For a student of military history, the most astonishing fact about the current international scene is that there isn't a single conflict in which two uniformed militaries are pitted against each other. The last one was a brief clash in 2008 between Russia and Georgia. In our day, the specter of conventional conflict, which has dominated the imagination of the West since the days of the Greek hoplites, has almost been lifted.
But the world is hardly at peace. Algeria fights hostage-takers at a gas plant. France fights Islamist extremists in Mali. Israel fights Hamas. The U.S. and its allies fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. Syria's Bashar al-Assad fights rebels seeking to overthrow him. Colombia fights and negotiates with the FARC. Mexico fights drug gangs. And various African countries fight the Lord's Resistance Army.
These are wars without front lines, without neatly defined starting and end points. They are messy, bloody affairs, in which attackers, typically without uniforms, engage in hit-and-run raids and often target civilians. They are, in short, guerrilla wars, and they are deadly. In Syria alone, more than 60,000 people have died since 2011, according to the United Nations. In Mexico, nearly 50,000 have died in drug violence since 2006. Hundreds of thousands more have perished in Africa's civil wars. The past decade has also seen unprecedented terrorist attacks, ranging from 9/11 to suicide bombings in Iraq. To understand today's world, you have to understand guerrillas and the terrorist movements that are their close cousins.
Unfortunately, our ignorance of guerrilla war runs deep, even as we find ourselves increasingly entangled in such conflicts. Contrary to popular lore, guerrilla warfare wasn't invented by Che Guevara or Mao Zedong, and terrorism long predates the 1972 Munich Olympics. Nor is insurgency, as some have suggested, a distinctively "Oriental" form of warfare, difficult for Westerners to grasp.
Examining guerrilla warfare's long history not only brings to light many compelling, half-forgotten characters; it lays to rest numerous myths and allows us to come to grips with the most pressing national security issue of our time. What follows are lessons that we need to learn—but haven't—from the history of guerrilla war.
1. Guerrilla warfare is not new. Tribal war, pitting one guerrilla force against another, is as old as humankind. A new form of warfare, pitting guerrillas against "conventional" forces, is of only slightly more recent vintage—it arose in Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago. Calling guerrilla warfare "irregular" or "unconventional" has it backward: It is the norm of armed conflict.
Many of the world's current boundaries and forms of government were determined by battles between standing armies and insurgencies. Think of the United Kingdom, which was "united" by the success of the English in defeating centuries-old Scottish and Irish guerrilla movements. The retreat of the British Empire was partly the result of successful armed resistance, by groups ranging from the Irish Republican Army in the 1920s to the Zionists in the 1940s. Earlier still, the war waged by American colonists, some of them fighting as guerrillas, created the U.S., which reached its present borders, in turn, by waging centuries of unremitting warfare against Native American insurgents.
It is hard to think of any country in the world that has avoided the ravages of guerrilla warfare—just as it hard to think of any organized military force that hasn't spent a considerable portion of its energy fighting guerrillas.
2. Guerrilla warfare is the form of conflict universally favored by the weak, not an "Eastern" way of war. Thanks largely to the success of Chinese and Vietnamese Communists in seizing power in the 20th century, there has been a tendency to portray guerrilla tactics as the outgrowth of Sun Tzu and other Chinese philosophers who were supposedly at odds with the conventional tactics espoused by Western sages such as Carl von Clausewitz.
In reality, ancient Chinese and Indian armies were as massive and conventional in their orientation as the Roman legions. It wasn't the Chinese who had a cultural proclivity toward guerrilla warfare but rather their nomadic enemies in Inner Asia. For these tribesmen, as for others ranging from the Sioux to the Pashtuns, irregular warfare was a way of life.
But even tribal peoples such as the Turks, Arabs and Mongols, who employed guerrilla tactics in their rise to power, turned to conventional armies to safeguard their hard-won empires. Their experience suggests that few people have ever chosen guerrilla warfare voluntarily; it is the tactic of last resort for those too weak to create regular armies. Likewise, terrorism is the tactic of last resort for those too weak to create guerrilla forces.
3. Guerrilla warfare has been both underestimated and overestimated. Before 1945, the value of guerrilla campaigns was generally underestimated, leading overconfident officers such as George Armstrong Custer to disaster. Because irregulars refuse to engage in face-to-face battle, they have not gotten the respect they deserve—notwithstanding their consistent ability, ever since the barbarian assaults on Rome, to humble the world's greatest empires.
Since 1945, opinion has swung too far toward considering guerrilla movements invincible. This is largely because of the success enjoyed by a handful of rebels such as Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, and Fidel Castro. But focusing on their exploits distracts from the ignominious end suffered by most insurgents, including Castro's celebrated protégé, Che Guevara, who was killed by Bolivian Rangers in 1967.
In reality, though guerrillas have often been able to fight for years and inflict great losses on their enemies, they have seldom achieved their objectives. Terrorists have been even less successful.
4. Insurgencies have been getting more successful since 1945, but they still lose most of the time. According to a database that I have compiled, out of 443 insurgencies since 1775, insurgents succeeded in 25.2% of the concluded wars while incumbents prevailed in 63.8%. The rest were draws.
This lack of historical success flies in the face of the widespread deification of guerrillas such as Guevara. Since 1945, the win rate for insurgents has indeed gone up, to 39.6%. But counter-insurgency campaigns still won 51.1% of post-1945 wars. And those figures overstate insurgents' odds of success because many rebel groups that are still in the field, such as the Kachin separatists in Myanmar, have scant chance of success. If ongoing uprisings are judged as failures, the win rate for insurgents would go down to 23.2% in the post-1945 period, while the counter-insurgents' winning percentage would rise to 66.1%.
Like most business startups, most insurgent organizations go bust. Yet some groups such as the Provisional IRA and Palestine Liberation Organization, which fail to achieve their ultimate objectives, can still win concessions from the other side.
5. The most important recent development in guerrilla warfare has been the rise of public opinion. What accounts for the fact that guerrillas have been getting more successful since 1945? Much of the explanation can be found in the growing power of public opinion, brought about by the spread of democracy, education, communications technology, mass media and international organizations—all of which have sapped the will of states to engage in protracted counter-insurgencies, especially outside their own territory, and heightened the ability of insurgents to survive even after suffering setbacks.
The term "public opinion" first appeared in print in 1776, which is fitting, since it played a major role in persuading the British to negotiate an end to their conflict with the American colonies. Greek rebels in the 1820s benefited from public opinion in the West, where sympathizers such as Lord Byron rallied their governments to oppose Ottoman abuses. A similar strategy of relying on international support was pursued by Cubans against Spain in the 1890s and Algerians against France in the 1950s; it remains a key Palestinian strategy against Israel.
A spectacular vindication of this approach occurred during the Vietnam War, when the U.S. was defeated not because it had lost on the battlefield but because public opinion had turned against the war. The same thing almost happened in Iraq in 2007, and it may yet happen in Afghanistan.
6. Few counter-insurgency campaigns have ever succeeded by inflicting mass terror—at least in foreign lands. When faced with elusive foes, armies often have resorted to torturing suspects for information, as the U.S. did after 9/11, and inflicting bloody reprisals on civilians, as Mr. Assad's forces are now doing in Syria. Such strategies have worked on occasion (usually when rebels were cut off from outside support), but just as often they have failed.
The armies of the French Revolution provide an example of successful brutality at home: They killed indiscriminately to suppress the revolt in the Vendée region in the 1790s. As one republican general wrote, "I have not a single prisoner to reproach myself with. I exterminated them all." But the French could not match this feat in Haiti, where they used equally brutal measures but could not put down a slave revolt led by the "Black Spartacus," Toussaint L'Ouverture.
Even in the ancient world, when there were no human-rights activists or cable news channels, empires found that pacifying restive populations usually involved carrots as well as sticks. There were considerable benefits to participating in the Pax Romana, which won over subject populations by offering "bread and circuses," roads, aqueducts and (most important) security from roving guerrillas and bandits.
7. "Winning hearts and minds" is often successful as an anti-guerrilla strategy, but it isn't as touchy-feely as commonly supposed. The fact that the U.S. and other liberal democratic states cannot be as brutal as dictatorial regimes—or, more precisely, choose not to be—doesn't mean they cannot succeed in putting down insurgencies. They simply have to do it in a more humane style. In Iraq in 2007-08, Gen. David Petraeus showed how successful a "population-centric" strategy could be, at least in narrow security terms, by sending troops to live in urban areas and by wooing Sunni tribes.
The best-known term for this strategy is "winning hearts and minds"—a phrase popularized by the British Gen. Gerald Templer, who saved Malaya from a communist insurgency in the 1950s. But the term is misleading, since it suggests that a counter-insurgency campaign is trying to win a popularity contest. In reality, the populace will embrace the government only if it is less dangerous to do so than to support the insurgency. That is why successful population-centric policies aim to control the people with a 24/7 deployment of security forces, not to win their love and gratitude by handing out soccer balls, medical supplies and other goodies.
8. Most insurgencies are long-lasting; attempts to win a quick victory backfire. The average insurgency since 1775 has lasted seven years. The figure is even longer for post-1945 insurgencies—nearly 10 years. The length of low-intensity conflicts can be a source of frustration for both sides, but attempts to short-circuit the process usually backfire. The U.S. tried to do just that in the early years of the Vietnam and Iraq wars by using its conventional might to hunt down insurgents in a push for what John Paul Vann, a legendary adviser in Vietnam, decried as "fast, superficial results." It was only when the U.S. gave up hopes of a quick victory that it started to get results.
A particularly seductive version of the "quick win" strategy is to try to eliminate the insurgency's leadership, as the U.S. and Israel regularly try to do with airstrikes against groups such as al Qaeda and Hamas. Such strategies sometimes work. The Romans, for example, stamped out a revolt in Spain by inducing some of the rebels to kill their leader, Viriathus, in 139 B.C.
But there are just as many cases where leaders were eliminated but the movement went on stronger than ever—as Hezbollah did after the loss of its secretary-general in an Israeli airstrike in 1992. Targeting leadership is most effective when integrated into a broader counter-insurgency effort designed to separate the insurgents from the population. If conducted in isolation, such raids are about as effective as mowing the lawn; the organization can usually regenerate itself.
9. Technology has been relatively unimportant in guerrilla war—but that may be changing. All guerrilla and terrorist tactics, from airplane hijacking and suicide bombing to hostage-taking and roadside ambushes, are designed to negate the firepower advantage of conventional forces. In this type of war, technology counts for less than in conventional conflict. Even the possession of nuclear bombs hasn't prevented the Soviet Union and the U.S. from suffering ignominious defeat at guerrilla hands. To the extent that technology has mattered in low-intensity conflicts, it has often been the non-shooting kind. As T.E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") said, "The printing press is the greatest weapon in the armory of the modern commander." A rebel today might substitute "the Internet" for "the printing press," but the essential insight remains.
The role of destructive technology will grow in the future, however, if insurgents get their hands on chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. A terrorist cell the size of a platoon might then have more killing capacity than the entire army of a nonnuclear state like Brazil or Egypt. Cyberweapons also have the potential to wreak havoc.
That is a sobering thought on which to end. It suggests that in the future, guerrilla warfare and terrorism could pose even greater problems for the world's leading powers than they have in the past. And those problems have been substantial, varied and long-lasting.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.