- - Friday, September 9, 2011


By Benjamin Runkle
Palgrave Macmillan, $27, 288 pages

In strategic manhunts, the United States tends to get its man. These are operations in which killing or capturing an individual is a key (and often the) objective of a military deployment. Four months ago, Navy SEALs closed perhaps the most remarkable chapter in the history of U.S. strategic manhunts by storming a compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan, and killing Osama bin Laden. Yet success did not provide closure; it generated questions and controversy. Why, with the best technology and soldiers, did it take so long to get him? What accounts for a manhunt’s success or failure? Does a successful strategic manhunt translate to strategic success?

Benjamin Runkle, a former Defense Department and National Security Council official, provides insight necessary to address these questions and others in “Wanted Dead or Alive.” The conclusions he reaches are often surprising, but they are well supported by his analysis of eight strategic manhunts in U.S. history. Mr. Runkle’s vivid and, at times, grisly accounts are bookended, appropriately enough, by the pursuit and capture of the Apache leader Geronimo during the 1880s and the May demise of Osama bin Laden, code-named “Geronimo.”

The book’s manhunts span the globe and its terrain, from the Sierra Madre Occidental range and its surrounding deserts along the U.S.-Mexico border; to the rocky beaches, dense forests and sheer cliffs along the northeastern Philippine coast; to the narrow streets and alleys of Mogadishu, Somalia’s urban jungle and more. Yet Mr. Runkle finds that terrain alone does not determine success or failure. Though terrain posed a challenge in most U.S. manhunts, the United States captured or killed its target in six of Mr. Runkle’s eight cases.

“More important than physical terrain is human terrain,” Mr. Runkle emphasizes, and human terrain means, most importantly, human intelligence. He details how the lack of intelligence regarding Mexican rebel Pancho Villa and Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed prevented their capture. The absence of reliable local sources can hamstring even the most elite U.S. forces. The contrast is notable when one considers the flow of human intelligence that enabled the capture of Saddam Hussein and the killings of Abu Musab Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden.

The human terrain extends to technology and, more specifically, an adversary’s reaction to it. The United States enjoyed technological superiority in most of the manhunts discussed in the book. Yet Mr. Runkle argues that the impact of such superiority was at best “peripheral.” Supposedly primitive targets often found ways to counter the technological edge. Enemies driven by ideological orthodoxy or long-standing social and tribal dynamics nonetheless proved capable of clever adaptation and improvisation.

And it is in the human terrain that Mr. Runkle explains the failure to kill or capture bin Laden at Tora Bora in 2001. Contrary to conventional wisdom, expressed in writings such as a November 2009 Senate Foreign Relations Committee report and a December 2009 article by Peter Bergen, Mr. Runkle maintains that U.S. troop levels did not determine Tora Bora’s outcome. Indeed, he brings into question both the feasibility and the wisdom of deploying a larger force in pursuit of bin Laden. The United States was forced to depend upon indigenous Pashtun forces, who proved unreliable. Bin Laden had won the loyalty of local Pashtuns through many years of financial support. No available combination of U.S. forces and technology could have overcome the mutually reinforcing human and physical terrain.

Even in successful cases, Mr. Runkle observes, “the outcomes of strategic manhunts rarely correlate with the achievement of America’s broader strategic objectives.” Filipino resistance continued for 10 years after the capture of insurgent leader Emilio Aguinaldo. The capture of Saddam Hussein and the killing of Zarqawi failed to quell Iraq’s insurgency. Bin Laden’s killing does not end the terrorism problem or challenges in Afghanistan. Furthermore, it is difficult to assess the impact of a manhunt in isolation - as is illustrated in the historical debate about the relative importance of forced Apache relocation and Geronimo’s surrender in quieting Apache resistance.

Though historical evidence seems to bring the value of strategic manhunts into question, Mr. Runkle thinks the United States will conduct more such manhunts in the future. He attributes this to casualty and collateral-damage aversion, the seductiveness of technology and the U.S. tendency to personalize conflicts, among other factors. These manhunts are now more likely to be successful because of improved coordination between the CIA and special operations forces and the restoration of previously atrophied human intelligence capabilities. Policymakers will have to weigh their improved tools against their uncertain strategic effect.

In “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” Mr. Runkle accomplishes two seemingly contradictory feats. His colorful, fast-paced accounts of each manhunt appeal to those who enjoy a good adventure story, but his keen strategic insight provides ample material for further reflection. His writing is readable without being breezy, meaty without being ponderous. Mr. Runkle’s book deserves attention from both policymakers and the general public.

Justin Polin is a research associate at the Hudson Institute’s Center for National Security Strategies and a 2010-11 National Review Institute Washington fellow.

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