In 2015 the United States faces a number of opportunities to intervene with military force in countries of secondary or even less strategic importance to U.S. policy makers. President Barack Obama’s completion of the withdrawal of American ground combat troops from Iraq, and plans to draw down U.S. troops from Afghanistan, have not reduced either the escalation of recent conflicts such as in Libya and Yemen, or the continuation of destructive ethnic and religious strife with international participation in Syria. As if that were not a sufficient number of states with contested conflict taking place, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) expanded from gradual growth after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2013, migrated into the Syrian Civil War, and in February 2014 charged into western Iraq to seize Mosul and other Sunni dominated areas. Boko Haram in Nigeria also escalated its attacks in northeastern Nigeria and engaged in the kidnapping of school girls, burning of villages, murder of residents, and attacks on Nigeria’s neighbors such as Chad. The list does not even include Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea from the Ukraine in February 2014 and Putin’s continued support of Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine with weapons, so-called ‘Russian volunteers,’ and funds.
Perhaps only Douglas Porch, with his encyclopedic knowledge of insurgency and counterinsurgency (COIN) and his broader military expertise, could have written this book. Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War is a magisterial examination across time and space of the history of COIN. It is intended to dispel the myths propagated around it as a kinder, gentler form of warfare waged for the benefit of all involved. An eminent military historian, Porch is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. He has been writing about revolution, insurgency, expeditionary warfare, military empire building, the role of the military in domestic politics, great power war, and related issues for more than 40 years.
Leadership targeting has become the cornerstone of American counterterrorism policy. Since 2004, the number of strikes carried out by unmanned aerial vehicles has increased dramatically. In 2010 alone the United States carried out 118 drones strikes, 70 in 2011, and 24 in the first six months of 2012. In the past two months, the U.S. has intensified its use of drone strikes against militant targets in both Yemen and Pakistan. In May of this year, drones strikes killed 11 suspected al Qaeda militants in Yemen. Over the course of three days in June, 27 suspected militants were killed in drone strikes in North Waziristan, Pakistan. Al Qaeda’s deputy leader Abu Yahya al-Libi, reportedly was killed in one of those attacks. I mention these examples to highlight the continued relevance of the debate over the effectiveness of targeting terrorist leaders. Patrick Johnston and Bryan Price have contributed to the debate through two rigorous and insightful pieces on the effectiveness of killing and capturing terrorist and insurgent leaders. These two pieces examine, in different ways, the effectiveness of leadership decapitation on the lifespan and organizational activity of terrorist groups and insurgent organizations. Price looks at whether decapitation affects terrorist groups’ duration. He finds that decapitation increases the mortality rate of terrorist organizations. Johnston focuses on the outcomes and dynamics of counterinsurgency campaigns and shows that decapitating insurgent organizations increases the chance of war termination and government victory and lessens the intensity and frequency of insurgent violence. There are significant differences between the two studies in terms of data, analysis, and theory, yet both authors conclude that decapitation can be an effective tool in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency policies. In the remainder of this review, I will summarize their respective arguments and then discuss some of the strengths and weaknesses of each article.