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Guerrilla warfare

Contra]] militia, 1987 Guerrilla warfare is a form of irregular warfare and refers to conflicts in which a small group of combatants including, but not limited to, armed civilians (or "irregulars") use military tactics, such as ambushes, sabotage, raids, the element of surprise, and extraordinary mobility to harass a larger and less-mobile traditional army, or strike a vulnerable target, and withdraw almost immediately.



The term means "little war" in Spanish, and the word, guerrilla, has been used to describe the concept since the 18th century, and perhaps earlier. A person who is a member of a guerrilla is a guerrillero.

The term guerrilla was used within the English language as early as 1809. The word was used to describe the fighters, and their tactics (e.g."the town was taken by the guerrillas"). However, in most languages guerrilla still denotes the specific style of warfare. The use of the diminutive evokes the differences in number, scale, and scope between the guerrilla army and the formal, professional army of the state.

Strategy, tactics and organization

The Spanish resistance to the French invasion, June 1808 The strategy and tactics of guerrilla warfare tend to focus around the use of a small, mobile force competing against a larger, more unwieldy one.[1] The guerrilla focuses on organizing in small units, depending on the support of the local population, as well as taking advantage of terrain more accommodating of small units.

Tactically, the guerrilla army would avoid any confrontation with large units of enemy troops, but seek and eliminate small groups of soldiers to minimize losses and exhaust the opposing force. Not limiting their targets to personnel, enemy resources are also preferred targets. All of that is to weaken the enemy's strength, to cause the enemy eventually to be unable to prosecute the war any longer, and to force the enemy to withdraw.

It is often misunderstood that guerrilla warfare must involve disguising as civilians to cause enemy troops to fail in telling friend from foe. However, this is a not a primary feature of a guerrilla war. This type of war can be practiced anywhere there are places for combatants to cover themselves and where such advantage cannot be made use of by a larger and more conventional force.

Communist leaders like Mao Zedong and North Vietnamese Ho Chi Minh both implemented guerrilla warfare giving it a theoretical frame which served as a model for similar strategies elsewhere, such as the Cuban "foco" theory and the anti-Soviet Mujahadeen in Afghanistan.[2]

Mao Zedong summarized basic guerrilla tactics at the beginning of the Chinese "Second Revolutionary Civil War" as: "The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue."[3]

While the tactics of modern guerrilla warfare originate in the 20th century, irregular warfare, using elements later characteristic of modern guerrilla warfare, has existed throughout the battles of many ancient civilizations but in a smaller scale. This recent growth was inspired in part by theoretical works on guerrilla warfare, starting with the Manual de Guerra de Guerrillas by Mat as Ram n Mella written in the 19th century and, more recently, Mao Zedong's On Guerrilla Warfare, Che Guevara's Guerrilla Warfare and Lenin's text of the same name, all written after the successful revolutions carried by them in China, Cuba and Russia respectively. Those texts characterized the tactic of guerrilla warfare as, according to Che Guevara's text, being "used by the side which is supported by a majority but which possesses a much smaller number of arms for use in defense against oppression".


The Third of May 1808 by Francisco Goya, showing Spanish resisters being executed by Napoleon's troops.

Boer guerrillas during the Second Boer War in South Africa.
Boer guerrillas during the Second Boer War in South Africa.
Guerrilla warfare can be traced back to Sun Tzu, in his The Art of War (6th century BCE).[2] Some authors argue that his example directly inspired the development of modern guerrilla warfare.[2][4]

An early example during the American Revolution was when British General John Burgoyne referred to the American Patriots using this type of warfare during the Saratoga campaign. He noted that, in proceeding through dense woodland:

So conscious of hidden marksmen was Burgoyne that he asked his men, When the Lieutenant General visits an outpost, the men are not to stand to their Arms or pay him any compliment, clearly aware he would be singled out.[5]

Nonetheless, the Peninsular War, nicknamed the Spanish Ulcer and regarded by some historians, including Karl Marx,[6] as one of the first national wars,[7] is also significant for the emergence of large-scale guerrilla warfare. It is from this conflict that the English language borrowed the word.[8] This war saw British and Portuguese forces using Portugal as a secure position to launch campaigns against the French army, while Spanish guerrilleros bled the occupiers. Gates notes that much of the French army "was rendered unavailable for operations against Wellington because innumerable Spanish contingents kept materialising all over the country. In 1810, for example, when Massena invaded Portugal, the Imperial forces in the Peninsula totaled a massive 325,000 men, but only about one quarter of these could be spared for the offensive—the rest were required to contain the Spanish insurgents and regulars. This was the greatest single contribution that the Spaniards were to make and, without it, Wellington could not have maintained himself on the continent for long—let alone emerge victorious from the conflict".[9] Combined, the regular and irregular allied forces prevented Napoleon's Marshals from subduing the rebellious Spanish provinces.[10]

Marx and Engels wrote about other examples of guerrilla warfare during the American Civil War, by Tyrolians and Prussians against Napoleon, by Poland and the Caucasus against Imperial Russia, Pegu (Burma) against the British Empire, but it has been said that "when Lenin wrote his classic paper, Guerrilla Warfare,[11] in 1906, he did not quote Marx and Engels because they had not written in depth on the topic... Lenin begins from the premise that guerrilla warfare must be linked to struggle of the masses of the working class, or else it is against the interests of revolution: 'the acts of individuals isolated from the masses, which demoralise the workers, repel wide strata of the population, disorganize the movement and injure the revolution'".[12] Lenin also argued about the inevitability of guerrilla warfare in some conflicts by saying that "guerrilla warfare is an inevitable form of struggle at a time when the mass movement has actually reached the point of an uprising and when fairly large intervals occur between the 'big engagements' in the civil war." It must be noted that Marx and Engels interchanged numerous letters on war and military science and Engels wrote about several military topics.

Counter-guerrilla warfare


The guerrilla can be difficult to beat, but certain principles of counter-insurgency warfare are well known since the 1950s and 1960s and have been successfully applied.

Classic guidelines

Partisan]] youth await execution by German forces in Serbia, 20 August 1941 A Viet Cong base camp being burned, My Tho, South Vietnam, 1968

The widely distributed and influential work of Sir Robert Thompson, counter-insurgency expert of the Malayan Emergency, offers several such guidelines. Thompson's underlying assumption is that of a country minimally committed to the rule of law and better governance.

Some governments, however, give such considerations short shrift, and their counter-insurgency operations have involved mass murder, genocide, starvation and the massive spread of terror, torture and execution. The totalitarian regimes of Adolf Hitler are classic examples, as are more modern conflicts in places like Afghanistan.

Timothy Snyder wrote, "In the guise of anti-partisan actions, the Germans killed perhaps three quarters of a million people, about 350,000 in Belarus alone, and lower but comparable numbers in Poland and Yugoslavia. The Germans killed more than a hundred thousand Poles when suppressing the Warsaw Uprising of 1944."[13]

In the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the Soviets countered the U.S. backed Mujahideen with a policy of wastage and depopulation, driving over one third of the Afghan population into exile (over 5 million people), and carrying out widespread destruction of villages, granaries, crops, herds and irrigation systems, including the deadly and widespread mining of fields and pastures.

Many modern countries employ manhunting doctrine to seek out and eliminate individual guerrillas. Elements of Thompson's moderate approach are adapted here:[14]

  1. The people are the key base to be secured and defended rather than territory won or enemy bodies counted. Contrary to the focus of conventional warfare, territory gained, or casualty counts are not of overriding importance in counter-guerrilla warfare. The support of the population is the key variable. Since many insurgents rely on the population for recruits, food, shelter, financing, and other materials, the counter-insurgent force must focus its efforts on providing physical and economic security for that population and defending it against insurgent attacks and propaganda.
  2. There must be a clear political counter-vision that can overshadow, match or neutralize the guerrilla vision. This can range from granting political autonomy, to economic development measures in the affected region. The vision must be an integrated approach, involving political, social and economic and media influence measures. A nationalist narrative for example, might be used in one situation, an ethnic autonomy approach in another. An aggressive media campaign must also be mounted in support of the competing vision or the counter-insurgent regime will appear weak or incompetent.
  3. Practical action must be taken at the lower levels to match the competitive political vision. It may be tempting for the counter-insurgent side to simply declare guerrillas "terrorists" and pursue a harsh liquidation strategy. Brute force however, may not be successful in the long run. Action does not mean capitulation, but sincere steps such as removing corrupt or arbitrary officials, cleaning up fraud, building more infrastructure, collecting taxes honestly, or addressing other legitimate grievances can do much to undermine the guerrillas' appeal.
  4. Economy of force. The counter-insurgent regime must not overreact to guerrilla provocations, since this may indeed be what they seek to create a crisis in civilian morale. Indiscriminate use of firepower may only serve to alienate the key focus of counterinsurgency- the base of the people. Police level actions should guide the effort and take place in a clear framework of legality, even if under a State of Emergency. Civil liberties and other customs of peacetime may have to be suspended, but again, the counter-insurgent regime must exercise restraint, and cleave to orderly procedures. In the counter-insurgency context, "boots on the ground" are even more important than technological prowess and massive firepower, although anti-guerrilla forces should take full advantage of modern air, artillery and electronic warfare assets.[15]
  5. Big unit action may sometimes be necessary. If police action is not sufficient to stop the guerrilla fighters, military sweeps may be necessary. Such "big battalion" operations may be needed to break up significant guerrilla concentrations and split them into small groups where combined civic-police action can control them.Soviet partisans hanged by German forces in January 1943
  6. Aggressive mobility. Mobility and aggressive small unit action is extremely important for the counter-insurgent regime. Heavy formations must be lightened to aggressively locate, pursue and fix insurgent units. Huddling in static strongpoints simply concedes the field to the insurgents. They must be kept on the run constantly with aggressive patrols, raids, ambushes, sweeps, cordons, roadblocks, prisoner snatches, etc.
  7. Ground level embedding and integration. In tandem with mobility is the embedding of hardcore counter-insurgent units or troops with local security forces and civilian elements. The US Marines in Vietnam also saw some success with this method, under its CAP (Combined Action Program) where Marines were teamed as both trainers and "stiffeners" of local elements on the ground. US Special Forces in Vietnam like the Green Berets, also caused significant local problems for their opponents by their leadership and integration with mobile tribal and irregular forces.[16] The CIA's Special Activities Division created successful guerrilla forces from the Hmong tribe during the war in Vietnam in the 1960s,[17] from the Northern Alliance against the Taliban during the war in Afghanistan in 2001,[18] and from the Kurdish Peshmerga against Ansar al-Islam and the forces of Saddam Hussein during the war in Iraq in 2003.[19][20] In Iraq, the 2007 US "surge" strategy saw the embedding of regular and special forces troops among Iraqi army units. These hardcore groups were also incorporated into local neighborhood outposts in a bid to facilitate intelligence gathering, and to strengthen ground level support among the masses.[15]
  8. Cultural sensitivity. Counter-insurgent forces require familiarity with the local culture, mores and language or they will experience numerous difficulties. Americans experienced this in Vietnam and during the US invasion of Iraqi and occupation, where shortages of Arabic speaking interpreters and translators hindered both civil and military operations.[21]
  9. Systematic intelligence effort. Every effort must be made to gather and organize useful intelligence. A systematic process must be set up to do so, from casual questioning of civilians to structured interrogations of prisoners. Creative measures must also be used, including the use of double agents, or even bogus "liberation" or sympathizer groups that help reveal insurgent personnel or operations.
  10. Methodical clear and hold. An "ink spot" clear and hold strategy must be used by the counter-insurgent regime, dividing the conflict area into sectors, and assigning priorities between them. Control must expand outward like an ink spot on paper, systematically neutralizing and eliminating the insurgents in one sector of the grid, before proceeding to the next. It may be necessary to pursue holding or defensive actions elsewhere, while priority areas are cleared and held.
  11. Careful deployment of mass popular forces and special units. Mass forces include village self-defense groups and citizen militias organized for community defense and can be useful in providing civic mobilization and local security. Specialist units can be used profitably, including commando squads, long range reconnaissance and "hunter-killer" patrols, defectors who can track or persuade their former colleagues like the Kit Carson units in Vietnam, and paramilitary style groups.
  12. The limits of foreign assistance must be clearly defined and carefully used. Such aid should be limited either by time, or as to material and technical, and personnel support, or both. While outside aid or even troops can be helpful, lack of clear limits, in terms of either a realistic plan for victory or exit strategy, may find the foreign helper "taking over" the local war, and being sucked into a lengthy commitment, thus providing the guerrillas with valuable propaganda opportunities as the stream of dead foreigners mounts. Such a scenario occurred with the US in Vietnam, with the American effort creating dependence in South Vietnam, and war weariness and protests back home. Heavy-handed foreign interference may also fail to operate effectively within the local cultural context, setting up conditions for failure.
    A Tuareg rebel fighter in northern Niger, 2008
    A Tuareg rebel fighter in northern Niger, 2008
  13. Time. A key factor in guerrilla strategy is a drawn-out, protracted conflict that wears down the will of the opposing counter-insurgent forces. Democracies are especially vulnerable to the factor of time. The counter-insurgent force must allow enough time to get the job done. Impatient demands for victory centered around short-term electoral cycles play into the hands of the guerrillas, though it is equally important to recognize when a cause is lost and the guerrillas have won.


Some writers on counter-insurgency warfare emphasize the more turbulent nature of today's guerrilla warfare environment, where the clear political goals, parties and structures of such places as Vietnam, Malaysia, or El Salvador are not as prevalent. These writers point to numerous guerrilla conflicts that center around religious, ethnic or even criminal enterprise themes, and that do not lend themselves to the classic "national liberation" template.

The wide availability of the Internet has also cause changes in the tempo and mode of guerrilla operations in such areas as coordination of strikes, leveraging of financing, recruitment, and media manipulation. While the classic guidelines still apply, today's anti-guerrilla forces need to accept a more disruptive, disorderly and ambiguous mode of operation.

Foco theory

In the 1960s the Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara developed the foco () theory of revolution in his book Guerrilla Warfare, based on his experiences during the 1959 Cuban Revolution. This theory was later formalized as "focalism" by R gis Debray. Its central principle is that vanguardism by cadres of small, fast-moving paramilitary groups can provide a focus for popular discontent against a sitting regime, and thereby lead a general insurrection. Although the original approach was to mobilize and launch attacks from rural areas, many foco ideas were adapted into urban guerrilla warfare movements.

Twentieth and twenty-first century guerrilla conflicts

Ukraine]]. PKK]] guerrilla in Iraqi Kurdistan as part of the Kurdish Turkish conflict.

The tactics of guerrilla warfare were used successfully in the 20th century by—among others— the Soviet partisans and the Polish Home Army in World War II,[13] Mao Zedong and the People's Liberation Army in the Second Sino-Japanese War and Chinese Civil War. Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and the 26th of July Movement in the Cuban Revolution. Ho Chi Minh, Vo Nguyen Giap, Viet Cong and select members of the Green Berets in the Vietnam War (and the First Indochina War before that). The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the Sri Lankan Civil War, the Afghan Mujahideen in the Soviet war in Afghanistan, George Grivas and Nikos Sampson's Greek guerrilla group EOKA in Cyprus, Aris Velouchiotis and Stefanos Sarafis and the EAM against the Axis occupation of Greece during World War II, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the German Schutztruppe in World War I, Josip Broz Tito and the Yugoslav Partisans in World War II, and the antifrancoist guerrilla in Spain during the Franco dictatorship,[22] the Kosovo Liberation Army in the Kosovo War, and the Irish Republican Army led by Michael Collins during the Irish War of Independence.[23] Most factions of the Taliban, Iraqi insurgency, Colombia's FARC, and the Communist Party of India (Maoist) are said to be engaged in some form of guerrilla warfare—as was, until recently, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). In India, Marathas under leadership of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj used it to overthrow of the Mughals. It was also effectively used by Tatya Tope and Rani Laxmibai in the Indian Rebellion of 1857, as well as by Pazhassi Raja of Kerala to fight the British. Other examples of recent guerrilla wars include:


  • Angolan Civil War
  • Darfur Conflict
  • Ivorian Civil War
  • Rhodesian Bush War
  • Sudan
  • Tuareg Rebellion (2007 2009)
  • Western Sahara War


  • Soviet war in Afghanistan
  • Sri Lankan Civil War


  • Kosovo War
  • The Troubles

Latin America:

  • Farabundo Mart National Liberation Front (FMLN), El Salvador - became a political party and have current presidency
  • Nicaraguan Revolution

Afghan guerrillas that were chosen to receive medical treatment in the United States, Norton Air Force Base, California, 1986. Present ongoing guerrilla wars include:


  • South Sudan
  • Uganda - Lord's Resistance Army


  • Arab Israeli conflict
  • Balochistan conflict
  • India - Communist insurgency
  • Iran Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan conflict
  • Iraq War
  • Islamic insurgency in the Philippines
  • South Thailand insurgency in Southern Thailand along the Malaysia-Thailand border
  • Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan
  • Kurdish Turkish conflict

Latin America:

  • Colombian armed conflict (1964 present)
  • Internal conflict in Peru
  • Shining Path
  • Zapatista Army of National Liberation, Mexico - has been relatively non-violent since 1994


  • Second Chechen War

Popular culture

  • For Whom the Bell Tolls, an Ernest Hemingway novel which tells the story of Robert Jordan, an American volunteer attached to a guerrilla unit during the Spanish Civil War.
  • Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas (1943), a 20th Century Fox movie on the guerrilla resistance movement of General Draza Mihailovich in German-occupied Yugoslavia during World War II.
  • Undercover (1943), a British film produced by Ealing Studios, released in the US by Columbia pictures as Underground Guerrillas.
  • The 1965 novel Dune features such warfare as conducted against House Harkonnen by the nomadic Fremen tribe, led by Paul Atreides.
  • Season 3 of Battlestar Galactica which focuses on the guerrilla war against the Cylons by the former citizens of the Twelve Colonies on New Caprica.
  • The Tomorrow series by John Marsden about guerrilla warfare after a fictional invasion and occupation of Australia.
  • Che, Steven Soderbergh's two-part 2008 biopic about Che Guevara starring Benicio del Toro as Che.
  • Red Faction: Guerrilla, a game in which the player is a guerrilla fighting an entrenched enemy.
  • "Guerrilla Radio", a 1999 rock song by Rage Against the Machine.
  • "Red Dawn", a 1984 American war film about a group of high school students become engaged in guerrilla warfare after their country is invaded by Cubans and Russians.

See also

  • Asymmetric warfare
  • Fabian strategy
  • Irregular military
  • List of guerrilla movements
  • List of guerrillas
  • List of revolutions and rebellions

  • Long range reconnaissance patrol
  • Partisan
  • Petty warfare
  • Reagan Doctrine
  • Special forces
  • Unconventional warfare


Further reading

External links

ar: az:Partizan m harib si bn: be: bg: bs:Gerilsko ratovanje br:Gouvrezel ca:Guerrilla cs:Partyz nsk v lka cy:Rhyfela herwfilwrol da:Guerillakrig de:Guerilla el: es:Guerra de guerrillas eo:Gerilo eu:Gerrilla fa: fr:Gu rilla ga:Treallchoga ocht gl:Loita de guerrillas ko: hi: hr:Gerilsko ratovanje id:Gerilya is:Sk ruherna ur it:Guerriglia he: kk: ku:Ger la lv:Partiz nu kar lt:Partizaninis karas hu:Gerilla-hadvisel s mr: mzn: ms:Gerila nl:Guerrilla ja: no:Geriljakrig nn:Gerilja nrm:Dg rrilleux pl:Partyzantka pt:Guerrilha ro:R zboi de gheril ru: si: simple:Guerrilla warfare sk:Partiz nska vojna sl:Gverilsko bojevanje sr: sh:Gerila fi:Sissisota sv:Gerillakrigf ring ta: th: tr:Gerilla sava uk: ur: vi:Chi n tranh du k ch zh:

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