- - Monday, May 27, 2013

By Max Boot
Liveright, $35, 784 pages

In “Invisible Armies,” Max Boot attempts to write an up-to-date account of the evolution of guerrilla warfare and terrorism from ancient times to the modern era. Mr. Boot, the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and an adviser on counterinsurgency to the U.S. government, is ideally suited to produce such a comprehensive study. The book is well written, insightful and sweeping in its historical comprehensiveness, but it is not without some flaws.

While one may quibble that the book’s title should include “terrorist” alongside “guerrilla,” since terrorist warfare is featured extensively in the selection of case studies, and that the author’s definition of terrorism should cover attacks by such groups against noncombatant civilians as well as armed military, the narrative does a thorough job explaining how asymmetric warfare — attacks by weaker forces against their stronger state militaries — is prosecuted. Thus, while guerrilla forces may number in the thousands, most terrorist groups have dozens to a few hundred fighters; and while guerrilla forces aim to capture, hold territory and even physically defeat their more powerful military adversaries, terrorists do not, and, in fact, “hope with a few spectacular attacks to trigger a revolution” within their societies — which is what al Qaeda had hoped would proceed from their catastrophic attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Both guerrilla warfare and terrorism, Mr. Boot writes, are important to understand because “Since World War II, insurgency and terrorism have become the dominant forms of conflict — a trend likely to continue into the foreseeable future. Even as conventional interstate clashes dwindle, the number of guerrilla and terrorist groups continue to grow, the latter even faster than the former.” In fact, although not discussed in the book since the manuscript was completed in 2012, today’s conflicts in Libya, Mali and Syria all involve guerrilla and terrorist attacks by insurgent groups, with no state-against-state “conventional” wars being conducted around the world.

Thus, to gain the ability to counter the threats posed by what Mr. Boot terms “invisible armies,” it is essential to understand the history and evolution of such warfare, a task well accommodated here. The author begins with the clashes between the Jews and the Romans in the biblical era and Alexander the Great’s campaigns in Central Asia. He then proceeds to discuss the American struggle for independence against Britain in the 18th century, as well as the Greek and Haitian wars of independence, the former against the Ottoman Empire, the latter against France.

The discussion then progresses to the 1829-1859 insurgencies against Russia in Chechnya and Dagestan, the Boer rebellion against Britain in South Africa, the unsuccessful attempt by Britain to defeat the Pashtuns in Afghanistan from 1897 to 1947 (which provides numerous lessons for the current difficulties in Afghanistan), and many other historical cases.

The author explains how the modern era in terrorist warfare began with the 19th-century Russian anarchists, who promoted the notion of “propaganda by the deed,” which was followed by the Irish Republican Army’s predecessors in 1919 to 1921.

Mr. Boot points out that one of the most significant innovations in guerrilla warfare was developed by Mao Zedong, who understood that for “hit-and-run raids by lightly armed fighters” to defeat a more powerful military they had to be combined during the later stages of their insurgency with “regular warfare,” which they could attain by growing their military strength and popular support over time. Such strategy enabled not only the Chinese Communist insurgents to take power, but other guerrilla forces, including Hezbollah, which now constitutes an effective military army (with stockpiles of sophisticated rockets) and a “state-within-a-state” in Lebanon.

Of particular interest is Mr. Boot’s observation, “Unlike guerrilla warfare, the most ancient form of warfare, terrorism is strikingly modern.” This has been made possible by the development of four phenomena: destructive and portable weaponry, such as dynamite and pistols; the mass media, which publicizes their attacks; literacy, which enables terrorist groups to recruit educated operatives; and secular ideologies that focus on nationalistic and socioeconomic issues. Interestingly, in the current period, Mr. Boot writes, religious ideologies have replaced secular ones for many terrorist groups, such as the Palestinian Hamas and al Qaeda.

Mr. Boot concludes that while it is difficult for a conventional army to defeat a strongly motivated and well-organized guerrilla adversary, “the odds remain stacked against those who adopt guerrilla or terrorist tactics. For guerrillas to triumph, they usually require outside assistance, along with a major lack of acumen or will on the part of the government under siege.” Although he does not mention this in his analysis, such appears to be the case in Afghanistan, where the Taliban insurgents are receiving support from the Pakistani government. The Kabul regime is likely to face major problems defending itself against Taliban attacks once the United States and NATO forces depart from the country after 2014 — unless Western efforts succeed in training the Afghan military to effectively defend the country against the Taliban insurgents.

Writing such a sweeping and comprehensive account of the world’s major guerrilla and terrorist insurgencies from ancient times until the current period is difficult under any circumstances, but one wishes the author had provided fuller accounts of the Palestinian insurgencies against Israel and of Israel’s countermeasures. For example, there is no discussion of the 1993 Oslo Accords, which transformed the conflict into a peace process and provided the Palestinians with limited self-governance in parts of the West Bank. Moreover, there is no discussion of the crucially important case of the Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka, which was successfully defeated by the government’s forces.

Nevertheless, Mr. Boot’s “Invisible Armies” is a valuable account of some of the challenges modern militaries face in confronting terrorist and guerrilla insurgencies.

Joshua Sinai is the author of “Active Shooter: A Handbook on Prevention,” ASIS International (2013).

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