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by J. Paul de B. Taillon

Westport, CT: Praeger, 190 pages, $US62.50.

Reviewed by Steven Wolski

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The recent actions of Special Forces in Afghanistan in support of Coalition measures against the Taliban and Al Qaeda have demonstrated in the public’s eye their ability to meet operational challenges in the emerging war on terrorism. But the decision to use Special Forces in a counter-terrorism role has not always been easy for military or political leaders to make, and indeed it continues to be controversial from both practical and ethical standpoints. Dr. Paul Taillon’s book provides a detailed insight into the dynamics shaping the creation of such forces and defining the roles they play in this form of conflict. The body of the book, in four chapters, traces the emergence of the American and British Special Forces from conventional military structures. It describes how the historical context of each country’s approach to low intensity conflicts shaped the current nature of their respective Special Forces. By means of several case studies, Taillon then illustrates the challenges such forces confront to be an effective means for governments to counter terrorist actions.

The Olympic massacre of 1972 focused the political realization that dealing effectively with terrorist acts may be beyond the capabilities of traditional enforcement tools. Taillon suggests that the use of Special Forces, properly adapted to the counter-terrorist role, is an effective tool for governments to use in terrorist incidents. He believes that the chances for their success are greatly enhanced by international cooperation. He examines in detail the experiences of the United States and the United Kingdom, while alluding to those of a number of other countries, to highlight his points. To compare and contrast their differing approaches to resolving terrorist incidents, two case studies from 1980 are fully examined: the Iranian Embassy siege in London and the attempted rescue of American hostages in Iran. A fascinating account is given of both operations – conducted respectively by the British Special Air Squadron (SAS) and American Delta Force – along with a critique on the effectiveness of each. This sets the stage for a number of recommendations in his conclusion for areas of increased international cooperation. These range from intelligence sharing to forward basing in the event of incidents, secure communications, shared training, attachments and exchanges.

Taillon describes how in Britain an Imperial policing heritage brought an early understanding of how authorities could use military force as an adjunct to police action to maintain stability in the colonies. Success was often linked to responding to timely and accurate intelligence first to locate and then to crush an enemy considered subversive to the established order. The post-Second World War experiences in Malaya, Borneo, Oman and Northern Ireland, however, reflected the growing pains of adhering to new political realities and learning to deal with the moral, ethical, political and other consequences of projecting military power in a post-colonial world. Success was again tied to timely and accurate intelligence, but now the enemy had to be first isolated, discredited and alienated from the general population before being crushed. Failure to do so, while effective in eradicating certain dangerous elements, did not resolve the underlying, often nationalist, issues, and incited others to replace those that had been eliminated.

The author then turns to the American approaches to low intensity warfare. These were heavily influenced by experiences in the American Civil War, and reflect a deep-seated belief in the application of overwhelming military force. America did not see itself as an imperial power and, as such, the solution to such problems was often seen in a purely military context. This belief was nurtured by successful counter insurgency actions in Greece in 1945, then reinforced, first by experiences in Korea and then by early experiences during the Cold War, before being applied in Vietnam. According to Taillon, while the British learned the key to success was to conquer ‘hearts and minds’, the Americans, drawn to mobility and firepower, learned from Vietnam that dominating the enemy militarily did not guarantee victory. Since then, American Special Forces have been looking for the ‘right balance’ between force and its application in the increasingly confused political arena they have been drawn into as the only surviving hyper power and the reluctant global policeman.

The book’s discussion of the evolution of the roles and responsibilities of the Special Forces in counter terrorism also recognizes and explains certain commonalities inherent in working within a military institutional framework. Taillon explains how the recognition by the military and political leadership of the need for, and value of, dedicated Special Forces to handle increasingly ‘politicized’ low intensity conflicts was never universal. Special Forces in both countries were repeatedly faced with the competing priorities of rapid adaptation and specialization during times of crisis, to deal with what is considered ‘irregular warfare’, and then being required to conform to peacetime roles of preparing for the next traditional war. Significantly, within this ebb and flow of development, only rarely was there a slim thread of continuity of experience that survived upon which to build Special Forces to tackle the ‘current’ emergency.

In presenting his case, the author has drawn upon a wealth of scholarly works supplemented by media reporting of significant events and sprinkled with tidbits from military and intelligence practitioners. Meticulous care has been taken to substantiate the facts presented in the book, so readers are provided with a wealth of references in the notes and bibliography of primary and secondary sources on the subjects discussed. In addition, the book is valuable for its many detailed explanations of practices associated with the use of Special Forces, such as the list of intelligence requirements needed to insure proper intelligence is provided to Special Forces units before a hostage rescue attempt is made.

After several times raising the importance of government direction in the use of Special Forces, Taillon does not fully explore this dimension in the book. Here and there are also tantalizing references to the activities of the Special Forces of other countries, in particular Germany and Israel, with references to the hostage rescues in Mogadishu and Entebbe respectively, that could be explored more fully to flesh out his premise of the value of international cooperation. These are covered in greater detail in what could be considered a companion volume: Hijacking and Hostages: Government Responses to Terrorism also published by Praeger in 2002.

Paul Taillon’s book is an excellent primer for those seeking to penetrate the mystique and secrecy surrounding Special Forces. It provides a better understanding of the facts behind how they evolved into their counter-terrorist roles. It highlights the challenges they continue to face in remaining an effective option for government to call upon to resolve terrorist incidents. It is a timely read, given that the Special Forces are now more than ever facing renewed challenges in the developing global war against terrorism.

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Stephen Wolski is an MA graduate in War Studies from Royal Military College.