25 April 2006
Modern guerrilla warfare part one
Few seem to have noticed but the war against Iraq has created a new type of guerrilla conflict. It is one that is fought in the cities and not the countryside. It tears up the guerrilla war rulebook which everyone has been relying on since the middle of the last century. More importantly, the counter guerrilla manuals will also have to be rewritten. Until that happens the advantage will rest with the anti-colonial peoples of this planet.
From Mao Tse-Tung's On Guerrilla Warfare in 1937 to Che Guevara's Guerrilla Warfare written in 1961, the principle has always been that guerrillas start in the countryside and slowly encircle the cities. Robert Taber outlined this strategy as a kind of three act play with prologue in The War of the Flea, his classic study of guerrilla war, first published in 1965.
The prologue to this drama concerns the first blow; the strike at an army barracks or police station by the handful of guerrillas that exist at that time. Once the attack is over they retreat into the countryside and bide their time. The army for its part will launch a quick sweep of the area and then claim that all the bandits have been either killed of captured.
Act one has the guerrillas avoiding contact with all and any government forces that happen to be in their area. They are holding meetings with the locals, trying to recruit new guerrillas and, more importantly even than new fighters at this stage, they are seeking sympathisers who will stash their arms and protect them from the government. If any military operations are mounted, they will usually be simple affairs to capture weaponry or encourage those locals still undecided to support the insurgent band. A good example of the latter would be the tactic of the Zimbabwean guerrillas in the early stages of their bush war. They would kill a European farmer's cow and give everyone in the village a good feast. It killed two birds with one stone; firstly because it struck a blow against the enemy and secondly because it filled a lot of stomachs. Everyone was happy - except for the farmer, and he didn't count.
Act two shows the guerrillas mounting small raids on isolated police stations or hitting the odd army patrol. After each attack the guerrillas melt back into the civilian population to avoid the inevitable retaliation. As guerrilla attacks increase and their numbers grow, the government decides that some areas are not worth fighting for. These are abandonded to the guerrillas who use them as base areas. Newspapers and radio stations operate from them and they are used to trainmore guerrillas.
Act three has the guerrillas expanding until they control a sizable area of the country. The conflict starts to resemble a civil war with the country divided up geographically between the two opposing forces. The difference is that the guerrillas will control the countryside and the government the towns and cities. Eventually the guerrillas will have captured enough heavy weaponry to launch attacks on the main cities. The war ends when the guerrillas take the capital and the government officials flee.
This classical model has been outdated and probably will never be used again. The imperialists are not as stupid as we would like and their theoreticions have been hard at work coming up with models of counter-guerrilla warfare. The Americans drew on their experiences of fighting Indians, Filipinos and the Vietnamese to argue that what was needed were small, mobile patrols to do the actual fighting, a well-funded campaign of social reform and the speedy recruitment of local troops. The aim was for the army to hold the line until the money began to flow. Thus the bulk of the population would be bought off by having their immediate grievences met. Local mercenaries would then mop up the remainder of the guerrilla force; a force that could never get beyond act one of the classical model.
The British pretty much used this strategy in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s. They were helped by the fact that the Mau Mau were basically a Kikuyo body, so the colonial power could recruit anti-Mau Mau forces from the other tribes. However, it still took eight years to suppress the revolt and the British were forced to make so many concessions to get local support that independence could no longer be avoided. The British may have won the battles, but the war went to the Mau Mau.
In central America during the 1980s the USA had rather more success. Mercenary armies and death squads were raised, trained and paid for. Large amounts of aid were funneled to the regimes in places like El Salvador. The result was bloody, but socialism was stopped in its tracks for almost a generation.
Faced with this, the world's insurgents have had to come up with new tactics. How they did that will form the basis of my next essay on this theme.