Politics

TheDC Interview: 10 questions with Max Boot on his history of guerrilla warfare

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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The author of a new “epic history of guerrilla warfare” says Haiti’s independence struggle might hold the distinction as the most brutal guerrilla war of all time.

“There have been many brutal campaigns, but it is hard to top Haiti’s struggle for independence from France from 1791 to 1804,” Max Boot, whose “Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present” just hit book stores, told The Daily Caller.

“It began with a slave revolt. French colonists later testified to a litany of horrors allegedly committed by slaves seeking liberation. … In trying to put down the revolt, French troops were just as inhumane and vicious. … By some estimates the Haitian War of Independence claimed the lives of 200,000 blacks and mulattos, 25,000 white colonists, 50,000 French soldiers, and 15,000 British soldiers.”

“As one scholar notes,” he added, “‘Six times as many Haitians as Americans died during their respective wars for independence,’ even though the population of Haiti was one-fourth that of the North American colonies.”

Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has followed America’s current campaign against guerrillas in Afghanistan closely. He said keeping just 6,000 or fewer troops in Afghanistan, as reports say President Barack Obama may be considering, would likely lead to mission failure.

“[L]eaving just 6,000 troops in Afghanistan would make it extremely difficult to pursue an effective counter-terrorist mission or to train Afghan security forces,” he said.

“Afghanistan is a big country. To target terrorists effectively you need to deploy strike forces to locations far removed from Kabul. Each of those bases, in turn, needs to be supplied and protected. Each needs to have medevac and air support on call. That requires a substantial number of troops.”

See TheDC’s comprehensive interview with Boot about his new book, what lessons he learned by studying the history of guerrilla warfare, what would constitute success in Afghanistan and much more:

Why did you decide to write this book?

Guerrilla warfare and terrorism have been front and center for the U.S. armed forces and the country as a whole ever since 9/11. During the past decade I made numerous trips to Afghanistan and Iraq to analyze developments there and provide advice for our military commanders. Along the way, even as I became immersed in the details of those conflicts, I also became curious about where those wars fit into the long continuum of history. Were they unusual or the norm? What had changed in guerrilla warfare since ancient times? What strategies were most successful for countering guerrillas and terrorists? In search of answers I looked for a good history of guerrilla warfare. Finding that none existed, I decided to write it myself, starting in 2006. I am relieved and delighted that “Invisible Armies” is finally appearing — and it is as timely as ever.

Going into the research for the book, what was your impression of the history of guerilla warfare? Has that impression changed?

It is not easy now, more than six years later, to remember exactly what I thought when I started the process of research and writing. I certainly had a general awareness of the power and limitations of guerrillas — after all, I had written a previous book about America’s history of small wars, and I had been closely following the wars being waged in Iraq and Afghanistan. But I had little understanding of how ancient and ubiquitous guerrilla warfare is. It is the oldest form of warfare and long predates conventional warfare. It has been prevalent in all countries at all times throughout history. But it has changed shape over the centuries, with the rising importance of the two P’s — politics and propaganda. I certainly was not aware, at least not to the extent that I am today, of those developments. I also learned a vast amount I didn’t know about specific guerrilla wars — including our own revolution, which, I decided, was resolved not on a North American battlefield, but in the halls of Parliament in London. That is an interpretation that challenges the prevailing wisdom — one of many surprising conclusions I reached in the course of my research.

What are a couple of the most interesting anecdotes you discovered researching the book?

Although this is a serious work of military history, I also probe the personal affairs and psyches of the insurgent chieftains that I write about. Two of the most interesting anecdotes concern the lives of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the great champion of Italian nationalism in the 19th century, and Orde Wingate, the eccentric British commando leader in World War II.

Garibaldi was a bit of a ladies’ man. In 1860, at age 52, he prepared to marry for the second time (his first wife having died) to a comely 18-year-old Italian aristocrat. “At the wedding reception,” I wrote, “in a scene that could have come straight from an opera written by his fellow Italian nationalist Giuseppe Verdi, Garibaldi was approached by a man who passed him a note claiming that his bride had spent the preceding night with him, that she was pregnant, and did not love her new husband. He immediately asked her whether the letter was accurate. When she said it was, he loudly called her a puttana, declared that she was not really his wife, and never spoke to her again. He did not get a formal divorce and marry again until the end of his life.”

As for Wingate, he had some very odd personal habits, including: “wearing scruffy clothing (‘his socks were very smelly and all in holes,’ a subordinate later noticed), subjecting himself to great danger and discomfort, and receiving visitors in the nude. (He would become notorious for briefing reporters in his hotel room while ‘brushing his lower anatomy with his hairbrush.’) Other Wingate trademarks: a pith helmet, which he wore in the manner of a nineteenth-century explorer; an alarm clock, which he carried (he claimed ‘wrist watches are no damned good’); raw onions, which he munched like apples because of their supposedly salubrious properties; and a beard, which he grew from time to time in contravention of the King’s Regulations, which permitted only a mustache.”

What was the most brutal guerilla warfare campaign in history?

There have been many brutal campaigns but it is hard to top Haiti’s struggle for independence from France from 1791 to 1804. It began with a slave revolt. French colonists later testified to a litany of horrors allegedly committed by slaves seeking liberation: “A carpenter supposedly was seized, bound between two planks, and sawed in half. A policeman supposedly was nailed alive to the gate of a plantation and had his limbs chopped off one by one with an ax. Women and girls supposedly were gang-raped on the still-warm corpses of their husbands, brothers, fathers. Some of the rebels were said to have employed as their emblem the body of a white infant impaled on a stake.”

In trying to put down the revolt, French troops were just as inhumane and vicious. As I wrote: “General Donatien Rochambeau, son of the general who had commanded French forces in the American Revolution, … imported attack dogs from Cuba, nourished on blood, to rip black prisoners to shreds. Blacks caught setting fire to a plantation were burned alive. Helpless blacks were even suffocated with sulfur fumes in a makeshift gas chamber constructed in the hold of a ship. An English officer wrote that the air around Le Cap ‘became tainted by the putrefaction of the bodies.’”

By some estimates the Haitian War of Independence claimed the lives of 200,000 blacks and mulattos, 25,000 white colonists, 50,000 French soldiers, and 15,000 British soldiers. As one scholar notes, “Six times as many Haitians as Americans died during their respective wars for independence,” even though the population of Haiti was one-fourth that of the North American colonies.

What lessons do you take away on how to put down guerilla warfare campaigns like the type we faced in Iraq and we still face in Afghanistan?

History suggests that quick-fix decapitation strategies — of the kind we are now trying with drone strikes — are unlikely to work unless the group being targeted is very small and fragile. Otherwise the target group is likely to regenerate even after the loss of some leaders. History also suggests that chasing insurgents with large conventional forces in “search and destroy” missions seldom works: the insurgents can always melt away and reappear after the troops are gone.

So what does work? “Scorched earth” strategies have worked on occasion but less often than you would think — it is hard to top the level of ruthlessness exhibited by the Nazis in the Balkans or by the Soviets in Afghanistan and yet both still lost.

The most consistently successful strategy over time is what is now called “population-centric” counterinsurgency which focuses on securing the population. This is also often called “hearts and minds,” a somewhat misleading phrase because it suggests that you are trying to win over the population by handing out free soccer balls, medical facilities, and other goodies. In reality a “hearts and minds” strategy is premised on providing security 24/7. Without security against insurgent intimidation the population will never come over to the government’s side.

What do you say those who argue that the Iraq surge and its attendant counterinsurgency strategy were not responsible for the turn around in Iraq; that the Anbar Awakening predated the surge and that the pacification of Baghdad was largely the result of sectarian violence driving Sunnis and Shias into different self-contained neighborhoods?

It is true that the Anbar Awakening began in the fall of 2006, a few months before the surge. But there had been attempts before by Sunni sheikhs to rebel against Al Qaeda in Iraq and all had been ruthlessly snuffed out. That would have been the fate of the Anbar Awakening too were it not for the support provided by U.S. soldiers and Marines. If the U.S. military had been on the way out in 2007 it is doubtful that the Awakening would have grown as it did. The Sunnis only joined forces with the U.S. once they concluded that the Marines (and Army) were, as one sheikh told the author Bing West, “the strongest tribe.”

As for the pacification of Baghdad, it is true that the ethnic cleansing which drove Sunnis out of Shia neighborhoods and Shia out of Sunni neighborhoods did contribute to a more stable status quo. But remember: the bloodletting was actually getting worse when the surge began. It was only the presence of large numbers of U.S. troops in the neighborhoods, buttressed by ubiquitous blast walls, which kept the violence from spinning out of control — as is happening today in Syria. The success of the surge was enabled by various factors but without the surge — the increase in troop strength and, crucially, a change in strategy — none of the other factors would have brought about a 90 percent reduction in violence.

Do you think the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan has shown much success?

I have traveled extensively in Kandahar and Helmand, the southern provinces where most of the additional U.S. troops were sent since 2009, and I have seen for myself that areas that were once Taliban hotbeds are now relatively secure. Overall enemy-initiated attacks across the country have fallen 7% from January-November 2011 to January-November 2012. The U.S. has also had considerable success in increasing the size and effectiveness of the Afghan National Security Forces which are now 350,000 strong. But much of the success to date has been fragile, limited and reversible. The Afghan forces still depend on considerable support from the U.S. military; if that support is not forthcoming after 2014 they will not be able to fight the Taliban effectively. The result is likely to be a major civil war leading to the Taliban regaining much of the power they lost in 2001.

It’s been reported that General Allen is going to ask President Obama to keep between 6,000-10,000 troops in Afghanistan passed 2014. What do you make of that? What goals can America achieve with such a small presence in Afghanistan?

As I argued in this Washington Post op-ed, leaving just 6,000 troops in Afghanistan would make it extremely difficult to pursue an effective counter-terrorist mission or to train Afghan security forces. Afghanistan is a big country. To target terrorists effectively you need to deploy strike forces to locations far removed from Kabul. Each of those bases, in turn, needs to be supplied and protected. Each needs to have medevac and air support on call. That requires a substantial number of troops.

Lt. Gen. (ret.) Jim Dubik, a former commander of the training mission in Iraq, estimates that 23,000 to 28,000 troops would be needed. Lt. Gen. David Barno (ret.), a former commander in Afghanistan, has estimated in the past that 25,000 to 35,000 would be needed. (Barno has since said that we could get by with substantially fewer but he has given no reason why his earlier analysis doesn’t hold.)

If the post-2014 troop numbers are substantially less, then the risk of mission failure goes up. If we leave as few as 3,000 troops behind, it’s not clear that they could do anything meaningful — they would arouse nationalist ire without having much capacity to project military power. A “zero option” might be better than such a minimal, ineffectual deployment.

What would victory look like in Afghanistan and what will the consequences be of failing to achieve it?

The best-case scenario is that Afghanistan could return to being what it was prior to the communist coup in 1978 and the Soviet invasion in 1979 — a poor but peaceful country that would draw tourists. This is the era conjured up by “The Kite Runner.” That won’t happen for years, however, if ever. In the short-term our expectations should be lower — victory would be an Afghanistan where the Taliban may still be fighting but don’t pose a serious threat to the country’s stability and where Al Qaeda and other trans-national terrorist groups are not able to establish sanctuaries. That objective is eminently achievable, as long as we don’t abandon Afghanistan after 2014. If we don’t achieve even those minimal objectives, the outcome is likely to be grim — likely an all-out civil war which could lead to the Taliban once again taking over most of the country. Remember that the Taliban have never renounced their links with Al Qaeda or with other trans-national terrorist networks that operate out of the tribal areas of Pakistan. A Taliban victory would be seen as a major victory for the global forces of jihad and would empower Islamist extremists in many other lands — including Pakistan, the unstable nuclear-armed state next door.

How will history judge modern counterinsurgency generals like General Petraeus and General McChrystal?

The verdict is still out and subject to matters beyond their control. There is no doubt that Petraeus and McChrystal had tremendous success in Iraq: McChrystal turned the Joint Special Operations Command into a finely honed terrorist-takedown machine, and Petraeus saved the country from the abyss of civil war in 2007 by implementing a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy. Few if any counterinsurgents have managed to reverse a situation as far gone as Iraq was at the start of the surge. But President Obama failed to negotiate an agreement to keep U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011, as recommended by his commanders on the ground, and that throws into doubt the long-term prospects for Iraq’s stability.

As for Afghanistan, McChrystal and Petraeus designed and implemented a counterinsurgency strategy that has shown considerable progress in Helmand and Kandahar. But they never had as many troops or as much time as they would have liked. Obama gave McChrystal only 30,000 out of 40,000 troops he had requested, and then the president pulled the plug on the surge in the summer of 2012 — earlier than Petraeus had recommended. Whether the tenuous gains achieved by the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan will endure is now subject to factors beyond Petraeus’s or McChrystal’s control — namely how many troops will Obama leave in Afghanistan post-2014? The current indications are not good. There is, alas, a significant chance that the gains that U.S. troops have sacrificed so much to achieve in Afghanistan will be lost due to lack of political will on the home front.

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