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Withdrawing under Fire: Lessons Learned from Islamist Insurgencies

Withdrawing under Fire: Lessons Learned from Islamist Insurgencies by Joshua L. Gleis. Potomac Books, 2011, 256 pp., $29.95.

          In Withdrawing under Fire, Joshua L. Gleis, an independent security consultant with a PhD from Tufts University, studies the end game of six Islamist insurgencies. Gleis breaks new ground by addressing war termination in the low-intensity context, thus supplementing the concepts developed for conventional-war termination by Fred Charles Ilke in Every War Must End. Withdrawing under Fire is also significant in that it studies the peculiarities of fighting an Islamist foe. The uncompromising nature of these radicals usually means that the counterinsurgent will eventually disengage absent a complete victory or negotiated settlement.

Gleis begins by analyzing two disengagements from the colonial era—the British withdrawal from Iraq between the world wars and the French withdrawal from Algeria during the 1960s. The earlier insurgency began in June 1920, when Shiite and Sunni fighters initiated a campaign against the British mandate in Iraq. The British began to transfer authority to the local government in spite of continued fighting. Over the next decade, they installed a friendly sheikh as the Iraqi leader, enabled local security forces to defeat the insurgency, and maintained considerable political and economic influence. Therefore, Gleis characterizes this as the most effective disengagement studied, in spite of the often heavy-handed and manipulative British tactics. He placed the French withdrawal from Algeria on the opposite end of the spectrum. From 1956 until 1958, the French military reversed what previously had appeared to be an inevitable insurgent victory. Nonetheless, war-weariness within France forced an abandonment of the effort. The French badly mismanaged the end game, as they failed to negotiate when militarily ascendant and never countered the insidious effects of insurgent propaganda on French public opinion.

Gleis next turns to Islamic insurgencies conducted against the two superpowers during and after the Cold War. The first disengagement occurred in 1989 when the Soviet Union finally withdrew from Afghanistan after 10 years of fruitless effort. The Soviets bungled the disengagement, claiming to react in accordance with a cease-fire and reconciliation agreement to which the Mujahedin never agreed. Additionally, the final face-saving Soviet offensive to clear the highway to Khost backfired, as Soviet forces abandoned the territory only 12 days after taking it. Although smaller in scale, the US disengagement from Somalia was also poorly managed. The withdrawal of US forces was precipitated by the October 1993 battle in which two Blackhawk helicopters were downed and 18 Americans killed. In response to the public outcry, the Clinton administration promptly announced the withdrawal of US troops by March 1994. The withdrawal was executed in spite of the overall tactical success of US forces and the lack of concessions from the Somali warlords. The hasty withdrawal from Somalia caused the American public to become overly gun-shy of nation-building operations and the Islamists to perceive the United States as a paper tiger.

For his last two case studies, Gleis examines the disengagements conducted by Israel during the first decade of the twenty-first century, from Lebanon and Gaza. In May 2000, Israel ended nearly 18 years of occupation of the southern portion of Lebanon with a unilateral withdrawal. The purpose of the withdrawal was to end the commitment of Israeli military forces to lands with no historic ties to Israel, to remove the irritant that was supposedly the raison d’être of Hezbollah, and to pressure Syria to likewise disengage. However, the withdrawal was conducted hurriedly, without any negotiated concessions, and in the face of Hezbollah offensive actions, causing the disengagement to appear a defeat at the hands of the terrorist group. Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, on the other hand, was much more effective. Occupied since the 1967 war, the Gaza Strip had become increasingly violent after the start of the second intifada. Eventually, Israel decided that the costs of occupying the territory exceeded the benefits. Correcting the errors of Lebanon, the Gaza withdrawal was conducted according to preplanned phases and with an unofficial cease-fire with Hamas. The operation, therefore, did not appear as an Israeli defeat. Israel missed an opportunity to strengthen the hand of Fatah over Hamas, however, when it did not allow the Palestinian Authority to take credit for negotiating the withdrawal.

In the final chapter, Gleis identifies lessons from the case studies and provides nine additional recommendations. Many of his conclusions are thought provoking, such as the need to declare redlines for the reintroduction of forces. Others, however, are almost contradictory (e.g., the dangers of declarations vs. defining goals and victory), far more easily said than done (e.g., enforcing the law of war on the insurgents), or somewhat trite (e.g., the importance of leadership). In the final section of this chapter, he attempts to apply some of these lessons to the inevitable disengagement from Afghanistan. There is little noteworthy in this section, and Gleis defends what he admits is a “hodgepodge of tactical and strategic recommendations” on the basis that the Afghanistan strategy was unsettled at the time of writing.

          Overall, Withdrawing under Fire is well worth reading. The case studies, in particular, are well researched, thoroughly discussed, and provide many insights for the strategist. Readers should not approach this work, however, expecting to find a magical set of answers to ending Afghanistan or any other conflict. This is not a poor reflection on the author but an indication that all Islamist insurgencies are so unique and complex as to defy easy solution.

Col John G. Bunnell, USAF

Hurlburt Field AFB, Florida

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"The views expressed in this book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."