Graham King

Solvitas perambulum

Irregular warfare


Political violence, terrorism, military operations other than war (MOOTW), low-intensity conflict, people’s war, revolutionary warfare, war of national liberation, guerrilla war, partisan war, warfare in the enemy’s rear, imperial policing or small wars. Whatever it is called, the principal difference between irregular and conventional war is that the latter involves adversaries more or less symmetric in equipment, training and doctrine. In an irregular war, the adversaries are asymmetric in capabilities and the weaker side, usually a sub-state group, attempts to bring about political change by organizing and fighting more effectively than its stronger adversary.

Terrorism is sometimes distinguished from irregular warfare in that irregular warfare is an attempt to bring about political change by force of arms. Terrorism does not result in political change on its own, but is undertaken to provoke a response. Terrorism differs from other forms of violence in that the acts committed are coloured by their political nature. Hijacking, remote bombing and assassination are criminal acts in a civil society, but when conducted in the name of a political cause which generates domestic or international sympathy their legal status generates more debate.

Irregular warfare is characterized by the mobilization of a significant proportion or the population to support the insurgent movement. Coups, by contrast, are not a form or irregular warfare because they are revolutions conducted by a small elite against the government.

Subverting the system

In the words of Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1937, better known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’):

Granted mobility, security (in the form of denying targets to the enemy), time, and doctrine (the idea to convert every subject to friendliness), victory will rest with the insurgents, for the algebraical factors are in the end decisive, and against them perfections of means and spirit struggle quite in vain.

An irregular warfare campaign achieves success by gaining an advantage over its adversaries in the four dimensions of time, space, legitimacy, and support.


Time is the most important element required for the successful conclusion of an insurgent or terrorist campaign. In almost every successful case, campaigns are measured in decades not years. The Tamil Tiger of Eelam have been fighting for political autonomy within Sri Lanka for over 28 years. The Cuban revolution (1957-9) is notable for how fast it achieved success; few states however are as corrupt, inept, and fragile as the Batista regime was in the late 1950s.

Endless struggle without an obvious victory eventually leads to the exhaustion, collapse or withdrawal of the enemy. Time is required for an insurgent force to demonstrate its legitimacy to the local population, which builds internal and external support. Wider popular support allows the insurgents to raise a superior army.


Space allows irregulars to decide where and when to fight. Defenders against sedition cannot be everywhere at once without spreading their forces too thinly and inviting attack from locally superior guerilla forces. An advantage in space (particularly the presence of difficult terrain) will provide insurgents with safe areas and bases from which to consolidate and expand their efforts.

Insurgents can use terrain which favors the lightly armed and mobile against the heavy, slow moving and often road-bound government forces. The Afghan Mujahaddin guerrillas used mountainous terrain against Soviet forces (and are presumably doing the same against American forces at the time I write this). The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces used jungle and swamp areas to shelter them from US and South Vietnamese overwhelming firepower. Chechen guerrillas used buildings and narrow roads in Grozny against Russian forces.


Few insurgent or terrorist campaigns succeed without some form of support. There is only so much equipment they can manufacture or capture. They must look after their casualties and replenish their supplies. They must constantly update their intelligence on the whereabouts and activities of government forces. They have to train new recruits. Support can come from domestic (internal) and international (external) sympathizers.

Internal support is essential to the survival of an uprising. Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (1928-1967) failed to ferment revolt in Bolivia (a struggle in which led him to his death) mainly because the local communist party was hostile to outside interference and the peasants were indifferent to his message. Mao Zedong (1893-1976) described the guerilla as the ‘fish’ that swam in the ‘sea’ of popular support. Without the sea the fish will die.

External support can be material, in the form of money, weapons, training or cross-border sanctuaries. External support can also be moral, in the form of political recognition and lobbying. States usually harbor or support terrorist groups for reasons of political expediency and to suit policy goals, as opposed to genuine sympathy for the cause espoused by the insurgents. External states will support insurgents if they seem them as fighting a proxy war on their behalf; the United States and the Soviet Union fought each other in Afghanistan and Vietnam with one side supporting a proxy. Supporting irregulars allows two powerful states to wage a limited war for limited purposes without the risk of nuclear war or conventional escalation.


The moral superiority of the guerrillas is a cornerstone of all irregular and terrorist theory. Insurgents derive supports from the people and they often cultivate their relationship with them. Mao outlined a ‘code of conduct’ for the guerrillas. Che Guevara insisted that the peasants understand that the guerrillas were as much social reformers as they were protectors of the people.

Peasants who co-operate with insurgents often face harsh retaliation from the government, but this often drives people into the arms of the insurgents by legitimizing their cause. Government brutality also allows insurgents to act as the avengers of the people. Insurgents themselves often behave like government troops towards elements of the local population displaying an unwillingness to help; Mao remarked that acts of terror may be necessary to convince the population of the occupational hazards of working for the government and to show that the government no longer protects them.

The most powerful method of legitimizing a struggle is to link military operations with a justifiable political end. Causes vary but self-determination has been the most pervasive and successful. The UN Charter and the UN High Commission for Human Rights both affirm peoples right of self-determination, which made it difficult for nations such as Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Portugal to retain possession of their overseas colonies in the face of native insurgents claiming the right to self-governance.

Protecting the system

The three dimensions of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism are location, isolation and eradication.


The most important part of any counter-insurgency or counter-terrorism campaign is recognizing that the threat exists. The earlier the government detects and reacts to an insurgency the greater its chance of success. The problem is distinguishing between lawful and unlawful forms of discontent, and reacting at exactly the right time. Restricting guaranteed rights and freedoms every time a bomb is detonated will undermine the legitimacy of the government. Waiting too long to uphold the rule of law, however, will give the insurgents or terrorists the time to build a robust organizational infrastructure that will be much harder to defeat.

Upholding the rule of law is crucial if states are to preserve the legitimacy of their cause and maintain the moral high ground over insurgents or terrorists. Methods to gather intelligence and counter terrorism must be as unobtrusive as possible.

Once an irregular threat has been identified various civil and military agencies must localize the it while co-ordinating their efforts. The must identify safe houses, group members, and sources of supply. This can be a daunting task given the small size, stealth and secrecy of subversive organizations.


Once identified insurgents and terrorists must be isolated from their bases of support. They must be isolated physically from internal support by either moving local population into easier to defend areas (‘strategic hamlets’ in the Vietnam conflict), or more usually by curfews, prohibited areas, aggressive patrolling and ‘cordon and search’ operations. These measure seek to limit the mobility and range of the insurgents. They must also be isolated from their external sources of supply by a combination of diplomatic pressure and military measures (wire barriers, guard houses and patrols were used in the Algeria 1954-62 conflict).

Equally important as physical isolation, the most powerful asset of the insurgents, their political message, must be defused. Widely held grievances that foster a potent source of recruitment and support must be mitigated by the government. The onus if on representatives of the state to prove that they are morally superior to the guerrillas and terrorists and will provide for the needs of their citizens, including responding to the sources of disgruntlement that led to armed insurrection in the first place. The local population’s ‘hearts and minds’ must be won and citizens convinced that the state’s fight is their fight.


Eradication involves the physical destruction of the insurgents or terrorists. The priority here is destroying the insurgents safe havens. The necessary ratio of government forces to irregulars is often cited as 10:1, with particular emphasis on the use of specialized units such as special forces units (which are the closest military unit to an insurgent force, a role in which they often operate behind enemy lines).

Passive ways to eradicate insurgents include promises of amnesty (the South Vietnam ‘Open Arms’ program), cash incentives for weapons and information, and engaging and supporting the moderate factions of the insurgency in an attempt to convince them to start talking and stop fighting.

Strong political will on the part of a government is require to defeat an insurgency. It is a gradual process of attrition that takes a significant investment in time and resources. If the underlying causes of discontent are not also resolved the struggle often resurfaces later in a different form.