The Age of the Manhunt

Never before have individuals been so threatening to the security of nation-states. And never before have nations had so many tools to dispatch these enemies. But is the effort worth the risk?

The Navy SEALs' surgical dispatch of Osama bin Laden on May 2 local time in Abbottabad, Pakistan, ended the 13-year hunt for the terrorist mastermind. But despite the current fascination with the satellite surveillance, stealth helicopters, and signal intercepts that may have enabled the raid, strategic manhunts themselves are almost as old as organized warfare itself. Alexander the Great pursued Darius III all the way from Mosul to eastern Iran in 331 B.C. to cement his conquest of Persia, and the Romans targeted Hannibal for two decades as he fled eastward in exile after the Second Punic War. The United States has deployed forces abroad with similar objectives nearly a dozen times since the 6th Cavalry was sent into Mexico to pursue Geronimo in 1885.

Yet the killing of bin Laden (who, coincidentally, was code named Geronimo in the Navy SEAL operation) has raised the question of whether killing an individual actually matters. Some have argued that decapitation strategies are ineffective or actually counterproductive, especially when it comes to the drone-strike attacks that have taken out al Qaeda members in Pakistan and Yemen. Some commentators have gone so far as to suggest that bin Laden's death offers an opportunity to end the "war on terror" itself. Having just finished a book on the history of strategic manhunts in which I found that killing or capturing an individual seldom correlates to strategic success, I think the manhunt skeptics may have a point. And yet, it is unlikely that such campaigns will disappear from America's arsenal. Even if bin Laden had never been found, the manhunt is simply engrained too deeply in the American psyche and in the technology of modern war. The manhunt is here to stay -- and if anything, we're entering an era in which it will become a more prominent policy tool.

As Colin Powell lamented in his 1995 memoir, reflecting on the manhunt for Panamanian drug lord Manuel Noriega, "A President has to rally the country behind his policies. And when that policy is war, it is tough to arouse public opinion against political abstractions. A flesh-and-blood villain serves better." Beyond the American tendency to personalize conflicts, there are several reasons that manhunts are likely to increasingly tempt future U.S. policymakers. For one, the immensely destructive nature of modern warfare -- as well as the immediacy offered by modern communications technology -- has increased the long-standing American aversion to causing collateral damage. The ravages of war are now infinitely more visible to the public, with the 24-hour global media particularly eager to act as watchdogs for violations of noncombatant immunity and often manipulated by weaker forces in order to gain a strategic advantage by generating international sympathy.

This creates a potentially serious tactical dilemma for democracies like the United States, whose military operations are conducted under the intense scrutiny of lawyers, judges, opposition politicians, and human rights activists. Consequently, U.S. forces do not enjoy the latitude that European democracies once possessed in suppressing colonial insurgencies in the 1950s and 1960s or that an illiberal state such as Russia had in brutally crushing Chechen rebels in the 1990s. This encourages policymakers to focus on as narrow a target as possible when considering how to enter a conflict.

At the same time, since the end of the Cold War, individuals -- and not just states -- have increasingly been perceived as posing a threat to U.S. strategic interests. Traditionally, the dominant paradigms of international relations theory dismissed the importance of individual leaders in world politics. Structural realists, for example, did not perceive of World War II as being driven by leaders such as Hitler and Stalin, but as representing disequilibria in the European balance of power. By the 1990s, however, it appeared that U.S. interests were being threatened not so much by countries or socially mobilized populations as by a handful of autocratic and aggressive leaders (i.e. Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Raoul Cédras in Haiti, and Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia). In such cases, it was argued, U.S. policy should focus on an individual rather than trying to compel an entire population or reconfigure a regional balance of power.

These days, individuals have only become more dangerous. For more than two decades, experts have acknowledged that any relatively well-financed terrorist group could feasibly obtain the expertise necessary to build a crude nuclear device, thereby matching the destructive power of all but a handful of nation-states. In 2005, scientists in a lab in Atlanta resurrected the extinct 1918 Spanish flu and published its genome, meaning that people with resources well below those of nation-states would theoretically be able to re-create one of the most lethal disease agents in history. Far more dangerous biological weapons are on the horizon, and the technologies to develop them are steadily becoming cheaper and more prevalent.

The diffusion of lethal technology, however, and particularly the increased lethality of dual-use technology, will allow increasingly smaller organizations, possibly even individuals, to threaten U.S. interests. Terrorists do not have to obtain weapons of mass destruction in order to attack the United States, but rather can utilize a wide array of dual-use or commercial technologies to conduct attacks. The explosive device used in the 1993 World Trade Center attack, for example, was made out of ordinary, commercially available materials, including lawn fertilizer and diesel fuel. It cost less than $400 to construct. And this is just the tip of the iceberg: In 2009, the Government Accountability Office concluded that "sensitive dual-use and military technology can be easily and legally purchased from manufacturers and distributors within the United States" and illegally exported without detection to rogue states and terrorist suppliers.

The information revolution has spread these technologies of destructive power even farther. Thanks to the Internet and widely available encryption technology, anyone with a few thousand dollars can now create a secure, worldwide communications system accessible from any Internet cafe or public library around the world. The information revolution also allows terrorists or other nonstate actors to collect and disseminate intelligence on targets and on their enemies, including U.S. forces. Iraqi insurgents used Google Maps to plot ambushes and emplacements of improvised explosive devices. In November 2008, 10 terrorists from Lashkar-e-Taiba, armed only with easily obtainable small arms, used cell phones, BlackBerrys, and GPS locators to coordinate a three-day rampage that killed 173 and wounded 308 in Mumbai, India.

Taken together, Washington's aversion to collateral damage and the importance of single individuals to U.S. interests create a strong motivation to kill or capture individuals who threaten national security. Arguably, the "surgical strike" is a more humane option than the destruction of modern war, and it's certainly quicker -- if it works. As the Washington Post editorialized recently regarding Libya, "Thousands of civilians have been killed, and more are dying every day.... [T]argeting Mr. Gaddafi may be the quickest way -- and maybe the only way -- to stop his carnage."

The final element is the issue of ability. Whereas in 1991's Operation Desert Storm less than 8 percent of bombs dropped were precision-guided munitions, this figure rose to 68 percent during the major combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Since then, nearly all bombs or missiles fired in Iraq or Afghanistan have been precision-guided. With weapons of this type, any locatable object can be precisely targeted and probably destroyed, with less risk of collateral damage to civilian noncombatants. Moreover, with new assets in space and the increasing sophistication of airborne sensors, the number of objects that can be targeted has increased as well. Thus, while individuals pose a greater threat to America than ever before, the United States likewise has a greater ability than ever before to target individuals and eliminate them.

And yet there is a danger in relying too heavily on such operations. Forcing an individual to go to ground renders him strategically ineffective and creates space for other actors to step to the fore. The successful targeting of an individual is probably less important from a strategic standpoint than successfully targeting the network that supports him or will carry on the struggle in his absence. While occasionally simple justice will demand that the United States target individuals, America's preoccupation with technological gadgetry and lightning raids risks leading it to overlook the broader human terrain that actually determines whether a campaign succeeds or fails.

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The Myth of 9 Billion

Why ignoring family planning overseas was the worst foreign-policy mistake of the century.

This week, the United Nations Population Division made a radical shift in its population projections. Previously, the organization had estimated that the number of people living on the planet would reach around 9 billion by 2050 -- and then level off. Now everything has changed: Rather than leveling off, the population size will continue to grow, reaching 10 billion or more at century's end.

Why is this happening? Put simply, fertility rates. Across much of the world, women are having fewer children, but in African countries, the decline is far slower than expected. Part of this shift was supposed to come from preferences about family size and better access to family planning to make that possible. Sadly, however, that access hasn't come. Another factor, many expected, would come from the deleterious impact of high HIV/AIDS rates. But even Uganda -- with one of the highest numbers of AIDS cases in sub-Saharan Africa -- is projected to almost triple its population by 2050. In fact, outside a handful of countries, HIV/AIDS has only a tiny impact on overall population. Consider this: In the first five months of this year, the world population grew by enough to equal all the AIDS deaths since the epidemic began 30 years ago.

Rapid population growth is bad news for the continent, as it will likely outstrip gains in economic development. It's also a wake-up call: If the world doesn't begin investing far more seriously in family planning, much of our progress fighting poverty in sub-Saharan Africa over the last half-century could be lost.

Demographic projections are just that -- predictions. They only tell us what can happen if we make a variety of policy decisions and investments. As is the case with these projections, they include a lower and higher estimate -- and where we end up in that range depends upon what we do in the meantime. Hence, it would be a mistake to focus only on the medium U.N. projection of 9.3 billion people by 2050 as most commentators do. The high projection would take us to 10.6 billion in 2050. The low projection would mean 8.1 billion. (Just for a sense of scale: The difference between these high and low variants is equivalent to the entire global population in 1950.)

That 2050 figure is vital in determining how large the population will grow by 2100 -- either as high as 15.8 billion or as low as 6.2 billion. With so many people reproducing, very small differences in family size have a dramatic impact over time. The difference between a world of 6.2 billion and 15.8 billion will depend on a change in the average number of children that women have -- a change that is so small that demographers are reduced to using the odd image of "half a child" to describe it. Over the coming 40 years, however, if the average woman bears half a child more, on average, it will have an almost unimaginably profound effect on virtually everything else that happens in the 21st century.

Let's imagine how different our world could look, depending upon its population. Already, we face a host of challenges: feeding growing numbers of middle-class meat-eating citizens, lifting the bottom third of the world's people out of poverty, and ensuring that our ever-growing economies are environmentally sustainable. All these necessities will become more urgent and more difficult if the population grows quickly, particularly in poor countries where adequate food supplies and sufficient sources of water often can't be taken for granted.

Some of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa, especially those making up the Sahel bordering the Sahara desert, face particularly somber demographic problems. In Niger, the rate of population growth exceeds economic growth. Twenty percent of women there have 10 or more children, and only one in 1,000 women completes secondary school. Already, one-third of children in Niger are malnourished, and global warming will further undermine agricultural output in the desertifying Sahel. Even if the current birth rate is halved by 2050, the population will still explode -- from 14 million today to 53 million by 2050. If the birth rate continues at current levels, the population could reach a totally unsustainable 80 million. Unless there is an immediate commitment to family planning, the scale of human suffering over the next three decades in the Sahel could equal or exceed that caused by HIV/AIDS in the past 30 years.

Why are some countries having such a difficult time reducing their average family size? Oddly, for a world in which information travels so quickly, access to contraceptives -- and information about family planning -- is extremely hard to come by in large parts of Africa. A poor woman who cannot obtain contraception will have many children, and often not by choice. Often, the contraceptives themselves simply aren't in supply; other times, there are barriers -- such as government or medical regulations and misinformation -- that prevent access.

Ironically, the future problem stems from today's success: Women are not having more children than in the past, but fewer of them are dying. Globally, the number of infant deaths per 1,000 births fell from 126 in 1960 to 57 in 2001.

Persistently high fertility yields some striking statistics, according to Babatunde Osotimehin, the executive director of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA). Last month he called for urgent action to meet the needs of "some 215 million women in developing countries, who want to plan and space their births, [but] do not have access to modern contraception." He added that "neglect of sexual and reproductive health results in an estimated 80 million unintended pregnancies; 22 million unsafe abortions; and 358,000 deaths from maternal causes -- including 47,000 deaths from unsafe abortion."

That so many women lack access to family planning may come as a surprise to many who have watched women's rights improve throughout the world in recent decades. But after much attention to population control in the 1970s, interest began to wane in the 1990s. Below-replacement fertility levels in countries such as Russia and Japan suggested the much-heralded population explosion was over. Then, in 1994, an influential International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo emphasized the need to focus on the many needs of girls and women, including health care, education, economic opportunity, the ability to own property, and freedom from domestic violence, as well as access to family planning. It was a worthy goal to work toward these broader needs, but as a result of advocacy, the word "population" became tainted with the idea that improving access to birth control was tantamount to coercion. The term "family planning" was replaced by the broader phrase "reproductive health." In the United States, in particular, passions over abortion eroded support for contraceptives assistance overseas.

That lack of attention may well prove to be one the worst foreign-policy mistakes of recent decades. Budgets for family planning have collapsed -- despite the fact that they were yielding real results. When a modest investment was made in family planning in Kenya in the 1980s, for example, the average family size fell from eight to five. When the focus was taken off family planning, this decline stalled and even started rising again. In 1990, demographers had predicted the population of Kenya in 2050 would be 53 million. But now, the population in 2050 is predicted to be 65 million. This extra 12 million people is equivalent to twice the total population of the whole country in 1950.

In Kenya, the richest economic quintiles have three children, while the poorest have eight. Rich women use contraception more frequently than poor women, but the poor have almost three times the unmet need for family planning -- women who report that they do not want another child in the next two years but are not using contraception. It is not that the poor want more children to help in the fields or look after elders as they age; they simply don't have access to family planning options and information they need and deserve.

Rapid population growth inhibits many of the factors of development from proceeding apace -- including education and health. In all our research, we have not found any country, with the exception of a few oil-rich states, that has developed or extricated itself from poverty while maintaining high average family size. Countries with high birth rates tend to find it difficult or impossible to expand their education systems or their health systems adequately to keep up with the need.

This matters beyond any one country or region. If we want to live in an ecologically sustainable world, we'll have to meet the needs of the present without compromising the natural resources and services our children and grandchildren will need. Given time, and a great deal of scientific ingenuity, we might still be able to reduce our consumption and pull a world of 8 billion people back to a biologically sustainable economy by the end of the century. But a world of 10 billion more in 2050 could do irreversible damage to the planet. It's just too many people.

We've now been warned. If measures are taken now, we could still keep the 2050 world population at around 8 billion. We have to ensure that the population can be slowed by purely voluntary means and within a human rights framework. We need to galvanize the political will to make it happen and invest now so that family planning options are universally available. Fail to do so, and we may give birth to a new, difficult era of poverty instead.