The Perfect Soldier: Special Operations, Commandos, and the Future of Us Warfare by James F. Dunnigan
How to Beat Guerillas
Many American military men and OSS (later CIA) agents obtained extensive guerilla war experience during and after World War II. Despite the ready availability of all this experience on dealing with guerillas, the military establishment played down the importance of guerilla war and, more dangerously, realistic study of how to defeat guerillas. One got the impression that because American troops had always been able to defeat guerillas, there was no point in studying how they pulled it off. It seemed to have been taken as a given that regular troops always defeated guerillas. As was learned in Vietnam, life is not that simple. But there were always a small minority of military men who did study guerilla operations, and they developed some basic rules for dealing with guerillas. Many of these World War II guerilla war vets ended up in the U.S. Army Special Forces when that organization was formed in 1953. Unfortunately, the Special Forces were not called upon to help run the war in Vietnam. If the Special Forces had been allowed to stipulate how American forces would fight the Vietnam war, they would have provided the following basic rules (gained from over half a century of American experience in such conflicts.)
Travel Light. Although the introduction of helicopters in Vietnam gave American troops great mobility, it was not the kind of mobility they needed to actually defeat the guerillas. The experience of American troops has shown that the best anti-guerrilla troops operate travel light, carrying as little weight as possible. But even in Vietnam, where troops moved to the combat zone in helicopters and were supplied by them as well, American soldiers still carried 20-30 pounds more stuff than the Communist troops they were chasing through the jungle. But the problem was more than extra weight, it was the mindset of moving fast and light. In Vietnam, commanders paid more attention to their fears of being caught short than to their desire to get the job done. Some American troops were able to operate light, as with the LRRPs and SOG patrols. But these men were considered elite, and kind of weird. Most commanders preferred to stick with excessive weight, and failure. This changed, to an extent, in Afghanistan. The commandos and Special Forces traveled light and fast, the regular infantry came more heavily equipped. A lot of this had to do with training. The commandos and Special Forces practiced fighting while lightly equipped, and were much better trained than regular troops anyway. Earlier in the 20th century, there was not a lot essential heavy equipment (like body armor) to be had and it was easier for troops to dump the bedrolls, rations and other equipment and just take off after guerillas. That particular style of combat has not yet been recaptured.
Keep to the Bush and Boondocks. Time and again in the past, it had been shown that the best way to defeat guerillas was to pursue them relentlessly in their own element. When this was done, as SEALs and Special Forces often did in Vietnam, their prey were either caught and destroyed, or decided to return to civilians life and war no more. Guerillas cannot afford to be constantly on the run, they have not got the resources (food, bases, medical facilities) to keep at it. American troops do have the resources, but in Vietnam, cautious commanders tended to avoid sending their troops into the bush for extended periods of time. Part of this had to do with poor training and leadership, but there was also the feeling that "real soldiers" didn't spend most of their chasing irregulars through the wilderness. But every time U.S. troops have been successful smashing guerillas, this is exactly what they have done. In Afghanistan, American troops did go out and chase enemy troops. But this was done in two ways, with two different kinds of troops. The commandos and Special Forces traveled light and were trained for this kind of backwoods grab ass. The regular troops, trained for more intense combat, went out loaded down with body armor and lots more equipment. As a result, these troops were less agile in keeping up with the lightly equipped Taliban and al Qaeda fighters. Nevertheless, the policy in Afghanistan has been to keep troops operating in the back country whenever it was suspected that enemy troops were operating out there.
Know Your Enemy. Gathering intelligence has, for centuries, been recognized as the most effective way to get a handle on the depredations of irregular (guerilla) troops. Basically, this means collecting a lot of information (via bribes, paid informers, prisoners and vigorous scouting) and keeping it well organized. Identify the key people on the other side and go after them (with money, bullets or less savory tactics). Knowing a lot about the guerilla leaders you are fighting can be extremely valuable. Such knowledge lets you know which leaders are sloppy and which are easier to catch. You can also get to know about disputes and rivalries within the guerilla organization (such divisions always exist) and then take advantage of this dissent. A lot of information on the enemy was collected during the Vietnam and Afghanistan wars, but it was used a lot more wisely in Afghanistan. During Vietnam, there were constant problems with communist spies operating in South Vietnamese military headquarters, and a reluctance to negotiate with communist units in the field (as hard as that was, it was possible.)
Offer Generous Terms. Never underestimate the usefulness of bribes. In particular, you want to make guerilla leaders offers they cannot refuse. And when you do get these guys to switch sides, don't keep it a secret. The guerillas are fighting for economic reasons and you want as many of them as possible to know that you have a solution to their money problems. But money isn't enough, there are also political needs. So many guerillas will be enticed to switch sides with offers of jobs in the loyalist government, green cards, or whatever it takes. Because that is always cheaper than getting American troops killed, it's an option that should always be considered. Money and goods can also motivate rank and file guerillas and the civilians that support them. The Vietnam war saw the use of the Chieu Hoi program, but this went after low ranking guerillas and rewarded them with jobs like scouting for American troops. This was not enough. Timidity is always a prelude to failure. Such was not the case in Afghanistan, where money and other aid were offered in abundance to warlords and tribal chiefs to obtain their cooperation. Groups that had supported the Taliban were regularly convinced that the Northern Alliance (backed by the Americans) were a better deal and eventually nearly all Taliban supporters switched sides. One could make the argument that Afghan politics was prone to frequent switching of sides. But this had historically been the case in Vietnam as well. The major difference was the better discipline of the communists. Among the many useful tools the Vietnam communists obtained from their Russian and Chinese communist mentors was the use of political officers in all military units and extensive informer networks among the troops. But this made it more difficult, not impossible, to use offering terms when fighting communist guerillas. In other communist insurgencies, the use of generous terms had worked, and it could have worked in Vietnam as well.
Offer a Viable Alternative Political Solution. To defeat guerillas once and for all, you have to address the basic problems that caused people to take up arms in the first place. It's preferable that American troops have enough authority to undertake needed political reforms, or enough clout (political, diplomatic and military) to get the local government to do it. Reforms usually involved fair taxation and administration of justice. Land ownership and economic laws are also important issues. Ignore these issues, and you find that the popular anger just keeps producing more guerillas for you to fight. Address these issues, even if you don't resolve any or all of them, and you gain more popular support, and fewer people shooting at you. In the Philippines and the Banana Republics, the political problems were addressed (although never completely), while in Vietnam there was this reluctance to "interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation." As if half a million American troops in Vietnam wasn't already "interference," and doing more to get the South Vietnamese government's political affairs in order would have more quickly led to an American withdrawal. Afghanistan was a war in which offering the population a political alternative was a major weapon. And it worked. Just as such a pitch had in the past.
Protect the People. The easiest way to beat guerillas is to cut them off from the support of the population. The easiest way to do that is to convince the people that you can better offer them protection than the guerillas can. Most civilians don't want to be part of any war. The guerillas are always a minority of the population and there is ample opportunity to win the loyalty and gratitude of those neutral civilians. If you don't, the guerillas will. Doing this is much easier in theory than in practice. In Vietnam, Americans failed in this regard because of the reluctance to get U.S. troops out in the bush to keep the guerillas on the run. Thus unhindered, the guerillas could make their rounds at night, making sure those civilians who might lean towards supporting the government were sufficiently terrorized to change their minds. The U.S. Marines, remembering their Banana Wars experience, put troops in villages on a full time basis to keep the guerillas out, and it worked. But the Army was in charge and the marine approach was discouraged, and eventually stopped. The Army made the situation worse by regularly using lots of artillery and bombing against guerillas fighting in villages and towns. This killed lots of civilians and, as the guerillas expected, made the civilians more hostile to Americans and the South Vietnamese government. In Afghanistan, the older American experience was recalled and applied. Civilian casualties were kept low and efforts were made to protect civilians, and let the civilians know it was Americans who were doing it.
Negotiate. In all pre-Vietnam insurgencies America was involved in, the negotiation angle was used early and often. Vietnam should have been no different, but the U.S. government saw this war as a quasi-religious crusade against communism, and no negotiation was allowed at the troop level. This didn't stop contacts and negotiation, especially between the South Vietnamese army and the South Vietnamese guerillas. The North Vietnamese were another, as they were more hard core and, like American troops, ordered not to negotiate with the enemy. The South Vietnamese guerillas (the Viet Cong) were never fully trusted by the North Vietnamese, largely became many of the Viet Cong were not communists. But even with these barriers to negotiation, the opportunities were still there, and on occasion more entrepreneurial and opportunistic Americans negotiated. Often the result was simply a local truce, but frequently the talks led to the guerillas changing sides. In the earlier American guerilla wars, negotiation was a powerful tool for ending the guerilla activity. But in Vietnam it was discouraged by the brass. In Afghanistan, the situation was quite different, with negotiation seen, from the beginning, as a valuable tool, and it was.
When All Else Fails…. If aggressive patrols, negotiation, generous terms and bribes aren't working against your most troublesome guerilla foes, there are other options. A century ago, Britain invented concentration camps to deprive Boer guerillas of support from friendly farmers. Most anti-guerilla operations sill make use of the ancient practice of taking (and sometimes killing) hostages. The hostages are usually relatives of the guerillas, especially those who are known to be particularly close to their families (some guerilla leaders could care less what you do with their kinfolk, so you have to choose your hostages carefully.) Torture is also considered a useful tool in some cases, although the real solution here is to simply get more skillful interrogators. Some of these tactics, like taking hostages, is frowned upon in most Western nations, but is still used widely in places like South Asia and the Middle East. In Pakistan, the chief suspect in the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl, was convinced to surrender after some of his kin were taken hostage by the Pakistani government. If you are fighting a movement that is threatening to use nuclear or chemical weapons against you, unpalatable measures become less so.
The biggest asset most guerilla movements have is the reluctance of professional soldiers to pay attention to the above tactics. Professional soldiers tend to feel that guerillas are a nuisance, at worst, and not a threat to regular troops. These attitudes tend to be remarkably persistent, and once the guerillas become a major threat it's often too late to do anything about it. Too bad, the solution has never been much of a secret.
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