Military Doctrine, Guerrilla Warfare and Counterinsurgency
The current situations in Iraq, Chechnya and Afghanistan demonstrates the central problem of modern warfare. Contemporary warfare was forged during World War II, when the three dominant elements of the modern battlefield reached maturity: the aircraft carrier-submarine combination in naval warfare, the fighter and bomber combination in aerial warfare and the armored fighting vehicle/self-propelled artillery combination on land. Tied together with electromagnetic communications and sensors, this complex of systems has continued to dominate modern military thinking.
It was not the weapons systems themselves that defined warfare. Rather, it was the deeper concept — the idea that technology was decisive in war. The armed forces of all major combatants in the 20th century were organized to optimize the use of massed technology. The neatly structured echelons in each sphere of warfare were designed not only to manage and maintain the equipment, but also to facilitate their orderly deployment on the battlefield. Even the emergence of nuclear weapons did not change the basic structure of warfare. It remained technically focused, with the military organization built around the needs of the technology.
The modern armored division, carrier battle group and fighter or bomber wing represent the optimized organization built around a technology designed to assault industrialized armies and societies. They remain the basic structure of modern warfare, and they carry out that function well. However, as the United States discovered in Vietnam and the Soviet Union discovered in Afghanistan, this force structure is not particularly effective against guerrilla forces.
The essential problem is that the basic unit of guerrilla warfare is the individual and the squad. They are frequently unarmed — having hidden their weapons — and when armed, they carry man-portable weapons such as rifles, rocket-propelled grenades or mortars. When unarmed, they cannot be easily distinguished from the surrounding population. And they arm themselves at a time and place of their choosing — selected to minimize the probability of detection and interception.
Guerrilla war, particularly in its early stages, is extremely resistant to conventional military force because the massed systems that dominate mainstream operations cannot engage the guerrilla force. Indeed, even if collateral damage were not an issue — and it almost always is — the mass annihilation or deportation of a population does not, in itself, guarantee the elimination of the guerilla force. So long as a single survivor knows the location of the weapons caches, the guerrilla movement can readily revive itself.
Therefore, in modern military thinking, a second, parallel military structure has emerged: counter-insurgency forces. Operating under various names, counter-insurgency troops try to overcome the lack of surgical precision of conventional forces. They carry out a number of functions:
1. Engage guerrilla forces on a symmetrical level, while having access to technologically superior force as needed.
2. Collect intelligence on guerrilla concentrations for use by larger formations.
3. Recruit and train indigenous forces to engage guerrilla forces.
4. Organize operations designed to drive a wedge between the guerrillas and population.
The basic units carrying out these counter-insurgency missions have two components. First, there are Special Forces — highly trained and motivated light infantry — intended to carry out the primary missions. Second, there are more conventional forces, either directly attached to the primary group or available on request, designed to multiply the force when it becomes engaged.
During the first stages of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, counter-insurgency units — designated Special Forces or Green Berets — carried out these operations.
Two fundamental and unavoidable weaknesses were built into the strategy.
The number of trained counter-insurgency troops available was insufficient. The measure to be used for sufficiency is not the number of guerrillas operating. Rather, the question is the size of the population — regardless of political inclination — that must be sorted through and managed to get through to the guerrillas. This means there is a massive imbalance between the guerrilla force and the counter-insurgency force that is intensified by the need for security. Guerrillas operate in a target-rich environment. The need to provide static security against attacks on critical targets generates an even greater requirement for forces, although not necessarily of counter-insurgency forces.
The huge commitment of forces needed to begin the suppression of a guerrilla force cannot be managed by an external power. Unless the target country is extremely small both in terms of population and geography, the logistical costs of force projection for a purely external force are prohibitive. That means that a successful force must recruit and utilize an indigenous force that serves two purposes. First, they serve as the backbone of the main infantry force, both defending key targets and serving as follow-on forces in major engagements.
Second, since the counter-insurgency force normally needs intense cultural and political guidance to separate guerrillas from the population, these forces provide essential support — from interpreters to intelligence — for the counter-insurgency team.
This leads directly to the second problem. The guerrillas can easily penetrate an indigenous force, particularly if that force is being established after the guerrilla operation has commenced. Recruiting a police and military force after the guerrillas are established guarantees that guerrilla agents will be well represented among the ranks. Since it is impossible to distinguish between political views using technical means of intelligence, there is no effective way to screen these out — particularly if the first round of recruitment and organization is being carried out by the external power.
This means that from the beginning of operations, the guerrillas have a built-in advantage. Having penetrated the indigenous military force, the guerrillas will have a great deal of information on the tactical and operational level. At that point, the very sparseness of the guerrilla movement starts to work to its advantage. Hidden in terrain or population, armed with information on operations, guerrillas can either decline combat and disperse, or seize the element of surprise.
The reverse always has been the intention for counter-insurgency forces, the idea being that they would mirror the guerrillas' capability. This sometimes happened on a tactical level. However, the ability of foreign forces to penetrate guerrilla movements on the operational level was severely limited for obvious reasons. It was tough for an American to masquerade as a Vietnamese. It potentially could be done, but not on a decisive scale. That means that penetration on the operational level — knowing plans and implementation — depended on indigenous allies whose reliability was often questionable. Therefore, the ability of the counter-insurgency forces to mimic the guerrillas was constrained. In neither Vietnam nor Afghanistan was the operational intelligence of the counter-insurgency forces equal to that of the guerrillas.
The normal counter to this was to use imprecise intelligence and compensate for it with large-scale operations. So, one counter for not having precise knowledge of the location of guerrillas was to use large, mobile formations to move in and occupy a region, in an attempt to identify, engage and destroy guerrilla formations. This had two consequences. First, it meant a violation of the rules of the economy of forces as battalions were used to search for squads. In this case, massive superiority in forces did not necessarily translate to strategic success. The guerrillas, disaggregated in the smallest practicable unit, could not be strategically crushed.
Second, the nature of the operation created inevitable political problems. Operations of this sort were not dominated by specialized counter-insurgency units, which were at least trained in discriminatory warfare — trying to distinguish guerrillas from neutral or friendly population. By the nature of the operation, regular troops were used to seize an area and search for the guerrillas. Since the area was frequently populated and since the attacking troops had little ability to discriminate, it resulted frequently in the mishandling of civilian populations, hostility against the attackers and sympathy for the guerrillas. Then, counter-insurgency troops, already handicapped in their own way, were brought in to pacify the region. The result was unsatisfactory, to say the least.
This points to the essential problem of guerrilla war. At its lowest level — before it evolves into a stage where it has complex logistical requirements supplied from secure areas in and out of the country — guerrilla war is political rather than military in nature. The paradox of guerrilla war is that it is easier to defeat militarily once the guerrilla force has matured into a more advanced, and therefore more vulnerable, entity. However, by the time it has evolved, the likelihood is that the political situation has deteriorated sufficiently that even heavy attrition will be overcome through massive recruitment within the disaffected population.
The loss of the political war makes a war of attrition extremely difficult. As both the Soviets and Americans discovered, the ability of the outside force to absorb casualties is inferior to that of the indigenous force, if the indigenous force is politically motivated. Since the process of suppressing early-stage guerrilla movements almost guarantees the generation of massive political hostility, the later war — which should be favorable to the counter-insurgency forces — turns out to be impossible to win. Even extreme attrition ratios are overcome by recruitment.
The dilemma facing the United States in Iraq is to surgically remove the guerrilla force from the population without generating a political backlash that will fuel a long-term insurgency regardless of levels of attrition. This is much easier to say than to do. The heart of the matter is intelligence — to deny the guerrillas intelligence about U.S. operations while gathering massive intelligence about the guerrillas. The only way to win the war is to reverse, at the earliest possible phase, the intelligence equation. The guerrillas must be confused and blinded; the Americans must maintain transparency of the guerrillas.
That is clearly what the United States now is attempting to do. It is limiting its search-and-seize operations while massively increasing its intelligence capabilities. This is happening both in terms of human intelligence and technical means of intelligence. It is unclear whether this will work. Human intelligence is political in nature and requires extreme expertise with the culture, without dependency on indigenous elements that might be unreliable. It is very difficult for someone from Kansas, however gifted in the craft of intelligence, to make sense of a tactical situation — and at this point, the guerrillas present only a tactical face.
It is nevertheless the key to any hope for success. It also is an operation that will take an extended period of time. Washington's hope obviously is that by curtailing the United States' own large-scale operations and moving into an intense intelligence phase, the guerrilla operations will alienate the population. It is possible but difficult. It also will take time. But it is clear that the United States is in the process of rewriting parts of the counter-insurgency book and, therefore, is beginning to write a new — and as yet uncertain — chapter in military history.