Insurgency in the Contemporary World: Some Theoretical Aspects-Part II

-Maj Gen Ashok Krishna (Retd), Senior Fellow, IDSA



Most of the conflicts today are between peoples and races and these mainly afflict the developing world. Furthermore, insurgent movements are generally able to find external sponsors. Insurgency has, therefore, again become part of inter-state conflict, a form of indirect aggression made attractive by the inability of states to use conventional military power and weapons of mass destruction. Part I of the article had covered insurgent aims; the various types of insurgencies, and the broad trends we may expect in future, these being spiritual insurgency and commercial insurgency.1 Part II will deal with guerilla warfare and terrorism; insurgent strategies; and briefly with the physical and social components of insurgent warfare.

Insurgency and Politics

The use of violence in insurgency sets it apart from movements of political protest like Gandhiji's in India, Khomeini's in Iran, Solidarity in Poland and the civil rights movements in the US. Insurgent movements use political resources and instruments of violence against the ruling authorities to accomplish their goals. Political activities include such things as propaganda, arranging protest demonstrations, recruiting cadres, training and infiltrating agents into the official establishment, seeking external support, raising and managing finances, creating supportive groups--workers, farmers, writers, youth associations and the like--and devising and implementing strategies and plans.

Insurgency is primarily a political phenomenon. Unless an insurgent movement directs all its efforts towards maintaining close links with the people it can have little chance of eventual victory. Insurgency is the war of the whole people and as such demands that the closest attention be paid to those matters which concern the people. Military considerations are secondary to political, social and economic policies. In the end, confrontation may be on the military level, but the insurgent's capacity to be adequately equipped for that eventuality is a direct function of the duration and intensity of the political effort. Power may grow out of the barrel of a gun but one must first persuade people to take up that gun, care for it, hump it around for years in the most difficult terrain and then to stand firm and use the weapon. The successes of Shivaji, Mao and Ho Chi Minh clearly show that to achieve this needs much more than mere military expertise.

Success in marshalling and utilising resources depends on effective organisation which could be mobilisational as in the case of these leaders. They used their insurgent elites to actively involve large segments of the population on behalf of their cause. On the other hand, the Red Brigades in Italy, the Red Army in Japan, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria are examples of selective organisation where small elite groups threaten to carry out violent acts. Some selective groups gradually evolve into mobilisational movements, hence these are two ends of a continuum, with many cases falling between them.

Forms of Warfare

A form of warfare may be viewed as one variety of organised violence emphasising particular type of armed forces, weapons, tactics and targets. Three forms of warfare have been associated with insurgent conflicts.

(a) Terrorism.

(b) Guerrilla warfare.

(c) Conventional warfare (not discussed here).


Although predating World War II, terrorism is very much a feature of contemporary political conflict. Political terrorism has been defined as the deliberate creation of a state of terror which involves either the use of, or the threat of use of, force in an attempt to influence groups or individuals for political purposes. This excludes terrorism for criminal purposes. However, modern developments in the nature of political terrorism in some parts of the world have blurred the boundaries between the strictly political and the strictly criminal.

Terrorism involves several factors: it is indiscriminate (though it may have specific targets, it is the nature of the threat that is indiscriminate); its effects are out of proportion to the physical results; it is unpredictable; and it is arbitrary. It is marked by a sense of amorality; the terrorists operate outside the moral codes of society. The means are viewed as being justified by the ends. It is the ideal weapon of the small or weak groups; they are able to extract the maximum amount of influence from the minimum expenditure of force.

Terrorism and guerilla warfare are two different aspects of violence. The guerilla recognises some of the conventions of warfare, particularly those that differentiate between the civilian and the armed combatant. Terrorism recognises no such distinction although the boundary is not fixed. Many terrorist groups have developed into guerilla bands while many guerilla organisations have carried out acts which may properly fall under terrorism.

Political Terrorism

The main sub-groups of political terrorism are:

(a) Revolutionary terrorism.

(b) State terrorism.

(c) International terrorism.

Revolutionary Terrorism

The primary aim of the revolutionary terrorist is the destabilisation of the state and the replacement of the ruling regime. Terrorist activity may only be part of the overall process to undermine and overthrow the incumbent powers. Mao Tse-Tung viewed this form of terrorism as the initial stage in the revolutionary process that would end in a conventional confrontation.

Revolutionary terrorism has two sub-groups:-

(a) Terrorism in an attempt to overthrow a domestic regime.

(b) Terrorism to gain liberation from foreign rule.

Examples of the first sub-group are the Viet Cong operations against South Vietnamese villages and hamlets, which included attacks against local officials and those supported by the South Vietnamese regime. Asian organisations continue to follow the Maoist model. The Tamil Tigers struggle for an independent Tamil state in northern Sri Lanka has included terrorist activities. In Peru in South America, a rural based organisation known as Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path) has been terrorising villages since 1980 and is believed to have been responsible for some 16,000 deaths. Taken together with guerilla losses, the tally for the seventeen-year-old war is now about 27,000 dead and property destruction amounting to some $23 billion. The Shining Path gets its support from the Amerindian population and its philosophy looks back to a Peru based on a cooperative agricultural system.

In Europe, the principal terrorist organisations have been the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Euzkadi ta Azkatsuna (ETA). The IRA has been waging a campaign of terrorism against British occupation of Northern Ireland whilst the ETA has been campaigning for an independent Basque territory in northern Spain.

Terrorism as a means of liberation was an important element of the decolonisation process. The French faced terrorist activity in Indo-China and Algeria; the British in Ireland, Palestine, Kenya, Malaya, Cyprus and Aden; and the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique. The Zionist terrorist groups in Palestine—the Irgun Zval Leumi and the Stern Gang--were primarily urban based groups. The Irgun was largely modelled on the IRA with a right wing nationalist ideology. Both groups had a paramilitary structure. Whereas the IRA concentrated on military and police targets, the Irgun was less discriminate and planted bombs in Arab market places and on buses, claiming revenge for Arab attacks on Jewish settlers.

State Terrorism

Terrorism as practised by the state falls into two distinct sub-groups. The first is repression by the state. The second is terrorism sponsored by a state and occurring outside its borders.

Repressive terrorism can occur as the state's response to revolutionary terrorism and indeed may be the aim of revolutionary terrorist groups as they attempt to undermine the support and legitimacy of the domestic regime. This was the experience in Turkey in 1980 where the high level of terrorist killings provoked a military coup. Repressive state terrorism has also been associated with the French Revolutionary period, the Stalinist period in the Soviet Union, and more recently in Argentina in the large 1970s when people were killed or went missing at the hands of the military authorities. Repressive state terrorism may be associated with any regime using terrorism in order to quell opposition to its policies.

Sovereign states may often view it as in their interests to patronise and encourage terrorist groups as a means of undermining and attacking their enemies. This differs from supporting partisan groups in enemy territory during war-time insofar as the nature of the target is concerned. Partisan and guerilla organisations during World War II focussed on the military (or railways or the defence industry utilised by the military) although non-combatants could be and were, killed and injured. Terrorist organisations focus on non-combatants. Although the military may also be targetted the aim is to instil a state of terror throughout the population. Into this category comes much of contemporary terrorism, particularly in West Asia. Pakistan's activities in Kashmir and Punjab are other examples of state sponsored terrorism.

The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Islamic Jehad are heavily financed and equipped by Arab states. The PLO is the richest terrorist organisation in the world. Its assets have been estimated at $5 billion and its annual income at $1.25 billion. There are numerous splinter groups partly as a result of their getting support from a number of states. Lebanon has been a fruitful area for state-sponsored terrorist groups. Iran, Syria, Libya and Iraq all have their own groups operating there. The Hizbollah, during its campaign of kidnapping in Beirut and attacking Western Embassies and military bases, drew support from Iran; it employed the tactics of "suicide" attacks.

International Terrorism

The funding of terrorist groups by states for operations in a third country is one facet of international terrorism but the distinctive feature of the modern world is the way in which technology has enabled all terrorist groups, including those aiming at the revolutionary overthrow of domestic regimes, to give their campaign an international dimension.

International revolutionary groups such as the PLO and the Islamic Jehad may be state supported but they operate on an international scale. Splinter groups of the PLO, like Black September have organised operations such as the killing of eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic games. Airline hijackings also illustrate the international dimension of terrorism.

The ease and influence of modern communications also make it possible for very small international terrorist groups to function on the world stage. These groups which include the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Japanese Red Army (JRA) and the Red Army Faction, are very small and often drawn from student groups and the children of the privileged and influential. They preach world revolution but their support is often minimal. The JRA illustrate how well such groups can operate in the international area. They are funded from Arab states and have bases in North Korea and West Asia. In 1972, they killed 26 passengers at Lod airport in Israel; in 1973, they hijacked a plane taking off from Amsterdam; and in 1974, they set fire to oil installations in Singapore. They have carried out operations in France, Stockholm, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Naples and have been sighted in many other cities.

Terrorist acts carried out by autonomous non-state actors, have been referred to as transnational terrorism to distinguish them from similar behaviour on the part of individuals or groups controlled by sovereign states (international terrorism).

The growth of terrorism in the international arena is due primarily to two factors. First the nature of modern technology. Second, the nature of the international system, which is based on the notion of sovereign states, has brought about great difficulties in dealing with sub-state actors (e.g. the PLO which has been granted a representative at the UN). Finally, the problem of jurisdiction can be exploited as illustrated by the hijacking of planes or ships; it is often unclear as to who has responsibility for security.

Modern Criminal Terrorism

Modern criminal terrorism has moved closer to political terrorism particularly concerning the international drugs trade. This is most marked in Colombia where the size of the drugs industry is so large that it has far-reaching political consequences. Drugs trafficking is worth $80 billion a year to Colombia. The murder rate in Medellin in the centre of the cocaine producing areas is the highest in the world. Terrorist groups operating in Colombia are financed and supported by the drugs cartels. The largest of these, the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC), has been involved in attacks on foreign companies and officials. It also has an open political organisation, the Patriotic Front (UP), that receives funding from the drug barons.

Crime in general has proved a lucrative means of funding terrorist organisations. The IRA has been involved in a number of criminal activities and a large amount of cash has been raised by them by imposing revolutionary taxes on local businesses and their employees. At least $15 million a year is raised this way.

Nuclear Terrorism

The gravest potential form of terrorist threat is that of nuclear terrorism. Many analysts have endorsed the assessment that the threat of nuclear action by the terrorists appears to be exaggerated. It is argued that terrorists are not really interested in mass murder, but in gaining publicity and using propaganda to influence people. The other view is that, while publicity and propaganda are key tactical objectives, in many cases, the terrorists' cardinal aim is to create a climate of fear and collapse, essentially by terrifying and demoralising their targets into capitulation. In this context there is no better potent weapon of psychological coercion than the threat to explode a nuclear device or to release lethal levels of radioactivity into the atmosphere.

Further, all terrorist groups do not share the same perceptions of rationality, humanity and prudence that inform the consciences of most of humanity. And in the words of Paul Wilkinson, "In the strange transcendental logic of the fanatical political terrorist, the end is held to justify any means."2

In sum, therefore, though the general purpose of terrorism has been to alter the behaviour and attitudes of specific groups, this has not excluded the simultaneous pursuit of one or more proximate objectives such as extracting particular concessions (e.g. the payment of ransom or the release of prisoners), gaining publicity, demoralising the population through the creation of widespread disorder, provoking governmental repression, enforcing obedience and cooperation from those inside and outside the movement, and enhancing the political stature of specific factions within an insurgent movement.

Guerilla Warfare

The upsurge in terrorism since the late 1970s notwithstanding, the most familiar form of violence used by insurgents has been guerilla warfare. In guerilla warfare the primary targets are the government's "armed forces", police, their support units, and, in some cases, key economic targets. In terrorism, it is the unarmed civilians. As a result, guerilla units are larger than terrorist cells and tend to require proper logistical structure as well as base camps. Their focus of activity is almost exclusively in the rural areas.

In India, the most successful proponents of guerilla warfare were the Marathas who used it against the Mughals in the 17th century. The Marathas worked out a strategy which allowed light cavalry to defeat the hitherto invincible Mughal heavy cavalry. The Mughals wanted a decisive plains battle, so refuse them that. Use the superior mobility of light cavalry to attack Mughal cities and tax paying provinces hundreds of miles behind the Mughal frontier. Force the slower moving Mughal Army to chase an ever vanishing enemy. When the Mughal Army tires and sets up camp, cut off all supplies to it and let it starve. Use the strong forts of the western mountains as places of refuge, knowing that efficacy of Mughal tactics dropped off dramatically when faced with dragging siege equipment up into the mountains.

After a run of successes against the Mughals from 1660 to 1665, in which Shivaji sacked the port of Surat on the western coast and defeated the Army of Shiasta Khan in a daring night attack and without meeting his opponets in a decisive plains battle, he wrote the following to Aurangzeb's officers and counsellors:

"My home, unlike the forts of Kaliani and Bidar, is not situated on a spacious plain, which may enable trenches to be run (against the walls) or assault to be made. It has lofty hill ranges...everywhere there are nalas hard to cross; 60 forts of extreme strength have been built, and some (of them) are on the sea coast."3

Shivaji perceived himself as a king, with lands, forts, subjects, and an administration. To the Mughal Emperor, however, Shivaji was only a relatively successful rebel zamindar from Bijaipur.

Upon Shivaji's death, the Mughal Armies conquered his Kingdom for a while till the third of Shivaji's line--Raja Ram--resorted to the desperate measure of legitimised guerilla warfare. The guerilla warfare lasted for two decades, the Marathas unable to drive the Mughals out, and the Mughals unable to stop the Maratha bands from raiding the countryside, occasionally capturing forts, and using their superior mobility to cut supply lines to the north. By 1705, the Marathas had won the Deccan by simply not losing it. As in many guerilla wars, the Mughal defeat was not in the loss of any fort or town, but the loss of the will to keep chasing an enemy that struck and disappeared into the hills or merged with the local population. The Mughals could not establish the Mughal Peace and might have won the support of zamindars, peasants and traders.

These tactics eventually led to the conquest of Malwa and its integration into the Maratha state.

Although this type of warfare occurs throughout history, the word guerilla stems from the Duke of Wellington's Iberian campaign (1809-13), during which Spanish-Portuguese irregulars, or guerillas helped drive the French from the Peninsula. In World War II, the word partisan because synonymous with guerilla: later the word insurgent came into vogue.

After World War II, guerilla warfare came to play a significant role in what has been termed as revolutionary or insugency warfare or what the Communists call people's wars and wars of national liberation.

Since World War II, guerilla warfare has been employed by non-Communist insurgencies in such countries as Indonesia, Cyprus and Algeria, where it was successful and by Communist insurgencies in Malaya and the Philippines, where it ultimately failed. In a complementary role in which a guerilla force first fights independently and later evolves into an orthodox insurgents' Army, it has been successfully employed by Communist insurgencies in China, Indonesia and Cuba.

There is little difference in the interpretation of guerilla warfare as it existed in Shivaji's time and in contemporary times. Its main peculiarities as seen today are as follows:

(a) Guerillas are usually nondescript in dress, unconventional in weapons and equipment, lack formal supply lines and employ highly unorthodox tactics.

(b) Guerilla warfare forces tend to be small, i.e. sub-divided to a greater extent than regular forces: combat units numbering tens or at most hundreds are the rule. An implication thereof is that guerillas almost never attack the enemy's main force but attack isolated detachments or supply chains.

(c) Regular forces defend or attack a specific front, but guerillas tend to direct their attention to the enemy's armed forces, hitting them whenever and wherever possible.

(d) Guerilla warfare tends to be fluid, there are neither fronts nor rear areas but one extended combat area with sporadic fighting. An implication is that the distinction between combatants and civilians is difficult to maintain (and occasionally is deliberately blurred); hence the tendency of anti-guerilla warfare to become "dirty," i.e., to violate the laws of war (as well as human dignity) and to exact a heavy toll of civilian casualities.

(e) Strategic mobility tends to be very low (with the Chinese "Long March" as almost the only exception), whereas tactical mobility is often higher than that of regular forces. This tends to make guerilla warfare a more appropriate means of national defence than of expansionist policies.

(f) In addition to extremely mobile aggressive tactical operations, guerilla tactics embrace all aspects of psychological warfare, including the use of sabotage and terrorism.

Guerilla warfare and terrorism are decisive only where the government fails to commit adequate resources to the conflict. Although Mao had associated successful guerilla warfare only with left wing revolutions, its successful use by traditionalists in Afghanistan suggests that such a limited perspective is myopic.

Whether or not guerilla warfare alone can be successful is another matter. In many cases it has been necessary to combine guerilla warfare with other forms of violence or to make a transition to conventional warfare to achieve success. In most insurgencies--though not all--in which conventional warfare has been used, it has been necessary to give great emphasis to mobility. Whether and when the transition to conventional warfare takes place depends on the strategy of the insurgents and assessment about the vulnerability of the government's security forces to conventional attacks.

The following points should be kept in mind whilst identifying the form of warfare used by the insurgents:

(a) Insurgents may use more than one form of warfare. The combination of terrorism and guerilla warfare is the most common. The Mujahideen in Afghanistan used the tactics of guerilla attacks in the countryside combined with indiscriminate bombing (terrorism) in civilian areas. An insightful analysis should reveal as to what the most prominent form of warfare is.

(b) Although many actions of the insurgents are often categorised very easily, others may fall into grey areas. Bomb attacks against civilians in public places--bazaars, departments stores, buses— are clear acts of terrorism. But the bombing of military barracks and vehicles and sniper attacks on officers of the security forces, would be more akin to guerilla warfare. However, the same bomb attacks against civilians in a rural setting have always been placed within the context of guerilla warfare.

(c) In addressing the differences between guerilla warfare in rural and urban settings, Che Guevara had pointed out that guerilla operations in cities are less independent than those in rural areas and units are very small (four or five men) because in urban areas the government's vigilance is greater and the possibilities of betrayal and reprisals increase considerably.4

(d) Groups that carry out terrorist actions call themselves "freedom fighters" because terrorism and terrorist are highly politicised and emotive terms. The term "freedom fighter" has to do with ends (secessionist goal of freeing one's people and the egalitarian aim of freeing workers and peasants from the oppression of exploitative systems), whilst terrorism pertains to means. Ho Chi Minh and Gandhiji both fought for national liberation from colonial role. Both were freedom fighters. Gandhiji used non-violence, and Ho Chi Minh both violent and non-violent tactics, including terrorism.

(e) Prolonged terrorism has always been found to be counter-productive to the cause of an insurgent movement. Che Guevara had as early as 1960 recommended extreme caution regarding employment of terrorist assassination and sabotage (without, however, renouncing such means entirely) because they invited retaliation against civilians.

(f) With regard to urban guerilla warfare, Vo Giap used it in order to tie down enemy forces but always concentrated his efforts on the countryside where he was able to hit isolated outposts and garrisons. Contrary to other Latin American guerilla strategists and movements (such as the Tupamaros in Uruguay) Che Guevara remained sceptical of urban guerilla warfare, even though it might seem to recommend itself because of the rapid proliferation of cities. He regards it as, at most, an auxiliary form of struggle while realising that "the importance of the struggle in the urban very high. A good work...could practically paralyse the commercial and industrial life of the sector entirely and...make the population desire violent events in order to bring the matter to an end."

In the overall context of warfare, Guevara after the Cuban revolution supported creation of a strong Army capable of defending the state against foreign intervention. The armed forces should be tantamount to "the people in arms" and maintain guerilla struggle as a fall back option should regular military operations fail. In that case, it should seek to maintain control over the most inaccessible regions, whence the armed resistance could gradually spread.

Once the type of insurgency and forms of war have been identified, the next step is to address the various strategic approaches that insurgents adopt to maximise the effectiveness of political techniques and forms of warfare in their quest for victory. The strategies vary as to the relative importance they ascribe to environment, popular support, organisation, using external support, and government response.

Insurgent Strategies

Relating ends and means brings us to the crucial aspect of strategy--the coordinated use of various means to achieve goals. Strategies vary because of:

(a) The kind of goals chosen.

(b) The means emphasised.

(c) The type of plan made--systematic or otherwise.

(d) Conceptual sophistication--ranging from the clearly articulated to the vague.

(e) The interplay of conflicting political interests, limited material resources and unanticipated events.

(f) The adoption of strategies which others have successfully used but that are inappropriate for the existing environment. (Successful insurgent leaders have been able to convince others that their strategy had universal applicability).

Strategic Approaches

Recent and contemporary insurgent leaders have used four broad strategic approaches.

(a) The Conspiratorial Strategy. It emphasises an elite small scale organisation and low level violence.

(b) The Strategy of Protracted Popular War. This stresses political primacy, mass organisation and gradually escalating violence.

(c) The Military Focus Strategy. This strategy emphasises military primacy and concentrates on either guerilla or conventional war.

(d) The Urban Warfare Strategy. It involves small scale organisation and low to moderate terrorist or guerilla attacks in urban centres, with some proponents envisaging an eventual transition to warfare in the rural areas.

The Conspiratorial Strategy

Perhaps the oldest and least complicated insurgent strategy is the conspiratorial one. It seeks to remove the ruling authorities through a limited but swift use of force. Conspiracies are basically coups led by military officers who are part of the ruling elite, or civilians. In many cases the removal of the authorities is considered necessary to achieve the real goal, which is to change policies and/or a political system that insurgents consider illegitimate. In other situations the aim may be to replace the authorities to prevent major policy initiatives that will upset the existing distribution of social, economic and political privileges (preservationist insurgents) or because the leaders are perceived to be corrupt and inefficient (and thus opposed by reformist insurgents).

The most striking example of this strategy is the 1917 Bolshevik insurrection. Robert H. McNeal has summarised these events as under:

"The October Revolution conformed to Lenin's conception of proletarian revolution. Unlike the March revolution (or the mass upheavals of May and July), it was not a spontaneous upsurge of the proletariat but a coup d'etat in which the 'vanguard of the proletariat' had organised and directed elements of the lower classes. The party of Lenin's design had shown little ability to topple the Tsarist government under normal conditions, and it is highly unlikely that it could have done better in a parliamentary democratic system. But in the crucible of revolution the party had proven its strength."5

Lenin's strategy consisted in forming a mass base out of a small group of disciplined militants. This strategy pre-supposes that the state is unpopular. This was also the case in the colonial context following World War II.

In the 1920s, China faced decay of its traditional system. There was diffusion of power to warlords, widespread corruption and socio-economic problems. Some Marxists wanted to seize power at this time but the various ruling authorities proved resilient. As a result, the Chinese Communists were compelled to devise a markedly different strategy for insurgency, one that emphasises prolonged armed struggle based on mobilising mass support.

Strategy of Protracted Popular War

With Mao Tse-Tung, guerilla warfare was no longer a mere supporting tactic, but itself became a strategy. He achieved a synthesis of traditional Chinese military methods with those of revolutionary warfare. Like Sun-Tzu and his successor, Mao believed that it was essential to impose one's will on the enemy by seizing the initiative and forcing him to disperse his forces. Secrecy and deception were essential elements: "The whole art of warfare is based upon deception." Contrary to theories of Russian and Western Marxist-Leninists, who believed that the urban working class was the source of revolution, Mao demonstrated that revolutionary warfare could be pursued by a rural peasantry.6

The main aim of the struggle was for the hearts and minds of the masses, achievable by various forms of ideological conversion based on agrarian revolution. To achieve this end, Mao formulated three stages of protracted warfare.

The primary objective of the first, guerilla warfare, was to impose a type of warfare upon the enemy which rendered ineffective his technical superiority. "War among the masses", a new version of guerilla warfare, was most suitable for a people's war. The key element in guerilla warfare was flexibility--the ability of forces to disperse and disappear into the population yet be able to concentrate to hit specific targets or installations. Mao identified the second stage of warfare as one of equilibrium. As increasing numbers of enemy troops became engaged, the guerilla attacks behind enemy lines intensified. The third stage, "mobile warfare", only occurred when the enemy had been sufficiently worn down for regular troops to launch an offensive in the field. Mao applied these ideas and principles to his campaigns against the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Japanese. His models inspired the theorists of anti-colonial warfare, the Vietnamese Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Giap being notably successful disciples.

In 1961, Vo Giap retrospectively described the grand strategy of the Vietminh for the war against French rule: "We...advocated the wide development of guerilla warfare, transforming the former's rear into our front line. Our units operated in small pockets, with independent companies penetrating deeply into the enemy-controlled zone to launch guerilla warfare, establish bases, and protect local people's power...The enemy mopped up; we fought against mopping up...We gradually formed a network of guerilla bases...There was no clearly defined front in this war. It was wherever the enemy was. The front was nowhere, it was everywhere...The enemy wanted to concentrate their forces. We compelled them to disperse."7

The above was a classical description of guerilla warfare, but the context gradually changed with the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), and the continuing struggle for unification (in the form of support for the Viet Cong in the South). Vo Giap was, therefore, in full support of the gradual admixture of what might be called large-scale guerilla warfare (mobile warfare) and regular warfare. This included major offensives against enemy strong points (Dien Bien Phu, Khe Sanh, and others) and the 1968 Tet Offensive. By virtue of his presiding over this extremely effective combination, Vo Giap has often been counted among the "great captains" of the twentieth century.

Variations from Mao's strategy thinking have occurred in Algeria and elsewhere; the main ones are enlisted below:

(a) The Algerian War showed that victory is possible without the structured phasing and military progression associated with the implementation of Mao's strategy. It was possible to overcome the deficiencies of an ad hoc approach by gaining and maintaining popular support through good organisation and psychological warfare campaigns.

(b) In contrast to Mao who down played terrorism and concentrated almost exclusively in the rural areas, the Algerians, the Viet Cong in Vietnam, the New People's Army (NPA) in the Philippines, and Sendero Luminoso (SL) in Peru, concluded that greater violence in the cities and more extensive use of terrorism were necessary.

(c) Another twist added by a number of groups is the objective of destroying the national economy through sabotage thus weakening and discrediting the government.

(d) The Algerians and the Vietnamese undermined support for their adversaries through programme campaigns directed at popular opinion inside the borders of colonial powers (France in the Algerian and Vietnam cases) or the major outside benefactor of the state government (the US in the Vietnam War).

(e) Mao's strategy is a demanding one in terms of obtaining popular support, and creating an organisational apparatus which requires considerable time and secure bases. The British demonstrated in both Malaya and Kenya in the 1950s that such a long-term conflict strategy could be defeated by determined psychological, organisational and military police counter-measures.

(f) Many of today's insurgencies have a narrower base, they represent smaller segments of the population (class, ethnic, racial or religious group) and face an indigenous government rather than a foreign one. Under such circumstances, it is far more difficult to galvanise nationalist sentiments, even when an effort is made to depict governments as tools of neo-imperialist foreign interests.

(g) Several contemporary insurgent movements that subscribe to a strategy of protracted popular war operate in physical and human settings that are less than desirable. They have also to confront enhanced firepower, better intelligence capabilities of government forces, as also modern developments in areas of transportation, weaponry, detection systems, and information processing.

These obstacles make the successful use of Mao's strategy more difficult. Consequently, insurgents place more emphasis on external assistance (moral, political, material and/or sanctuary) to compensate for weaknesses. In fact, with few exceptions--the National People's Army in the Philippines and SL in Peru--most insurgent movements have given up Mao's prescription for self-reliance.

The Military Focus Strategy

The military focus strategy is different from the strategy of protracted popular war. It gives primacy to military action and makes political action subordinate. Though fully aware of the importance of popular support, the insurgents make no systematic and sustained effort to acquire it through extensive political efforts in the rural areas. Instead, they believe that popular support is either sufficient or will follow military victories. Further, widespread support may be unnecessary if the government's forces are defeated in battle.

Not all insurgents who adhere to the military focus strategy believe that conventional military operations are a viable option. Where the military balance favours the adversary, the insurgents resort to lesser forms of violence--terrorism and/or guerilla warfare. The most notable example in recent times is the Cuban insurrection which can be viewed as an alternative to Mao's strategy of protracted popular war. This had engendered rivalry between the Chinese and Cuban Communists who were in the 1960s and 1970s involved in supporting or sponsoring insurgencies.

At this point it is necessary to mention the ideas of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Although Mao Tse-Tung had altered the classic Leninist revolutionary doctrine to the extent that he had lain emphasis on action in rural as opposed to urban areas, he nonetheless retained and expanded on the idea that it was necessary to organise the population as a prelude to armed revolt. Castro and Guevara, however, claimed that their experiences in Cuba showed that it was not necessary to wait for all the revolutionary conditions to be present but that insurrection could itself create these conditions.8 They developed what has come to be known as the foco theory which is that a small group of armed insurgents operating from a remote part of a country can act as a focus for the various discontented elements in that country and thereby channel all the latent energy available into action for the defeat of the government. In theory, the foco, i.e. the small armed group, does not itself defeat the government but merely causes it to be defeated by a combination of all the revolutionary forces concerned including itself. Castro and Guevara also maintained that although in the insurrectional phase firm leadership is necessary, it is possible to do without another of the Leninist requirements, a vanguard party of the working class. But although insurrection without organisation worked in Cuba, it was nearly defeated and it is only necessary to read Guevara's account of the war to realise how close the enterprise was to failure on a number of occasions during the first six months. Guevara's subsequent campaign in Bolivia, which was also based on the foco theory, failed completely in under a year because of the absence of a supporter's organisation; this prevented him from getting any recruits and made the obtaining of food, medicine and supplies almost impossible. In fact, as a result of the Bolivian experience it seems unlikely that future operations of this sort will be launched without some sort of preparation amongst the population and although the foco theory could perhaps be adapted to suit the needs of various forms of urban subversion, the Castro form of insurrection can probably be regarded as exceptional.9

The Urban Warfare Strategy

In recent times there has been a systematic articulation of an urban centred strategy, in which terrorist attacks play the key role. The emergence of this strategy as an alternative to those discussed hitherto is due not only to the resilience and relative strengths of incumbent governments but also to increased urbanisation in many parts of the world. Inaccessible rural areas where guerillas may operate with impunity simply do not exist in Europe and North America. Consequently, insurgents who pursue political aims through violent acts have been compelled to establish themselves in cities and to operate from them on a small scale in order to survive. In less developed countries, specially in Latin America (in Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay, the population is essentially urban), the strategy of urban warfare, has been attractive. In other situations where there is an urban-rural mix, whenever insurgents could not establish a foothold in rural areas they moved to the urban areas to exploit government vulnerabilities. The increasing migration from rural to urban areas resulted in the establishment of slums filled with poor and psychologically disoriented people whose search for a better life had yielded disillusionment. Insurgent leaders saw such conditions as presenting significant opportunities for gaining support for insurrection. The socio-economic differentiation of the urban centres provides ample scope for sabotage and terrorism. The population density rules out the use of aircraft, artillery, mortars and the like by the government forces.

Like the protracted popular war and military focus strategies, eventual mass support is considered important but the means for achieving it are different. The Latin American theorist, Carlos Marighella elaborated urban guerilla warfare strategy in the following words: "converting the political crisis into an armed struggle by means of a series of violent actions that would force the government to transform the country's political situation into a military one."

Marighella calculated that, by inducing the authorities to act repressively, the blame would fall on the state. In practice, however, this repression had the effect of dismantling the revolutionary organisation without leading to anything more than passive support from the masses. In any case, the organisation would have had to calculate the potential support for such actions among the population: there is a big difference between sympathy and active support.

Indeed, Marighella himself saw the contradictions in his strategy. Among the "seven deadly sins" of the urban guerilla he mentioned in his "Minimanual" are:

"Over-valuing the urban struggle: those who are wholeheartedly absorbed in the excitement of guerilla activity in the towns may give too little attention to launching guerilla fighting in the countryside. They may come to think urban fighting is decisive, and devote all their organising powers to that. Towns can be strategically encircled, and then we can only evade or break the cordon if there is guerilla activity in the country as well. Without that we are always open to severe damage from the enemy..."

In practice, the Marighella strategy of the "urban guerilla" suffers from several intrinsic weaknesses: the lack of organised popular support, given the movement's clandestine nature and the fact that it involves very few people; and the assumption that the state is weak or has already been weakened--which was not the case with the Brazilian state, a military dictatorship since 1964. Despite his rejection of the strategy of the rural foco, Marighella's "urban guerilla" was, in fact, an urban foco.10

As Marighella saw it, the function of urban terrorists was to tie down government forces in the cities, thus permitting the emergence and survival of rural guerilla warfare, which is destined to play the decisive role in revolutionary war. Accordingly, the major question is how effective is urban warfare in undermining the government and in gaining popular support, not whether urban warfare alone can be successful. The perceived need to transfer the conflict to the rural areas stems from the belief that widespread popular support will be needed to thwart an adversary that controls the state apparatus and is unlikely to remain passive in the face of a challenge to the political community or the regime.

Initiating an urban insurgency and then transferring it to the countryside is mainly a Latin American notion. Provisional IRA leaders believe that violence in the cities and abroad directed at British officials, military personnel and unarmed civilians will eventually affect British will and lead to a withdrawal from Ulster. Likewise a number of organisations, e.g, the Red Brigades in Italy, the Japanese Red Army and Action Direct in France, have pursued their aims through urban violence and have given no indication of plans to eventually carry out the struggle in rural areas. Thus, there are really two variations of the urban warfare strategy: one which calls for a move to the countryside and the other solely centred on the cities.

The urban warfare strategy has been ineffective except in South Yemen in 1967. To this we may add the case of Palestine in the 1940s and Cyprus in the 1950s. In all these cases there was a weakened imperial power, desiring to cut its losses. In today's world, those using the urban warfare strategy have faced indigenous governments, none of which has succumbed. Although the Tupamaros in Uruguay and the Monteneros in Argentina succeeded in provoking a heavily militarised government response, the repression associated with it crushed the insurgent movements. Consequently, insurgents in Latin America returned to rural based protracted popular war or military focus strategies discussed earlier. Groups in Europe, mentioned earlier, continue to carry out urban terrorist actions, but seem to have little prospect of realising their aims.

From the Battle of Algiers (1958) through Carlos Marighella's movement in Brazil to the terrorist campaign in Belfast, urban insurgency has historically proven more susceptible to repression by an effective state than rural insurgency or rural insurgency with an urban element.11

One should not, however, assume that urban guerilla warfare will be jettisoned from the methodological armoury of the Latin American left. Some groups of guerillas have abandoned it in favour of activity directed towards mass movements, but many of the conditions which gave rise to the phenomenon remain and have indeed been accentuated under the current military regimes in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Urban guerilla warfare has only been suppressed at the expense of democratic liberties in all areas of life. By resting their authority on armed force, the military in these countries have given the next generation of revolutionaries plenty of reasons for reaching the conclusion that armed struggle is not only politics by other means but by the only means available.12

Assessment of Approaches

The four strategic approaches given above have guided and inspired many insurgent leaders. Further their original proponents have claimed that they have widespread applicability. Indeed these strategies have been adopted by others. This does not imply that they are sacrosanct; variations in classification and perception are feasible.

Whilst in certain cases the strategy chosen has been correctly pursued, in others it has been loosely applied. The New People's Army in the Philippines and the Viet Cong in Vietnam applied Mao's strategy of protracted popular war with great attention to political and military requirements. On the other hand, some Afghan and Palestinian groups that claim to be following the same strategy have not paid adequate attention to stages and their sequencing. Insurgent failures and shortcomings could be traced to incomplete understanding and execution of particular facets of the strategy they are following.

Insurgent movements can also be divided in their choice of approach and independent groups could follow different strategies. An example in this context is the Palestine resistance: the Popular Democratic Front has followed a Maoist protracted popular war strategy, while Fatah has been less rigid and has adopted the Algerian variation of Mao's approach and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine has adopted the military focus approach (mainly terrorist actions).

This strategic dissonance has its own fall-out. For instance, guerilla or conventional attacks in keeping with the military focus strategy are likely to invite swift government counter-measures. This would under- cut the protracted popular war strategy which requires the government to remain relatively inactive and complacent while the insurgent infrastructure is being established.

The choice of strategy and its effectiveness are influenced by the environment and government response. The Provisional IRA and the Red Brigades have chosen an urban warfare strategy because the environment is largely urbanised and the balance of coercive force decidedly favours the government.

Palestinian groups committed to the liberation of all Palestine in the late 1960s and early 1970s accurately assessed Israel's advantageous position but deluded themselves when it came to the physical and human environment. With time, they became aware that acquiring mass popular support and setting up bases in Israel and the occupied territories was not possible, as the relatively small area had little natural cover and it had a well developed road and communications system. Furthermore, the population inside Israel was a Jewish majority and a relatively quiet Palestinian Arab sector. By 1974, the pragmatic elements of the PLO decided to concentrate on liberating the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip rather than destroying Israel which the physical and human environment just did not permit, and was, therefore, not suitable to any of their strategies.

As clear a picture as possible of insurgent goals, forms of warfare and insurgent strategies is essential before making a systematic appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of an insurgency.

Other Essential Aspects

Some other aspects which have a profound bearing on insurgency are briefly mentioned in the subsequent paragraphs.


The cause provides the motivation for insurgency. Whether real or artificial, whether inspired by Communism or by virulent nationalism, the political goal is fundamental in motivating people to action. Without a political goal, insurgency must fail, as it must if its political objectives do not coincide with the aspirations of the people and their sympathy, cooperation and assistance cannot be gained.

Popular Support

Insurgency has no chance of success unless the rebels have the complete and unresolved support of the majority of the country's inhahitants. Popular support may be passive or active. Passive support includes individuals who quietly sympathise with the insurgents but are unwilling to provide material assistance. Active support encompasses those who are willing to make sacrifice and risk personal harm either by joining the movement, or by providing information, hiding places, medical assistance, guides and the like.

There are many methods to gain the desired support and recruits: charismatic attraction; esoteric appeals; exoteric appeals; terrorism; provocation of government repression; demonstrations of potency and even coercion.

The phenomenon of charismatic attraction has been exemplified by Mao Tse-Tung, Fidel Castro and Lenin, to name but a few. Esoteric appeals may be based on either religion or secular ideology. A classic example of the latter is Marxism-Leninism. Exoteric appeals focus on concrete grievances of both the intelligentsia and the masses. In the case of the former, unemployment or under-employment can result in not only inadequate material necessities but also psychological dissatisfaction such as lack of recognition and status. In the case of the masses, grievances arise from corruption, repression by local officials, insufficient land, food, jobs and facilities. Mao stressed the need for first going to the people to find out what their grievances are in order to formulate propaganda appeals.


No analysis of an insurgency can be complete or meaningful without an assessment of the scope, complexity and cohesion of an insurgent movement.

Insurgents who subscribe to conspiratorial and urban warfare strategies stress small, closely knit and secretive organisations. Those who adopt military focus or protracted popular war strategies require more sophisticated organisational structures because of the long struggle that is anticipated and the requirement for substantial military activity.

The tactical organisation of guerilla units varies according to operational requirements. Mao called for a guerrilla squad of 9 to 11; Grivas employed sabotage groups of four or five. In Vietnam, the Viet Minh and later Viet Cong employed groups from small squads up to battalion, even regimental strength.

Protracted revolutionary warfare as defined by Mao demands a complicated organisation at both the political and military levels. The complex organisations that emerge are referred to as parallel hierarchies or shadow governments, Mao recommended a clandestine system of parallel hierarchy beginning with the cadre or cellular party structure at hamlet-village level and proceeding to the top via district, provincial and regional command structures.

Much like the Afghan resistance, the PLO had its greatest strength where parallel hierarchies existed. During the high point of PLO guerilla activity in 1969-70, active support came mainly from refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan that were under the political control of resistance organisations. In the area of the West Bank, considered to be most vital by the resistance, active support was meagre in spite of antipathy towards the Israelis, largely because there was no functioning parallel hierarchy.

The next thing to be examined is whether the insurgent movement is unified. Disunity could occur due to any of the following causes: social, political-cultural, personal, differences over the ultimate goal being pursued, theoretical, strategic and tactical.

Physical Environment

Large areas with heavy jungle or mountains and poor roads, as in the Afghanistan, north-east India, Vietnam, Philippines and China will remain conducive to guerilla operations despite advances in areas of defoliation, detection technology, and air mobility. During the Vietnam War, an effort was made to alter the physical environment by constructing a barrier along the border between South and North Vietnam but the endeavour was rendered ineffective by the insurgents' ability to go around the line via Laos. Both the insurgents and the governments must be aware of the impact of the physical environment on the insurgency and the measures that could be taken to overcome its impact.

The Human Environment

A comprehensive review of the human element is also vital. A careful assessment of demography, social structures and values, economic trends, the political culture, and the structure and performance of the political system is necessary for uncovering the causes of insurgency and identifying the obstacles that both sides face with regard to implementing their strategies and policies. For instance, in Afghanistan ambitious land, educational and marriage reformers in 1978 played a key role in igniting violent resistance. The same reforms would have been greeted with approval in the Philippines. In Afghanistan, they met with scornful and violent disapproval because of the threat they posed to accepted social values based on tradition and religion. Hence, the need for indepth assessment of the human environment.

External Support

Unless governments are utterly incompetent, devoid of political will, and lacking resources, insurgent organisations normally must obtain outside assistance, if they are to succeed. Even when substantial popular support for insurgents is forthcoming, the ability to effectively combat government military forces usually requires various kinds of outside help largely because beleaguered governments are themselves beneficiaries of external assistance, which in some cases compensates for their lack of popularity.

External support for insurgent movements could be of four basic types: moral, political, material and sanctuary. The insurgency in Kashmir is aided and abetted by Pakistan and her support for secessionist forces contains all these elements. For governments trying to cope with insurgents, a better understanding of donor motivations may result in foreign policy initiatives designed to cultivate or bring about the events and circumstances that will undercut external support.

Government Response

Finally, whether an insurgency succeeds or not will greatly depend on the state response to it. What the state or government does or neglects to do and how it performs has a direct bearing on the strategies and forms of warfare the insurgents choose, and the nature and extent of the challenges the insurgents must cope with to accomplish their aims. The more the government responses are informed, prudent, relevant and determined, the greater will be the burden on the insurgents.


Insurgencies will continue to pose important domestic and foreign policy challenges for many nations. Apart from the participants, insurgencies will be of interest to decision makers, analysts, scholars, students, journalists and many others. The understanding of insurgency is a complex and challenging process which calls for a systematic approach and an open mind.