26 April 2006
Modern guerrilla warfare, part two
If a date and place had to be found to mark the transition from a classical to a new form of guerrilla war, then the date would be 1976 and the South African black township of Soweto would be the place.
The African National Congress had an armed wing that was trying to run a classical guerrilla war in the countryside. In theory the omens looked good because the Zimbwean liberation war was proceeding along familiar lines out in the bush and would end in almost complete victory for the guerrillas just four years later. However, the South Africans, having read all the counter-guerrilla manuals, were able to hold the line against the rural guerrillas. The conflict there was little more than an irritation to the government and was being easly contained.
The explosion of violence in Soweto took both the government and the ANC by surprise. Ostensibly it was a protest at the use of Afrikaans in black schools, but it son became a generalised protest at white rule and quickly spread to other urban areas. What the South African government was faced with was a series of rolling insurrections that they just could not contain. As quickly as one group of local leaders were arrested, another group took their place. The more protesters were gunned down on the streets, the more turned out to demonstrate the following day.
To make matters worse, urban areas are easy for television crews to get to, so images of the death and destruction were quickly passed around the world. The government found itself in a bind. The only way to curtail the violence was to up the ante to a level that the international community would not accept. Since demands for sanctions against South Africa were growing anyway, this was clearly not an option that the government could take. Thus the violence continued.
Although it was not obvious at the time, it is now clear that these demonstrations marked the end for the notion that guerrillas are a vanguard of the people, and that the people need to be led towards liberation. Furthermore, they demonstrated just how hard it is to contain an urban insurrection and how quickly it can spread.
A city is a kind of man-made jungle and its streets form concrete valleys. The untrained defenders have an advantage because they know every house and street in their district. Furthermore, and this is something that most people in the West do not appreciate, the megacities of the Third World are not only vast, but consist of nothing more than mile after mile of concrete blocks that all look the same. An outside force can easily get lost in any of those districts and the force, usually mounted in vehicles and restricted to the roads, gets pelted from all sides with rocks and petrol bombs.
In a situation like that it is easy for the conventional force to over react. When people are injured or killed the only thing that happens is that more rioters are created. In an urban environment news of the rioting will spread quickly because just the act of living in a city means that news travels faster than it does in the countryside. Needless to say even primitive cities have telephone lines and enough educated people to print illegal flyers or newspapers. Using these aids the pot can be kept boiling and quite small groups of agitators can help ensure that the situation deteriorates still further.
The only thing that was missing from Soweto in 1976 was weaponry. Today most Third World cities are awash with arms, a situation that the Americans discovered to their cost during the Mogadishu operation in 1993.
The Somailis had two very simple weapons and they had them in vast quantities. The first was the AK-47 assault rifle and the second was the RPG-7 grenade launcher. The AK-47 is basically designed to be dropped, soaked in water or mud, never cleaned - and still keep firing. It is the weapon of choice for every insurgent and so many have been produced that they are available in all good African or Latin American markets for about £50.
However, it is the RPG-7 that is the real darling of the piece. It was developed as a cheap way to destroy armoured vehicles, but the Afghanis discovered that it has another use as well. The weapon self-destructs after about 1,000 yards of flight. The Afghan trick was to fire the warhead at an aproaching Soviet helicopter and try to ensure that the weapon exploded close to the rear rotor blade. If they succeeded, the helicpoter was brought down and the crew could be dealt with by the men with the AK-47s. By trial and error they discovered an anti-aircraft weapon that could be distributed in vast quantities and which needed only minimal training in its use.
Once the Afghan war was over, the former fighters went back to their countries of origin and took the knowledge of how to fight a modern, air-mobile force with them. When the Americans went into Mogadishu they encountered a people not only armed to the teeth, but possessed of the basic skills needed to off-set the Americans' advantage of air power. Once the invaders were on the ground the advantage passed to the Somalis. The Americans may have killed many more Somalis than they lost themselves, but it was the Somali battle flags that flew over the ruins of Mogadishu once the fighting was over: the Stars and Stripes was nowhere to be seen.
In the next part of this series we shall look at Iraq, the IED and the internet.