Max Boot on Guerilla Warfare Past and Present

Most, if not all, of today’s conflicts are guerilla wars. From the war in Afghanistan to the volatile conflict in Syria, guerilla tactics have become the standard model in modern warfare. To help better understand these conflicts, Max Boot, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, presented his new book Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present to an IPI audience on February 7, 2013.

Max Boot is a leading military historian and foreign policy analyst who also served as an adviser to US commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Invisible Armies, he tells the history of insurgencies, terrorist campaigns, and guerrilla warfare through the ages. He analyzes why insurgents succeed or fail, what lessons can be drawn from past and present conflicts, and why reflecting on nearly 5,000 years of asymmetric warfare is especially relevant today.

“All guerillas strive to avoid the full fire power and the full might of a more powerful adversary,” Mr. Boot said, explaining that they use surprise ambush and stealth to evade full confrontation on the battlefield.

Over the centuries, big changes have taken place in warfare, among them Mr. Boot noted, the increased lethality of armaments available to insurgents.

In his view, however, the biggest change of all is the rising power of what he called the “three Ps,” politics, propaganda and public opinion, which all factor into guerilla warfare.

He said the trend has accelerated with the rise of mass media, as a relatively unsophisticated rival utilize these instruments to bring down a powerful adversary.

Mr. Boot took the example of the American War of Independence. With its burgeoning colonies, America successfully deployed these tactics against the British Empire in the 18th century. And while the British Empire was the superpower of its day, the British House of Commons voted to end the war because public opinion was largely against it.

These tactics have also been deployed against the U.S. in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, while in places like Colombia, Northern Ireland, and Iraq (in 2007-2008), similar counter-insurgency strategies have helped to defeat insurgents.

Mr. Boot asserted that counter-insurgency tactics comes down to two things. “First, you have to have security and second, you have to have legitimacy.”

He said that securing the population is important in order to eliminate insurgents’ operating bases. In addition, establishing legitimacy requires counter-insurgents to offer something positive, usually some degree of self-determination and basic political and social needs for the people.

Mr. Boot stated that this formula is the best way to address any insurgency, but was quick to acknowledge that “even then, there are not going to be any quick or easy victories over any deep-rooted insurgency.” According to his research, he found that the average insurgency since 1945 lasted 10 years.

Insurgents also bear the same burden in establishing legitimacy, which Mr. Boot said is essentially a battle of governance. He took the example of Mao Zedong, one of the founders of the Chinese Communist party, who counseled his forces to behave well with the villagers and treat the people with respect in order to win over the peasants and build up the Red Army.

“[Insurgency] has always been the dominant form of warfare [and] it remains so today,” he said. “The last conventional war the world has seen occurred in 2008 during the Russian invasion of Georgia. But thousands of people are dying all over the world, in irregular conflicts, so we better figure out what these wars are all about, because they remain as dominant now as they have ever been.”

Explaining lessons learned from the history of guerilla warfare, Mr. Boot stated that it is much easier to overthrow a government than to secure it and from the American perspective, it’s been on both sides of it.

In Afghanistan in the 1980s, the U.S. helped the mujahidin to overthrow Soviet rule and in 2001, it helped the Northern Alliance to overcome the Taliban. The biggest challenge for America, Mr. Boot remarked, is to stabilize and secure the government, citing the examples in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, if and when the Assad’s regime falls.

“It’s very hard to bring order out of chaos, and what we often find is that guerilla wars break down the very fabric of society,” he said. “Any kind of low intensity conflict is really a competition of governance, to see who can offer better governance to the population, whether it’s going to be violent extremists or whether it’s going to be more responsible, moderate governments. That, I think, in many ways is the biggest issue affecting the security of the world right now.”

He concluded, “Unfortunately from an American perspective, we’re a lot better doing things like targeted killings of insurgents than we are in bringing stability and security to life in these very chaotic and violent lands and to my mind, that’s a huge challenge that we’ll continue to grapple with.”

The lunchtime discussion was moderated by François Carrel-Billiard, IPI Managing Director.

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