Counter Guerrilla Based Strategies

Since the end of the Second World War in 1945, there have been 39 asymmetric or insurgency based conflicts around the world, four of which are ongoing today. In most of these cases, the insurgents have been victorious over a western or local power. During counterinsurgency operations, there are usually two groups which the factors leading to western counterinsurgency operation failure, these are, political or military reasons. This essay will firstly look at the difference between the terms insurgency and guerrilla.

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Secondly, look at two main counterinsurgency tactics and why for western nation especially, they are hard to counter. Thirdly, look at three other factors that are unique to western nations, that also make it hard to counter guerrilla based strategies. According to Field Manual 3-24, the US Joint Publication on Counterinsurgency Operations, insurgency “…is an internal threat that uses subversion and violence to reach political ends. Conversely, counterinsurgents seek to defeat insurgents and address core grievances to prevent insurgency’s expansion or regeneration. Typically the insurgents will solicit or be offered some type of support from state or non-state actors, which can include transnational terrorists who take advantage of the situation for their own benefit.” Whereas, guerrilla warfare is “…small groups of combatants using 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.” So in short, insurgency is the overall movement or struggle that the group is following, and guerrilla warfare is the tactics that they are using to accomplish their aims. The first of these tactics and the most important is hearts and minds’. This is the tactic used to win over the hearts and minds of the local population, hence the name. For counterinsurgency to even have a chance at being successful this must be the first goal of both the nation’s government and more increasingly over the latter part of the twentieth century, any nation intervening in that country.

Whilst it can be said that the government will have the support of the people once the conflicts is over for protecting them, it is vital to have the local population’s hearts and minds’ for western countries to operate so that they have a willing population to assist them. The Vietnam War exhibited this when for most; the US did have the support of the South Vietnamese locals it was easier for them, but found it almost impossible when they did not.

However, ‘hearts and minds’ of the locals are incredibly volatile and the actions of the counterinsurgents may at times lose them the hearts and minds battle. This is a double-edged sword. As Bart Schuurman stated in his article,AA  “Although FM 3-24 rightly recognises the risk of soldiers using too much force in conflicts where gaining public support is tantamount to victory, there is also a danger that too strong an emphasis on ‘hearts and minds’ will impede on military effectiveness.” Therefore, the military must find that happy medium to ensure that that the locals safety is maintained, but also that the military objectives are also being completed. Explained in FM 3-24, the legitimacy of both the government and any assisting nations, if applicable is paramount as “The primary objective of any COIN [Counterinsurgency] operation is to foster development of effective governance by a legitimate government. Counterinsurgents achieve this objective by undertaking appropriate actions and striving for a balanced application of both military and non-military means as dictated by the situation.” Thus, the ability to retain the support of the local population is necessary to ensure the ultimate goal of the operation succeeds. There are two conflicts after the Vietnam War – where ‘hearts and minds’ was first used – that have shown that if a western power contradicts this, failure overall is more likely, if not, it is severely harder to achieve success, these being the conflict in Somali and then in Afghanistan, both by the US. In Somalia, it was the objective of the US to kill or capture the warlord, Mohammad Aidid rather than to secure Mogadishu and the win over the local population.

Their efforts to kill Aidid left a trail of destruction and casualties, both civilian and insurgents, thus losing all support of the local population, not only for the US, but also for the entire UN operation, even though they were not acting on behalf of the UN. The second conflict is the 2001 ‘war on terror’, specifically in Afghanistan, which is still ongoing. Though the failure win over the ‘hearts and minds’ of the locals is not the absolute case here, it has led the conflict to last for almost a decade so far. The oversight this time is again similar to that of Somalia, the policy of the US is counter-terrorism, and the NATO policy is to rebuild Afghanistan into a functioning state. These two policies contradict each other and thus the mandate of the US is to seek and destroy, like in Somalia, and the mandate of NATO is to rebuild the state of Afghanistan. Though this has not led to failure in the attempts, it has led to a drawn out conflict. So the need for a nation, western or not to gain the ‘hearts and minds’ of the local population is integral to the success of the counterinsurgency operation, without it, it is almost impossible to succeed. The second main tactic that western nations use for counterinsurgency is population control.

This is because insurgents rely upon their ability to blend in with the local population allowing them to move freely and conduct their operations easily. Along with this, many also rely upon the local population for both food and water and recruits. Therefore, the ultimate goal of population control is to isolate the insurgents from the local population. There two usual methods of conducting this, the first of these is to move a force into the insurgent controlled area and push out the insurgents, without harming innocent civilians and maintaining the ‘hearts and minds’ approach.

Once achieved, measures of control need to ensure that the insurgents are restricted from returning, so control of the area is required. The second is the physical control of the local population to prevent access to the insurgents; however, this contradicts the ‘hearts and minds’ approach so is used rarely. Australian forces used the latter of the two during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960), with success. It was a requirement for all to carry an ID card that had both their fingerprint and photo on it. This led to the communists abandoning their original plan and then to continual fights with each other over how to counter this method of population control. “…movement control, widespread interrogations and censuses…” have also been utilised in the past with mixed results. It was David Gaula that commented on this, “…while the population may resent some of these measures, they are necessary in order to protect the people, to gain their trust, and to discern the insurgents and their political agents.” It is only once the local population is free from insurgents can the ‘hearts and minds’ approach work to its full potential. There are three factors; among others that do not relate specifically to a certain tactic, but do have a bearing on the success of counterinsurgency operations by western nations. The first of these factors that leads to the recurring failure in is the use of technology. Western nations are countless times more powerful and wealthy compared to the insurgent force and yet the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan now are “…often armed with little more than Kalashnikovs, simple RPGs, and relatively unsophisticated homemade explosives” are able to withstand the western nation’s operations against them.

According to Jeffery Record, a nation’s “…infatuation with the perfection of military means can cause the user to ignore the political purpose on behalf of which those means are being employed.” So applying this to the western nations, through the perfection of military mean, this being tactics and weapons, they lose track of the reasons why they are there and this leads to a breakdown of structure and a target for the insurgents to attack a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign. The second factor is the western nation’s politicians. Firstly that many of them lack the knowledge or experience of how the military works and this according to Todd Sechser,”…has led to an increase in the support for armed intervention to solve insurgency in whatever from.” Secondly, the politicians believe in the body bag syndrome, that being that the citizens of the western nation will not accept great numbers of casualties in a conflict that they have nothing at stake in or that they understand and believe in. These two situations cause the politicians at first to favour military intervention, but once it has started, they refuse to accept the number of casualties because they fear that the public will not re-elect them because they supported this conflict that cost so many lives. The third factor is the training and doctrine of the western nations themselves.

Since the end of the Second World War, warfare has shifted from conventional to asymmetric warfare, but the western nations have not shifted their doctrine. “A prominent criticism of western armed forces is that they have been trained, structured, and equipped to the obsolete concept of large-scale conventional warfare” which has resulted in two failures for western nations. Firstly for some, the deterrent of nuclear weapons does not work as there is no application for the use of nuclear weapons that can ensure that only insurgents are killed, this is the same with high explosive conventional weapons and even laser guided bombs, there is no way in killing only insurgents. So consequently, troops on the ground have to deal with insurgents that are near local populations so that collateral damage does not harm the work done by the ‘hearts and minds approach’ leading to a greater risk on soldiers’ lives. Post 1945, the spectrum of warfare has shifted from conventional wars to asymmetric conflicts usually with in another country by insurgents using guerrilla tactics. Insurgency is a growing movement and the guerrilla tactics of, raids, explosives, sabotage and ambushes among others are growing in effectiveness against western nations intervening in these conflicts. As such, there have been 39 insurgency-based conflicts in this period and over half of the western power has been defeated even with a clear superiority of the insurgents. This is because of a number of reasons, firstly, to gain the support of the local population, the counterinsurgents have to either take a ‘hearts and minds’ in order to discover locate the insurgents through assistance from the local population, or use population control to discover the identity of the insurgents by placing restrictions on the local population.

These are just two tactics that western nation can use to fight insurgents. These do not work effectively as is liked most of the time, for any action that the local populations perceive as wrong, affects all the work that the counterinsurgents have made regardless of whether the actions was for the protection of the locals. There are also the political and other factors that indirectly lead to the failures as well. These include, the western nation’s obsession with technology and always having the best, regardless if they can use it or not. As well as how the politicians perceive the military and how the politicians expect the military to conduct the counterinsurgency operation and finally how conventional warfare doctrine and training is used.

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Counter Guerrilla Based Strategies. (2017, Jun 26). Retrieved December 6, 2022 , from

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