Guerrilla Warfare – The Basics

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Guerrilla Warfare is usually viewed in the context of low intensity conflicts and “small wars”. The John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center (SWCS) was established to study and train US Army personnel to deal with this sort of warfare, much of which has its roots in PSYOPS. There is an overlay between Special Operations and the paramilitary and special activities responsibilities of the Central Intelligence Agency. This was demonstrated in Laos (1959-75) and more recently in  2002 with America’s non-uniform military service (CIA) becoming directly involved in an early effort in Afghanistan that functioned much as a guerrilla effort (with occasional on-call airborne artillery style missions from B-52’s). But those aren’t genuine guerrilla conflicts (hybrid wars at best as discussed briefly below). My intent today is to outline the basic tenants of guerrilla insurgency and how it differs from terrorism. In fact, terror as a tool is more often used by state actors than it is by guerrillas as explained in the section below, “Boer War” (British against Dutch Settlers in Africa) and “Chechnya” (Russians against North Caucasian people).
In the brief space available for a blog, it’s impossible to go into depth regarding the wellsprings of guerrilla warfare or the conditions under which a low intensity conflict morphs into a conventional military campaign (Mao Zedong, George Washington, etc.). But without making this a polemic, I’ll try to cover the basics.

Conditions under which Guerrilla Warfare takes place:

Guerilla Warfare exists when you find people who are too weak to resist occupation yet are too strong to be defeated when occupied. In order to mobilize guerilla campaigns from peoples with loose social organizations there must be a threat to their way of life and a common ideology (often religious) to unify resistance. (Lambert, Lecture at US Command and General Staff College, 1988)

Mao Zedong had a slightly different take on the progression of revolution, and he admitted to taking his model in large part from the success of the American Revolution (1775-1781)

  1. Political work: Working among the peasantry to win them over, and build a base from which to operate.
  2. Guerrilla warfare: This is where the insurgents fight the state, but in harassing actions or against communications and logistics. The objective is not to win territory, but to weaken the enemy while consolidating one’s own power.
  3. Conventional war: Once the enemy is weak enough, and the insurgent has enough control to fight large-scale battles, the insurgent must take control of the ground.
Mao rejected terrorism as a practical matter. He felt that winning the “hearts and minds” of the population was a crucial move because the population provides the support and cover for the insurgency. Terror tactics practiced by guerrilla groups or against them (reprisals against the populations that support them) almost always backfire and never provide the sort of results that moves Mao’s phase 2 into phase 3 and ultimate victory.
Examples of Enduring and Successful Guerrilla Warfare:
Chechnya (1990-Present)

The guerrilla struggle in Chechnya against first the Soviet union and their successors, the Russian Federation provides insightful and interesting examples of success. That guerrilla struggle was met with exceptionally harsh responses on the part of the Russians, but it’s still ongoing with no end in sight. The War has been broken up into different phases by historians: First Chechen War 1994-96, Second Chechen War 1999-2000, and “continued unrest” – not an official war. Between April 2009 (when the anti-terrorist operation in Chechnya was officially ended) and April 2010, 97 servicemen have been killed on the territory of Chechnya; at the same time, government forces there have killed 189 persons claimed to be militants or their collaborators. The Russians only claim that there is a “war” when the direct control of the City of Grozny is contested.

In fact the entire North Caucasus has engaged in a guerrilla war which could best be defined by the explanation at the head of the page. The Republics of Adygea, Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia-Alania, Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagastan all have active guerrilla campaigns underway. The Russians used theater ballistic missiles (such as the FROG) and fuel-air explosives to wipe out villages that put up a resistance but the struggle continues.
Boer Wars (1880-1881 and 1899-1902)
The British Empire fought two wars against the Dutch settlers of two independent Boer republics: The Orange Free State and the Transvaal Republic)
Lizzie van Zyl – died in the
Bloemfontein concentration camp.
As a result of Boer intransigence, the British Army defeated their Boer army in open warfare and then became embroiled in a long guerrilla war. The British engaged in a scorched earth policy and for the first time in modern times, placed Boer women and children in concentration camps where many of them starved to death.
“Every one of these children who died as a result of the halving of their rations, thereby exerting pressure onto their family still on the battle-field, was purposefully murdered. The system of half rations stands exposed, stark and unashamedly as a cold-blooded deed of state policy employed with the purpose of ensuring the surrender of men whom we were not able to defeat on the field.” – W. T. Stead, British Journalist
The use of terror against the Boer population only eroded the British position in South Africa. In the end the British reached rapprochement with the Boers and agreed to give the Transvaal and the Orange Free state, self government while remaining part of the Empire, to pay war reparations and to avoid discussing black enfranchisement.
Many had been killed, many farms had been ruined, but freedom isn’t free.
Hybrid War

The term Hybrid War has been knocked around for some time. It is used to define conflicts that combine elements of conventional forces in war with guerrilla forces. The American Revolution was an example of a hybrid war where both the British and the American Revolutionaries used regular forces and partisan forces (militia) in an attempt to reach their goals. The Americans, aided by the French after 1777, won the war by not losing the war.

T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) helped to define what a guerrilla war is.
“…suppose they [the Arabs] were an influence, a thing invulnerable, intangible, without front or back, drifting about like a gas? Armies were like plants, immobile as a whole, firm-rooted, and nourished through long stems to the head. The Arabs might be a vapour, blowing where they listed. It seemed that a regular soldier might be helpless without a target. He would own the ground he sat on, and what he could poke his rifle at.

Conventional forces can only be effective if they occupy every square mile of ground. You need a lot of conventional forces – with a supply chain – to control ground. As soon as they left the ground, it reverted to rebel ownership.

4 thoughts on “Guerrilla Warfare – The Basics

  1. I never knew about the atrocities of the Boer war. Unconscionable. Why is this not in history classes?

  2. No war has ever been any good. Never, never, never. And none will be. Wars are loud, they smell bad and lots of people and things get wasted.

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