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Guerrilla warfare relies on hit-and-run tactics by highly mobile, lightly to moderately armed units that feature deception, speed, and flexibility. Usually conducted by indigenous antigovernment forces, not the regular armed forces of a state, its characteristic attacks include ambushes, raids, sabotage, and blocking of enemy lines of communication. Examples of guerrilla warfare, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003, increasingly feature the use of road mines and suicide attacks. Guerrilla warfare is classically considered a weapon of the weak to fight a much stronger enemy, such as the state, an occupier, or a colonial power, and is directed not so much at defeating the enemy’s regular forces on the battlefield as at eroding the enemy’s will and capacity to sustain its control.
The first documented record of this kind of irregular warfare occurs on a Hittite parchment from fifteenth century BCE. Since then it has been used among others by the Gauls against Julius Caesar’s (100–44 BCE) Roman army, the Incas against the Spanish conquerors, and the Apache Indians in the U.S. Southwest. Guerrilla warfare became especially prominent during the twentieth century and may be increasingly seen in the twenty-first century, reflecting the great asymmetry in the physical capabilities of the military establishments of modern industrialized states and those of anti-state and revolutionary movements.
Secure bases, internal or external sanctuaries, and good intelligence are important ingredients for the success of guerrilla warfare, as is popular support for the insurgency. It is vital for the success of the guerrillas that the larger population of the area being contested, at minimum, acquiesce to guerrilla activity. In fact, winning the hearts and minds of the people is frequently the goal of both the guerrillas and the anti-guerrilla forces. When guerrillas are able to secure the support of the larger population and are hidden or protected by it, anti-guerrilla forces find it difficult to distinguish between friends, foes, and neutrals and easily slip into punishing the entire population to deter it from supporting the guerrillas. In a famous case in South Vietnam, a U.S. officer seeking to deprive the Viet Cong of its sanctuary ordered an entire village to be burned, commenting that “we had to destroy the village to save it.”
The success of Mao Zedong’s “people’s war” has served as a model for modern guerrilla warfare for many other guerrilla leaders and counterinsurgency theorists. Mao transformed guerrilla warfare from operations that involved only irregular military tactics to warfare that also featured social, psychological, economic, and—crucially—political components. Mao envisioned insurgency as a protracted social and political revolution, where guerrilla warfare was the means to survive in the initial phases of the struggle before a regular conventional army could be fielded and used to defeat the government.
The process would take place in three phases. The goal of the first phase, strategic defensive, was to expand the communist party organization and establish the infrastructure necessary for further development of the revolution. Party workers were to generate public support and infiltrate the state’s political apparatus. The first period was understood to be a long one, with only a limited resort to force to intimidate the population and create a climate of dissent, civil disobedience, and economic unrest. Once sufficient support, or at minimum acquiescence, among the population was achieved, the second phase, strategic stalemate or strategic equilibrium, was to be launched. In this phase the expansion of terrorism into guerrilla warfare would take place and revolutionary administration—more capable than that of the government—would be established. Finally, in the third phase, strategic offensive, the balance would have clearly swung in the direction of the revolutionary movement and regular units would be introduced and engage in near conventional warfare while the incidence of guerrilla warfare would decrease. The marked feature of Mao’s concept was the emphasis on political and psychological elements as the key to victory, not simply military factors. Mao’s principles have been applied in many guerrilla struggles since, and not only by communist rebels, including in Malaya (1948–1960), the Philippines (1946–1954), Algeria (1954–1962), Angola (1962–1974), Rhodesia (1972–1980), Oman (1965–1975), and Peru (1980–1994).
The foco theory of insurgency and revolutionary warfare developed as an alternative rural guerrilla approach, inspired by the success of a relatively small number of revolutionaries toppling the Batista regime in Cuba in 1959 and hoping to compress the protracted struggle envisioned by Mao into a swift victory. Among its most prominent theorists were Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928–1967) and Jules Régis Debray (1940–). In contrast to Mao, who stressed the importance of political structures and in fact the dominance of the political, Guevara and Debray argued that the guerrillas themselves were a fusion of the military and the political authority. Instead of a protracted struggle, they argued that a minimum level of discontent with the government could be translated into conditions favorable to revolution. By military action alone, an elite group could provide the focus, or foco, for the revolution. Inspired by the actions of the elite, progressively greater and greater number of sympathizers, alienated by the corruption and brutality of the state, would attach themselves to the revolutionaries and rebel, thus provoking an even more brutal reaction on the part of the government and alienating even more people. Although foco was applied in Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Guatemala, and Ecuador throughout the 1960s and 1980s, it proved a manifest failure.
The dismal success record of the foco guerrilla theory contributed to the development of urban guerrilla warfare. Carlos Marighela (1911–1969) was among its most influential theorists. Like Guevara and Debray, Marighela rejected the need for a prolonged preparation for revolution. However, instead of the countryside, Marighela situated the center of the revolution back to the cities. The urban guerrillas would be a small band of highly dedicated individuals, who through the use of terror, such as parcel bombs and ambushes, would provoke the authorities into overreaction, thus alienating the population and creating the revolutionary situation. Actions were to be spectacular and aimed at not just the government but also foreign multinationals, with the intention of weakening the economy. In practice, urban guerrilla warfare becomes rather difficult to distinguish from terrorism. The urban guerrilla approach has been applied, for example, by Michael Collins (1890–1922) during the Irish Republican Army struggle against the British in the 1920s, in the latter phases of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) insurgency in Peru in the early 1990s, in Iraq since 2003, and may likely be a prominent feature of twenty-first-century conflicts.
- Debray, Régis. 1970. Strategy for Revolution. Ed. Robin Blackburn. New York: Monthly Review Press.
- Debray, Régis. 1975. Che’s Guerrilla War. Trans. Rosemary Sheed. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin.
- Griffith, Samuel B., ed. 1978. Mao Tse-tung on Guerrilla War. New York: Anchor Press.
- Guevara, Ernesto. 1969. Guerrilla Warfare. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin.
- Marighela, Carlos. 1971. For the Liberation of Brazil . Trans. John Butt and Rosemary Sheed. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin.
- O’Neill, Bard E. 2005. Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse. Washington, DC: Potomac Books.
- Zedong, Mao. 1963. Selected Military Writings. Beijing: Foreign Language Press.
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