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June 2006

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In this detailed, informative discussion of guerilla warfare and its differences from terrorism, the author cites the essentials historically present in defeating this form of unconventional warfare. He sees as many as ten factors as necessary or ultimately desirable for a successful counter-insurgency campaign. – Ed.


In recent years, a lamentable tendency has arisen, among persons who should know better, to use the terms "terrorist" and "guerrilla" as if they were synonyms. This is a serious confusion that may well lead to policy errors and thus cost American lives. In this essay, the term "guerrillas" refers to those who, whatever else they may do, fight against ostensibly more powerful armed forces by making unexpected attacks against vulnerable military targets, and who are sustained, in the ideal case, by popular support, high morale, good intelligence, secure bases, and foreign assistance.

During the Cold War, many came to equate "guerrilla" with "communist." This equation was understandable in the context of the times. In fact, however, guerrilla warfare has never been the monopoly of any particular ideology, cause, or culture. Granted, in our time the most famous guerrilla chieftain was Mao Tse-tung. But recall that a century and a half before Mao, Francis Marion the Swamp Fox was helping prepare Cornwallis's defeat at Yorktown. Guerrillas fought against Roman legions in Iberia. They fought for King and Church against the French revolutionary regime in the Vendee, Brittany, and elsewhere. Guerrillas fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan and against the Chinese Communists in Tibet. What constitutes guerrilla warfare is not ideology, but tactics. Its objective is a protracted war of attrition against superior enemy military forces and especially their logistical system. The principal guerrilla tactic is surprise, made possible by mobility and intelligence. Mao wrote that the strategy of the guerrilla is to pit one man against ten, but the tactics are to pit ten men against one. That is, well-led guerrillas will never engage in battle except when they have clear numerical superiority at the point of contact with enemy forces. In all other circumstances, guerrillas should avoid, or indeed flee from contact with, the enemy.

The continuity of this phenomenon called guerrilla warfare is impressive. Consider the following description of a guerrilla conflict: A superpower, bearer of a universalistic ideology, invades an underdeveloped country across its border. Grossly underestimating the difficulty of subduing this neighbor, the superpower commits forces inadequate to the task. To this lack of numbers the invader adds atrocious conduct, including widespread rape, looting, sacrilege, and casual murder. Such behavior provokes a fierce popular resistance, its morale sustained by religious fervor and outside support. This protracted and bitter conflict has very damaging effects on the superpower and contributes directly to its eventual collapse.

Is this a recognizable description of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan? Yes, but it also encapsulates the Napoleonic experience in Spain of 1808-11, the conflict from which we derive our word "guerrilla." More French soldiers perished in that campaign than in the march to Moscow of 1812-13.

These two historic conflicts in Spain and Afghanistan highlight a crucial point: All notable military powers have encountered serious difficulties when trying to defeat guerrillas. The U.S. experience in Vietnam is the usual example, but consider the experience of the British from the American War of Independence to Northern Ireland; the French from Spain to Indochina; the Germans in the Balkans; the Japanese in China during World War II; the Chinese in Tibet, the (Communist) Vietnamese in Cambodia, the Soviets in Afghanistan; and the Russians in Chechnya, to name only the more prominent of these conflicts. However formidable its conventional military might and however extensive its warfighting experience, no state should expect that a confrontation with guerrillas, especially in a culturally foreign setting, will be anything less than an exceedingly perilous undertaking. In his classic Small Wars (1899), British general Sir C. E. Callwell wrote that "guerrilla warfare is what regular armies always have most to dread." Those words were true then and they are true today.

Of course there have been notable victories over guerrilla insurgencies; examples include Boer South Africa, Malaya, Algeria, Thailand, and Peru. U.S. forces have achieved their share of successes in this kind of warfare, as in the Philippines after 1898, in Haiti and Nicaragua during the interwar period, and in South Vietnam, where the American defeat of the Vietcong guerrillas necessitated the conquest of that country by the regular North Vietnamese Army. But in Algeria and South Vietnam, as elsewhere, military failure per se did not prevent the eventual political victory of the guerrillas or their masters. Such cases strongly suggest that guerrilla insurgency is at least as much a political as a military phenomenon. This is most obvious, perhaps, in conflicts where those who claim the authority of government are confronted by a guerrilla movement enjoying widespread civilian support and assistance from outside the territory. In the words of the "Tiger of Malaya," Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer, "the shooting side of the business is only 25 percent of the trouble. The other 75 percent lies in getting the people of this country behind us."* Thus, a well-conceived plan to defeat guerrillas requires a carefully crafted political component.

In successful counterinsurgency as in all types of warfare, politics must be primary and decisive, as all students of Clausewitz know. In light of these considerations, the following elements constitute an approach to defeating guerrilla insurgency that is both politically conditioned and experientially grounded. These elements are divided into two main parts: first, shaping the strategic environment, and second, defeating the guerrillas on the ground, understood as reducing them to a level below that of a serious danger.

Shaping the strategic environment consists of (1) isolating the combat area, (2) committing sufficient forces, and (3) offering the population of the contested region a peaceful path for the alleviation of grievances.

The Americans in the post-1898 Philippines, the British in Malaya, and the French in Algeria were quite successful in preventing outside help from reaching their guerrilla opponents. Geography itself aided the Americans and the British in this task, while the French-built Morice Line running hundred of miles along the Algerian-Tunisian border is a textbook example of the effective use of modern fortification techniques. In dramatic contrast to these cases is the continuous and decisive invasion of South Vietnam by Northern forces via the Ho Chi Minh Trail, as well as the great quantities of good weapons coming to the Afghan mujahideen from Pakistan and Iran. If it is believed impossible to cut off, or at least greatly impede, outside help to the guerrillas, the wisest course may be to decline to undertake a counter-guerrilla effort.

Once again, the British in Malaya and the French in Algeria provide an impressive contrast to the U.S. in South Vietnam. Toward the end of the Malayan conflict, British-organized forces there outnumbered the guerrillas by at least 30 to 1. The French usually enjoyed an 11:1 advantage over Algerian guerrillas (at their height French forces in Algeria were three times those of the U.S. in Vietnam, in proportion to population). In stunning contrast, the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies (the latter numbering over one million) never achieved even a 2:1 ratio over their communist opponents. The numbers of troops with which Napoleonic France tried to occupy Spain were grotesquely inadequate to the task. And the Japanese attempted to subdue China with forces that were the proportional equivalent of President Lincoln's attempting to subdue the Confederacy with an army of 19,000.

Many years ago, Che Guevara wrote that it is not possible to make a successful revolution against a state that is democratic, or pretends to be. In recent years students of insurgency have agreed that "the ballot box is the coffin of insurgency." From Greece to Malaya, from South Vietnam to Northern Ireland, massive and/or persistent guerrilla insurgencies failed to overthrow regimes that conducted reasonably free elections.

With the above three conditions securely in place, an insurgency is already strategically defeated, and might well fizzle out with little actual fighting. But assuming the insurgency persists, the second part of the strategy--defeating the guerrillas on the ground--has seven basic components: (1) practicing rectitude toward civilians, prisoners and enemy defectors; (2) emphasizing the key role of intelligence; (3) establishing civilian security; (4) separating guerrilla leaders from their followers; (5) offering timely and well-aimed amnesties; (6) draining the rebellious area(s) of weapons; and (7) interdicting guerrilla food supplies.

Perhaps the best way to show that counterinsurgent forces need to display rectitude toward civilians and prisoners is to consider what happens when right conduct is systematically violated. None dispute that German barbarism in Russia during World War II contributed mightily toward Germany's final defeat. The same applies to the Japanese in China: indeed, Mao Tse-tung predicted early on the eventual defeat of the Japanese precisely because of their atrocious conduct. From Spain to Afghanistan the road of warfare is littered with the wreckage of counterinsurgencies that forgot, or disdained, rectitude. Bad conduct creates guerrillas; right conduct saves counterinsurgent lives.

Intelligence is of course key to any successful campaign against guerrillas, because among the more difficult tasks facing the counterinsurgents are finding the exact location of guerrilla units and identifying their sympathizers and agents. Close cooperation between the police and the military becomes essential. Maintaining counterinsurgent forces in the same area for an extended period greatly enhances their intelligence capabilities. And here as well the utility of rectitude becomes obvious.

Establishing civilian security begins with clearing any guerrilla forces out of a designated area, and then setting up local defense units--militias--to prevent their unopposed return. Stationing small numbers of regular troops in friendly villages can do a great deal to stiffen the resolve of local militia units, as the (largely ignored) Marine CAP program in Vietnam illustrates.

Methods for separating guerrilla leaders from their followers include addressing at least some of the grievances that insurgents seek to exploit, and offering big cash rewards for specific insurgent leaders accused not of rebellion but of particular criminal acts such as murder or arson, a method used effectively by Ramon Magsaysay, who would become president of the Philippines, against the Huks.

Amnesty will appeal especially to those youths whose romantic idea about guerrilla life have evaporated in the face of its hardships and dangers. It may be necessary to supplement amnesty with programs for resettlement and education, because long-term guerrillas may not have a home or a life to return to.

Draining weapons out of guerrilla-disturbed areas requires that relatives of guerrillas or ex-guerrillas be permitted to hand in weapons to the authorities with no questions asked, in return for something they want. That something can be cash, or, as the U.S. forces in post-1898 Philippines happily discovered, the release of a prisoner.

Interdicting the enemy's food supplies is a tactic the Romans well understood. If guerrillas try to grow their own food, their efforts can be spotted by observation aircraft or reported by unfriendly civilians or amnesty-takers. Thus guerrillas are usually quite dependent on the civilian economy for their food. In Malaya, the British forbade storekeepers to sell rice in any large quantities, and required that cans be punctured immediately before sale. The effect of these measures on the guerrillas was quite severe.

Many of these tasks are lacking in glamour, and may thus fail to attract the most able and ambitious military officers. It is therefore necessary to ensure that extended service in counterinsurgency enhances rather than hinders officers' careers.

Not all of the elements of counterinsurgency outlined above may be appropriate to every circumstance, or doable at the same time. Nevertheless, all of them have proved effective in actual conflicts. Most importantly, each of these elements can be employed without the necessity of taking or losing one single human life. They thus constitute a quintessentially political approach to counterinsurgency.

* Quoted in Richard Stubbs, Hearts and Minds in Guerrilla Warfare: The Malayan Emergency, 1948-1960 (Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 259.

Published by permission of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), Philadelphia, PA 19102-3684. For information, contact at email fpri@fpri.org or www.fpri.org

Anthony James Joes is professor of political science at St. Joseph's University and author of Resisting Rebellion: The History and Politics of Counterinsurgency (University of Kentucky Press, 2004). This essay is based on a presentation on March 24, 2006 as FPRI's W. W. Keen Butcher Lecture on Military Affairs. It is available online at www.fpri.org

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