Understanding the Guerrilla



Chris Shepherd

May 2005

Nation Building Seminar

“Analogically, the guerrilla fights the war of the flea, and his military enemy suffers the dog’s disadvantages:  too much to defend; too small, ubiquitous, and agile an enemy to come to grips with.  If the war continues long enough-this is the theory-the dog succumbs to exhaustion and anemia without ever having found anything on which to close his jaws or to rake with his claws.”

The War of the Flea-Robert Taber


I.  Introduction


After winning the two World Wars, the United States rose from regional player to global superpower in a bipolar world.  At the turn of the last century, the U.S. was the last man standing, victorious in the war of ideologies between communism and liberal democracy.  With the possible exception of the Roman Empire, the rise of the U.S. is the story of the greatest, the wealthiest, most powerful, and most technologically advanced civilization ever to exist.

In spite of this superiority, the U.S. consistently loses wars to numerically and technologically inferior guerrilla opponents.  For example, the U.S. was defeated in Vietnam, Somalia, and Lebanon.[1]  More importantly, it is likely that guerrilla style warfare will dominate the conflicts of the twenty-first century.  The past successes of guerrilla tactics against the U.S., its low cost to the guerrilla combined with increasing global poverty, and the futility of facing American armies in conventional warfare, all point to the continued recurrence of guerrilla wars.

Sun Tzu advised that the first step to winning any war is to “know the enemy.”[2]  In an effort to help prevent such defeats in the future this paper is devoted to understanding the guerrilla militarily and psychologically. 

Little practical instruction on guerrilla warfare exists.  Most of the existing literature either addresses guerrilla high command regarding big picture strategy issues or is so sterilely academic that it is of little use to the guerrilla Lieutenant or Captain in urgent need of tactical insight.  There are some exceptions:  Che Guevara’s “Guerrilla Warfare” thoroughly addresses tactics, some of the studies and manuals published by the American military, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” and “The Other Side of the Mountain” a compilation of accounts of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan from the small unit leader’s perspective, and Robert Asprey’s work “War in the Shadows:  The Guerrilla in History,” are a few examples of the most helpful literature.

II. Basic Principles of Guerrilla War

What is guerrilla warfare?  Guerrilla warfare is a type of asymmetric warfare in which a technologically and numerically inferior force uses improvised small-scale tactics of harassment against a conventional military enemy, in coordination with a larger political-military strategy.[3] 

Along with terrorism and revolution, guerrilla war falls under the umbrella of insurgency.  The main difference among the three is the degree of popular support needed to sustain each.[4]  Terrorism requires only a few hard-core adherents.  On the other extreme, revolution requires the most popular support; guerrilla warfare lies in between.[5]  Although insurgency does not necessarily progress one by one through these stages, the continuum is a helpful conceptually.

Far from being a new phenomenon, guerilla warfare is nearly as old as foreign invasion or domestic oppression:  in 512 BCE, the Persian King Darius was defeated when he fielded his well equipped conventional army against the guerrilla Scythians,[6] Alexander the Great was harassed by guerrillas on his way to India, and was forced to adapt his tactics to counter his unorthodox guerrilla enemy,[7] even the U.S. owes a debt to guerrilla warfare.  American guerrillas used the same basic concepts to plague the lumbering British as Spanish guerrillas used against the Romans.

a.      The Guerrilla’s Central Tactics

Most guerrilla battlefield doctrine can be traced to the two inherent characteristics of almost any guerrilla movement.  First, the guerrilla, at least initially, fights from a position of weakness.  Second, the guerrilla’s goal is primarily political rather than military.

i.                    Guerrilla Warfare is the “weapon of the weak”[8]

“The weaker the forces that are at the disposal of the supreme commander, the more appealing the use of cunning becomes.”[9]


Guerrillas fight guerrilla war because they have few other options.  Conducting a traditional conventional war is futile; revolution is not yet possible, and terrorism, for all its utility, is a last resort that could do more harm than good.  Without a congress to appropriate war funds, or access to the latest technology, guerrillas are forced to either transform weakness into strength or become extinct.  This gives birth to an arsenal of guerrilla tactics and weapons characterized by second rate, and sometimes primitive, technology, but abundant cunning and resourcefulness:  rocks instead of real shrapnel, punji sticks instead of land mines, sewers instead of bunkers, the Molotov instead of cruise missiles.  This hunger forces the guerrilla to be cunning while the counter guerilla, because of his abundance of resources, risks martial atrophy.  Night vision, missiles that strike from thousands of miles away with pinpoint accuracy, and numbing firepower go to the wealthy; but the night, the element of surprise, and audacity, are free to the most cunning. 

                        1.  Guerrilla Weakness Forces Reliance on Terrain

In many theaters, few things are cheaper and more readily available than favorable terrain.  Since the earliest wars, favorable terrain has been the friend of the weak.  In 480 B.C. 10,000 Greeks used a narrow mountain pass at Thermopylae to hold off a Persian force of 250,000.[10]  The narrow bottleneck in the mountains negated the Persian advantage in numbers.[11]  In 60 A.D. a desperately outnumbered band of 10,000 Roman soldiers routed a horde of 230,000 rebellious British.  The Roman commander neutralized the Briton’s numerical advantage by picking an elevated cone shaped clearing surrounded by thick forest to turn and face the British horde.[12]  In the same way, jungles, thick forests, narrow access pathways through mountains, and urban buildings offer excellent opportunities for the modern guerrilla. 

In addition to the natural advantages of terrain, guerrilla fighters have intimate knowledge of the land,[13] and because the guerrilla chooses when and where to fight, counter guerrilla forces need not be attacked unless the geography favors an engagement.

2.  Dispersion and Concentration


Because the guerrilla is usually outnumbered and outgunned it should not present a massed target to the counter guerrilla.  Tactically, this characteristic manifests itself in the use of dispersion.  Dispersion is essential to the guerrilla defensively;[14] forcing the counter guerrilla to disperse is important to the guerrilla offensively.  The guerrilla’s survival depends on being dispersed, blending in with the population, making it as difficult as possible for the counter guerrilla to engage him unless it is on the guerrilla’s terms.  Offensively, the guerrilla forces the counter guerrilla to disperse by engaging him throughout the theater, rather than in one region of the theater.[15]

Analogically, the counter guerrilla faced with the task of rooting out a dispersed guerrilla force is in the same predicament as the doctor trying to cure a cancer.  If all the malignant cells could be separated from the healthy cells, the doctor could easily excise them.  Because the malignancy is dispersed throughout the otherwise healthy body of the patient, the doctor must attack the cancer at the expense of healthy surrounding tissue and sometimes at the expense of the patient’s life.

There is a tension between dispersion and concentration.  While dispersal is the safest state for the guerrilla, the essence of warfare is the use of locally superior concentration of power against an opposing force of inferior power.  Guerrilla armies who lack the audacity to swiftly concentrate and take advantage of the inevitable vulnerability, face demoralization and a slow death.[16] 

ii.  The Guerrilla’s Goal is Primarily Political

In T.E. Lawrence’s view, only a third of guerrilla warfare is military. And the nature of even this military aspect “depend[s] fundamentally on the political two-thirds.”[17]  One way to understand Lawrence of Arabia’s theory is to divide a guerilla war into three sub wars.  First, a war attacking the morale of the counter guerilla army and its regime’s political will to fight, second, the war to win the hearts and minds of the people, and finally, the actual contest of arms between guerrilla and counter guerrilla.  In some cases, a fourth sub war is fought, the battle to influence international opinion.[18]  The over arching goals of attacking the counter guerrilla’s political will to fight and winning the people’s support, dictate the conduct of the actual contest of arms.



III.  Is Guerilla War Merely a Phase Before Conventional War?


Almost without exception, all guerrillas and guerrilla theorists agree that modern guerrilla warfare is a temporary means to an ultimate political goal:  independence, a change in government, or the withdrawal of foreign forces.  Whether guerrilla war leads directly to the desired political goal or is merely a transition phase to conventional war is the subject of debate.

At one end of the spectrum, the founding fathers of guerrilla war, Che Guevara (“Che) and Mao Tse-tung (“Mao”), insist that guerrilla war does not lead directly to the desired political change but is rather a stepping-stone to conventional armies, which in turn lead directly to the desired political change.  Mao wrote that insurgency progresses through three stages.  In the first phase the insurgents concentrate primarily on building political strength; military action is limited to surgical politically motivated strikes.[19]  In the second phase the insurgents consolidate, set up bases, and conduct more extensive military operations.[20]  In the final phase, the insurgents employ regular forces in a final conventional offensive against the government.[21]  Che agreed saying, “it is clear that guerrilla warfare is a phase that does not afford in itself opportunities to arrive at complete victory.  It is one of the initial phases of warfare and will develop continuously until the guerrilla army in its steady growth acquires the characteristics of a regular army.”[22]

Mao rose from the faceless anonymity of the peasant caste to become ruler of one of the largest nations in the world; he was arguably the most influential political philosopher of his time.  At one point, Che’s guerrilla force was decimated to 16 guerrillas with 12 weapons between them.[23]  Through iron discipline, determination, and a natural gift for tactics, the doctor, along with Castro, recovered from almost imminent defeat and conquered Cuba. 

Mao and Che are the founding fathers of modern guerrilla theory, but they are not gods and they were not infallible.  Their insistence that guerrilla war must necessarily lead to conventional war in order to achieve a political goal is dead wrong and an anachronism.  At most, guerrilla warfare as a phase on the way to conventional war is the exception rather than the rule.

The Cuban Revolution, in spite of what Che writes in his treatise on guerrilla war, never matured into conventional war.  The only battle of the whole revolution resembling conventional war occurred in December, 1958, over control of the city of Santa Clara in central Cuba.[24]  Soon after the battle, on New Year’s Day, Batista fled Cuba.  His army subsequently disintegrated and his regime folded.  The insurgency never had the opportunity to change into a true conventional war; it merely incorporated conventional tactics into what was otherwise a guerrilla movement.

Mao’s insurgency did progress through his three stages ultimately reaching conventional war.  After many years of guerrilla war, the Communists eventually smashed the Nationalists with conventional tactics culminating in the battle of Hwai-hai.[25]  Still, Mao was a prisoner of his own experience.  He assumed that because his insurgency reached conventional war that it was a necessary progression for all insurgencies.

The reality is that the Chinese progression is an anomaly.  Around and after the years of the Chinese and Cuban revolutions, guerrilla wars that never matured into a full conventional conflict have regularly achieved victory by doing one, all, or a combination of the following:  (1) demoralizing the counter guerrilla army to such an extent that it surrenders en masse, it becomes ineffective militarily, the regime withdraws it, or that the army stages a coup,[26] (2) exhausting the counter guerrilla regime’s will to fight,[27] and (3) inciting revolution or uprising by winning the people’s active support through a coherent political message and an effective dissemination of that message to the intended audience.[28]


a.      A Better Approach:  Conventional Tactics as an Option within Guerrilla War


This paper advocates a third way.  One that is in between the two extremes of, on one hand, guerrilla war as a purgatory on the road to conventional war, and on the other hand, a war of exclusively guerrilla tactics.  Instead, guerrillas should wage a primarily guerrilla war, but should, if profitable given the totality of the circumstances, also incorporate conventional tactics.  This approach discards Che and Mao’s rigid model of a necessary progression through watertight compartments to ultimate conventional war while salvaging some its more fluid features.[29]

I use the North Vietnamese “Tet Offensive” (“Tet”) as a model and starting point to outline the considerations that should be weighed in deciding whether and how to adopt conventional tactics.  The next section sets out a factored analysis for deciding whether conventional tactics should be incorporated into a guerrilla insurgency.

In a subsequent section, this paper applies the analysis in context, examining the Kosovo Liberation Army’s, (“KLA”), decision to adopt conventional tactics in their July 1998 offensive and testing the proposes analysis.

b.      The Tet Offensive-Political Brilliance, Martial Suicide

During the 1968 Tet Offensive, the North Vietnamese temporarily abandoned guerrilla tactics in favor of a conventional offensive.  A force of about 60,000 North Vietnamese struck over 100 South Vietnamese towns.[30]  In some areas, the North Vietnamese held territory for as long as a month before they reverted back to guerrilla tactics.[31]

In a purely military sense, the offensive was an insurgent disaster, and an American victory.  General Vo Nguyen Giap (“Giap”) and his Vietcong (“VC”) had lost over 50,000 men; over twice that number were wounded or taken prisoner.  General Westmoreland (“Westmoreland”) lost only 4,500 U.S. and South Vietnamese Army (“ARVN”) troops, and over 16,000 wounded, well below what Giap had intended to inflict.[32] 

Nevertheless, within a year of Tet, the U.S. had begun to withdraw forces from Vietnam.  Tet has gone down in history as the paradigmatic example of a successful guerrilla offensive.  How could such a disastrous military campaign be such a brilliant success?

Tet was successful because its objectives were political.  On the high end, the Communists hoped it would incite a general uprising in the South; at the very least the offensive was designed to exhaust the American will to fight, both at home, within the army, and within the administration.[33]   Although the uprising never materialized, the Communists did achieve their other objectives.  Shocked and confused Americans watched an enemy their administration had declared hamstrung, carry the fight not only straight into the heart of Saigon, but to the doors of the American embassy.  The administration’s credibility plummeted, and with it, the morale of its soldiers and its citizens’ political will to fight.

c.       Factors to Weigh in Deciding Whether a Guerrilla Movement Should Adopt Conventional Tactics


What lessons and considerations can be extrapolated from Tet’s planning and execution?

The first factors is an assessment of whether the guerrilla force is ready to launch a conventional offensive.  This is a double inquiry.  First, the guerrilla force, before the major conventional offensive, should at least be battle hardened.  Ideally they should have some experience in conventional tactics.  For the Vietnamese, the Americans were the latest in a long line of would-be occupiers.  The generation before had fought the French, and the generation before that, the Chinese.  Fighting was in their blood and it showed on the battlefield.  In addition, the Communists even had some experience with conventional tactics.  Months before Tet, moving in regiments and even divisions, the North Vietnamese launched a conventional offensive against American outposts in central Vietnam.[34] 

Second, history shows that guerrilla forces suffer heavy casualties when they adopt conventional tactics.[35]  A conventional offensive means heavy casualties.  Can guerrilla morale absorb such a loss?  The North Vietnamese lost over half of their attacking force.[36]  Not only were losses heavy, they were concentrated among the leadership.[37]  VC troops were “disenchanted by the realization that, despite their enormous sacrifices during the campaign, they still faced a long struggle ahead.  Official report express alarm at the erosion of morale.”[38]  Only a firmly rooted movement can afford such risk or absorb such loss. 

After assessing the guerrilla force, assess the counter guerrilla force and its sponsor regime.  A conventional strike is most effective when the counter guerrilla army is over-extended.  On the eve of Tet, the VC had fought the Americans to a stalemate.[39]  The Americans were too dispersed to cripple the North Vietnamese, and Giap estimated that the U.S. would not overextend itself any further either in men or resources.[40]  Like one last good chop on a nearly felled tree, the conventional strike, if not the coup de grace, may at least usher in the beginning of the end.

Bold conventional offensives should be timed to capitalize on discontent in the counter guerrilla regime.  The North Vietnamese did this by attacking the administration’s credibility.  Tet was launched on the heels of great optimism from American leaders.  Westmoreland’s assurances to the American public illustrate the administration’s prevailing optimism at the time:  “the enemy’s hopes are bankrupt,” and of, “the beginning of a great defeat for the enemy.”[41]

Assess what effect a conventional offensive will have on the domestic population.  According to General Tran Do, co-architect of the Tet offensive and one of the North’s most celebrated soldiers,[42] the “main objective [was to] spur uprisings throughout the south.”[43]  Communist leadership was convinced that Tet could capitalize on anti-American sentiment in the South by demonstrating not only that the Americans were vulnerable, but also that a Communist victory was a strong possibility.  Specifically, one way in which this was achieved was to make a spectacular attack on the American embassy in downtown Saigon; the one place where the Americans should have been invulnerable.[44]  By hitting the American embassy, cities, and towns, the communists planted the seed of doubt in the minds of the people of South Vietnam:  if American troops were vulnerable in their own embassy, how could they hope to dominate the countryside?

The Communists also hoped to benefit diplomatically from Tet; they predicted that at the very least, confronted with an undeniable show of Communist power and American vulnerability, President Johnson would begin negotiating.[45]  The timing was no coincidence; the Vietnamese used the same tactic against the French when they launched a conventional war timed to improve their leverage at the Geneva Conference.[46]

A general consideration, one that does not fit when applied to Vietnam, but should be noted, is whether the counter guerrilla is purely a domestic regime or purely a foreign invader.  Unlike a domestic counter guerrilla, in most cases involving a foreign invading counter guerrilla, conventional tactics should not be necessary.  Rather, the mere survival of guerrilla forces and their ability to keep the war going for several years, exhausts a foreign invading counter guerrilla regime’s will to fight and is sufficient to achieve its withdrawal.  This is because, in a case where the counter guerrilla is a domestic regime, the counter guerrilla’s investment in the status quo is much stronger than if the counter guerrilla were an invading army.  The domestic counter guerrilla has family, position, influence, and property at stake; he is less likely to ask himself, “Why am I here?”  In the case of defeat, there is no retreat to a home country; exile or melting away are his only options.  Exile means abandoning all hard assets.  Melting away after being on the losing side of a civil war subjects the counter guerilla and his family to the avarice and perfidy that sometimes accompanies the shift of power from the ruling faction to the formerly powerless insurgent.  Such a counter guerrilla finds himself in a position similar to the Muslim army invading the Iberian peninsula in 711 C.E.  After crossing the Gibraltar Tarik Ibn Ziad, a berber from north Africa and the Muslim commander, burned the ships he had used to cross the Strait.  The tactical effect on morale of foreclosing a retreat helped the Moors conquer the Iberian peninsula and remain there for the next 700 years.  Spartacus did something similar.  Just before a showdown with the Romans, he dismounted his horse and killed it on the spot.

Therefore, the political will of a purely domestic counter guerrilla is the more durable and therefore less attractive target.

IV. Guerrilla Doctrine in Action

            A series of three vignettes comprises this section.  The first is an ambush illustrating a KLA guerrilla ambush on a Serbian patrol.

The second scenario is in two parts.  The first part illustrates guerrilla urban combat in Grozny, Chechnya.  The second part illustrates the importance of, and what factors are considered in choosing, a guerrilla base.

a.      The KLA July 1998 Conventional Offensive

July of 1998 was witness to stunning tactical triumphs in the Kosovar war for independence.  The deliberate shift of tactics from purely guerrilla to conventional war seemed to be a smashing success:  KLA guerrillas attacked and seized the town of Rahovec, about 37 miles southwest of Prishtina, resulting in  KLA control of about 40% of Kosovo.[47]  The occupation of Rahovec was an unprecedented type of victory in the Kosovar bid for independence: “[t]he KLA had never mounted such a large-scale attack so deep into the province, nor had it displayed such sophisticated weaponry, discipline and military skills.”[48]

            In response, the Serbs launched what appears to be a pre-planned three-pronged counter-offensive.  The first prong concentrated on the town of Malisheve, a key KLA stronghold, the second thrust focused on the road between Prishtina and Prizren 40 miles south, and the third thrust attacked western Kosovo along the highway lying parallel to the Albanian border.[49] 

            b.  The Battle of the Bridge

            The KLA command turns to Lieutenant Mustafa and a force of ten guerrillas.[50]  Following Mao’s recommendation to allow small units leeway to act independently and retain the initiative,[51] the orders are no more specific than to blunt the Serbian counter offensive.  Mustafa decides to plan an ambush on the Millosheve Bridge spanning the Lap River.  The 47 meter long bridge lies on the main road about 10 kilometers northwest of Prishtina on the road to Mitrovica.

The Lieutenant chooses this site for several reasons. 







i.  Strategic Reasons for Choosing the Milosevo Bridge as an Ambush Site


The site is important because it links Pristina with Serbia and Mitrovica and also with Peja.  (See Map 1 in Appendix).  A broader look at the Serbian offensive shows that the first Serb thrust against Malisheve and the second Serb thrust against the road between Prishtina and Prizren, take the form of an octopus, with Prishtina as the hub.  As Serb forces leave Prishtina to conduct these offensives, Serbia will naturally have to replenish forces in Prishtina to help quell civil disorder raging in that city; the road to Prishtina becomes the octopus’s third leg.  Milosevo bridge is the fastest and most direct route to Prishtina for a force coming from the northwest; it is the only way across the Lap river for several kilometers east or west.  The only other bridge over the Lap river lies more than 15 kilometers northeast of Milosevo Bridge.  An enemy force, coming from the northwest, must either cross one of these two bridges or waste valuable time building its own bridge.

Mao advised the guerilla to avoid focusing all guerrilla activity on one theater of the conflict and instead “make war everywhere [in the theater]”, in order to cause “dispersal of [the counter guerrilla’s] forces and dissipation of his strength.”[52]  The Serb offensive concentrates primarily on the Drenica Valley making the Milosevo bridge area the Serb rear. Focusing guerrilla attacks on this site forces the Serbs to open another front and relieves pressure on the Drenica Valley.  In addition, there has been relatively little KLA activity here[53] so Serb soldiers should be more susceptible to surprise. 



ii.  Tactical Reasons for Choosing the Milosevo Bridge Site

The Milosevo bridge site is tactically a good candidate for an ambush for several reasons.  (See Map 2 and Map 3).  First, the Lap River’s lie creates a slight salient on the northern shore which is favorable to defenders of the south shore of the river because “it allows friendly fires from a wide stretch of the near shore to concentrate against a small area on the far shore and limits the length of enemy shore that must be cleared to eliminate direct fire and observation.”[54]  Although the salient is somewhat less pronounced than would be ideal, this terrain feature still offers some opportunity for flanking fires. 

In addition, the site offers some defensible terrain.  To the northeast is a forest, and to the southwest an abandoned farmhouse surrounded by a forest.  Filling the areas in between is tall grass.  Hills lie 7.5 kilometers to the east on either side of the Lap River.

iii.  Battle Preparations


With the site chosen, Lieutenant Mustafa turns his attention to the battle preparations.  The first priority is to contact informants.  The Lieutenant has contacts on the road between Mitrovica and Prishtina who observe Serb movement and inform the Lieutenant through the use of ordinary cell phones.  They report that squads of about 15-20 well armed paramilitary Interior Ministry Special Police, (“MUP”), travel the road to Prishtina almost every other day, sometimes at night; the contacts also warn that lately, heavy armor and infantry have traveled the road.[55]  The contact furthest north agrees to inform Mustafa the next time such a police patrol leaves Mitrovica during the evening.[56]

The Lieutenant’s ideal ambush accomplishes two things, (1) to retreat with zero casualties and (2) to inflict some damage on the patrol in order to instill fear and break morale.  Such an objective obviously necessitates a sound plan of retreat.[57]  Of his ten men, four grew up in the immediate vicinity, and four more know the area and terrain intimately.[58]  In contrast, few Serbs live in Kosovo, most of the invading police and soldiers come from the north from Serbia or Montenegro.[59]  The lieutenant, himself a native, confers with his men and notes the locations of safe houses and other rough areas where the MUP cannot follow.  Houses are important for retreat, and retreat is the sine qua non of a sound guerrilla raid.  According to Che, anything not within a 15 mile radius is less than ideal.  The lieutenant therefore designates any safe houses outside of this radius as secondary retreats.

iv.  Plan of Attack

On July 22, 9:00 p.m., 2 days after receiving his orders from his Zone Commander, the Lieutenant’s northern contact reports a Serbian police force of four vehicles, heading south towards Milsoevo Bridge.  The force is composed of one rubber tired armor vehicles with an exposed crew manning a mounted machine gun, two trucks and one jeep.  The Lieutenant details a spotter with a two way radio and a cell phone about 2 kilometers north of the bridge with the task of transmitting details about the attacking force’s vehicles and weapons.[60]  If the convoy has grown to anything more than 10 vehicles, or if it contains any heavy tanks, or too many vehicular machine guns, the ambush can be called off; anything with five or fewer lightly armed police cars is an ideal target for this ambush.[61] 

Mustafa’s force is armed with grenades, AK 47’s, one crew served machine gun and two sniper rifles.[62]  The Lieutenant never operates without at least one crew-served machine gun.[63]  The Lieutenant instructs his men to tape two Kalashnikov clips together, once empty, the first clip is to be removed, the assembly quickly switched 180 degrees, and the other clip plugged in the weapon.[64]  The instructions are quickly to fire the first clip on automatic, and hold the ammunition in the second clip in reserve for single-shot firing.  The force also has two trucks.

The general outline of Lieutenant Mustafa’s ambush is inspired by a tactic used by Che Guevara and Fidel Castro with much success in the war against the Batista regime in Cuba.  It is called the Minuet, an analogy to the dance.  Che ordered his men to “encircle an enemy position, an advancing column, for example; [] from the four points of the compass, with five or six men in each place, far enough away to avoid being encircled themselves; the fight is started at any one of the points, and the army moves toward it; the guerrilla band then retreats, always maintaining visual contact, and initiates its attack from another point. The army will repeat its action and the guerrilla band, the same.”[65]

The Lieutenant operates under more restricted circumstances than Che and will therefore use a modified version of his Minuet.  He has only ten men, eleven including himself.  More importantly, Che had the jungles of the Sierra Miestra, the Lieutenant has only a small building, some forests, tall grass, and hills to cover his retreat.  Instead of placing guerrillas on all four points of the compass, the Lieutenant splits his force and arms evenly in two.  Five of his troops will set up in the Eastern Forest while the Lieutenant and the remaining four men occupy the abandoned farmhouse and the Western Forest. 

The danger of such a tactic in the current ambush is the chance of friendly fire; the benefits include increased lethality through crossing fire.  In this case however, the chance of friendly fire is especially great because the two zones with defensible terrain are at directly opposite corners from each other.  The Lieutenant is careful to mitigate against the danger of friendly fire.  He gives precise instructions.  The eastern group is not to fire on the Serb patrol until it crosses the river and is well past the abandoned farm, at which point it unloads everything it has on the Serbian rear:  grenades, mortars, sniper fire, and machine gun fire.  Once the group has expended a good portion of its ammunition, leaving only what is necessary for self-defense, they are to immediately and permanently retreat east towards the designated safe houses and the rolling hills.  At this point, assuming the eastern force has maintained cover, the Serb force will do one of two things, either flee towards Prishtina, or give chase to the eastern force.  If they flee, the western force attacks the routed patrol’s rear.  If the Serbs give chase, the Serbian front is now their rear and the western force is in an excellent position to attack the patrol and then immediately retreat.

The whole action is to last only five to ten minutes regardless of the degree of success achieved because of the presence of Serbian stations in the vicinity which can quickly send reinforcements to the beleaguered patrol.

b.  Should the KLA Have Adopted Conventional Tactics into their Guerrilla War?


The ambush is a success.  Three of the Serbian force is killed, Mustafa’s force retreats with no dead or wounded.

The successful ambush is temporarily overshadowed by recent KLA setbacks, the territorial gains have evaporated, Rahovec is now in Serbian hands, access to the rear base in Albania is threatened.[66]  Over four hundred fighters are killed and 300 hundred are missing, hundreds of thousands are made refugees by the overwhelming firepower of the Serb counteroffensive.[67]

As stated above, the July Offensive, culminating in the capture of Rahovec, was the result of a deliberate shift in tactics. As one KLA commander, Hasim Thaqi, also known as Snake, explained, “This is the first step taken to intensify the quality of the war from warfare against rural areas to the stage of moving against urban areas.”[68]  The commander went on to explain that the strategy was now to take over other cities and eventually to capture the provincial capital, Prishtina.[69]

Were these short-term losses outweighed by the offensive’s long-term gains?  Should the KLA have incorporated conventional tactics into their guerrilla war?

In short, the offensive’s long-term benefits vindicated a decision that in the short-term was condemned as a blunder.[70]  It convinced the local population that the KLA was real and powerful.  For the Vietnamese, Tet’s diplomatic element, inducing negotiations, was ancillary to their main objective, sparking a general South Vietnamese uprising.  In contrast, the KLA’s objective was primarily the diplomatic element, persuading the international community to intervene, and secondarily to win the support of the Kosovar people.

Like Tet, the KLA’s conventional offensive is a prime example of how successful guerrilla war can incorporate conventional tactics without necessarily morphing into conventional war.  How do the factors the Communists used in executing Tet compare with those the KLA used in executing their July Offensive?  Finding commonalities between the two is the starting point in developing a working framework for analyzing when conventional tactics should be adopted in guerrilla war.

i.  Assessment of KLA Guerilla Strength weighed in favor of adopting a conventional offensive


One reason Tet succeeded was because of the qualities of the guerrillas themselves:  their years of resistance to foreign counter guerrillas and their experience with conventional tactics.  The KLA on the other hand had no previous experience with conventional tactics.  Still, like the Viet Cong, the KLA, at least the cadre if not its rank and file, had been fighting the Serbs for nearly a decade at the time of the July Offensive  and were necessarily well acquainted with armed resistance.  What its rank and file lacked in military experience, it made up for in courage and enthusiasm.  Perhaps most importantly in assessing the moral element of the Kosovar guerrillas was that, unlike the Serbs, the KLA fought for independence, and in defense of their homes, instead of some bloodless political abstraction like the domino theory or the recovery of a centuries old battlefield.[71]  At the time of the July Offensive, the independence movement had come a long way from its initial core of a few hundred armed villagers.  Fifteen thousand KLA fighters, still seething to avenge the massacre months before of a Kosovar patriot,[72] were eager to engage the Serbs full on.  Surely, if there was ever a time when KLA morale could recover from a fierce counter offensive, this was it.

ii.  An Assessment of the Serbian Army Weighed in Favor of Incorporating a Conventional Offensive


Unlike Tet, there is little evidence to show that the July Offensive struck at a time when Serb forces were physically stretched thin.[73]  Like Tet, however, the July offensive did coincide with growing disgust with the war to crush Kosovar independence not only among the Serbian people but also among the Serbian army.  The words of one draft-age college student illustrate the increasingly dominant mood among Serbian youth around the time of the offensive:  “I don’t like the Albanian people.  We are two different religions, two different nations…  But this is not a fight in the interest of the Serbian people, it’s a fight in the interest of Slobodan Milosevic.”[74]  The Serbian military’s morale and will to fight showed similar deterioration.  On the eve of the July Offensive, hundreds of Serbian and Montenegrin policemen and soldiers abandoned their posts in Kosovo and returned home to Serbia.[75]

iii.  The Time was Right for a Conventional Offensive to Consolidate Power


The architects of Tet, considered the effect on the domestic population, the South Vietnamese, their most important objective.[76]  They hoped to spark a general uprising.  In a different but no less important way, the effect on the people of Kosovo was probably foremost in the minds of the July Offensive’s architects. 

First, the offensive helped consolidate power in KLA hands.  For most of Kosovo’s recent history, two philosophies have contended for the people’s endorsement.  One on hand, the pacifists, led by Ibrahim Rugova; in the other camp, the KLA, obviously the more hawkish of the two.

Pacifism.  A preposterous ideology suitable only in an ideal world, against an army of empty-headed dreamers, or in a functioning democracy.[77]  Since men, “wretched creatures that they are,”[78] are driven by the “dread of punishment”[79] much more than reason, compassion, or critical thought, pacifism in the face of a ruthless enemy must die out as surely as natural selection would cull a toothless lion or a blind hawk. 

Indeed, the people of Kosovo instinctively knew as much.  The first seed of doubt regarding pacifism was planted in 1995, when the Kosovo issue’s exclusion from the Dayton accords “made it clear that Rugova’s passivity would not win freedom for Kosovar Alabanians.”[80]  More immediately, at the time of the offensive “the drum roll towards war [over the past three months, were making] the credibility of Rugova obsolete.”[81]

To come full circle to the original point, the time was perfect for a spectacular show of force and strength, something, above all, defiant, to appeal to the people’s overwhelming desire for independence.

Second, although the KLA leadership probably did not intend it to, conventional offensives can win the people’s support in a second, indirect way.  A classic guerrilla tactic, described in Mao’s treatise on guerrilla war, is too win the battle over the hearts of the people indirectly by provoking the counter guerilla into adopting harsh counter measures, thereby driving the population deeper into the insurgent camp.[82]  The Serbs did not disappoint.  In the wake of the July Offensive, the Serbs retaliated with “a new display of brutality by Serbian police and Yugoslav army troops against civilians.”[83]   Even before the July Offensive, the KLA was already enjoying the benefits of exactly the phenomenon that Mao described as a result of previous harsh Serbian counter measures, particularly the March 1998 Jashari Massacre:  “By killing women and children and making a martyr of KLA leader Adem Jashari, Milosevic fueld the rapid growth of the armed ethnic Albanian independence movement.”[84]



iv.  The Conventional Offensive Helped to win the Support of the international community


Finally, the Vietnamese timed Tet with an eye towards influencing the international community.[85]  While the Vietnamese merely wanted to increase their bargaining posture for the Geneva Convention, the KLA desired, and achieved, something much more ambitious:  attracting the intervention of the international community.  That they succeeded, where so many other similarly situated insurgencies have failed, is a testament to their political vision and is no less worthy of examination than the Tet offensive’s effect on the American will to fight. 

The July Offensive was instrumental in persuading the international community to intervene.  One reason is that it gave the international press something real to document, to take pictures of and write about.  The adoption of conventional tactics moved the KLA away from guerrilla tactics into the conventional realm.  This made the Kosovo revolution look more like the celebrated western wars of independence while simultaneously making it harder to label as terrorism.  In short, the July Offensive “produced the first whiffs of victory, as international intervention became inevitable.”[86]

c.  Chechen Guerrillas Battle Russian Counter Guerrillas

Movies are made in Hollywood because all settings are available:  urban, rural, desert, and ocean.  For the same reason, Chechnya is an excellent theater to study guerrilla tactics.  Northern Chechnya is mostly plains, central Chechnya has the capital city of Grozny, and southern Chechnya is mountainous.  The following two part series illustrates the tactics used by a Chechen force defending against a Russian invasion.  Like the Kosovo scenario above, this section, as much as possible, stays true to the geographic, political and military situation of the second Russian invasion of Chechnya during the turn of the century.

i.  Russians Invade Northern Chechnya

The Russian advance sweeps through the flat plains of northern Chechnya with relative ease.  The guerrillas, assessing the unfavorable terrain and the traditionally less martial nature of the northern Chechens withdraw to the heights surrounding Grozny.[87]  By the beginning of December, Russian forces had surrounded the city.[88]


            ii.  Battle for Grozny, Urban Guerrilla Warfare


Analysts predict that by the year 2010, 75% of the world’s population will live in urban areas.[89]  Urban combat is the inevitable future of war.  As General Krulak of the United States Marine Corps remarked, “The future of war is not the son of Desert Storm, but the step child of Chechnya.”[90]

Soon after Russian troops surrounded the city they forced Grozny to endure a punishing day and night barrage of artillery fire.  The imminent Russian invasion of Grozny is the latest in a series of battles over the city.  As recently as January 1995, the Russians drove the Chechens from the city only to have the Chechens retake the city in August 1996.

As the capital, Grozny is a coveted prize for both sides.  Grozny, or almost any capital city, is important by virtue of its role as the cultural, commercial, political, and industrial center of the country.[91]  The capture of such a center may “yield decisive psychological advantages that frequently determine the success or failure of the larger conflict.”[92]

The first Russian invasion was a total disaster for the Russians.  By intercepting unsecured communications, the Chechen guerrillas had real time information about Russian movement and intentions; they even had devices that changed or imitated the voices of Russian commanders.[93]  During the first invasion the Russians tried to take Grozny with a massive show of brute force; the long files of tanks sent deep into the city were easy prey for the Chechen guerrillas.  By showering the first and last tanks in line with gasoline bombs, they trapped the tanks in Grozny’s narrow avenues.[94]  The Russians suffered enormous casualties but eventually took Grozny; only to see it retaken by Chechen forces that had regrouped in the Southern Mountains[95] and waited for the right time to strike.

The Russians were stronger and smarter in the 1999 invasion than they were during the 1994-1996 war.  From the top down, they were determined not to make the same mistakes.  Prime Minister Putin and Russian high command convinced Russian society that they would not be safe until the Chechen threat was completely eliminated; their claims were backed up by terrorist attacks within Russia proper.[96]  The size of the Russian force was double the average number used in the first war with Chechnya.[97]  President Yeltsin promised not to repeat the frequent moratoriums and ceasefires that weighed down morale in the first war, dissemination of information about to the media is highly restricted; the administration’s views dominate public opinion.[98]  In this invasion, all troops, from the bottom up, were able to receive and send encrypted messages.[99] 

Worst of all for the guerrillas, the Russians assault on Grozny relied heavily on artillery fire and air power instead of tanks and infantry as they did in the 1994 invasion.[100]  They had little concern for collateral damage.[101] 

Nevertheless, the Chechens were determined to make Grozny a tough nut to crack. Like the Russians, the Chechens take advantage of relatively peaceful years between the first and latest Russian invasion to solidify defenses.  Underground structures that were used in the 1994 invasion are upgraded.  The structures served the Chechens well as rudimentary shelters in the first war.  The second time around they were more sophisticated, acting as bomb shelters, rest areas, command centers, hospitals, and supply routes.[102]  They improved communications; the Chechen’s 3,000 guerrillas in Grozny[103] communicated with the latest Motorola Iridium satellite phones.[104] 

During the two months preceding the Russian encirclement, the Chechens have prepared the city in earnest for the coming invasion.[105]  Snipers occupied the rooftops controlling strategically important intersections and narrow access ways.[106]  Snipers also occupied ditches under concrete slabs that could be raised and lowered with car jacks when Russians approach; this tactic made it hard for Russians to know what was an enemy position and what was rubble.[107]  Trenches and sewers allowed the guerrillas to move safely and quickly withdraw, move from house to house, and create interconnecting fire positions.[108]  The sewers and tunnels proved to be a huge asset for the guerrillas even during the heavy artillery pounding.[109]  Tracers[110] were not used because they reveal Chechen positions.

Captain Shamil[111] develops a plan to counter the Russian invasion of Grozny


Captain Shamil, a 26-year-old Chechen, is assigned to the defense of Grozny.  In the past, the Captain has shown a sharp intelligence and quick grasp of the nature of guerrilla war.  With Chechen leadership decimated, Shamil rises quickly through the ranks. 

The Captain is given command of two twenty-man groups.  The first group is known as the central group.[112]  This group carries small arms, two radio transceivers, two pairs of binoculars, two compasses, two maps of Grozny, and ammunition made up of 300 7.62 mm rounds, 500-600 5.45 mm rounds, 4 RPG-18 Mukhas, and 1,000 7.62mm PK machine gun rounds.[113]

The first priority is to select the site of the ambush.  Guerrilla forces generally retain the initiative, and Chechen fighters are no exception; they fight when and where they want, or they do not engage at all.  The Captain chooses Minutka Square as his preferred site to engage the enemy.[114]  (See Map 4 and Map 5).

Tactically the site is a good candidate for ambush for several reasons.  The tallest building in Grozny, a 12-story structure, lies on the Square’s southern end.[115]  From it, snipers command almost all of the surrounding area for kilometers.  In addition, five and nine story buildings ring the square on all sides.[116]  Furthermore, the square is a hub, located at the intersection of three intersecting streets.  Like the four center squares of a chessboard, the square controls the most direct routes to several key point in the city.  (See Map 6). The Russians, at least initially, will probably want to seize these strategic heights intact.[117]

Furthermore, the buildings around Minutka Square are connected with underground tunnels.[118]  This allows the Captain and his force the flexibility to retreat instead without engaging if an approaching force is too strong.  In case the guerrillas do decide to engage a suitably small Russian force, the tunnels give the guerrillas the ability to hit and run, essential to negating the Russian artillery advantage.

The Captain recognizes some vulnerability in the Russian offensive and the general outlines of a plan develop around exploiting these weaknesses.  The Russian offensive against Grozny seems to progress through the following stages:  the city is divided into 15 sectors, reconnaissance is carried out in each one, followed by artillery attacks on resistance strong points.  Then supported by sappers, mortar, and snipers, Russian special-forces and loyalist militia advance and take control of key areas.[119]  Shamil’s plan focuses on trapping one of the reconnaissance groups.

The Captain places one his main twenty-man group in building #3, placing three snipers on its roof.  He divides up the other twenty-man force into three groups of about seven each.  One group of about five is to be placed in the basement of each unboarded building, with two snipers on the roof of each building.[120]  (See Map 5).

In the event a suitably small Russian reconnaissance force approaches the square the Captain predicts it will do one of two things: either make brief contact with the square, passing through or only approaching it, or attempt to take advantage of the strategic heights by setting up in one of the buildings; it is after all a reconnaissance force, and from these buildings one can see most of Grozny.  In the event the force does not stop, at least the rooftop snipers can have the benefit of the most commanding positions in the city from which to inflict some damage on the force.  Ideally however, the plan is to allow them to seize some specially selected buildings around the square, rather than defend them outright.  To funnel the Russians into specific buildings, he orders the first stories of all but two buildings, #1 and #2, are boarded up.[121]  This makes it harder for Russian troops to enter the buildings, forcing them to climb ladders or break in doorways to enter, making them easy targets for Chechen snipers.[122]  Their ideal objective is to ambush Russian troops that set up inside their building by drawing them into their underground tunnels.  This tactic negates the Russian artillery advantage by hugging the Russian forces, ruling out the possibility that they will call down Russian artillery for fear of fratricide. 

Once Russians flee the ambush, they are on open ground and the Captain can unleash his 20 man force in three groups in a standard Chechen attack formation:  one central force of Rocket Propelled Grenade (“RPG”), and automatic riflemen and two similar flanking groups.[123]  An RPG gunner initiates fire after which automatic riflemen and RPG gunners fire steadily; acting together, the three groups catch the Russians in a crossfire.[124]  In the meantime, those guerrillas who had been waiting in basements fire from street level fire stations if they can avoid fratricide.  By temporarily ceding control of the square and lulling a small reconnaissance force into entering, the guerrillas avoid the Russian tactic whereby “ground troops probed deep enough to draw Chechen fire and thus expose the enemy’s firing positions.  The [Russian] troops then retreat to safety, calling in artillery or air strikes to destroy the enemy.”[125] 

In any event, the attack is not to last more than five minutes, so as not to be caught in a counter attack of Russian reinforcements; the Chechens have preplanned underground tunnel routes leading away from the battle scene to relative safety.[126]  However, the groups are interconnected and depend on each other.  None of the three forces is to retreat if one of the forces is trapped.  To do otherwise would be bad for morale.



iii.  Chechen Guerrillas Regroup, The Importance of Bases


February 2000-After the largest and fiercest urban warfare operation since the end of World War II, Russian control of Grozny after is almost complete.

But it is a pyrrhic victory.  By its own admission, over 3,000 Russian soldiers were killed or wounded in the battle for the city alone,[127] in reality the number is much higher.[128]  The artless Russian offensive was harder on non-combatants than guerrillas, reducing much of the city to rubble.[129] The Russians have fallen into Mao’s trap of adopting harsh counter measures; angry civilians openly curse and attack Russian commanders.[130]

Nor can the battle for Grozny be called a defeat for the Chechen guerrillas; it is more of a strategic withdrawal.  Chechnya’s objective was to detail a guerrilla force to harass the invading Russians, not to hold the city at all costs.  Unlike conventional war, territorial loss is not necessarily a military defeat, nor, conversely, is territorial gain a military victory. 

Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov, decides to abandon the urban resistance and withdraw the remaining 3,000 guerrillas before they are encircled.  They turn to Shamil, now a Major after his performance in the defense of Grozny, for advice on the next move.




1.      Should the Chechens Establish a Base?


The threshold question to be answered by Major Shamil is whether a base is feasible.  If possible, a base can be very useful logistically both as a refuge and staging point.  The Major, by now an almost slavish adherent of classical guerrilla theory, consults Che and Mao’s treatises in order to glean the essentials of base making.  Combining Che and Mao yield two considerations in deciding whether a base is desirable at this stage in the war.

The first factor to consider is the strength of the guerilla force.  Can the guerrilla force afford a territorial investment?  Che says that, “At the beginning, the relative weakness of the guerrilla fighters is such that they should only endeavor to pay attention to the terrain in order to become acquainted with the surroundings, establish connections with the population and fortify the places which eventually will be converted into bases.[131] 

But this is hardly what Che calls “the beginning.”  The Chechens have been fighting Russia for centuries.  In 1785 the Chechens fought an armed struggle for independence, Leo Tolstoy fought here as a young army officer in the 1850’s.  Just recently from 1994-1996, Chechen guerrillas beat back a furious Russian invasion.  Chechnya fought a classic guerrilla war and sent the Russians home after negotiating a “humiliating” peace deal.[132]  The current war goes back to 1999, Chechnya’s latest bid for independence.

But more importantly in terms of Guevarian thought for deciding whether a base is feasible, is the strength of the existing Chechen guerrilla force.  There are 3,000 Chechen guerrillas withdrawing from Grozny, and 7,000 more nationwide, waiting to shore up a possible base.[133]  Chechen guerrillas are relatively wealthy, having received financial aid from Muslim countries and Chechens living abroad.  Finally, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chechen guerrillas have no shortage of sophisticated arms.

The second consideration in deciding whether to establish a base comes from Mao; the strength of the counter guerrilla presence.  The weaker and more dispersed the counter guerrilla presence the more likely is that a base should be established.  Mao said, “Because Japanese military power is inadequate, much of the territory her armies have overrun is without sufficient garrison troops. Under such circumstances the primary functions of guerrillas are three: […] second, to establish bases[.]” 

For Mao, this factor weighed in favor of establishing a base.  China was a vast country, Japan was a small one.  For the Major, the situation is reversed, Chechnya is a small country and Russia a vast one.  Russia has 80,000 troops in Chechnya.[134] 

But Mao also compared a guerrilla force’s need for a base with an individual's need for buttocks:  "If an individual didn't have buttocks, he would have to run around or stand around all the time. His legs would get tired and collapse under him, and he would fall down."[135]  This unqualified endorsement of the virtues of bases, combined with the strength of Chechen forces, persuades the Major that its time to base guerrilla operations.

2.      Where Should the Chechens Establish a Base?


Looking for precedent to inform this critical decision, the Major recalls the situation of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.  After three failed attempts to set up mountain bases that were easily destroyed by the Nicaraguan regime, the Sandinistas fractured into three groups:  Maoists, Marxists, and terceristas, or third-way advocates. 

The Maoists again tried to set up a mountain base.  They were again easily defeated by Nicaraguan counter guerrillas.  The Marxists attempted to set up an urban base.  It too failed.  The terceristas survived only because they based abroad.[136]

Given the decision to withdraw from Grozny, the Marxist urban base model is not an option.  The Major narrows it down to two choices, mountain or abroad.  During the last war against Russia, Chechens successfully established a base in the Southern Mountains.  Using it as a staging point they bled the Russian troops and eventually retook Grozny.  Can it work again? 

A fox (or a bear) is not caught in the same snare twice, perhaps its time to change tactics.  The Sandinista success with bases abroad is inspiring.  The Viet Cong used bases in Laos and Cambodia with great success, Nicaraguan Contras used Honduras,[137] Castro based in Mexico where he organized and trained his troops in safety before invading Cuba.  If the Chechens had a base in a neighboring country close enough to be near the action, it could train, rest, recruit, organize, and conduct operations without fear of attack by the enemy.  This could provide a “psychological boost to the guerrillas,”[138] while simultaneously frustrating the enemy.  The Major can choose from Dagestan to the east, Georgia to the south, and Ingushetia to the west. 

Applying classical guerrilla theory shows that there are strong arguments in favor of both theaters.  The best option is to establish both a guerrilla base in Chechnya’s Southern Mountains and a minor base just south of the border in Georgia.


a. Friendliness of Inhabitants to the Cause


Mao said, “[A] point essential in the establishment of bases is the co-operation that must exist between the armed guerrilla bands and the people.”[139]

Mao’s advice greatly favors establishing a base in Chechnya’s Southern Mountains.  Almost all Chechens support the idea of independence from Russia, but the inhabitants of southern Chechnya are traditionally more militant than the inhabitants of northern Chechnya.[140]  They will be an ideal source of “unbeatable intelligence network, a constant source of manpower, and resources in the form of food and labor.”[141]

This consideration of the friendliness of local inhabitants to the cause is one of the factors explaining why the Maoist Sandinista attempt to set up a mountain base failed and the tercerista Sandinista base abroad succeeded.  The Maoists were white middle-class urban Communists.[142]  The indigenous inhabitants of the mountain region did not trust these Sandinistas much less sympathize with their cause.[143]  Instead, they actively informed on the mountain guerrillas for the regime.  On the other hand the tercerista base abroad was successful because Costa Rica at least tolerated the tercerista presence.[144]

In Ingushetia, the Chechen situation would be the reverse of the Sandinista situation; the support of inhabitants abroad would be weaker than support of the inhabitants at home.  Ingushetia is a republic within the Russian Federation and Russians have built up troops along Ingushetia’s border with Chechnya.  Furthermore, Ingushetians are ethnically different.  Its population, under the guidance of their president, has successfully resisted the Chechen stripe of Muslim extremism.[145]  Finally, voted in a referendum to separate from Chechnya several years ago.

The Major automatically rules out a base in Dagestan to the east.  In August 1999, Chechen warlords invaded that Republic and were repulsed by Russian troops partly because of the lack of local support.[146]  In September 4, 1999, Chechen insurgents detonated a bomb in Dagestan’s capital, a tactic more becoming of terrorists than guerrillas and more likely to alienate the locals than endear them.

Georgia is left by process of elimination.  The Georgian relationship with Russia is thorny at best.  Russia blames Chechen guerrilla strength on Georgia’s tolerance of Chechen fighters within its borders.  Russia repeatedly requested Georgia to clear out the light Chechen presence in Georgia on the border with Chechnya; Georgia repeatedly refused because it does not want to be pulled into the war with Chechnya.[147]  The area, home for several years to Georgia’s own Chechen population, contains a tolerant if not supportive local population.[148]  On the other hand, Georgia, pressured by Russian and the West, may change tack.  The security of the base cannot depend on the vicissitudes of Georgian policy.

b.  Proximity


The second factor to consider is proximity.  The guerrillas have to balance the antagonistic interests of security and striking distance.[149]  Che advises his readers that attacks should not be carried out more than six hours from a base.[150]  This means that bases should not be more than 12-15 miles from the areas that are to be attacked.

This factor weighs in favor of establishing a base in Chechnya’s Southern Mountains.  In fact, the proximity of a Southern Mountain base is perfect for harassing the area in between Grozny and the Southern Mountains.  A Southern Mountain base would be about 25 miles from Grozny.  This means that according to Che the guerrillas can attack anywhere between the mountains and within 10 miles of Grozny’s outskirts.  However, even if the guerrilla base were closer, they would not want to attack areas less than 10 miles from the outskirts of Grozny because roving Russian forces outside of the city would be dangerously close to reinforcements from inside the city.

A possible Georgian base in the Pankisi gorge is just under 50 miles from Grozny, much farther than Che’s ideal and too distant to be effective tactically.

c. Terrain


Both a Southern Mountain base and a Georgian base offer excellent terrain; mountains cut by rivers.

Mao considered the benefits of placing a base in mountains self-evident.[151] Among the three types of bases, mountain, plains, river/lake/bay, he considered the mountain base to be the best, and river bases second best.[152] 

The Southern Mountains are cut by the Argun and Vedeno gorges, narrow access ways into the heart of the mountains, penetrating almost all of the way into Georgia.  The Georgian mountains are cut by the Pansiki gorge. 

These gorges are tactically useful for several reasons.  Like the four center squares of a chessboard, controlling these gorges means controlling lines of supply and infiltration between the plains of Chechnya and neighboring Georgia.  Their combination of narrow access pathways and high ground make excellent ambush sites for any Russian troops traveling through them, they are a supply of fresh water, the rivers provide mobility, and in case of a last resort can be used to cross over Georgia and eventually into sympathetic Turkey,[153] to fight another day.  Finally, since the collapse of the Soviet Union there has been a glut of arms and munitions in neighboring countries.  During the last war with Russia, the river’s proximity to Azerbaijan and Georgia made it an excellent way to transport these arms from foreign countries.[154]

After much reflection and analysis the Major decides that the Southern Mountains of Chechnya is the ideal site for a guerrilla base.  The Georgian site is not as good, but it does have some advantages.  The Major decides to set up a rear supply and medical base in Georgia.

V.  Predictions

In antiquity, Sparta’s martial reputation was a force multiplier.  The mere sight of the lambda on the Spartan shield was enough to send the invaded into a rout.  The story of the Spartan mother calling out to her son to “come back with your shield or on it”[155] survives to this very day as a stirring example of tenacity and courage.

In the same way, it is absolutely critical for a counter guerrilla facing a guerrilla whose goal is political exhaustion of the counter guerrilla’s regime, to cultivate a reputation for staying power.  The message sent to the world by the U.S. in the conduct of the wars in Somalia and Lebanon was that bloodying the nose of the Americans was sufficient to send them home packing.  This cut and run mentality had, and continues to have, lethal implications for future wars. 

Concentrating on this recent past, the analysts say we are in our decline.  If they are right, the current war is doomed to failure.  Are the analysts right?  How will we win this war?

In the introduction, this paper asks the question of how an inferior guerrilla force could consistently defeat a superior conventional force.  The introduction also says that in order to answer this question we had to first “know the enemy.”  After having examined the guerrilla, we are now in a better position to answer this question. 

As stated above,[156] a guerrilla attacks the counter guerrilla for dominance in four theaters or sub wars:  (1) the fight over the peoples’ hearts (2) counter guerrilla morale, both within the army and within the regime, (3) international opinion and (4) the actual contest of arms.  This theme pervades this study of guerrilla war at almost every paragraph.

How is the U.S. faring in these sub wars both globally and in Iraq?  There is good reason for optimism. 

The American people provide the unshakable foundation for dominating all four of these sub wars. 

In a government based on popular sovereignty, war is always a tricky business.  Democracies are notoriously distasteful of wars with less than just causes.  In such cases, it is inevitable that the fanatic guerrilla will smash the reluctant counter guerrilla.  Only the most legitimate motivations for war provide the solid base of popular support with which failure is impossible, and without which, failure is inevitable.

This war is different from past wars waged in defense of some sterile political abstraction cooked up by the intelligentsia or an ambitious politician.  This war, among other things, is driven by a popular desire for revenge, and this overwhelming need will only increase exponentially with the inevitable future attacks.

The Iraqi people are also showing promise.  The birthplace of law is emerging from decades of lawlessness into a historic age; it will go down in history as the first true democracy in the Middle East.  It is true that Iraqi forces performed poorly in its earliest days, but this is a problem of all young armies.  American armies also fared very badly during the early days of the Revolution.  Interviews with American soldiers on the ground in Iraq tell the story of an increasingly confident and courageous Iraqi army.

And what of the insurgents themselves?  It is almost as if they have never bothered to study past successful insurgencies.  They have no political platform, no charismatic leadership, and no viable plan.  In short they are completely uninterested in winning the hearts of the Iraqi people.  To take on example, instead of using Mao’s tactic of provoking the counter guerilla into adopting harsh counter measures, they “cut out the middle man” and purposely use terrible amounts of power indiscriminately on Iraqi civilians.[157]  Last week, they launched a mortar attack on the College of Engineering!  Truly a nefarious and nihilist insurgency.[158]




[1] The U.S. is not the only superpower to lose to guerrilla opponents; France in Vietnam, and Russia in Afghanistan and Chechnya, are other examples.

[2] Sun Tzu, The Art of War 18 (Delacorte Press 1983).

[3] Guerrilla war is “a type of warfare characterized by irregular forces fighting small-scale, limited actions, generally in conjunction with a larger political-military strategy, against orthodox forces.”  Robert B. Asprey, War in the Shadows:  The Guerrilla in History xi (Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1975). 

[4] Henry H. Perritt, Jr., A Work on the Kosovo Liberation Army, Ch. 6, p. 2-3, April 12, 2005.

[5] Id.

[6] A Commentary on Darius, CH. 6 Darius in the East (December 4, 2003), available at http://www.herodotuswebsite.co.uk/darius.htm. 

[7] Alexander the Great faced “a people’s war, a war of mounted guerrillas who, when he advanced would suddenly appear in his rear, […] and when pursued vanished into the Turkoman steppes.”   J.F.C. Fuller, The Generalship of Alexander the Great 67 (Eyre & Spottiswoode 1958). 

[8] Huntington called guerrilla warfare the “weapon of the weak.”  Samuel P. Huntington, in Franklin M. Osanka, Modern Guerrilla Warfare:  Fighting Communist Guerrilla Movements xvi (The Free Press 1962). The “weapon of the underdog” may be more accurate.

[9] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War Chapter 9.

[10] Decisive Battles:  The Battle of Thermopylae  (History Channel television broadcast)

[11] The Greeks eventually lost the battle but they managed to kill 10-20 Persians for every dead Greek.  In addition they achieved their primary objective of delaying the Persian invasion of the Greek peninsula.  Id.

[12] Decisive Battles:  The Defeat of Queen Boudicca (History Channel television broadcast).

[13] For example, “Almost every KLA soldier fought in or near his own village and near his own family.” Perritt, supra note 4, at 36.

[14] Military historian Lidell-Hart analogizes the guerrilla tactic of dispersion and concentration to quicksilver, "Dispersion is an essential condition of survival and success on the guerrilla side, which must never present a target and thus can only operate in minute particles, though these may momentarily coagulate like globules of quick-silver to overwhelm some weakly guarded objective."  B.H. Liddell-Hart, Strategy 365 (Praeger, 1967).

[15] “[Ho Chi Minh] spread American forces out by engaging them throughout South Vietnam.”  Colonel Thomas X. Hammes, USMC, The Sling and the Stone 64 (Zenith Press 2004).

[16] Specifically, the North Vietnamese Army (“NVA”) incorporated this principle into a tactic known as “one slow, four quick.”  The first step in this operation was “rapid movement, still in dispersed groups, to the battle area.”  Second, a “sudden concentration on the field itself would deliver a violent and unexpected blow at the decisive point, covered by ambush parties on the flanks to confuse and delay enemy relief attempts.”  After a quick scan of the battlefield to collect weapons and casualties there would be “an equally rapid withdrawal to a know rendezvous point.”  Paddy Griffith, Forward into Battle 161 (XXX)  The use of such tactic stretches back as far to the guerrilla tactics used by the Goths and Huns of the fourth and fifth centuries who “mounted on light, fast ponies, they traveled in small groups which rapidly concentrated to attack, then quickly dispersed again to meet by pre-arranged plan.”  Asprey, supra note 4, at 38.

[17] John Baylis, Ken Booth, John Garnett & Phil Williams, Contemporary Strategy: Theories and Policies 133 (Croom Helm)..

[18] Two examples are the North Vietnamese and the Kosovo Liberation Army (“KLA”).


[19] Hammes, supra note 16 at 52.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Che Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare 13 (University of Nebraska Press 1998).

[23] Supra note 4, at 951.

[24] Asprey, supra note 4, 948-976.

[25] “the battle of Hwai-hai, fought by Chiang’s last real army and involving over a million troops, lasted sixty five days before final Nationalist defeat, which cost Chiang sixty-six divisions surrendered or destroyed.” Id. at 464.

[26] See e.g.: The Cuban Revolution, The first Russian invasion of Chechnya 1994-1996, the seven coups launched by the Philippine army from 1986-1991, the 1974 Portuguese coup by army officers disgruntled by Portugal’s occupation of Mozambique, the 1976 coup in Brazil.

[27] See e.g.:  America in Viet-Nam, America in Somalia, American in Lebanon, the French Indochinese disaster, the French agreement to Algerian independence in July 1962, Russia in Afghanistan, the 1958 British decision that Cyprus was not “worth the foreseeable cost of retention.”  Id. at 652.

[28] Che said that “It is not necessary to wait until all conditions for making revolution exist; the insurrection can create them.”  Che at 7.  See e.g. the bloodless Philippine Revolution of 1986, the 1949 Dutch withdrawal from Indonesia, the Cuban Revolution, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, who, in their final 1979 offensive, sparked popular uprisings in six major cities.  Ham.es, supra note 16, at 86.

The people should not be neglected.  For the virtuous guerrilla, they are the very reason for the insurgency; for the unscrupulous guerrilla, the people “provide an unbeatable intelligence network, a constant source of manpower, and resources in the form of food and labor.”  Id. at 47.

Guerrillas can win the battle over the people in two ways:  directly and indirectly.  Directly, guerrillas should stand for something politically.  Stated differently, “A coherent, applicable message is central to [guerrilla warfare].”  Id. at 79.  This is one way in which guerrilla warfare differs from terrorism, and it is why guerrilla bands need intellectuals.

Once the platform is set, the guerrilla should see that it is effectively disseminated to the target audience. Mao recommended distributing pamphlets; he even recommended that guerrilla units possess printing presses.  Mao Tse Tung, On Guerrilla Warfare, available at http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/works/1937/guerrilla-warfare/.  Indirectly, the guerrilla wins the people’s support by frustrating the counter guerrilla regime into adopting harsh counter measures:  “Thus the enemy will never be able to stop fighting.  In order to subdue the occupied territory, the enemy will have to become increasingly severe and oppressive.”  Id.  For the Iraqi application of this last point see http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/meast/12/01/cnna.blitzer.baer.iraq/.


[29] For example, Mao said that the three phases are not necessarily linear, that different parts of the country could be in different phases, and that regression to earlier phases is to be expected.  Hammes, supra note 16, at 62.

[30] Asprey, supra note 4, 897

[31] Id.

[32] Clash of Warriors:  Westmoreland v. Giap (The History Channel television broadcast).

[33] Stanley Karnow, Vietnam-A History-The First Complete Account of Vietnam at War 537 (Penguin Books 1984).

[34] Id. at 538.

[35] For example, Tet and the KLA July 1998 conventional offensive.

[36] Diane Yancey, The Vietnam War 120 (Greenhaven Press 2000).

[37] Id. at 120

[38] Karnow, supra note 34, at 544.

[39] Id. at 536.

[40] Id.

[41] Id. at 539.

[42] Id. at 400.

[43] Id. at 523.  This did not materialize, but it was a consideration.

[44] Id. at 536-537.

[45] Id.

[46] Id. at 540.

[47] Mike O’Connor, Rebels Claim First Capture of Kosovo City New York Times (July 20, 1998), available at http://www.nwc.navy.mil/balkans/bal72026.htm.

[48] Adam Brown, Heavy Fighting Resumes in Kosovo Associated Press (July 20, 1998), available at http://www.nwc.navy.mil/balkans/bal72026.htm.

[49] CAPT. R.C. Rigazio, Balkans Chronology-Executive Summary, Volume 1, Number 10, at http://www.nwc.navy.mil/balkans/bal72026.htm.

[50] While the preceding paragraphs depict reality, Lieutenant Mustafa is a fictional character.

[51] Mao, supra note 28.

[52] Mao, supra note 28.

[53] KLA commander Adem Jashari noticed the same thing and urged his soldiers to exploit the situation.

[54] FM 90-13 River Crossing Operations, Chapter 2. A salient is a projecting angle.

[55] “The Yugoslav army sent heavy weapons and infantry on Sunday to help police drive guerrillas from Orahovac in one of the biggest battles of the five-month-old conflict. Fresh Yugoslav army troops were sent in to relieve units coming from the area.” Balkans Chronology, at http://www.nwc.navy.mil/balkans/bal72026.htm.

[56] Interview with Ajet Potera, Brigade Commander, Lap Zone, by Henry H. Perritt, Jr. and Andrew T. Strong (March 16 2005).

[57] Id.

[58] Perritt, supra note 5, at 36.

[59] “The Serbs are fighting a colonial war in Kosovo. Few live there any more."  Balkans Chronology,at http://www.nwc.navy.mil/balkans/SUM80309.htm

[60] Ajet, supra note 57.

[61] Id.

[62] Id.

[63] Id.

[64] Id.

[65] Che, supra note 23, at 19.  He continues “Thus, successively, it is possible to keep an enemy column immobilized, forcing it to expend large quantities of ammunition and weakening the morale of its troops without incurring great dangers.”

[66] Reuters, Tanks Outpace Talks in Kosovo Conflict (July 26, 1998) available at, http://www.nwc.navy.mil/balkans/bal72026.htm.

[67] Reuters,  Yugoslav Army, Police Battle Kosovo Guerrillas (July 19, 1998) available at, http://www.nwc.navy.mil/balkans/bal72026.htm.

[68] O’Connor, supra note 48.

[69] Id.

[70] Balkans Chronology, at http://www.nwc.navy.mil/balkans/bal72026.htm.

[71] Kosovo is the site where the Serbs lost the battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389 to the Ottoman Empire.

[72]The  march 1998 Jashari Massacre.

[73] One possible reason could be logistical differences between the two wars, Kosovo being in Serbia’s backyard while Vietnam lay on the other side of the earth. 

[74] Balkans Chronology, at http://www.nwc.navy.mil/balkans/bal72026.htm.

[75] Justin Brown, Some Serbs See Kosovo Slipping Baltimore Sun (July 21, 1998), available at http://www.nwc.navy.mil/balkans/bal72026.htm.

[76] Karnow, supra note 34, at 537.

[77] The uselessness of pacifism in the face of a vicious enemy is a regrettable reality.  Not only is peace more profitable than war, but violence is something more suitable to animals.  Some may protest and point to successful non-violent movements in the past, for example, Ghandi’s movement in India, or the liberation of the eastern block.  But these movements succeeded in spite of their disavowal of violence not because of it.  The sun was setting on the British Empire and the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse.  Furthermore, successful non-violent insurgencies are the exception rather than the rule.  For every successful non-violent insurgency there are dozens of successful violent insurgencies.  Therefore, even assuming it is possible for an insurgency to succeed without violence, it is not probable.  A leader, responsible for the welfare of his people, should deal in probabilities, not possibilities.  

[78] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince 76 (Everyman’s Library 1922).

[79] Id.

[80] Perritt, supra note 5, at 1.

[81] Balkans Chronology, at http://www.nwc.navy.mil/balkans/bal72026.htm.

[82] This point is given the full treatment it deserves in footnote X.

[83] Mao, supra note 28.

[84] Brown, supra note 76.

[85] Karnow, supra note 34, at 538.

[86] Perritt, supra note 5, at 2.

[87] Stepehn Mulvey, Can Russia Win the Chechen War?  (January 10, 2000) available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/597594.stm.

[88] Timothy L. Thomas, Grozny 2000:  Urban Combat Lessons Learned, available at http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/fmsopubs/issues/grozny2000/grozny2000.htm.

[89] Military Operations on Urban Terrain [MOUT] available at http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/mout.htm.

[90] Arthur L. Speyer, The Two Sides of Grozny, p. 61, available at http://www.rand.org/publications/CF/CF162/CF162.appc.pdf.

[91] Supra note 90.

[92] Id.

[93] Thomas, supra note 89.

[94] Speyer, supra note 91.

[95] The Caucasus.  I refer to them as the Southern Mountains throughout this scenario for clarity sake.

[96] Thomas, supra note 89.

[97] Speyer, supra note 91, at 68.

[98] Thomas, supra note 89.

[99] Speyer, supra note 91, at 68.

[100] Olga Oliker, Russia’s Chechen Wars:  1994-2000 41-42 (Rand 2001).

[101] Thomas, supra note 89.

[102] Oliker, supra note 101, at 66.

[103] Speyer, supra note 91, at 68

[104] They also have cell phones, however these are of limited use as the Russians have destroyed cellular relay stations in Chechnya.  Thomas, supra note 89.

[105] Thomas, supra at 89.

[106] Id.

[107] Id.

[108] Id.

[109] Oliker, supra note 101, at 66.

[110] Tracers are special bullets that contain a phosphorous base that burns brightly during flight thereby increasing accuracy.

[111] Shamil is the name of a long dead Chechen Hero.  The Captain is a fictional character.  The preceding and subsequent paragraphs depict reality

[112] Oliker, supra note 101, at 67.

[113] Oliker, supra note 101, at 66.

[114] In mid-December about 2,000 Chechen guerillas actually carried out a successful ambush against Russian forces in Minutka Square killing 100 soldiers and  destroying several tanks.  Phase Three-November 1999-February 2000, available at http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/chechnya2-6.htm.

[115] Oliker, supra note 101, at 49.

[116] Oliker, supra note 101, at 48.

[117] Id.  By the end of the war, the square is totally flattened.  (See Map 7).

[118] Id. at 71.

[119] Id. at 44.

[120] “In one of the [buildings in Minutka Square] the 15 Russian soldiers who had held it realized that the rebel troops remained in the basement.  They were ambushed when they tried to capture the rebels by pursuing them into an underground tunnel.”  Id. at 49.

[121] Speyer, supra note 91, at 70.

[122] Thomas, supra note 89.

[123] Oliker, supra note 101, at 68.

[124] Id.

[125] Id. at 46.

[126] Oliker, supra note 101, at 71.

[127] Russian to Cut Chechnya Force, available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/630949.stm.

[128] In the Chechen war, Russian authorities under-reported federal losses.  Eve Conant, Voice of America (March 6, 2000), available at http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/news/2000/03/000306-chechen1.htm.

[129] Thomas, supra note 89.

[130] Orla Guerin, Russians Move to the Mountains, (February 11, 2000), available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/638931.stm.


[131] Che, supra note 23, at 154.

[132] (March 16, 2000), available at, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/482323.stm.

[133] Jeff Thomas, The Chechen War After the Fall of Grozny (February 14, 2000), available at http://www.csis.org/ruseura/000214.pdf.

[134] Id.

[135] Douglas S. Blaufarb, The Counterinsurgency Era: U.S. Doctrine and Performance 1950 to the Present 4 (The Free Press 1977).

[136] Hammes, supra note 16, at 81.

[137] Major Johnie Gombo, USMC, Understanding Guerrilla Warfare, available at http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/1990/GJ.htm.

[138] Id.

[139] Mao, supra  note 28.

[140] I forget the precise reference.

[141] Hammes, supra note 16, at 86.

[142] Id. at 78.

[143] Id.

[144] David Nolan, From FOCO to Insurrection:  Sandinista Strategies of Revolution Air University Review (July-August 1986), available at http://www.airpower.au.af.mil/airchronicles/aureview/1986/jul-aug/nolan.html.

[145] Georgi Derlugian, From Afghanistan to Ingushtia (October 2001), available at http://www.csis.org/ruseura/ponars/policymemos/pm_0203.pdf.

[146]The Second Chechen War, available at http://www.historyguy.com/chechen_war_two.html.

[147] Jean-Christophe Peuch, Chechnya:  Armed Foray in Ingushetia Adds Fuel to Russian Georgian Dispute (September 27, 2002), available at http://wwwnotes.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/0/1ea1899ea7d3755dc1256c44005bf002?OpenDocument.

[148] http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/culture/articles/eav120602.shtml

[149] The guerrillas would be perfectly safe in Paris, but could do nothing militarily from that distance.

[150] Che, supra note 23, at 27.

[151] Mao, supra note 28.

[152] Mao, supra note 28.

[153] Chris Morris, Turkey Succors Wounded Chechens (February 2, 2000), available at  http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/628272.stm.

[154] Stephen Mulvey, How the Rebels Keep Fighting (March 20, 2000), available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/610345.stm.

[155] Meaning that he should win or die.  A fleeing soldier throws his shield away to run faster.  Dead soldiers are carried home on their shields.

[156] See p. 6-7.

[157] James Bennet, The Mystery of the Insurgency, New York Times.

[158] Id.  Bennet calls the insurgency nihilist also, however I uses the adjective to describe the insurgency long before I read the article.