Thomas A. Marks, Sebastian L.v. Gorka and Robert Sharp
As the famous Prussian general once warned, the first priority is to ascertain what type of conflict is to be fought. Carl von Clausewitz’s seminal writings laid the foundation of thinking for modern warfare de ned around the needs of the nascent Westphalian nation state. His prioritization, his “wonderful trinity,” and his recognition that war is but “politics by other means” have served both strategist and statesman well during the conventional wars of the post-Napoleonic age.
The Cold War that followed would make the separation of policy and war more diffcult as the advent of nuclear weapons blurred the line between military necessity and political reality. With the end of the Cold War-and especially since 9/11-we have been faced with a still more complex world.
From Afghanistan to Mexico, irregular threats have replaced the classic nation-on-nation or bloc-on- bloc confrontations we had grown comfortable with. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Colombia catapulted the United States and its allies back to irregular efforts spanning the gamut from the high tempo operations inherent to counterinsurgency and counterterrorism to the seemingly more sedate but often no less intense commitments required for whole-of-government stability operations and nationbuilding.
Ironically, despite efforts to push forward in our “full spectrum” capabilities, we remain hampered by legacy attitudes of compartmentalization and linear thinking. Even more problematic and disturbing is our willingness to engage in operations and deploy forces without fully grappling with the implications of the shift to population-centric warfare as prominently assessed by General Sir Rupert Smith in The Utility of Force.1 As a result, our leaders can place the military in harm’s way without knowing what it is they should achieve and whether it is in fact achievable through military means. This constitutes a denial of strategic thought and results in a subsequent disjunction between the operational level of force employment and the national interests of the country.
In Iraq, the vacuum thus created has been partially filled by enterprising officers-but in ways that simply reinforce Clausewitz’s warning. In Afghanistan, exploration into the nature of the challenge by the political leadership appears driven as much by a desperate search for a “silver bullet” as an actual estimate of the situation, yet it also drives home the rectitude of the Clausewitzian dictum. By contrast, in Colombia, correct local assessment served as the basis for a refusal to acquiesce to American efforts to foster strategic distortion during the Clinton administration, leading to a turning point in the conflict.
More significantly it can be shown that Colombian success came only after the rejection of the flawed American model of war. As stated flatly by General Carlos Ospina, a key field commander who rose to become head of the Colombian military, “We were using American doctrine, where we conceptualized the continuum as ‘war’ and ‘other than war.’ This was absolutely incorrect. There is only war, with the enemy fielding different mixes of the elements of war.”
Ironically, Ospina’s understanding of strategy was developed-as he freely observes-during his year in the National War College at the National Defense University. It was there, he states, that he learned the critical importance of the ends-ways-means approach, with all of these contingent on correct assessment of the armed challenge. It is this assessment that is missing from our growing library of new models devoted to irregular warfare (IW). Our “ways” hang alone as if but one side in a football game, with lip service paid to the nature of “the other team.” Yet how else can we begin to assess necessary “means,” much less “ways,” to achieve “ends”-as we have recently been reminded in Afghanistan’
In the College of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University, we propose an analytical approach derived from social movement theorists but incorporating and modifying the work of particular scholars who were acting as forces in the field long before irregular warfare leaped to new prominence.
The approach, as will be seen, is universal, in the sense that it identi es a particular threat as a product of a particular contextual moment. Strategic choice is the driver for any organization (social science’s meso level), but bigger picture context (macro level) and individual particulars (micro level) influence threat emergence in a predictable fashion. It is this reality that our IW students/fellows must address, regardless of the precise label given the IW challenge.
Search for an IW Approach
Use of the term irregular warfare within the U.S. Government has been driven by the threat conceptualization contained in the Department of Defense 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review Report, wherein threats are seen as posed by four “challenges”: irregular, catastrophic, disruptive, and traditional. Terrorism and insurgency fall within the irregular challenge, as do stability operations and whole-of-government stabilization and reconstruction.3 In some offices of government, it has been forgotten that IW must be capable of covering a full range of threats and offer a full range of solution tools (ways and means). Whether to use the “police approach” or the “military approach” is a false choice.
As the premier world power, Washington must be able to do it all. Within America, for instance, we must be able to ferret out al Qaeda operatives (police approach). Yet simultaneously, we must be able to “take down” an entire country harboring terrorists (for example, Afghanistan)-and then conduct counterinsurgency within it, with stability operations and stabilization and reconstruction ongoing. Likewise, the United States must address both radical left wing and Islamist challenges.
America is thus fighting terrorism both as a tactic that is a part of insurgency, and as a more stand-alone entity that was once called “pure terrorism.”4 Put another way, these are, respectively, terrorism as a method and terrorism as a logic. They require different approaches, one meeting terror used as a tool in support of a larger armed political campaign, and the other making terror itself a conflation of ends, ways, and means.
The current battlespace was conceptualized early in the struggle as global insurgency. The present effort to adopt new terminology, which is confusing and at times quite dysfunctional, has not altered the essential rectitude of the approach because al Qaeda is a neo-Guevarist insurgent enterprise, and the various theaters of the globe see us engaging its local allies and manifestations (hence the use of the term AQAM-Al Qaeda and Associated Movements).5 Simultaneously, in return for their assistance, our partners and allies draw from us in meeting their own terrorist or insurgent threats.
This requires commitment to multiple battles using a variety of responses. Foreign internal defense, including stability operations, may dominate in one theater, full-blown counter-insurgency in another, counterterrorism in still another, issues of the criminal-terrorist nexus in yet another, and stabilization and reconstruction in still another. AQAM may well be, as is often stated, the primary threat, but this does not mean the others, whether FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) or the international gunrunner Viktor Bout (presently awaiting extradition in Bangkok), can be ignored.
How to proceed’ General Saiyud Kerdphol, who led a successful effort against the Communist Party of Thailand, correctly observed: “Two things were obvious: there was nothing worse than to fight the wrong way, and the key is the people. We had to ask ourselves, why do the people have a problem, why are they taking up arms'”6 It would be hard to find a more operational statement of Clausewitz’s famous dictum.
Specifically, then, as the legendary Sir Robert Thompson put it: “Get in place that which is correct. Get in place that which is sustainable. Play for the breaks.”7 Of these, the critical element is to assess the essence of the problem so it may be countered. This involves, as Saiyud states, going to the roots of the conflict so that the symptom, the armed threat, can be cut off from its life force.
It All Begins with Social Movements
Prior to 9/11, studies of terrorism had arrived at a point where it was fairly well understood how terrorism came about. Insurgency was considered in a separate body of work. The former studies on terrorism were applicable to insurgency if taken to their logical end, which they seldom were.
Though there were numerous explanations in pre-9/11 terrorism research, ranging from psychological to political to economic, the best analysis stemmed from the study of social movements. Scholars such as Michel Wieviorka and Donatella Della Porta built upon social movement theory to explain terrorism.8 The framework they advanced is fairly simple in concept.
Social movements emerge for particular reasons. Rodney Stark-long recognized as being in the forefront of his particular specialty, emerging religions, and the author of an excellent basic text-has done as fine a job as any in outlining the specifics. By definition, he observes, a social movement seeks change.
The American civil rights movement sought change; the upheaval throughout the Muslim world today seeks change. Such demand for redress of grievances is largely peaceful (even if accompanied by sharp elbows). Yet change is not always possible to the extent and in the form desired by all participants in the given social movement. Consequently, there will be splinters. Most often, these take the form of breakaway groups that continue to participate peacefully in the quest for change. But some splinters turn violent.
The first requirement in threat evolution is that “some members of the society must share a grievance which they want to correct, either by changing society or by preventing a change they oppose.” Grievances can take the form of hopes and aspirations, and so might well be bundled as “unfulfilled needs.”10 Grievances need not be reasonable to be felt; they can be unreasonable yet still drive people forward. Grievances do not have to be legitimate, either. What matters is what is in the minds of the people. What analysts should know is where to look for grievances that are going to lead to trouble.
Entire careers have been built around such explorations. What is necessary is to engage the vast body of literature that explains why people do the things they do. Why, for instance, did Salem have witch trials’ Why are there “cargo cults” in the Pacific islands’
Why did the last resistance of the American Plains Indians take the form of a millennial cult (the Ghost Dance)’ Why did millennial and messianic cults sweep the Plains as the Indian way of life ended’ Why did a messiah appear among the Hmong during and after the Vietnam War’ Why did the logging town of Wenatchee in the eastern Cascades repeat the Salem phenomenon in 1994-1995, arresting at least 60 adults on 29,726 charges of child sex abuse involving 43 children and sending 16 individuals to prison, only to have all charges proven false’ Why the witch crazes of Europe “way back then”‘
Why the Renaissance, for that matter’ Or why the Protestant Reformation’ When dealing with the individual level (the “who”), it is imperative to follow the lead of James C. Scott in his seminal “Revolution in the Revolution: Peasants and Commissars.”12 As Scott points out, one must distinguish between leaders, who invariably seek big-picture solutions, and followers, who generally are after more immediate redress of grievances. Indeed, wanting to change things is not terrorism-or even violence. By definition, social movements are the “basically peaceful” complex waves of demand for change. The demand of labor for a greater say in the economic shape of things was a social movement. The desire for a greater say in the way Christianity should be considered-the Reformation-was a social movement. Clearly, Islam would not have spread so rapidly were there not underlying grievances in society that needed to be addressed. The same can be said of the turmoil in the Islamic world today.
Splintering Drives the Process
Any such movement cannot hope to satisfy all who get swept up in the message of change. The specific political opportunity structure (POS) will have a great deal to do with whether grievances, hopes, and aspirations can be “mediated” (that is, dealt with). POS concerns the inter-action of the movement with the government. How a government reacts-either negatively or positively-plays a significant role in how the group evolves. Regardless, any large-scale movement will splinter.
As splintering occurs, strategic choice becomes an issue. How should we approach those who break away from peaceful demands’ What course of action should we take’ What next’ What about our initial intentions’
The study of religion is useful because new religions have historically grown out of what was before-that is, they have normally been sects-somewhat the same yet different. Christianity began as a sect of Judaism. The early fundamental debate within the religion was whether one had to be first Jewish and then Christian, or could one just “believe” (in the Messiah) and become Christian. As sects become institutionalized, they transform into cults. As they gain adherents, they become fully institutionalized religions. The terminology is standard sociology.
Politically, the use of an alternative ideology will produce a cult of sorts rather than “just a splinter.” Indeed, radical splinters frequently mirror religious cults in their dynamics. This is important because it highlights the various paths that present themselves to such a body.
Della Porta explores the manner in which the desire for change in Italy during the 1960s produced widespread upheaval, especially in certain strata such as labor and academia. This was the social movement. Out of it came the Red Brigades. This resulted only from a process as relevant today as in the case study. The nature of the POS in post-World War II Italy-the capacity of the system to absorb new demands-meant that not all the demands for change could be accommodated. Consequently, there was an escalation of protestors “knocking heads” with the forces of the state-a classic POS issue.
Della Porta observes that in any society, the first such contact occurs between the protestors and police. Protestors are the foot soldiers of the larger social movement, and the police are the foot soldiers of the existing order (frequently called, in French Revolution terminology, the old order, or ancien reAOEA gime). It is the relationship between these two groups, more than any other factor, that many find central to the strategic choices made. State repression (violence used by the state to put down challenges) is a key intervening variable that can set in motion further splintering that may ultimately lead to violence (and terrorism or insurgency as forms of violence).
If we follow events through Della Porta’s framework (see figure 113), radical ideologies that preach violence can socialize participants to accept its use, creating a second key intervening variable. Most such groups, even while accepting the use of violence in principle, use it irregularly.
Organized labor resorted to such violence in Della Porta’s Italian case study. Those who slide into using it regularly do so for a combination of internal (ideology) and external (what the state does) reasons. Marxist and anarchist groups in Italy preached violence as self-defense, sounding remarkably like Johann Most and the other figures of the first great wave of terrorism, which surfaced as the Industrial Revolution transformed frst Europe, then the world.14 Self-defense, in fact, emerges as the most potent force there is for mobilizing individuals to use violence regularly. Thus, the conduct of the police (and ultimately the larger security forces and intelligence arms) is of central importance in our analytical framework.
The need to engage in self-defense is subjective, even if the “threat” can in some sense be judged as objective. The decision to strike back can be made on an individual basis. If one is serious about the cause, though, as were the young radicals who formed the Red Brigades in Italy, the organization created is going to be illegal. And if it is illegal, it is going to be hunted.
One can take refuge in the open, so to speak. One has to enter the literature of insurgency for a discussion of “clandestine infrastructure” (also termed the counter-state).15 Or one can go completely underground (make the “strategic choice of clandestinity”).
The use of the terms clandestine and counter-state can be confusing but highlights an essential point. Being a clandestine organization is a relative term. Critical is the degree to which being “underground” cuts one off from the rest of society/the target community.
An illegal and clandestine group that seeks to form a counterstate in the framework explicated here-that is, an armed political movement that mobilizes a mass base-is an insurgency.
Being clandestine and having decided to strike back, the organization must make strategic choices: How to fight’ Whom to target’ How to recruit’ How to sustain the organization’ Clandestinity drives certain modes of thinking and behavior and makes groups function the way we tell our children not to function when out with their friends: “mutually reinforcing each other” in negative ways. In particular, “enemies” take on ever larger, more salient dimensions.
From individuals, enemies become “categories.” Discrimination (“just guilty individuals”) gives way to targeting “them,” with “them” being an ever expanding circle. “Causes” recede, and “the struggle” becomes more salient. Even the purported mass base (that is, those for whom “the struggle” is being waged) gives way to Angkar (as the Khmer Rouge termed it) or al Qaeda (as Osama bin Laden calls it), the organization. Primary group dynamics take over (that is, those shaped by face-to-face interaction; secondary groups must operate through a chain of command, however defined). Thus does “striking out” mobilize rage, and it makes no discrimination in its targets. And so we have what we call terrorism.
Such analytic clarity is in stark contrast to much that we encounter in the marketplace today. A theme of virtually all “current events” texts on the subject is that terrorism is a slippery term. It is defined by society, which means its precise definition changes over time and space.
As a consequence, in this same literature are found definitions that, in aggregate, are truly “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” Some authors simply “give it a miss”; others do a reasonable job. For our purposes, though, we may dismiss the category of state terrorism. To do otherwise would leave us studying everything from Hiroshima, to the Holocaust, to the H Blocks in Belfast and alleged crimes against prisoners, to troops violating their rules of engagement. Furthermore, what states do is not what most people mean when they examine terrorism. What they do have in mind is precisely what was visible in the Red Brigades case: substate actors targeting the innocent (persons and property traditionally thought of as protected by the laws of war) to communicate and achieve political goals.
Many sources follow the methodology set forth by Most- “propaganda by the deed.” They recognize that “propagandistic effect” is the single greatest weapon available to “the revolutionaries” in their position of asymmetry (our favorite term these days). One could thus expand the earlier definition to read: Terrorism is substate actors targeting the innocent for propagandistic effect by ways intended to achieve political goals.
This is what has come to be termed “pure terrorism” because analysts recognize immediately that all terms are relative. If an insurgency, for instance, seeks to form a counter-state, how do we know if the group has a mass base’ How many supporters constitute a mass base’ Does it matter’ Certainly, in their early days, all organizations look very much alike, whether they target the innocent or not. They all tend to kill “the innocent” (whom they declare “guilty”).
But who is innocent’ Is not a minor official part of the “structure of oppression” (for example, a village headman in South Vietnam)’ And isn’t killing someone in a tactical action (terrorism as a method of action) different from the same sort of killing as a strategic imperative (terrorism as a logic of action)’ Is attacking only the security forces of a state (the police, as was done at one point in some struggles in 19th-century Europe) different from targeting the innocent’
What about collateral damage’ If one does not mean to kill the innocent, but is still a sub-state actor who has no right to throw a bomb at anyone (according to international law, states give people the right to kill others), should one be held to a different standard than soldiers at a roadblock, who accidentally (so it was determined) kill an Italian intelligence agent’
We can cut through all this by drawing on Michel Wieviorka, whose words we have adopted. It was he who distinguished between the two forms of terrorism: terrorism as a method of action (which is invariably found in insurgency), and terrorism as a logic of action.16 As seen in figure 2, it indeed is essential for a proper counter to understand whether the target is terrorists or insurgents because the two threats require pressure at different points in the process of threat evolution and different emphasis on elements of our specific response.
Counterinsurgents, for instance, must endeavor to “win the hearts and minds” so as to cut off the insurgents from their mass base. Counterterrorists, while they do not want to alienate the populace and produce a mass base (for example, examine the Sri Lankan case for a state miscue providing insurgents with manpower17), are often able to put greater emphasis on the lethal aspects of the campaign (informed always by intelligence). The more a group illustrates “pure terrorism,” the less political the state response is likely to be.
Transferring Theory to Operational Reality
It is the specific group, then, that emerges as a threat of a particular type from the analytical process above. At any point in the process, the state may counter, but that counter must take situational realities into account. If the emerging threat is at the upper ends of the diagram in figure 2, stability operations and/ or reconstruction and stabilization (R&S) are appropriate. If a group is at the lower end and is a terrorist body divorced from a mass base, more robust kinetic operations informed by intelligence can lead; if the group is an insurgency, emphasis must be on “roots of conflict.”
Regardless, it is critical for IW professionals to discern the distinction between terrorism as a method of action and terrorism as a logic of action. There is a world of difference between dealing with an armed group mobilizing the masses directly as opposed to an armed group that has no mass base-no substantial following organized as part of the movement. The challenge for analysts is that most groups fall somewhere between and are in a dynamic state wherein the balance between proselytizing and coercion is constantly in flux. Fierce debates often break out within movements over the correct “balance,” just as they erupt among analysts seeking to discern motives behind the movement’s realities as they play themselves out. Correct assessment is imperative because it is the basis for correct response.
Terror, to be clear, is always integral to the mass mobilization of insurgency. Insurgency is not a social movement. It is the result of particular strategic choices by a splinter from that movement. Likewise, different strategic choices produce terrorist groups. Those splinters that adopt violence against the innocent-as a consequence of both ideological persuasion and strategic choice, particularly to counter the state response-are well on their way.
It is the group’s mode of seeking safety that is ultimately the determining factor. It is the splinter seeking safety through isolation-in a series of safe houses, we might say-that makes its members become terrorists. It has cut off its links from the population it claims to represent.
In contrast, a splinter seeking safety by mobilizing a new world within which to exist, a “clandestine infrastructure” or a “counter-state” to use the correct terminology, becomes an insurgency that uses terror as but one tool of many.
The implications for response are evident. Significantly, nothing in what we have said is dependent on any particular cause for which a group is ghting. Whether it is communism, animal rights, or religious fundamentalism that inspires our violent substate actors, the principles remain the same. These are used by the threat group, whatever its precise form and whatever its ultimate goal. “Particulars” will certainly influence how the process occurs, especially the ease with which substate actors can execute their designs.
A population that shares certain economic, social, or political (ESP) attributes is from the point of view of mobilization different from one characterized by division and faultlines, for it is the population that is both the target and the battlespace.
Terrorists are galvanized by ESP grievances, but ultimately, because they are divorced from the people, they come to see the people as part of the enemy. In contrast, mass mobilization actors-insurgents-attempt to exploit ESP grievances to bring people into the movement. Leaders are the ones who look at what is wrong with society and come up with the big-picture solutions. Followers are mobilized by the desire to have their own grievances (and hopes and aspirations) addressed.
A leader can talk to followers about ideological or religious particulars, but followers generally want a better way of life. This distinction is critical for programs of deradicalization or intercepting someone before radicalization.
The key here is that objective reality is assessed subjectively. If mass mobilization is how a group proceeds, then the group will use societal “avenues of approach” to produce its new, alternative society to challenge the old order. In each case, the particulars will be unique, but the parameters will be consistent. When we talk about ESP grievances, the critical point is that in any society there will be political actors trying to gain power by appealing to a popular desire for a solution. If this is done peacefully, a transfer of power occurs without violence. But if a group demands power by proclaiming, “We will address grievances, just give us the reins of power,” and the system refuses, violence is likely.
In examining the shape this violence ultimately takes, as noted above, there are three angles-perhaps lenses-of possible perspectives. The first, the big picture (or the macro) level, is context. The fact that we live in the age of globalization, for example, dramatically alters the course any political trajectory takes.
Agency is bound up not only in traditional tangible structure but also in intangible structure created by the flow of information and images. We have moved beyond domains to multiple dimensions, with the tangible and intangible intertwined to such an extent that seeing is no longer believing, and believing may indeed become seeing. In such context, contingency (chance) is often magnified beyond imagination, to the extent that even extraneous tactical action can have profound strategic effect.
The second way to look at this process (especially for intelligence) is the meso or middle perspective, the organizational level. How did an organization break away from a demand simply for redress of grievances’ How did we go from a larger demand for respect in
the Islamic world, say, to a group, al Qaeda, that has abused religion and mobilized it in the name of violence’ We can seek the answer by exploring group dynamics even while keeping mindful of context.
The third way of looking at the process, the micro view, is to study individuals. Who joins, who stays, and who leaves’ How, for example, did a multimillionaire become the most wanted “terrorist” in the world’
In this example, it can readily be seen how the different perspectives are relevant. Bin Laden’s life trajectory has occurred within international, regional, national, and local contexts. He has been influenced by group processes, becoming both an inspiration to and captive of the organization he created. Finally, the particulars of bin Laden as an individual have impacted his course every step of the way.
Another man might have chosen to become a Gandhi. Likewise, choice, influenced centrally by ideological input and actions of the state response, has dictated that a particular strategy and attendant operational art be adopted and implemented. That this strategy seeks mass mobilization-even if via neo-Guevarist, foco-like action, as opposed to patient construction of infrastructure using Maoist people’s war-is why it may be called “global insurgency” and met potentially by “global counterinsurgency.”19
The key intervening variable, ideology, is central to this strategic choice. Even the choice of violence follows logically from what is believed. If one as a Muslim actually believes what is in Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones, for instance, one will use violence for redress of grievances. Likewise, if one believes Marx and Lenin, one will also use violence to pursue totalitarian secular ends. Ironically, many of those we face in today’s challenge combine elements of Marx and Lenin with selections from Islam.
Though the goal sought by irregular challenges, the “ends” of ends-ways-means, is often “justice,” this is a subjective category. It results from a subjective interpretation of reality by marginalized elites. How do we tell whether grievances are legitimate’ There is no magic formula, but if 17 percent of the population wants something, as was the case with the Tamils in Sri Lanka, it is best to treat their desires as having some basis that would qualify as legitimate. A substantial slice of a population in any representative system cannot be alienated and have the whole remain viable.
If a quest for justice, however poorly conceived, is what is going on in the countries, theaters, and regions of the “global war on terror,” what has dramatically changed is that which was once localized now becomes global. India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, for instance, not only have become one theater but also have a global impact. This is why we find North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces deployed in the defense of their homelands in such a far- off area.
How did the United States end up in Afghanistan’ “Because an attack was launched from there” might be one answer. Using the three perspectives, we could answer more comprehensively. International context certainly played a role in turning backwater Afghanistan into a frontline state of the Cold War. Regional context led to the deeper involvement of Pakistan. Pakistan’s own national context led to the particular elements of Islamabad’s participation, such as use of the Inter-Services Intelligence as the control medium for resistance against the Soviet Union. Local context intertwined tribal dynamics with religious and ideological struggle. Within this context, as we move through time, we see the emergence of an organization, al Qaeda, linked to another, the Taliban, which ultimately attacks the United States. At the micro level, we can assess the attributes and motivations that led every member of al Qaeda, or even the Taliban, to become part of the movement.
If we move to the present, the same perspectives are necessary to gain a complete picture, with every act also assessed in tangible and intangible dimensions, in two intertwined, symbiotic worlds. On the ground, we find individuals withties to any number of fights ranging from local (the “Near Enemy”) all the way over to the West (the “Far Enemy”). Assailants, who had staged from Afghanistan, attacked New York City, but the headquarters and support network had all the characteristics of an Islamist Foreign Legion. Our chests bear campaign ribbons. One can think of terrorists/insurgents with the same. We have career-broadening tours. So do they. They are a reflection of us, of the world in which we live.
That is why we must strive to understand them more comprehensively. This also reinforces again why the Pentagon began to use the term global insurgency. Such an insurgency is not “new” in its basic form. Our foes in Vietnam, for example, waged an extensive international campaign against us, as did the Farabundo MartiAOEA National Liberation Front of El Salvador. Yet imagine that instead of delegations and agents of influence, witting and unwitting, the Vietnamese sent suitcases of money to pay for explosions in the United States. Or suppose they sent sappers directly. It is this element that has made the present different from the past.
Nevertheless, within this globalized world it is still true that “all politics is local.” It is local grievances, objective and/or subjective, as well as the second-order consequences of state response to those demanding redress of grievances, that produce a threat group. Threat-leaders look at grievances and propose solutions. Threat-followers simply want resolution of grievances. Reasons why individuals “sign up” are as varied as the individuals themselves. What ultimately matters strategically is to discern the particular dynamic in the conflict concerned-and to determine whether one faces an organization comprised only of leaders or an organization of leaders with a mass base of followers.
If the threat is insurgency, a mass-based movement, there are two basic ways to mobilize followers: from the top, by example or demonstration, or from the bottom, by local construction of political organization. As noted already, these two ways have been associated with their most famous advocates, respectively: Che Guevara and Mao Tse-tung. Che’s foco theory, as we have discussed, advocates mobilizing from the top. The armed challenger chooses an appropriate moment, when demand for resolution of grievances permeates the human terrain, and carries out attacks on the structure of oppression.
The people are inspired and rise up and join the organization (in theory). This is why bin Laden is a neo-Guevarist. He is (unconsciously) using bin Laden has defined a large slice of humanity as “the Other,” as the enemy, and therefore as legitimate targets Che’s methodology. The difference between the two is that Guevara desired to mobilize the people and thus emphasized guerrilla action against state authorities and their security forces. In contrast, bin Laden has defined a large slice of humanity as “the Other,” as the enemy, and therefore as legitimate targets. He seeks to mobilize but a portion of the theoretical target population. Though his logic is internally consistent, no unbiased audience outside his closed system would accept the rectitude of his famous speech wherein he claimed all Americans- every man, woman, and child-were legitimate targets because they had been “warned” and had failed to alter their behavior.
In contrast to Che, Mao advocated patient, time-consuming construction of political apparatus (clandestine infrastructure, a counter-state) by organizing in local space, with higher organs stitching together local upheaval into the overall effort. “Guerrillas” did not lead but enabled political mobilization. This is the basic approach used by virtually all successful insurgencies even if they do not explicitly follow Mao-though there are few if any insurgencies today that have not heard of him and studied his works. These works remain the most available of all insurgent “manuals.”24 Their use varies, but even in Field Manual (FM) 3-24, Counterinsurgency,25 room is found for the famous quotation from Colonel David Galula that revolutionary war is 80 percent political and 20 percent military.26
Within FM 3-24, Mao’s theory of protracted war is considered to be “more than just of historical interest. Knowledge of it can be a powerful aid to understanding some insurgent movements.” This is entirely predictable. Mao is to internal war what Jomini, Clausewitz, and Napoleon are to interstate war. His approach says something simple: to seize power, proceed on five lines of effort. To mobilize people politically into the insurgent organization, find the issues to which they will rally. Simultaneously, win over allies who do not want to be part of the insurgent organization but will support it on lesser issues. Use violence as appropriate to the situation to enable these two fundamentally political activities. Use nonviolence, such as offers of negotiations, to make violence more effective. And internationalize the struggle. The National Liberation Front, to use an example of the latter, lost on the ground in Algeria yet won the war and independence through international struggle. Similarly, the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, would have been eliminated had it not been for their ability to engage in what was then called netwar to energize networks or supporters nationally and internationally so that pressure was applied on Mexico, which neutralized the government’s effort to eliminate the insurgents.
What Mao has provided in these lines of effort, then, is the inspiration for five questions that must be asked of any irregular challenge:
– What is its political content’
– Who are its allies outside the movement’
– How does it use violence’
– How does it use nonviolence’
– What is it doing internationally’
Analytically, the five questions reflect that the IW challenge will begin the contest by advancing in this manner. It will simultaneously do so by mobilizing population and resources through political action, winning domestic allies, using violence as appropriate to circumstances, using nonviolence to make violence more effective, and exploiting the opportunities available in the international arena. It will do so tangibly on the ground, and intangibly in the mind (that is, in terms of influence, and absence of any line is as important as its presence.
Too often, IW practitioners say, “But our group isn’t communist, Mao was a communist.” Asking the five questions above to assess how a threat is advancing has nothing to do with whether one is a communist or violent radical Islamist; it is simply asking how the threat evolves according to the basic principles of IW.
Of critical importance, as mentioned above, is that the analyst must consider how to assess and display the threat group’s advance. It is easy enough to do on a map as tangible activities are plotted (whether a propaganda team or an assassination). The more difficult challenge is to determine how to measure and portray intangible advance.
Assessment as Basis for Action
We are not about teaching a kitbag of techniques. What we are advancing is a way of thinking, a way of conceptualizing, and a way of stepping back and asking how the threat can be assessed both as it emerges and, once it exists as an organization, as it uses its strategy and operational art. This assessment of the threat group- an IW Estimate of the Situation-is carried out for the purpose of constructing a strategy of response-an IW Course of Action. Discerning a threat group’s “advances”-its lines of effort- is central to crafting the counter. It must also inform all facets of planning to “get in front of the curve.” In this, irregular warfare is no different from warfare.
The use of lines of operations to implement a strategy is a product of the Napoleonic age, when Jomini and Clausewitz, particularly the former, sought to explain what the master,Napoleon, was about in his thinking about military advance. What they discerned was that battles were links in a chain, with each battle moving Napoleon closer to his ultimate goal, with the entire linked effort having direction and magnitude-a vector or line of operation.
However, it is necessary to repeat that despite the language used to describe what is happening, the concept is not a linear one. Entirely accurate as far as it went, the concept of strategy implemented by lines of operations was conceived militarily and applied on the map. It would take Mao to highlight the obvious: there were not only different, nonmilitary ways of advancing on a map (our lines of effort), but there also were different “maps,” one tangible (the normal Napoleonic representation) and the other intangible (a map of influence, will, fear, and hope-all the elements of war that were no physical). This was a logical or conceptual way of thinking, hence the leap into a conceptual dimension with logical/conceptual lines of effort.
If for Napoleon lines of operations consisted of battles strung together to reach an end, for Mao these were struggles. Since, from our analytical vantage point, a struggle is actually an ongoing series of discrete efforts, or battles, we have substituted the term campaign. This can be confusing because it applies regular war terminology to irregular war according to the actual meaning of terms rather than according to their common use in “major combat” planning courses.
Campaigns, then, comprise the lines of effort. The lines can be visualized as strings of pearls, with each pearl a dynamic entity changing size, shape, and color. For example, violence according to Mao, speaking from the insurgent point of view, comes in four forms. Terror is a form of violence. Small unit hit-and-run warfare (that is, guerrilla warfare) is a form of violence. Using big units, as the Vietnamese did and the Taliban is starting to do, is a form of violence- maneuver warfare, mobile warfare, and main force warfare are all terms that have been applied.
Holding territory (that is, “liberated areas”)-war of position-is a form of violence. As they occur as numerous battles or struggles, these forms of warfare happen as campaigns. Thus, we may speak of a campaign of terror, or a campaign of guerrilla warfare. These, in turn, play themselves out not only in the traditional, tangible fashion, but also in a nontraditional, intangible fashion- on the ground and in the mind. There can be confusion when armed action occurring within an irregular effort unfolds in regular fashion requiring conventional use of terminology within an unconventional effort.
The three major enemy offensives in South Vietnam (Tet in 1968, the Easter Offensive of
1972, and the Spring Offensive of 1975) were huge undertakings, with the latter two featuring division-sized units advancing in the same manner as the blitzkrieg across France in 1940.
Battles were fought along Napoleonic lines of operations to achieve objectives. Considered within the irregular war framework, however, these were but constituent efforts of a campaign along a particular line of effort. There is no need to go into further details.
Suffice to say that the point of conceptualizing threat in terms of strategy and its implementing lines of effort is to inform and drive the counter.
Terrorism as a method, when used as a campaign by an insurgency, for example, is rarely mind-less commission of violence. Rather, targets are picked for a reason. Furthermore, two types of targets normally emerge, local civilian points of resistance and the structure of the state. The efforts may each be represented as subcampaigns within the terrorism campaign.
The reason for the above should be immediately clear: in the counter, there must minimally be two negating subcampaigns. The subcampaign attacking human “critical nodes” must be met with a subcampaign that protects those targets. This, in turn, is normally divided in two (sub-subcampaigns): protection of VIPs and protection of the masses. The first requires as means some form of bodyguards (think of Blackwater’s most prominent role in Iraq), the second requires some form of local forces. The same analysis may be done for the threat subcampaign to eliminate the structure of the state.
This must be met by some form of critical infrastructure protection but may also include separate sub-subcampaigns devoted to, say, protection of roads or maritime assets (for example, ports). There is no model or template involved here, only a way of thinking. Rather than seeing the challenge as but a welter of tactical acts, war college-level thinking must consider threat strategy and its implementation to craft the counter or neutralization effort. Such analysis is not bounded within any particular battlespace.
What is true of a national effort can just as well be true of a global effort. The critical metric is whether the threat is terrorist or insurgent; that is, whether it is building a counter-state or only prosecuting “the struggle.”
The counter-state itself, whether in its local or global manifestation, is a dynamic entity. It may exist only in the minds of several would-be insurgents at one point in time. It may be a clandestine infrastructure in government-dominated territory at another point in time. It may be a full-fledged liberated area at another. Indeed, it may be a vast sphere of influence that commands the first loyalty of an international following that desires but does not yet have a tangible “new order” to match the intangible new order that has already taken hold of their minds.
In fact, it is this intangible dimension that is key in the global struggle today. The recent fight in Gaza illustrates this well, providing, perhaps even better than the Zapatista case, evidence of how the intangible dimension can trump facts on the ground. What was noteworthy was the apparent planned effort by Hamas to use its own kinetic action nearly solely for the purpose of provoking an Israeli kinetic response that would necessarily produce collateral damage. Capturing evidence of this damage through images of human suffering was a planned, competently executed effort linked to another effort designed to disseminate that evidence. The result, as in the original netwar, was tangible pressure on Israel from abroad that ultimately proved irresistible.28 As a consequence, even as Israel claimed victory, Hamas emerged stronger within Gaza, and Israel found its international position compromised to the extent of ongoing war crimes investigations which (given the parties involved) will likely lead to an indictment of sorts.
This is now a reality confronting any state facing a similar challenge in the age of globalization.30 Sri Lanka provides the most salient post-Gaza example. If anything, the pressure brought to bear on Colombo has served to illustrate even more prominently the conundrum created for state actors who find themselves under attack by mobilized global networks of those supporting substate challengers. These networks include actors, such as international nongovernmental organizations (notably human rights organizations), that not only function as para-states but are also all but immune to even reasonable challenge (the so-called halo effect). In that case, it is significant that the closer Sri Lanka drew to victory, the more shrill became the attacks of both states and para-states, which had interests at variance with those of Colombo.
The conclusion is that no irregular war effort is any longer-if ever it were-a two-sided affair between state and challenger. Instead, all are struggles between energized networks, with many participants being single-issue bodies whose goals and motivations have little to do with the core issues being contested. Instead, as in the Spanish Civil War, external actors, notably para-states, use conflicts to test their weapons systems and to further their own strategies and power. Thus, the international line of effort looms large for any irregular threat group but especially for insurgencies. In the Sri Lankan case, only skillful mobilization of a countercoalition of both states and para-states allowed Colombo to persevere and end the menace that was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
This leads us to something fundamental: every threat group has an idea of what it is doing. We wasted many years in our present effort because powerful voices claimed the threat had no plans, had no conception of how to proceed, and did not coordinate or communicate-they “just did it,” violating all the principles of war. By now, there are few who cling to such views. It is understood that “they” think they are doing something. We call that “something” doctrine. Increasingly, we are reading their doctrine in translation. What is clear is that they have also read our doctrine.
If our irregular challengers are using ends, ways, and means, we must use the same strategic approach. Our effort must endeavor to prevent the emergence of a threat organization, neutralize threat strategy and operational art once an organizational challenge has taken the field, and then remain on the offensive (strategically through societal reform). In crafting our approach, everything we do is dependent on our assessment of the threat-that is, our irregular warfare Estimate of the Situation. We must know the challenge as well as the challengers know us and themselves, which is why intelligence is the lifeblood of irregular warfare.
In assessing the foe, it is fundamental to establish exactly just what it is. A group such as FARC, for instance, can be assessed as the leading force in the drug trade. One can also assess that it attempts to an extent to engage in mass mobilization. Furthermore, FARC claims to be Marxist-Leninist and certainly, at one point, put some effort into cultivating Marxist vocabulary and thought among its membership. Most dangerously, people’s war is FARC’s strategy, and its lines of effort are found in its warfighting manuals. All of this means that FARC is a complex threat that must be attacked for what it is.
Focusing too closely on any single element, such as counternarcotics, risks strategic distortion. FARC thus serves to highlight a point already touched upon, that of subjectivity. Objectively, Colombia has flaws. Yet polls consistently show that FARC’s subjective reaction to those flaws-an assessment that the state is so horrible and brutal that it must be over-thrown by armed political action-is rejected by nearly the entire population. Therefore, in seeking to determine the roots of conflict, we ignore exploration of ESP flaws at our peril; yet we should not mindlessly confront flaws in the state with an armed reaction. We need to know why “the people have taken up arms, why they have a problem.”31 Yet we also recognize that not all grievances are legitimate, any more than any chosen mode of response is legitimate.
Insurgents and terrorists are as flawed as we are, and they make every mistake we make.
In implementing our counter, it is necessary to exploit threat imperfections even as we address our own imperfections.
– At the strategic level, the goal is always legitimacy. An IW threat fights for a political goal, even if, as with “pure terrorists,” the struggle supersedes the original objective. Hence, it is never enough for us to simply be against their goal. We must stand for something. What are we fighting for’ If that fundamental question cannot be answered, the state is in trouble.
– At the operational art level, the key target is always the organization, the clandestine infrastructure, the counter-state. It may be tangible or only a state of mind (intangible). Regardless, it must be neutralized. The key is to fight an idea with another idea.
– At the tactical level, the goal of the challenger is always local political domination. Consequently, the goal of a state is to have authority and legitimacy within its own boundaries and its own population. If a state is not even present in certain areas, it “doesn’t play.” It leaves the human terrain to the challenger. If the state is present but dysfunctional, corrupt, and brutal, it is probably better that it is absent.
In the end, the essence of what we do in counterterrorism (now combating terrorism), counterinsurgency, stability operations, or reconstruction and stabilization is to enable effective, representative governance. That is what the present conflict is all about-the “art of war in the modern world” of Rupert Smith.
1 Smith states that “six basic trends . . . make up the paradigm of war amongst the people”: (1) The ends for which we fight are changing from the hard objectives that decide a political outcome to those of establishing conditions in which the outcome may not be decided; (2) We fight amongst the people, not the battlefield; (3) Our conflicts tend to be timeless, even unending; (4) We fight so as to preserve the force rather than risking all to gain the objective; (5) On each occasion new uses are found for old weapons and organizations which are the products of industrial war; (6) The sides are mostly non-state, comprising some form of multi-national grouping against some non-state party or parties. Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 269.
2 Carlos Ospina Ovalle, “Insights from Colombia’s ‘Long War’: Counterinsurgency Lessons Learned,” Counterterrorism 12, no. 3 (Fall 2006), 29.
3 Quadrennial Defense Review Report (Washington, DC: Department of Defense [DOD], February 6, 2006), available at
4 DOD, Irregular Warfare (IW) Joint Operating Concept (JOC), Version 1.0, September 11, 2007, available at
5 These approaches are discussed in Thomas A. Marks, Maoist People’s War in Post-Vietnam Asia (Bangkok: White Lotus, 2007), passim. Che’s theory posits mobilization from the top, while that of Mao advocates mobilization from the bottom. Che holds that a committed group of rebels (guerrilla), the foco, carrying out actions in a propitious environment, will inspire the masses to rise up and overthrow the system (carry out a revolution). For his key work, see Che Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare, ed. Brian Loveman and Thomas M. Davies (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1997). The single best work on the evolution of guerrilla war from tactic to operational art and strategy is Walter Laqueur, Guerrilla Warfare: A Historical and Critical Study (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2002). For a discussion of the unanswered issues related to the concept of global counterinsugency, see Stephen Sloan and Sebastian L.v. Gorka, “Contextualizing Counterinsurgency,” The Journal of International Security Affairs, No. 16 (Spring 2009), 41–48.
6 Saiyud Kerdphol, quoted in Marks, Maoist People’s War in Post-Vietnam Asia, 71.
7 Sir Robert Thompson in interview by Thomas A. Marks, March 1989.
8 Michel Wieviorka, The Making of Terrorism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); Donatella Della Porta, Social Movements, Political Violence, and the State (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
9 Rodney Stark, “Social Change and Social Movements,” in Sociology, 4th ed. (Belmont: Wadsworth,1992), 611–632.
11 See, for example, Thomas A. Marks, “Guerrillas in the Mist: Hmong Resistance Continues in Laos,” Combat and Survival 8, no. 5 (August 1996), 4–11.
12 Theory and Society 7, nos. 1 and 2 (January–March 1979), 97–134.
13 Donatella Della Porta, “Left-Wing Terrorism in Italy,” in Terrorism in Context, ed. Martha Crenshaw (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), 156, figure 4.5.
14 For the logic, see Johann Most, “Advice for Terrorists,” in Voices of Terror: Manifestos, Writings and Manuals of Al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Other Terrorists from Around the World and Throughout the Ages, ed. Walter Laqueur (New York: Reed Press, 2004), 104–112.
15 The most recent contribution to this subject by author Thomas A. Marks is Maoist People’s War in Post-Vietnam Asia, which builds upon his earlier Maoist Insurgency Since Vietnam (London: Frank Cass, 1996). The “Vietnam” reference in both titles allows for temporal bounding of the discussion, which actually is quite far ranging.
16 Wieviorka, 597–606.
17 For discussion, see Thomas A. Marks, “Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam,” in Democracy and Counterterrorism: Lessons from the Past, ed. Robert J. Art and Louise Richardson (Washington, DC: U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 2007), 483–530.
18 On this point, see Querine H. Hanlon, “Globalization and the Transformation of Armed Groups,” in Pirates, Terrorists, and Warlords: The History, Influence, and Future of Armed Groups Around the World, ed. Jeffrey H. Norwitz (New York: Skyhorse, 2009), 124–141. Macro considerations also loom large in the analytical framework presented in Hanlon, The Three Images of Ethnic War (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009).
19 Marks, Maoist People’s War in Post-Vietnam Asia.
20 Sayyid Qutb, Milestones (Damascus: Dar Al-Ilm, n.d.). The title is often translated as “Signposts.” See also The Sayyid Qutb Reader: Selected Writings on Politics, Religion, and Society, ed. Albert J. Bergesen (New York: Routledge, 2008); and Adnan A. Musallam, From Secularism to Jihad: Sayyid Qutb and the Foundations of Radical Islamism (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005). Particularly useful is Gilles Kepel, The Roots of Radical Islam
(London: SAQI, 2005).
21 See particularly Laurent Murawiec, The Mind of Jihad (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008); and Robert R. Reilly, The Closing of the Muslim Mind (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, forthcoming). It may be usefully supplemented with Mary Habeck, Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).
22 See Fawaz A. Gerges, The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
23 See “Terror for Terror, October 21, 2001,” chapter 11, in Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden, ed. Bruce Lawrence (New York: Verso, 2005), 106–129.
24 Ubiquitous is Mao Tse-tung, On Guerrilla Warfare, trans. and ed. Samuel B. Griffith (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2005). The book is available from a wide variety of publishers.
25 Available at
26 It may be noted that as originally used by Mao’s opponent in China, the Kuomintang, the slogan was “Three Parts Military and Seven Parts Politics.” See William Wei, “The Guomindang’s Three Parts Military and Seven Parts Politics Policy,” Asian Profile 10, no. 2 (April 1982), 111–127. Use of the slogan is discussed in detail in Thomas A. Marks, Counterrevolution in China: Wang Sheng and the Kuomintang (London: Frank Cass,
1997), especially chapter 2, “Jiangxi: The Making of a Counterrevolutionary,” 13–76. Galula is likely to have studied Mao in English. With the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, he has been drawn into the limelight recently and labeled an intellectual “forgotten founder” of counterinsurgency who espoused, as a consequence of his service in Algeria, what is now called population-centric warfare. See Ann Marlowe, “Forgotten Founder: The French Colonel Who Wrote the Book(s) on Counterinsurgency,” The Weekly Standard, October 19, 2009, 32–36. Galula’s thought indeed merits study.
Still, there is considerable irony in current U.S. interest in him,since it is driven as much by ignorance of other contemporaneous theorists, especially American, as by the excellence of his work. If one consults the list of those present with Galula at the April 16–20, 1962, RAND
“Counterinsurgency Symposium,” for instance, a veritable “who’s who” of legendary names appears. Noteworthy as a true “forgotten founder,” who at the time arguably had considerable if unheralded influence on American counterinsurgency development, was Edward Lansdale’s right-hand man, Charles T.R. “Bo” Bohannan, who “co-authored,” with Napoleon D. Valeriano (Bohannan actually did the writing), the superb, now reprinted Counter-Guerrilla Operations: The Philippine Experience (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006). It is significant that prior to World War II, Lansdale was an advertising executive, while Bohannan was an anthropologist. Their approach to irregular warfare, it can be argued, stemmed directly from these nonmilitary backgrounds.
27 Field Manual 3–24, Counterinsurgency (Washington, DC: Headquarters Department of the Army,December 2006), 1–6. Regrettably, the portions dealing with Mao are extracts from the Marks-authored chapter 1, “Overview,” in the U.S. Army’s Interim Field Manual, FMI 3–07.22, Counterinsurgency Operations (October 2004). Inserted partially and out of context, they do not do justice to the power of the Maoist approach, which has informed our work here. A succinct, recent discussion is Thomas A. Marks, “Mao Tse-Tung and the Search for 21st Century Counterinsurgency,” CTC Sentinel 2, no. 10 (October 2009), 17–20.
28 John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, The Advent of Netwar (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1996), available at
29 See, for example, the deeply flawed Human Rights Council (12th Session), Human Rights in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab Territories: Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, advance edited version, September 15, 2009.
30 For a wide-ranging discussion of this and other issues, see Kenneth B. Moss, Undeclared War and the Future of U.S. Foreign Policy (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press and Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2008).