July 11, 2011

Dan Byman's "A High Price"

I had mentioned on the blog a few weeks back that I was looking forward to reading Dan Byman's A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism. I can safely recommend the book now after having read it. A few quick thoughts:

1. If you are a geek like me who has spent a lot of time studying a group like Hizballah and the Israeli attempts to counter such a group, you are probably not going to learn a lot in terms of new details from Byman's book. Most of Byman's research leans heavily on well-known secondary sources and periodicals, so if you have read books like Sayigh's Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949-1993
or Harel & Issacharoff's 34 Days: Israel, Hezbollah, and the War in Lebanon in addition to all the Crisis Group reports that have been published on the region over the past 20-odd years, you're probably not going to learn a whole heck of a lot that you did not already know. But ...

2. ... The reason Byman spends so much time carefully constructing a narrative of Israel's struggles to build a coherent counter-terror strategy is so that he can draw the conclusions he does in the last chapter, where he notes what the world can learn from the Israeli experience and what Israel itself still needs to learn. The last chapter of this study is must-read stuff, and the evidence for Byman's conclusions is to be found in all the chapters that preceed it.

3. In particular, Byman makes a great point about thinking counterinsurgency while fighting terrorism. I have argued ad nauseum (and for several years now) that the dichotomy between counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency is a false one, and I have demonstrated how effective direct-action special operations (which we usually associate with counter-terrorism) fit into a counterinsurgency campaign. Byman makes the equally correct case that when you are executing what you consider to be a strict counter-terror campaign, the label "terrorist" doesn't do justice to a group like Hamas or Hizballah and that simply eroding the operational capabilities of such groups does not address the things like the social services and political representation those groups provide to their constituencies. You can't just have counter-terror operations, in other words: you also have to have a political strategy. The next point Byman makes, about countering terrorist groups in the information battle, goes part and parcel with this.

In sum, this was a good book, and unless you a serious geek like me about these issues, you will learn a lot. Byman relies a lot on Israeli sources, but as the Economist noted in their approving review, he does so in a very even-handed way. Don't let the fact that Byman repeatedly cites this blogger in Chapters 16 and 17 prevent you from buying this important and well-written new book.