Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns That Killed Bin Laden and Devastated al Qaeda
Aki Peritz and Eric Rosenbach. New York: Public Affairs, 2012. 310 pp. Notes. Index. $27.99.
Reviewed by J. Furman Daniel III
The months after the death of Osama bin Laden witnessed a flurry of new books chronicling global efforts against terrorism. These works ranged from first-person histories from retired Special Forces operators to partisan polemics to monographs on particular operations or regions. While many made for interesting reading, few attempted to reconstruct an integrated history of the previous decade of war. With their new book, Peritz and Rosenbach attempt to fill the gap and provide a comprehensive overview of the evolving U.S. counterterrorism effort.
The central premise of this work is that before 9/11, the United States had neither the political will nor the physical capabilities necessary to develop a mature strategy for a sustained campaign against terrorism. While the 2001 attacks provided the political catalyst for action, the nation spent the next ten years building the intellectual, cultural, legal, technological, military, and human capital required to achieve a “revolution in counterterrorism operations.” While the authors are not overly triumphant in tone, they assert that this decade-long transition from a Cold War focus on nations and conventional military power to the current emphasis on individuals and small terrorist cells has been one of the most radical and underappreciated transformations in U.S. military history.
The strategy that the United States unofficially adopted harked back to General Matthew Ridgway’s famous rallying cry from the Korean War: “Find them! Fix them! Fight them! Finish them!” This simple mantra had its roots in the attrition-based strategy of General Ulysses S. Grant’s overland campaign during the U.S. Civil War and was based on the idea that an enemy army must be located and immobilized (“fix”) before it could be destroyed by superior firepower. Although the pithy strategic concept remained sound, the operational priorities had been inverted from the days of Grant and Ridgway. While “finishing” a conventional enemy had typically been the most difficult task for past commanders, the new threats were more difficult to find and fix because of the asymmetric nature of terrorist strategies and their organizational structure.
After developing this thesis and providing a brief critique of the atrophy of U.S. counterterrorism assets before 9/11, Peritz and Rosenbach devote most of their book to reconstructing a history of the evolving counterterrorist efforts. While this is comprehensive and provides sufficient support for the authors’ claims, it suffers from two distinct flaws. First, the narrative is very general and reveals few new details about specific operations. Despite the definite value to having a historic overview of this period, there is little here that could not be found in newspapers. Thus, it is not facts or surprise revelations that distinguish this book from the crowded field of similar works. What redeems Find, Fix, Finish on this account is its strong central thesis that the past decade has been part of an evolutionary process and is best viewed holistically. This is a novel view that may be quite useful.
The second flaw is that the work occasionally lapses into unhelpful and distracting political editorializing. Although a frank, national discussion may be long overdue, the authors do themselves no favors by inserting their own opinions on the power of the executive branch, the utility of enhanced interrogation techniques, the verity of Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations, the future of Guantanamo Bay, or the wisdom of the Iraq war. These intermittent lectures are unfortunate, because many readers may not be able to overlook them in order to focus on the book’s significant merits. In fact, the vast majority of this work is evenhanded and objective, and the authors’ recommendations for policymakers are straightforward, non-partisan, and pragmatic.
Find, Fix, Finish is not the final word on the subject, but it provides a useful broad history of the first decade of efforts against global terrorism. At some points the authors do stray from their stated premise, but on balance they provide a credible and concise analysis of a complex and interesting period of history. The general reader will appreciate the clear prose and fast-paced narrative, but experts in terrorism and defense policy will be better served elsewhere.
The Snake Eaters: An Unlikely Band of Brothers and the Battle for the Soul of Iraq
Owen West. New York: Free Press, 2012. 347 pp. Illus. Notes. Bibliog. Index. $26.
Reviewed by John R. Ballard
The Snake Eaters purports to be fiction, but former Marine infantryman Owen West frames the story in the context of the advisory unit to which he was assigned in always contentious al Anbar province between 2005 and 2007. It is a factual account of the combat necessities of Americans and Iraqis alike as seen through the eyes of real participants, but with a fictional level of detail. In other words, the author has created interpersonal relationships that may not have existed in the interest of telling a true story about real events in a real war.
He uses his own background as a member of the team known by the call sign “Outcast,” which supported the development of the 3rd Battalion of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Iraqi Army Division, the so-called 3/3-1“Snake Eaters.” With months of experience working alongside 500 or so jundis (Iraqi soldiers), West has an expert perspective on U.S.-Iraqi relations at the tactical level. He begins by covering his predecessors in the unit, then writes his own memoir of the team in 2006.
The narrative begins in September 2005, when al Qaeda in Iraq still had free run of al Anbar province, particularly around Lake Habbaniyah, located between restive Ramadi and the newly conquered city of Fallujah. Task Force Panther, an Army National Guard battalion, was stationed with the 3/3-1 in Camp Habbaniyah, a former British training base, but it was completely sapped of strength by its unending efforts to keep the main highway free of improvised explosive devices. Most of the action in the book takes place in the small city of Khalidiya, whose 25,000 residents were still dominated by insurgents.
Team Outcast was a typical pickup team of Americans, soldiers, Marines, National Guard, and regular reserves, who had never worked together before serving in Iraq and were woefully ill-prepared for their arduous duty. Members had received a mere 90 days of training in Camp Atterbury, Indiana, mostly from instructors who had never been to Iraq, knew little about combat, and had not served as advisers themselves. Most advisory-team members had been trained to advise and assist from what was expected to be relatively secure forward operating bases—which was certainly not the case in al Anbar.
The reality there was quite different. When they arrived, the men of Team Outcast discovered that by working only on bases, they could never develop the skills necessary to be truly effective in the counterinsurgency fight. As West writes, “Only an advisor’s aggressive willingness to share risk—his performance under fire—with local troops gives him credibility with and influence over them.” They came to share all the rigors of war with their Iraqi counterparts.
The team, along with the 3/3-1, moved from Camp Habbaniyah onto a rough-hewn base closer to Khalidiya. There they eventually convinced their Iraqi allies to conduct regular patrols into the disputed city. Because Task Force Panther had no units to spare in support of the 3/3-1, Team Outcast had to operate in combat up to four times daily in the city. But by patrolling downtown together, the Iraqis and their American advisers gradually won over the local population. With the added support of the U.S. Marine battalion that rotated into the area in June 2006, the residents of Khalidiya eventually turned against al Qaeda in Iraq.
By the time Team Outcast left Iraq in February 2007, violence in the area had fallen dramatically and the 3/3-1had become one of the best battalions in the Iraqi army. Also by then, each member of the team had conducted some 450 combat patrols with the Snake Eaters and suffered accordingly.
Few Americans will ever understand the importance of these advisory-team efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. General David Petraeus started them in 2004 in Iraq, followed in 2005 by Lieutenant General David Barno in Afghanistan. They were conducted with various levels of effectiveness throughout the wars in both theaters up to the very last days of U.S. participation. As both U.S. counterinsurgency strategies were highly dependent on the ability of the host nations to develop forces that could take over the responsibility for fighting, advisory-team efforts were in some ways the keys to success. Yet few books tell of how very difficult and dangerous these missions were.
Owen West succeeds at that task masterfully. His narrative is gritty, accurate, and nuanced; veterans will quickly sense that he has “walked the walk,” and more novice readers will gain powerful insights into ground combat in an uncertain and unforgiving coalition environment. Very few other books offer them this level of understanding. This well-written novel tells a factual story that is long overdue.
The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today
Thomas E. Ricks. New York: Penguin, 2012. 576 pp. Notes. Bibliog. Index. $32.95.
Reviewed by Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, U.S. Army (Retired)
This book argues that the decline in the U.S. Army’s performance—from the World War II triumph to the stalemate in Korea through defeat in Vietnam to the fiasco of the early Iraq war years—can be attributed to failures in how the service manages its senior officers. Explaining why U.S. generals now lose wars with impunity, author Tom Ricks points to architect of victory General George C. Marshall, who relieved subordinates regularly and with gusto. But since World War II, Ricks argues, the Army has abdicated its responsibility to police its own ranks, failing to hold senior officers accountable for their actions. Instead it has fallen to presidents to relieve generals, as Harry Truman did to Douglas MacArthur for insubordination during the Korean War, or as Barack Obama did to Stanley McChrystal for indiscrete political comments.
In a cascading litany of failures, The Generals presents more villains than heroes. Other than Marshall, generals who receive high praise include Matthew Ridgway, who turned around a losing war in Korea; and David Petraeus, who performed a similar task in Iraq (though personal problems brought him down after he had left the Army). Marine Major General General O. P. Smith earns praise for his exceptional performance at the 1950 Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, where his inspired leadership saved a Marine division from a Chinese onslaught. But Smith’s success is contrasted with the shortcomings of many other U.S. Army generals who left their units exposed and subject to devastating defeats in Korea.
Generals Maxwell Taylor and William Westmoreland earn scathing criticism for their performance in Vietnam. General Tommy Franks is faulted for his leadership in Iraq and Afghanistan and for his post-Army conduct, and Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez is described as having been “in over his head” for his leadership during the first, horrible year of the recent Iraq fiasco.
There is much truth in Ricks’ description of flawed Army generalship. Since Vietnam, the Pentagon and civilian administrations have too often failed to hold general officers accountable for their actions in war. America’s major wars of the past four decades (other than the brief, almost completely conventional Operation Desert Storm) have been the sort of protracted counterinsurgency campaigns that have tested commanders since the Roman Empire.
But instead of laying waste to rebellious provinces as did Rome’s legions, success in counterinsurgency efforts today demands a precise calibration of military force along with an integrated campaign to improve governance, spur economic development, and create effective local security forces. These are formidable tasks for which military service is seldom good preparation. Only a few generals have shown the ability to successfully integrate them. Creighton Abrams in Vietnam and David Petraeus in Iraq and Afghanistan are the best examples, although their talents were applied to the conflicts they led late in the day, after many damning mistakes had already been made. Ultimately, the failures of American generalship in Iraq, as in Vietnam, resulted from shortcomings of imagination and inability to adapt to changed conditions in the Army over several generations.
Ricks notes: “The Army arguably is the dominant service, the one around which the national defense still is constructed.” This has been true for the past decade, which saw more soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan than Marines, sailors, and airmen put together. There is no guarantee that this state of affairs will continue, however, which is why it is essential that this book be widely read outside the Army.
The Navy and Marines have much to gain from a careful consideration of Ricks’ conclusions. The rise of China and the U.S. pivot to Asia, along with an American population weary of ground wars in Asia, both likely signal an increase in the prominence of the sea services during the next few decades. It is also worth noting that the current and incoming commanders of the Afghan effort are Marines rather than Army generals. One hopes the naval tradition of relief for ship captains who run aground—literally or figuratively—has properly shaped the men and women America will need on point in the Pacific for the next generation.
Pirate Alley: Commanding Task Force 151 off Somalia
Terry McKnight and Michael Hirsh. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2012. 272 pp. Illus. Maps. Index. $29.95.
Reviewed by Norman Polmar
Pirates have become the subject du jour for several recent films (mostly frivolous) and books (mostly serious). Retired Rear Admiral McKnight is a Virginia Military Institute graduate and surface warfare officer; Hirsh is an award-winning journalist. Their book is an attempt to analyze the prirate activities and the world’s response.
The book is written from McKnight’s viewpoint as the first commander of Task Force 151—the multinational, anti-pirate force off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden. He held that position in 2009, when piracy “exploded” off the Horn of Africa. McKnight provides a useful history of pirate activities and efforts to stop them. Particularly interesting are his interactions with the Chinese and Russian naval forces that were participating in the campaign.
The book describes the tactics employed by the pirates, using small skiffs and armed with AK-47 rifles, and by the allied naval forces, with the U.S. Navy using Aegis cruisers and destroyers, and even helicopter assault ships. These efforts—as well as armed guards on board merchant ships—have been successful as the number of vessels captured and held for ransom has declined precipitously. (Significantly, legitimate fishermen often have guns on board to protect their catches.)
Particularly interesting is the lengthy account of the pirate capture of the container ship Maersk Alabama and the subsequent rescue of her captain, Richard Phillips. In that action Navy SEALs shot his captors as their skiff was being towed by a U.S. destroyer. McKnight gives interesting details, including substantial descriptions of SEAL procedures and practices. Indeed, one wonders if McKnight will receive a “warning” from the Department of Defense, as did Matt Bissonnette (writing under the pseudonym Mark Owen) after publication of his book No Easy Day (2012), which gave details of the assassination of Osama bin Laden by SEALs.
The most complex problem facing the pirate chasers has been what to do when the buccaneers are captured. In the old days it was simple enough: a length of rope or a wooden plank. When McKnight arrived on station only three countries permitted their ships to detain pirates: the United States, United Kingdom, and Denmark. Apprehended pirates must be confined—not always easy in a warship—fed, given medical care, and somehow transported under guard to an acceptable location for trial.
And, of course, evidence must be collected and witnesses made available. Thus, few captured pirates ever face trial . . . or punishment. And in McKnight’s opinion—one probably shared by others involved in such operations—the JAG officers were, to be polite, counterproductive. Buccaneers captured by Russian ships appear to have been handled in a simpler manner, which McKnight says became known as “the Russian solution.”
The book suffers from the authors’ two different writing styles and the fact that too many military abbreviations inundate the narrative, some of them not defined (a glossary would have been useful). Although a personal memoir, at times it is too much so, with up to nine I’s in some paragraphs.
Pirate Alley provides recommendations for countering the situation. Some have been overtaken by events and trends. McKnight’s most significant suggestion is to “follow the money” and stop it. Pirates insist on being paid their millions in U.S. $100 bills. And, of course, transactions between them, their bosses, and banks are handled by cell phones, another possible area for action.
In reading this book, one sees a subtext: The U.S. Navy, the most powerful maritime force afloat, is employing high-value, high-capability warships to escort merchant vessels and chase pirates in small skiffs with outboard motors. At the same time, the Navy is rapidly discarding its frigates, ships that are exceedingly suitable for these operations. Some Navy and civilian experts see the littoral combat ship as the ideal anti-piracy platform. But that complex, expensive, and undermanned ship, even with a new module intended for these operations, is not likely to be the answer.
Although this situation is changing rapidly, Pirate Alley is a valuable look at this interesting and important subject.