance against AQI, at least temporarily.[14]

The situation in Ramadi began to change in the summer of 2006 when some tribal leaders were able to mitigate AQI’s ability to target them by allying with the United States.[15] These tribal leaders, along with U.S. forces, continued to target AQI’s leadership. Yet AQI remained combat effective, even preparing to launch a massive assault on Ramadi in June 2007.[16]

AQI successfully targeted one of the main leaders of the Ramadi resistance, Shaykh Sattar al-Rishawi, in late 2007, but by that time the U.S. military had enabled some institutionalization to the resistance (principally by having tribesmen join the police or quasi-police units called Provincial Security Forces).[17] Shaykh Sattar’s death in late 2007 therefore had substantially less effect (although it did provoke frictions among potential successors) than it likely would have had a year earlier. Leadership targeting has continued by both sides in 2010, with AQI continuing to show resilience while anti-AQI groups (known as the Sons of Iraq) are reporting defections to AQI at least in part because U.S. forces and the government of Iraq are not acting to mitigate AQI’s leadership targeting.[18]

A final vignette illustrates the differing effect of leadership targeting on well-institutionalized versus poorly institutionalized organizations. On June 26, 2008, a major meeting of shaykhs, political figures, and coalition forces in Karma, a small town northeast of Falluja, was struck by a suicide bomber (presumed to be an AQI affiliate). The blast killed several prominent Iraqis and Americans, including the respected mayor of Karma and a U.S. Marine battalion commander.[19] The battalion commander was almost immediately replaced, on an interim basis, by one of his subordinates. In contrast, the attack created turmoil in the local tribe, the al-Jumayli. While it did not kill the tribe’s shaykh, it substantially intimidated and discredited him. After some deliberation, during which the tribe’s ability to act was limited, the shaykh was effectively sidelined in favor of a respected kinsman of a more martial bent.

The foregoing is suggestive at best but does support the hypothesis. Well-institutionalized organizations such as AQI have proven extraordinarily resistant to even sustained leadership targeting efforts, suffering disruption but able to continually replace lost leaders. In contrast, poorly institutionalized organizations, both insurgent and anti-insurgent, appear vulnerable to leadership targeting.

This does not mean that leadership targeting has no effect on well-institutionalized organizations. It is still disruptive at a minimum as even the effective replacement of leaders is not instantaneous. Furthermore, such efforts also exert a suppressive effect on leaders, as they must undertake extensive security measures to avoid being targeted. Yet these are tactical and operational rather than strategic effects. In terms of President Barack Obama’s declared goal of “disrupting, dismantling, and defeating” al-Qa`ida, leadership targeting, whether carried out by special operations forces in Afghanistan or drones in Pakistan, can create disruption and temporary dismantling, but it cannot defeat the organization.

For policymakers, this in turn suggests that expectations and resource allocation should be managed with an eye to the institutionalization of both hostile and allied organizations. If confronted by poorly institutionalized insurgent organizations, leadership targeting can have a substantial effect and should be resourced accordingly. However, dedicating massive resources to leadership targeting of well-institutionalized groups, while under-resourcing efforts to protect poorly institutionalized but useful anti-insurgent organizations, appears sub-optimal.

Austin Long is an Assistant Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs and a Member of the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. He was previously an Associate Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation. While at RAND, he served in Iraq as an analyst and adviser to Multinational Force-Iraq’s Task Force 134/Detention Operations and the I Marine Expeditionary Force.

[1] Allan R. Millet, Williamson Murray, and Kenneth Watman, “The Effectiveness of Military Organizations,” International Security 11:1 (1986); Martin van Creveld, Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982).

[2] Mary Anderson, Michael Arnsten, and Harvey Averch, Insurgent Organization and Operations: A Case Study of the Viet Cong in the Delta, 1964-1966 (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1967); Nathan Leites and Charles Wolf Jr., Rebellion and Authority: An Analytic Essay on Insurgent Conflicts (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1970); Jeremy M. Weinstein, Inside Rebellion: The Politics of Insurgent Violence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Abdulkader H. Sinno, Organizations at War in Afghanistan and Beyond (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008).

[3] Graham Turbiville, Hunting Leadership Targets in Counterinsurgency and Counterterrorist Operations (Hurlburt Field, FL: Joint Special Operations University Press, 2007); Michael T. Flynn et al., “Employing ISR: SOF Best Practices,” Joint Forces Quarterly 50 (2008); Seth Jones, In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010); Mark Urban, Task Force Black: The Explosive True Story of the SAS and the Secret War in Iraq (London: Little, Brown, 2010).

[4] Jenna Jordan, “When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation,” Security Studies 18:4 (2009); Michael Freedman, “The Headless Horseman: A Theoretical and Strategic Assessment of Leadership Targeting,” paper presented at the 2010 International Studies Association Convention; Alex Wilner, “Targeted Killings in Afghanistan: Measuring Coercion and Deterrence in Counterterrorism and Counterinsurgency,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 33:4 (2010).

[5] Omer Bartov, The Eastern Front, 1941-45: German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare (New York: Palgrave, 2001), p. 16.

[6] Ibid., p. 17.

[7] Ibid.

[8] For an overview of the division’s operations, see James Lucas, Germany’s Elite Panzer Force: Grossdeutschland (London: Macdonald and Jane’s, 1978).

[9] On the institution for replacing lost German Army officers, see William S. Dunn, Heroes or Traitors: The German Replacement Army, the July Plot, and Adolf Hitler (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003), pp. 1-14.

[10] The coding is binary, with each of the three attributes either coded as present or absent. This is clearly an abstraction, as these attributes are actually continuous rather than binary. However, this abstraction should be valid for at least a plausibility probe of the hypothesis. Functional specialization is coded based on the presence or absence of specialized sub-units (such as those focused on recruitment or finance) and/or a division of labor among leaders along functional lines (e.g. the military staff system with officers focused on personnel, intelligence, operations, logistics, etc.). Hierarchy is coded based on the presence of clear chains of command and reporting derived from position in the organization rather than personal charisma or traditional authority.  Bureaucratic process is coded based on the presence or absence of record-keeping, standard operating procedure, creation and distribution of codes of conduct or lessons learned. An organization where all three are present is coded as highly institutionalized; all others are coded as poorly institutionalized.

[11] In addition to specific citations, these vignettes are amplified by the author’s personal experience and interviews in Iraq in 2007-2008.

[12] On AQI organization, see Jacob Shapiro, “Bureaucratic Terrorists: Al Qaida in Iraq’s Management and Finances,” and Anonymous, “Smuggling, Syria, and Spending,” in Brian Fishman ed., Bombers, Bank Accounts, and Bleedout: Al Qaida’s Road In and Out of Iraq (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2008).

[13] “Two Locals Headed Fallujah Insurgency,” Associated Press, November 24, 2004; Carter Malkasian, “Signaling Resolve, Democratization, and the First Battle of Fallujah,” The Journal of Strategic Studies 29:3 (2006).

[14]  “Marine Corps Assessment of Iraq Situation,” Washington Post, February 2, 2007; “AQI Situation Report,” declassified, translated internal AQI document, available at www.ctc.usma.edu/aq/pdf/IZ-060316-01-Trans.pdf; Toby Harnden, “US Army Admits Iraqis Outnumber Foreign Fighters as its Main Enemy,” Daily Telegraph, December 3, 2005; “Tearing Down al-Qaida in Iraq,” press briefing, Multi-National Force-Iraq, December 2006.

[15] Austin Long, “The Anbar Awakening,” Survival 50:2 (2008); John A. McCary, “The Anbar Awakening: An Alliance of Incentives,” Washington Quarterly 32:1 (2009).

[16] Ann Scott Tyson, “A Deadly Clash at Donkey Island,” Washington Post, August 19, 2007.

[17] Alissa Rubin, “Sheik’s Allies Vow Revenge for His Killing,” New York Times, September 15, 2007.

[18] Jane Arraf, “Two Iraq Al Qaeda Leaders Killed: Did They Really Get Abu Omar al-Baghdadi?” Christian Science Monitor, April 19, 2010; Timothy Williams and Duraid Adnan, “Sunnis in Iraq Allied With U.S. Quitting to Rejoin Rebels,” New York Times, October 16, 2010.

[19] Hannah Allam and Jamal Naji, “3 Marines Among Dead in Attack on Iraqi Tribal Leaders,” McClatchy Newspapers, June 26, 2008; Sam Dagher, “SUVs and Rifles,” New York Times, January 23, 2009.

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