Gangs, Pseudo-Militaries, and Other Modern Mercenaries: New Dynamics in Uncomfortable Wars

Article excerpt

Gangs, Pseudo-Militaries, and Other Modern Mercenaries: New Dynamics in Uncomfortable Wars

by Max G. Manwaring

Norman, OK: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2010

238 pages

$34.95

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Since 9/11, the US military and policy communities have become more comfortable addressing the complex challenges associated with terrorism, civil war, and intervention. The adversaries whose asymmetric operations were both frustrating and daunting--terrorist and insurgent organizations--are now more familiar and manageable in the context of updated and evolving counterinsurgency and counterterrorism doctrine. In Gangs, Pseudo-Militaries, and Other Modern Mercenaries, Max Manwaring reintroduces another actor that necessitates attention in such conflicts--political gangs.

Manwaring's political gangs--alternately called "popular militias" and "propaganda agitator gangs"--are groups who take part in "well-calculated, multi-dimensional, and systematic attempts to coerce radical political change." These gangs can be state-sponsored or independent actors willing to hire themselves out to the highest bidder. They can be instruments of political agents or agents of political change of their own accord. On occasion, these gangs encourage political change via both means. They have many tools at their disposal to accomplish their political objectives: subversion of the state, humanitarian assistance, intimidation of the local population, demonstrations, strikes, riots, and armed resistance. Like insurgent and terrorist organizations, political gangs have a protean nature; their purpose, hierarchy, and operations can shift to meet the requirements of dynamic political and military situations. Their ability to adapt makes the challenges they present to state political legitimacy all the more demanding. What distinguishes these popular militias from insurgent or terrorist organizations, however, is that the political change they aim to encourage may not be regime change or establishment of a separate state; rather, these political gangs sometimes seek to subvert the political legitimacy of the state just enough to maintain "acceptable" levels of instability conducive to the social, political, and economic goals of their sponsors.

Throughout his analysis of political gang activity, Manwaring demonstrates a substantial depth of knowledge about the dynamics of civil war and 4th and 5th generation warfare. His analysis of this type of conflict, however, apart from the focus on political gangs as unique from terrorist or insurgent organizations, is not particularly new or startling. Drawing from strategists ranging from Sun Tzu to Lenin to Simon Bolivar, Manwaring builds his framework for understanding and countering political gangs within established tenets of revolutionary warfare, counterinsurgency, and democratic transitions theory. He identifies political gangs and their sponsors as competitors with the state for political legitimacy among the population. The author notes that weak or weakening state institutions control and create space for nonstate actors of this nature to develop and flourish. Manwaring highlights the importance of understanding and seizing control of human terrain in addition to physical terrain as a means of countering political gangs. Finally, he emphasizes the importance of unity of command between state security institutions and intervention forces to balance persuasive and coercive measures to restore state political legitimacy.

Manwaring's somewhat disparate case studies, too, make the book read more like an anthology of gang activity rather than a qualitative analysis of political gangs and state failure. …