Strategic Logic in Irregular Wars
The range of terminology for this type of war is endless, although there has usually been a predominant term in each period: “small wars” during the colonial period, “revolutionary war” after WWII, “low intensity wars” in the 1970s and “asymmetric war”, “irregular war” and “hybrid wars” after 1989. Guerrilla warfare, terrorism, humanitarian and peace operations, and organised crime have also been terms widely used.
If the moral and legal factors are acknowledged, the picture becomes even more complicated, as those who are considered terrorists, insurgents, or “no-hopers” by one side may be considered resistance and freedom fighters by another. In such conflicts, more than other wars, the terminology is a part of the protracted battle over the narratives, and the awareness of the belligerents and wider public opinion.52
The main focus in this thesis is on the strategic level, but other levels should be delineated in order to explain it. Politically speaking, an irregular war may be said to occur when one of the two belligerents is a non-state actor. From a strategic point of view, irregulars do not have direct access to state military and non-military means, including domestic and international legitimacy; hence they aim primarily to run a conflict in order to enrich themselves with a part of these means in order to be able to bleed the regular and stronger opponent for political concessions. Irregularity in the operational and tactical senses is identical to guerrilla warfare.
Asymmetry can be an empty term if it means confronting strategies in details as, in order to succeed, any strategy should be asymmetric to the opponent‟s and not merely its mirror image53, but it may be a useful term if taken to mean a different “type” of strategy where a military victory is not the main intermediary strategic
Tuck, Understanding Land Warfare, p.132; Thompson, War from the Ground Up; Jeffrey Race, War Comes to
Long An: Revolutionary Conflict in a Vietnamese Province (Oakland: University of California Press, 1992) pp. 10-
53 Robert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (New York: Vintage Books 2008) pp.3-
goal; hence those strategies of regular actors, such as Fabian strategy, could be asymmetric too.54 In the case of irregular wars, there is asymmetry also in the need for military victory as a prerequisite for winning or, as Gray explains, “Insurgents can lose the warfare, but still win the war. In contrast, if the political incumbents lose the warfare, they lose the war.”55
Guerrilla warfare is a tactical and operational way of fighting, not a strategy, which can be adopted by both regular Special Forces, and irregular forces to fight regular forces by using small formations without a formal logistical system in order to harass the opponent, or by attacking highly valuable objects, but not holding territories or keeping formidable defensive lines.
Terrorism is a tactical and operational method of attacking civilians by non-state actors to produce terror for a political purpose. It can also be a strategy if it is the sole means in the arsenal of the non-state actor.56 Terrorism uses “signalling” such as killing a domestic opponent, to achieve either operational or strategic objectives, rarely tactical. Operationally, it usually aims at gaining legitimacy, enhancing recruitment, or attracting the government‟s harsh response for the previous purposes.
Fabian strategy was used by the Roman general Fabius Maximus to bleed and exhaust Hannibal’s Carthaginian army by avoiding confrontation. A similar strategy was used by Saladin against Richard I of England after the defeat of Arsuf, till the latter was exhausted and had to accept negotiations in order to travel back to deal with domestic instability. Thomas Mahnken explains the strategies that a weak state can follow to win over a stronger one in “Why the Weak Win: Strong Powers, Weak Powers and the Logic of Strategy” in Bradford Lee and Karl Walling, Strategic Logic and Political Rationality, pp. 60-74.
Colin S. Gray, “Concept Failure: COIN, Counterinsurgency and Strategic Theory”, Prism 3, No. 3 (June 2012), pp.17-32.
Peter Neumann and M.L.R Smith, The Strategy of Terrorism: How it Works, and Why it Fails (Oxon: Routledge, 2008).
At a more strategic level, it may aim to disorient the regime and society to lay the ground for a revolutionary option57, to send a message of strategic and military resilience (especially by suicide attacks)58 or to force a political compromise.
This study does not delegitimize the term of “state terrorism”59, which could be reasonable both legally and politically, but does not see its utility in describing strategy.
Notwithstanding these explanations, it has to be acknowledged that these terms were always arbitrary and hence they were generally accepted provided that they conveyed a clear concept to the audience, and that especially for our purposes they do not confuse strategy with operations and tactics or the ends with the means; nor should they mingle legal and moral claims within the strategic analysis apart from examining how both sides mobilized such claims. Also, this neologism should be restricted to the essentials; otherwise, as Gray warned, “the plethora of adjectivally modified concepts of contemporary war and warfare has driven older and simpler concepts and theory almost into hiding.”60 Hence, a proper theoretical insight is needed.
The Evolution of Theory
Practice in this area preceded theorizing, whether in the historical tribal wars against formidable colonial formations, or what Clausewitz called “Peoples in Arms” in Book Six of “On War” after experiencing the Spanish “guerrillas” (little war)61
57 Neuman and Smith, The Strategy of Terrorism, pp.31-56. 58
Caroline Kennedy-Pipe, “IEDs, Martyrs, Civil Wars and Terrorists” in Kennedy-Pipe et al, Terrorism and Political Violence ( London: SAGE Publishing, 2015), p.160.
Richard Jackson, Eamon Murphy, Scott Poynting (eds), Contemporary State Terrorism: Theory and Practice, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009).
Gray, “Concept Failure” in Prism 3.
against Napoleon which were part of a regular coalition strategy.62 This was followed in the 19th century by theorizing on political subversion and terrorism as part of revolutionary strategy, and was extended at the turn of the century by Lenin‟s writings.63 Callwell also discussed “small war”64 which he said required different formations and tactics from the imperial army but would still be decided by tactical victories. Early French advocated a “civilian centric approach” to win over the hearts and minds of the domestic population with a nationalist spirit in order to defeat the insurgents militarily and politically65, as the US “small war” doctrine of 1940 proposed.66
However, four treatises, two by proponents of insurgency and two by opponents, paved the way for a better and more modern, understanding of this type of war. On the insurgency side were Chairman Mao‟s writings, especially “On Guerrilla War” and “On Protracted War”, and Che Guevara‟s “Guerrilla Warfare”. On the opponents‟ side were David Galula‟s “Counterinsurgency Warfare” and Sir Robert Thompson‟s “Defeating Communist Insurgency”.67
Charles Esdaile, “Britain and the Napoleonic Wars” in John Andreas Olsen and Colin S. Gray (eds), The
Practice of Strategy: from Alexander the Great to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). Handel
found a strong link between Clausewitz’ variables for people in armed wars fighting inside the country, in a large space, not decided by a single strike, dependent on the national character and the rough and inaccessible terrain, and Mao’s theory. Handel, Masters of War, pp.90-102.
Tuck, Understanding Land Warfare, p.134.
64 Sir Charles Edward Callwell, Small Wars: their Principles and Practice (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press,
65 Tuck, Understanding Land Warfare, pp.138-139. 66
Tuck, Understanding Land Warfare, pp.138-139.
67 Mao Zedong and John Waldron (Intro), Mao on Warfare: On Guerrilla War, On Protracted War and other
Military Writings (Beijing: CN Times, 2013); Ernesto Che Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare (La Vergne, Tennessee: BN
Publishing, 2012); Robert Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgencies: the Lessons of Malaya and Vietnam (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 1966); David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and practice (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2006).
These treatises, interestingly, highlight two points in common: there are specific principles in these wars which may be different to those in regular wars, and these principles themselves should be applied differently accordingly to different contexts. All these works acknowledged the complexity of theorizing and the hard journey from theory to practice.
Both Mao and Guevara envisioned irregular wars as protracted conflict in which the socialist movement initially uses subversion and terrorism to delegitimize the government and weaken its rule while expanding the insurgency movement‟s political and military power. Guerrilla warfare is then adopted to bleed the government and enrich the movement‟s ability, leading to the last stage in which a war of position decides the outcome militarily. Both acknowledged that the means to avoid defeat and reach victory is for the insurgents to live among the population like “a fish swims in the sea”, enabling them to recruit, hide, and mobilize.
However, Guevara adopted two modifications in line with Latin America‟s isolated topography and weak central governments: military force can be used from the start by establishing “foci” from which the guerrilla bands expand gradually. Contrary to Mao, he said this stage need not be deferred until the political campaign provides the means for the movement to survive. Also, the movement may not reach the final stage of a war of position as the collapse of a weak government may be catalysed earlier by guerrilla warfare.
Thompson and Galula had personal experiences which informed their theories: Malaya and Vietnam for the former, and Algeria for the latter. Thompson faced the Maoist version of irregular war and Galula faced a modification of Guevara‟s version, which he called the “bourgeois-nationalist form” that launches terrorism and subversion earlier in its campaign.68
Both acknowledged the basic principles in counter-insurgency: that the population is the centre of gravity and should be segregated and protected from insurgents, the
necessity for political supremacy over military means to keep its use conservative, building viable and functioning governance to win hearts and minds, and the priority of destroying not only the enemy‟s military forces but their political cells and public support. Both Thompson and Galula adopted the strategic phases of clearing, holding, winning (establishing governance) and won (neutralizing and tracing the remnants); to be implemented in a specific area and then to move to another. 69
However, each had an area of emphasis and scope arising from his experience. Thompson highlighted the need for clear political aims, given the dilemma of a foreign force aiming to create and assist a pro-nationalist government, and the establishing of secured hamlets in rural areas of Malaya and Vietnam.70
Galula, writing from experience gained within an inhabiting occupation, focussed on: establishing political structure and organisations, not merely functioning governance, seniority of civilian and regional commands, and the transformation required for military forces and doctrine to fulfil these tasks, with an emphasis on infantry and tactical air-support formations. When facing regular elements he said more direct and overwhelming force should be applied.71
After the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre, the United States and its allies found themselves facing a situation where swift regular victories were followed by protracted and bloody irregular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The strategic literature was re-examined in order to answer the new challenges and benefited from what was called the “cultural turn”.72 Based on Galula‟s study, with some acknowledgment of Thompson‟s, the US Army and Marine Corps Field Manual adopted the principles described above in an operationalized manner and praised
69 Galula, Counterinsurgency, pp.61-74; Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgencies, pp.50-63. 70
Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgencies, pp.121-141.
71 Galula, Counterinsurgency, pp.65-66. 72
Patrick Porter, Military Orientalism: Eastern Wars Through Western Eyes (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).
the use of anthropological works to decode local cultures and structures for a better approach.73 The British counterinsurgency doctrine also developed in a similar way.74
A trend of iconizing counterinsurgency and raising it to the level of a distinctive type of war which needs a specific formula, strategy, civil-military relations, force structure and tactics has invaded the strategic literature during the last decade. While some adopted an approach focusing on reviving the classic rules in counterinsurgency, whether commending or discrediting the British way of doing it,75 others emphasised the distinctiveness of the current terroristic insurgency which is globalised and enriched by information networks and jihadist ideology.76
A critical school soon emerged around three components. The first, “enemy-centric”, was a denial of the specificity of counterinsurgency and similar conflicts; they are, it was argued, simply another war and need to be decided, like all wars, by tactical
The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual by John A. Nagl, James F. Amos, Sarah Sewall (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). See also James Corum, “Rethinking US Army Counter-Insurgency Doctrine”, in Tim Benbow and Rod Thornton (eds), Dimensions of Counter-insurgency: Applying Experience to
Practice (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2008) pp. 121-138.
British Army Field Manual, Volume 1 Part 10, Countering Insurgency, Army Code 71876, October 2009.
75 John A. Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam
(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002) emphasised the successful British counterinsurgency campaign in Malaya and attributed it to the learning capability of its military. Andrew Mumford, The
Counterinsurgency Myth: The British Experience of Irregular Warfare (London: Routledge, 2014), while
acknowledging the general success of British counterinsurgency campaigns in Malaya, Kenya and Northern Ireland, denied that the British army could be considered a learning institution seeing that the British success was a combination of political compromises and painstaking trial and error.
John Nagel and Brian Burton, “Thinking Globally and Acting Locally: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Modern War- A Reply to Smith and Jones”, Journal of Strategic Studies, vol 33, no. 1 (February 2010). D. Jones and M. Smith, “Whose Hearts and Whose Minds? The Curious Case of Global Counterinsurgency”, Journal of
victories rather than by restricting the military power by a formula of winning hearts and minds.77
Another view, represented by Porch, suggested that even successful counterinsurgency campaigns have rarely abided by the “golden principles” of counterinsurgency (winning hearts and minds and a restrained use of force) and indicated instead that tactical innovations such as small troop tactics and flexible force structure with Special Operations and tactical air support, are achievable by any competent military institution regardless of any doctrine of counterinsurgency. However, Porch also acknowledged current legal and political constraints, both domestically and internationally, on winning counterinsurgency campaigns, and suggests that they are better respected.78
A third component was critical of raising a specific formula (based on the experience of an individual case) to the level of a fixed strategy which would then be considered a panacea. Hew Strachan explicitly criticized the vacuum of policy and strategy in both the Afghanistan and the Iraq wars and he considered counterinsurgency not as a strategy in itself but as an operation that should meticulously serve a specific strategy for specific political aims.79 Colin Gray was also critical of wars in which sophisticated strategy-making was reduced to a specific formula. He was sceptical that viable policy ends could be achieved in the long run in these wars by any strategy given the structural preferences and characteristics of the American military.80
See Gian Gentile, Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency ( New York: New Press, 2013). William F. Owen, “Killing Your Way to Control”, The British Army Review, 151, Spring 2011, pp. 34-37.
Douglas Porch, Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)
Hew Strachan, Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
Colin Gray, Irregular Enemies and the Essence of Strategy: Can the American Way of War Adapt? (Carlisle, Penn: Strategic Studies Institute, 2006).
The complexities that are found here can be rooted in both the theoretical and practical spheres.
Theoretically, counterinsurgency theory was almost victim to the conceptual deficits which are addressed earlier in this study: confusion over levels of theory and levels of war.
Theoretical principles in strategy are eternal in any war if dealing with general theory. However, a group of wars has usually been categorised as a result of periodic changes in socio-political or technological settings; hence it was Clausewitz‟s emphasis that each age has its own war. When contextualizing theory further to a specific war or conflict, more differentiation is apparent. As Gray indicated, at the supreme general level there is a Strategy, but there are different strategies working in different wars.81 The best way to describe this descending cascade in theorizing on strategy, and in this kind of war specifically, is summarized in Mao‟s maxim:
The laws of war are a problem that anyone directing a war must study and solve. The laws of revolutionary war are a problem that anyone directing a revolutionary war must study and solve. The laws of China‟s revolutionary war are a problem that anyone directing China‟s revolutionary war must study and solve.82
Brett Friedman cleverly touched the heart of the subject: both the “enemy-centric” and the “population centric” school adopted a solid strategic formula that perceived the centre of gravity in a mechanical way, although it is a dynamic and could be a multidimensional concept when applied to different cases.83
Colin Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
82 Mao Zedong, Mao on Warfare, p.1. 83
Captain Brett Friedman, “Creeping Death: Clausewitz and Comprehensive Counterinsurgency”, Military
The other theoretical problem is related to the levels and utility of war. Strachan was right when he spoke of the current void in Western policy and strategy, and that many of the counterinsurgency formulae, as laid out, for example, in the British Army Field Manual, lie in the operational, even tactical and technical levels.84 But his claim that counterinsurgency is merely an operational concept and not a strategy, is not totally accurate.
Post September 11, wars were devoid of clear and achievable aims, and no dedicated strategies were looked at thoroughly and this was obvious in the extreme changes in strategy in Afghanistan, shifting from regime decapitation to a proxy war to destroy the Taliban regime to counterinsurgency and nation building after 2006.85 However, if counterinsurgency is adopted as a strategic means to specific political aims its layout is a part of the strategy making. The problem in these wars has not been that counterinsurgency has been raised to the level of strategy but that there was no viable policy aim in accordance with which a viable strategy could incorporate counterinsurgency, whether as a main or secondary effort.
In practice, as Tuck indicated, even if counterinsurgency strategic and operational principles are acknowledged as important they are difficult to implement. Many analysts have shown the institutional and cultural complexities which face the military in adapting to these wars with different measures of success, different force structure and tactical methods, restricted use of force, and heterogeneous means in which the military does not represent the larger proportion.86 Even if lessons were there, institutional amnesia concerning this kind of war remains unpopular within the military, as in the case of the US military when the lessons of Vietnam were lost after Gulf War I.87
84 Strachan, Direction of War, pp.215-220. 85
Antulio Echevarria II, “After Afghanistan: Lessons for NATO’s Future Wars”, RUSI Journal, Vol. 159, Jun 2014,