Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 7, Issue 2  /  

Improvident Strategy: When Process Supplants Policy in Targeted Killing

Improvident Strategy: When Process Supplants Policy in Targeted Killing Improvident Strategy: When Process Supplants Policy in Targeted Killing
U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt / Public domain
To cite this article: Mihara, Robert, “Improvident Strategy: When Process Supplants Policy in Targeted Killing,” Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 2, summer 2020, pages 26-30.

Terrorist attacks are an old problem that took on added import for the US in September 2001 when al-Qaeda attacked sites in New York and Washington, D.C. The Bush Administration’s response to the 9/11 attacks included a campaign of airstrikes and commando raids that sought to prevent future attacks by denying terrorist organizations the benefit of sanctuaries through the use of relatively precise, sudden violence. Anxious to end the entangling conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama Administration eschewed preventative wars as a tool of policy, but it accelerated the use of targeted killing to disrupt and deter non-state threats.[i]

Targeted killing is the use of lethal force to degrade the capacity of weak actors to harm one’s interests or to deter those hostile actors by imposing the threat of future retaliation. Following the 9/11 attacks, the perceived immediacy of the terrorism menace demanded a swift and rhetorically decisive response from US political leaders. The available technology for guided weapons and remote platforms made targeted killing appealing as the signature means of the US strategy because non-state threats like al-Qaeda lacked the means to respond against US vital interests as a powerful state adversary could. Yet, risks remain.[ii]

In justifying the strategy, policymakers and strategists have implicitly rendered the death of an individual as a quantum of US political purpose by characterizing attrition as strategic progress. The absence of an explicit strategic formula leaves only this logic as a moral and legal rationale. In making human targets a unit of measure, targeted killing presumes that the sum of attrition shall eventually produce the desired strategic effect. However, this presumption contradicts both theory and empirical evidence. No outcome can be presumed wherever the will of the adversary still controls, and no strategy can retain its coherence if it does not sufficiently represent the legitimate will of the state.[iii]

Targeted killing can be a suitable strategy, but it is always a bad strategy. It might feasibly meet the specifications of a given policy, but it also relies upon a rubric that incentivizes bad choices by all parties in the kill chain. Routinizing the nomination of persons as targets, over time, erodes the supremacy of policy relative to mere technocratic or tactical imperatives. The routine intrinsically presumes, independent of actual policy interests, that it is both rational and relevant. This presumption toward policy is how targeted killing as a process subverts the proper unity between policy and strategy.[iv]

An Illusory Solution

Targeted killing subverts the bridge between policy and strategy by allowing technocratic process to displace the scrutiny of policy discourse. Entrusting strategy to the rationality of the process would work if its rubric is reliably attuned and reconciled to actual policy interests and to the mind of policymakers. However, targeted killing has empowered policymakers to act without needing to forge a consensus among partisan and bureaucratic stakeholders. The strategy has operated under the vague purpose of defeating forces associated with 9/11 and the general right of national self-defense. Targeted killing serves a purpose that is so loosely defined that it precludes any conclusive assessment as to its consequence or effectiveness beyond achieving mere tactical outcomes.

A more costly strategy could not survive long without a more substantive logic. Targeted killing has retained the imprimatur of successive US presidential administrations despite its uncertain benefit because its results have come at a nominal cost. It rescues national security leaders from the taint of intractability by quantifying progress through the names and faces of eliminated enemy leaders. Whether by airstrikes alone or by some combination of drones and elite infantry, targeted killing simplifies the cost-benefit calculus of policy and strategy to the benefit of action. After 9/11, it provided US leaders with an unambiguous riposte to the menace of foreign extremists which has seemed neither disproportionate nor unduly provocative to American policymakers.[v]

Its proponents could have it both ways, warning the public that achieving US security aims against al-Qaeda and its ilk would be a long time in coming and, at the same time, reassuring the public that victories would assuredly come and at an acceptable cost.[vi] However, two decades after 9/11, targeted killing remains far more problematic as an open-ended approach than its more ardent advocates had suggested because it masks the complexity of the problem presented by non-state threats behind a veil of bureaucratic protocol and procedure, giving the appearance of inexorable progress albeit incremental. Thus, narrowing the issues of war to a narrow subset of domestic, institutional interests invites policymakers and military professionals to insulate decision-making in the kill chain within a formalized process. However, the feasibility of targeted killing as a tactic belies its limited utility as a strategy by suggesting that it can escape the liabilities of war’s irrational forces and the influence of the adversary’s will.[vii]

Inherent Consequences of Violence

Entrusting targeted killing to a process is dangerous because it tempts policymakers and strategists to believe that it is less about violence than any other military strategy. The great pain that the US has imposed on its enemies by precision strikes is not discretely removed from the complex wages of lethal force. Successful strikes have raised concerns that are common to all modes of violence, such as aggravating extant sources of instability, cultivating threats by provoking the passions of the people, and other unpredictable influences. The dynamic interaction between the Clausewitzian rational and irrational elements of war apply as much to remote drone strikes as they do to pitched battles, and they should not be overlooked in assessing the consequences of violence despite the relative precision of targeted killing.[viii]

Strategies must account for the aims and perceptions of those affected by the violence. In a war between state adversaries, one reasonably expects that the interplay between the political and moral impetus of adversaries will be captured in the work of policymaking bodies and military headquarters. Well-established institutions in the bureaucracy exist for ensuring that policy and tactics are reconciled and act as a coherent whole.

A liability of targeted killings is that their small-scale violence can aggregate into a virtually invisible war that is removed from substantive political oversight and public scrutiny. The discrete nature of violence in targeted killing allows the unwary strategist to lose sight of how political consciousness can link individual deaths into a narrative web that shapes and magnifies the meaning of those deaths to a global audience through online media. Proponents of the strategy could argue that the message of violent disruption is a constructive one, deterring future plots by demonstrating the futility of hiding. However, such a defense is a willful aspiration and not a strategy. It ignores the ultimate consequence of severing a strategy from its dependency on political assent to the cost and obligations of using military force.[ix]

Trusting in the absence of attacks as proof of progress is more than logically fallacious. It contradicts what we know about how societies respond to violence and how political consciousness determines that response. Strategies of coercion rely upon having a nuanced understanding of communities connected to the targeted individuals in order to achieve their ends. Targeted killing necessarily approaches the task of assessing communal context in a fundamentally episodic and tactical manner because each strike occurs within the inchoate problem frame of violent extremism rather than the clearer framing of a state adversary.[x]

Such tactical frames are wholly unsuited to accounting for the phenomena that have imbued individual identity with a political potential unknown to policymaking less than a century ago. This awakened social context has made a profound understanding of received narratives in affected communities all the more essential as a consideration in determining the success of coercive strategies. Yet, targeted killing incentivizes flippancy because the strategy presumes those narratives to be ephemeral rather than material to its outcome.[xi]

Narratives at the local level are not ephemeral, however. The political and social consciousness of societies determine the relative utility of force, imposing thresholds of feasibility on what military force can achieve for the purpose of policy. Communal consciousness changes how violence actuates the “blind natural force” of emotion described by Carl von Clausewitz in his trinitarian depiction of war.[xii] The imposition of mortal harm and danger on a self-identified community awakens shared feelings of hatred and enmity that are not strictly subject to the dictates of rational purpose. These irrational echoes of targeted killings matter in ways that are difficult to quantify but discernable nonetheless.[xiii]

Some realists have characterized norms of armed conflict as a mere privilege of the powerful—a tool of self-interest and nothing more. Yet, even in the breach, norms are consequential because the violation of moral standards translates into political and moral effects that determine the physics of war as a phenomenon. War obtains a portion of its potential from the political and social narratives that frame what is at stake, and standing norms are intrinsic elements of those narratives. Thus, the choice of violating such norms can have real consequence in determining whether a society receives any given targeted killing as a reciprocal act of policy, affecting cost-benefit, or as an irrational act, demanding vengeance.

Abrogating Strategy to the Technocrats

When tactics are extended to define a given strategy, leaders are particularly prone to overlook the complex and irrational consequences of violence, relying on theoretical constructs or ideology to determine the strategic effect of a tactic rather than using empirical evidence to test the strategy’s underlying theory. The irrational byproducts of violence are difficult to discern in the moment because the socio-political phenomena that killing propagate are by their nature diffuse and long developing. To the commanders in the field, they can be indistinguishable from the turbulence and dysfunctions regularly afflicting weakly governed spaces.

In contrast, the tally of targeted killing is far more immediate and conclusive. A successfully targeted enemy is either dead or incapacitated. Effectiveness is already assumed in the rationale for the strike authorization. The presumptive nature of the process disincentivizes policymakers and their institutional interlocutors from pausing to consider the actual impact of each strike and to question assumptions. The absence of attacks against the US homeland and the observable disruption of hostile organizations has a greater natural hold on the military’s institutional psyche than the percolations of enmity in an affected community. The latter are almost entirely abstract if not invisible as a matter of concern in national policy.

Targeted killing can routinize the punishment and deterrence of enemies so that it functions outside the vision of a state’s reason and emotion. Targets are nominated and vetted according to criteria drafted and adjudicated according to standardized processes and perhaps even by arbitrary whim. Orders are then approved and executed. Veiled by their categorization as legitimate targets, individual missions need not suffer a deliberate calculation of consequences beyond plausibly projecting a desirable tactical effect on a hostile organization.[xiv]

The political and social affirmation that follows each successful kill undermines the mooring of the military’s institutional and strategic vision, prejudicing operations against their own campaign objectives and rendering the military a slave to the process—as merely an instrument of the kill list. The strategy itself can only be appropriate if it is employed with the greatest possible discipline and integrity of purpose. However, it is neither as free of consequence as some of its advocates have suggested nor as necessary, and the strategy is particularly fraught for the military as an institution if the political leadership is ever less than fully invested in its oversight role.[xv]


Therefore, the problematic quality of targeted killings is not in the proximate effectiveness of the strategy. Rather, it is in the wisdom of a process that itself begets norms and propagates societal consequences hidden from the vantage point of policymakers and strategists. The rationale of the present necessarily misestimates the complexities of future concerns, and it is the voice of present interests that provides the language for defending US targeted killing.[xvi]

When hastily enacted strategies are institutionalized, they are too easily abrogated by policymakers to the discretion of technocrats and the whim of parochial thinking. The ceding of violence to technocratic supervision is antithetical to authentic strategy because it precludes both policymakers and strategists from being able to see themselves or their adversaries. The ease with which states can employ remote strike technologies without risk of public opprobrium or revolt among their political elite tempts political leaders to outsource the policy of violence against non-state threats to their military institutions, raising attendant risks of strategic drift between a state’s actual policy interests and its conduct. Thus, an open-ended strategy of coercion by remote killing presents a persistent and distinct hazard not only to a state’s moral legitimacy but to its strategic coherence as well.[xvii]


[i] Thomas Donnelly, “Drones: Old, New, Borrowed, Blue,” Strategika 10 (January 2014): 8.
[ii] Christian Brose, The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare (New York: Hachette, 2020), xvii-xix; A kill chain is the process of identifying a target and then authorizing a precision strike to kill that target.
[iii] Tami Davis Biddle, “Coercion Theory: A Basic Introduction for Practitioners,” Texas National Security Review 3 (Spring 2020): (accessed 18 May 2020).
[iv] A.E. Stahl and William F. Owen, “Targeted Killings Work,” Infinity Journal 1 (Winter 2010): 10.
[v] Pardiss Kebriaei, “The Distance Between Principle and Practice in the Obama Administration’s Targeted Killing Program: A Response to Jeh Johnson,” Yale Law & Policy Review 31 (2012): 161; Mark Moyar, “Drones—An Evolution, Not a Revolution, In Warfare,” Strategika 10 (January 2014): 11; Kenneth Anderson and Benjamin Wittes, “What, If Anything, Is Strategically New About Weaponized Drones?” Strategika 10 (January 2014): 16-17.
[vi] Micah Zenko, “The Long Third War,” Foreign Policy, 30 October 2012, (accessed 14 March 2020); Kebriaei, “The Distance Between Principle and Practice in the Obama Administration’s Targeted Killing Program,” 155-56; Donald Rumsfeld, Known and Unknown: A Memoir (New York: Sentinel, 2011), 89-90, 608.
[vii] Office of the Press Secretary, “Remarks of John O. Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, on Ensuring al-Qa’ida’s Demise—As Prepared for Delivery,” (accessed 8 April 2020); Lawfare, “Legality of Targeted Killing Program under International Law,” (accessed 8 April 2020); Paul Staniland, “The US military is trying to manage foreign conflicts—not resolve them,” Washington Post, 16 July 2018, (accessed 15 April 2020).
[viii] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. and eds. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1976), 89.
[ix] Donnelly, “Drones: Old, New, Borrowed, Blue,” 8; Asfandyar Mir, “The US Drone War in Pakistan Revisited,” Lawfare, 11 November 2018, (accessed 19 April 2020).
[x] Stathias N. Kalyvas, “The Ontology of ‘Political Violence’: Action and Identity in Civil Wars,” Perspectives on Politics 1 (September 2003): 481-82.
[xi] Peter Mansoor, “The Limitations of Drone Warfare,” Strategika 10 (January 2014): 25.
[xii] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. and eds. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1976), 89.
[xiii] Rose McDermott, et al., “’Blunt Not the Heart, Enrage It’: The Psychology of Revenge and Deterrence,” TNSR 1 (December 2017): (accessed 11 April 2020); Paul Staniland, “States, Insurgents, and Wartime Political Orders” Perspectives in Politics 10 (June 2012), 252-55; Donnelly, “Drones: Old, New, Borrowed, Blue,” 10.
[xiv] Anderson and Wittes, “What, If Anything, Is Strategically New About Weaponized Drones?” 14. Anderson and Wittes provide the counterargument that the established processes are substantively identical and, if anything, more rigorous than older targeting processes.
[xv] Stahl and Owen, “Targeted Killings Work,” 13; Brose, The Kill Chain, xviii, 11, 19.
[xvi] International Human Rights Clinic, et al., Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, And Trauma To
[xvii] Civilians From Us Drone Practices In Pakistan (Palo Alto: Stanford Law School, 2012), (accessed 14 March 2020); Robert Wright, “The Incoherence of a Drone-Strike Advocate, The Atlantic (14 November 2012): (accessed 14 March 2020); Max Boot, “We Cannot Afford to Stop Drone Strikes,” Commentary, 9 October 2011, (accessed 14 March 2020).
[xviii] Gus diZerega, “Liberalism, Democracy, and the State: Reclaiming the Unity of Liberal Politics,” Review of Politics 63 (Autumn 2001), 776-78; Janice E. Thomson, “State Sovereignty in International Relations: Bridging the Gap Between Theory and Empirical Research,” International Studies Quarterly 39 (June 1995): 214-15 and 219-28; Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro, The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017), 361-68; Angelo M. Codevilla, “Whom Shall We Drone,” Strategika 10 (January 2014): 21.

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