Tuesday, December 07, 2004

MaoThought or Who is Winning?

We keep hearing a lot of noise on who is winning in Iraq and what is happening. This is submitted as a minor contribution to making sense of the noise. It is intended as a general explanation which I will leave to the reader to apply to Iraq or some other guerilla war

To me the tool to understand the military situation in Iraq is to look at Mao Zedung’s famous theory of guerilla war. This is widely accepted as a valid model whether or not one buys the ideology Mao raps it in. If not held to rigorously it can describe guerrilla wars even if the people involved never heard of Mao or intentionally follow his concept.

Mao proposed that a successful guerilla war goes through three phases:

Organization Phase:
Build up a structure of ‘cadres’ to organize population support (‘agit-prop’ teams to develop popular awareness / use of ‘selective terror’ against government officials, to eliminate landlords and others the population disliked, and to deter informers.

Guerilla Phase:
Introduce guerilla attacks and ambushes (to acquire weapons and blow up infrastructure) à make it difficult for governments to maintain a military presence (creation of ‘liberated areas)’

Mobile War (Third Phase)
Amounted to civil war / force government forces to retreat to major cities until these were surrounded by a hostile countryside.

In general we can describe the process as:

The Organization Phase is characterized by terrorist type attacks. The government forces become progressively spread out in small detachments to protect the population. A small force can attack any of a large number of lightly or undefended targets, which will require a large number of small detachments to defend.

The government's response, in addition to defending critical positions, it aggressively engages in collecting intelligence, police activities, and military patroling. It wants to quickly idenity the guerillas and destroy them before the the war can progress.

The Guerrilla Phase takes advantage of the fact that there can’t be enough troops to defend every thing; and small detachments are subject to attack by larger but still relatively small forces. The guerillas develop forces capable of engaging in small military actions with the intent to destroy stationary detachments or small patrols. They avoid fighting any large formation. The guerilla phase attempts to secure a liberated area (i.e. a base) for third phase operations by creating an area that is the government forces cannot occupy.

The government response is to defend key positions, find and destroy the guerilla units, disrupt the support for these units, and prevent the creation of a base area.

In the Mobile Phase, having secured a good base area, the guerrillas build a “mobile” or quasi-regular force that is able to defeat medium or large government regular units. If the government concentrates forces to defeat the mobile force it abandons a fatal amount of its territory, if it doesn’t the mobile force defeats the government units piecemeal. In either case it forced back to the major cities and has to surrender or starve to death.

The government forces need to destroy the mobile forces and recapture the base area.

Phase three may involve outside intervention, either the guerillas bring in a foreign army to be the mobile force as an alternative or addition to their own, or the government invites foreign troops because it does not have enough strength to both defeat the mobile force and hold the country side.

Historically an effective counter tactic in all phases is for the government to try to create its own guerilla structure in enemy areas until they can recapture it. Operation Phoenix in Viet Nam is one of the most famous (or if you prefer infamous) examples.

There is nothing automatic about this strategy and it fails more often than it succeeds.
Even at phase three, phase one and two operations never stop. Moving to the next phase without successful preparation is usually fatal. The guerillas can be defeated and the phase progression turned around at any point. Usually the primary reason the government loses is it loses it's nerve, which may or may not be related to the military situation.

Some key elements needed for success are a cause, leadership, a fighting force, and at least minority of the population willing to support the cause. These and the need to create a base provide targets that the government forces can attack to defeat the guerillas


People have to fight for something. This type of operation is to long and costly for mercenaries. It can be real or invented, held by a small group or a large group, but there has to be something to motivate the people who will actually do the working and fighting.

The government response is to provide a better cause and/or discredit the guerilla cause.

Active propaganda methods, control of news media, and tight discipline of military units to prevent incidents that can be used to inflame a cause are important to both sides.


Strong, usually charismatic, leadership is necessary at all levels and especially the top. The guerilla force will be operating under adverse conditions they need to be able to look to their leadership to give them confidence. Also operations require careful planning and execution, which needs leadership.

The government response is to find, kill, arrest, convert, or neutralize the guerilla leadership. It also needs to provide alternate leadership for it’s own cause

Fighting Force

Wars are fought with armies. Even though it is a guerilla force, it is subject the same dynamics as any other army. Actually the operational conditions for the guerillas are extremely harsh.

The government attacks the cohesion of the guerilla fighting force in the same way as any other army, defeating them in battle, setting a pace that is to fast for effective reaction, denying supplies, propaganda aimed at morale, etc.


In Mao’s phrase this is the sea in which the guerrilla fish swim. A small minority of the population actively supporting the guerillas is all that is necessary if the rest are passive, however the smaller the percentage the greater the need for terrorist type activities. The terrorist option has the potential to backfire, whether of not the population likes the government, guerilla terrorist acts against the population, to enforce support, can alienate the population from the the guerillas.

The Government response is to create any sort of incentive to move the population from active support of the guerillas to passive and from passive to active government support. Also physically isolating the guerrillas from the population is effective. Chasing the guerrilla so hard that they do not have time to interact with the civilian population is effective.

Both sides face the continuing problem of conducting successful combat operations without alienating the population where they take place

A Base

Guerillas, like any human being, need a place to sleep, eat, train and feel relatively safe. For this they need a base area. The size and sophistication will increase as the movement grows. Maybe safe houses and campsites at phase one, installations capable of supporting the logistics of a 5000 to 20000 man force at phase three. Mao used the very vastness of China. More likely, since most guerilla wars are fought in a more restricted area, guerillas seem to prefer the opposite side of a foreign border that the government cannot afford to violate. The creation of adequate bases is both a necessary goal for the first two phases and a perquisite to advance to the last two phases.

The government response is to prevent the creation of bases, and destroy them when they exist.

A New Twist – an Urban Strategy.

Increasingly there is a major draw back to Mao’s concept; Mao assumes that most of the population is rural and moving into the cities in force is the last part of the Mobile Phase. It also assumes that it would be difficult for government forces to know what is happening in the hinterlands. However the population of the world is becoming more and more urban, the groups supporting the “Cause” are likely to be urban with a dislike of camping in the woods. Modern surveillance technology makes isolated groups in outside the urban built up area stand out for investigation/destruction, where as they can be lost in background of a city. Unfortunately the Chechens have found a potential alternative, which seems to be in use in Iraq.

T. C. Wretchard of the Belmont club pointed to two articles by LTC Timothy Thomas (Retired) of the U. S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office at Global Security and in the Army War Collage's magazine Parameters describing the Chechen statagy.

The guerilla force takes over a neighborhood or small city by infiltration, coordination with local supporters and or criminal elements. In some cases such as the beginning of the First Chechen war the Government forces is not in control of the urban area. In others it gains control by attacking police stations staffed only for normal law enforcement activities. The government forces will have to counter attack. The guerillas conduct a “defenseless defence” of ambushes, sniping and small attacks aimed more at causing damage to the attacking force than actually holding any particular place. After being defeated they move to a new neighborhood or city and repeat. And repeat until the government is forced to give up. The Chechens fought the Russians to a stand still in the first Chechen war.

The preparations including terrorist type attacks seem to be analogous to phase one, the above to phase two. Presumably at some point there could be shift to offensive (phase three,) operations where the guerillas seek out government regular forces to destroy them.

The first problem to this approach is that it seems to jump Mao’s development process, possibly leaving the guerilla force isolated, without adaquet preperation, and unable to prevent it’s destruction by government forces that have not been worn down in a long campaign.

The second problem to this approach seems to me is that fighting battles on top of the population can be counter productive. What ever they think of the respective causes there is the possibility that the population will individually or collectively take action to prevent the battle, such as informing to the government forces before a new iteration can be started. But the government forces have a similar problem in reverse.

The above provides a basis for analysis. Remember all guerilla wars involve many battles, and for who ever wins, it is always two steps forward and one step back. Look for patterns not specific incidents. Read news stories for facts related to the items presented above, not the authors slant. The reader can apply this on their own to the situation in Iraq or elsewhere, though later I may make a new post with my own analysis.

Related posts.

December: Viet Nam 1966 vs Iraq 2004

February: An Event Table Not a Timetable

August: Escalate in Iraq

June 2006 Book Review: Year of the Hangman

July 2007 A March Up Country?

January 2008 Tet 1968: A Personal Narrative

May 2008 The Iraq Situation

March 2012 Book Review: Dien Bien Phu - Hell in a Very Small Place


Alexander the Average has published a different sort of metrics. Here is the description of his metrics. A different approach than I took but very good. He promises to update and when he does I will add the new link.

1 comment:

hank_F_M said...


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