View Full Version : The Way to Win a Guerrilla War

11-26-2006, 05:32 AM
26 November Washington Post commentary - The Way to Win a Guerrilla War (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/11/24/AR2006112401113.html) by TX Hammes.

In all the barrels of ink being spilled in the argument over whether the United States can or can't possibly win the war against the insurgency in Iraq, one critical aspect is often overlooked: how the nature of insurgency has changed over the past few decades, and what that means for the counterinsurgent.

Insurgencies are still based on Mao Zedong's fundamental precept that superior political will, properly employed, can defeat greater economic and military power. Because insurgents organize to ensure political rather than military success, an opponent cannot defeat them with military force alone. But complicating our problem today is the fact that insurgencies are no longer the unified, hierarchical organizations that the Chinese, and later the Vietnamese, developed from the 1920s to the 1960s. Rather, they are loose coalitions unified only by the desire to drive out an outside power. All elements of the insurgency know that when the outside power is gone, they will fight a civil war to resolve their differences. Learning to adjust is the key to success in counterinsurgency. Conventional military weakness forces insurgents to be adaptable, so defeating them requires coherent, patient action -- encompassing a range of political, economic, social and military activities -- that can only be executed by a team drawn from all parts of government. You don't outfight the insurgent. You outgovern him...

Any study of modern insurgency has to start with Mao. The communist leader who defeated China's nationalist forces not only succeeded as an insurgent but also wrote about how he won. "On Guerrilla Warfare " is a how-to guide for insurgent leaders that has been quoted by nearly every insurgent strategist since, including al-Qaeda's. The best translation is by Marine Brig. Gen. Samuel B. Griffith, whose fluency in Chinese and extensive travel in China during its civil war enabled him to provide unique insights into Mao's work.

No American discussion of insurgency could ignore Vietnam. Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap's "People's War, People's Army" is still the basic reference on the North Vietnamese view of the war and an illustration of how warfare continually changes. While Mao was able to confront his opponent on the Chinese mainland, Ho Chi Minh and Giap had to defeat the French and the Americans without ever being able to threaten their home bases. They expanded on Mao's concept by using the media and peace activists to convince the American people that we couldn't win the war. They won not by defeating our armed forces but by breaking our political will.

In the 30 years since the fall of Saigon, insurgency has continued to evolve. For an up-to-date overview, National Defense University professor Bard O'Neill's "Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse," published in 2005, is hard to beat.

Counterinsurgency is a very different animal. Insurgents practice the art of destruction, which is easy; counterinsurgents have the far more difficult task of creating a functioning government. Written in 1964, David Galula's "Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice" is still one of the best books to make this case. Galula, who was a French army officer during World War II and later in Indochina and Algeria, makes it clear that counterinsurgency is not about killing insurgents but about providing security and the hope for a better future. If a government can't give its people both, the insurgents will overthrow it.

"Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam," by Lt. Col. John Nagl, is a comparison between the British experience in Malaya from 1948 to 1960 and the U.S. experience in Vietnam. The British army, Nagl says, managed to created a "learning institution" that was able to understand the type of war it was in and adjust accordingly. In contrast, the U.S. Army in Vietnam kept trying to apply conventional warfare doctrine to an unconventional war. By the time it finally did adjust, it was too late.

Journal articles offer another rich vein of enlightenment on the conduct of counterinsurgency. In "Best Practices in Counterinsurgency," in the May-June 2005 issue of Military Review, Kalev I. Sepp, a former Special Forces officer and now professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, studied 51 recent counterinsurgencies to develop a list of 12 "best practices" common to all successful ones, and nine "worst practices" of the unsuccessful ones. Sadly, in Iraq, the United States scores below 50 percent on the first and above 50 percent on the second.

David Kilcullen's "Counterinsurgency Redux" appears in the current issue of Survival. I've found it the best discussion of insurgency's evolution from classical Maoist to the modern transnational, multilateral "coalitions of the willing" that challenge the United States today. "In modern counter-insurgency," Kilcullen writes, "the security force must control a complex 'conflict ecosystem' -- rather than defeating a single specific insurgent adversary." This is a long way from the monolithic organizations Galula fought...