In any discussion of insurgency, the works of Mao Tse-tung are unavoidable. His innovations resulted in “people’s war,” a formulation that lifted the asymmetric challenge from the tactical and military to the strategic and political. Mao was to irregular war what Napoleon and Clausewitz were to regular warfare. Yet today his insights are altogether ignored by Western analysts, who continue to look elsewhere for guidance.

The writings of Mao, however, are essential to achieving and maintaining success in the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. This article explains how Western analysts misinterpret Mao’s writings, the importance of understanding Mao’s approach to irregular challenges, and the implications Mao’s theories have on today’s counterinsurgency campaigns.

Failing to Understand Mao’s Thought
If there is any one error that hobbles the use of Mao, it is to focus strictly on the “military” aspects of his thought to the neglect of his other theories. The only widely read Maoist work, On Guerrilla Warfare, was in fact a 1937 training manual that was only a stepping stone to a much larger and more complex body of “people’s war” work. In his larger body of work, he stated the fundamental reality that all insurgency is strategically political and directed operationally through multiple lines of effort (only one of which was violence) toward mobilizing a challenge to the state (i.e., a counter-state) sufficient to dominate the correlation of forces.

Mao’s own framework was driven by the circumstances of China as he found it. The need to transition from guerrilla to regular warfare was because he knew in his circumstances that lesser forms of violence could never be decisive. When weak, insurgents wage the war of the weak, using terror and guerrilla warfare. The primary targets of violence during this strategic defensive stage are local notables and representatives of the state, as well as police and those who will rally the people against the insurgency. As the insurgents grow stronger, the neutralization of the military becomes the objective, with the goal to achieve strategic stalemate. Ultimately, the insurgents will go on the strategic offensive.

Strategic stalemate could only be achieved, Mao observed, through force-on-force action conducted by “regular” units. He called this mobile/maneuver warfare, which is also translated as “main force warfare.”[1] Terror and guerrilla warfare were not so much warfare as armed politics. Their use opened up control of the population to the counter-state and allowed it to engage in the same mobilization of population and resources as would the state itself. As this mobilization effort produced greater combat power, regularization occurred. Insurgent units could then prevent the government’s military from reclaiming areas that had become part of the counter-state. Having forced a stalemate, the insurgents could then complete their regularization and take the offensive.

This process is misrepresented in U.S. military publications (to include the recently released JP 3-24 Counterinsurgency Operations). These publications suggest that non-violent organizations build up to violence (Phase I, in U.S. military literature), then guerrilla warfare follows (Phase II), then conventional warfare culminates the process (Phase III). To the contrary, as Mao made clear time and again, violence is integral to all phases of insurgency. It is merely used at a level appropriate to the situation to eliminate resistance and government presence so that insurgent politics can produce mass and resource mobilization. Mao’s critique of Che Guevara’s foco approach was precisely that of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s apparent letter to Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi in Iraq: over-emphasis of violence to the neglect of political work. Violence, Mao stated, was but a weapon used by armed politicians and insurgents.

Mobilization, however, depends upon local circumstances, with local particulars often at variance with the larger organizational positions. If the insurgent organization is able to establish tight command and control (C2), it will dominate local activity. If the opposite holds, with local concerns holding sway, the “insurgency” will remain a welter of largely uncoordinated local actions.

Mao would be the first to point out two caveats. First, C2 is a function of time and space. An insurgency in its early stages does not have the form it will assume later. The U.S. mistake in Iraq, as an easy illustration, was to hold up the Viet Cong organization as a straw man, claiming that there were no lessons to be learned from Vietnam since that foe was hierarchical, while the Iraqi insurgents were not. This ignored the reality that all insurgencies look like Iraq early on, and that there is a constant drive by dominant players to establish tight C2 over dispersed, uncoordinated, and even rival elements.

The Afghan Taliban movement also fits this mold. It is still comprised of numerous local motivations and forces, but the dominant players seek unity. The present lack of unity creates the possibility of splitting the movement and is an important fact at this point in time, but Mao would correctly note that it is inevitable that greater C2 unity will be achieved (unless peculiar local circumstances dictate otherwise).

Second, Mao would argue that circumstances in Afghanistan and Iraq are different from those he faced because there were no U.S. forces present in China as the lynchpins of the conflict. The case of Vietnam, however, is more relevant. In this conflict, Mao supported the Vietnamese dual approach of using military power to shatter the South Vietnamese by breaking the will of the American interlopers. In this sense, producing American casualties in Vietnam, by whatever means, served to remove the critical element without which the indigenous forces could not survive.

In Iraq, “the surge” was the appropriate response to the conflict and prevented the insurgents from moving beyond IEDs and unfocused guerrilla action to anything more substantive. The several occasions when the insurgents did mass in larger numbers resulted in their decimation and exposed them further because the U.S. surge allowed troops to pursue them vigorously.

In contrast, in Afghanistan, the failure to implement the same process creates a situation where even U.S. platoons are at risk, with the forces of NATO far more endangered. Taliban units as large as 400 men have been identified in some areas, with complementary local presence demonstrated in incidents of terror and guerrilla action not unlike those of China or Vietnam. With the growing resources available from the drug trade and other support, the Afghan Taliban are regularizing at a rapid rate, which bodes ill for a status quo response to the situation.

Mao’s Approach to Irregular Challenges
To defeat insurgents, it is necessary to look at Mao’s approach to irregular challenges. Mao highlights that violence is critical to insurgencies. Yet it was not the most important element. The most important element was “the cause,” or the politics of the insurgent effort. Violence allowed “the cause” to advance, and it did so on five complementary and intertwined lines of effort: violence with politics, winning allies outside the movement, using non-violence to make violence more effective, and international efforts.

These lines of effort are the “answers” to five questions a counterinsurgent must ask of any irregular challenge:

1. What is the political content of the movement?
2. Who are its domestic allies?
3. How is it using violence?
4. How is it using non-violence?
5. What is it doing internationally?

In representing his “answers” to these questions, Mao used a synthesis of terminology and concepts drawn from individuals such as Jomini and Clausewitz (whom he had read in translation) and key Marxist-Leninists (especially Lenin and Trotsky). Of greatest value was his use of lines of effort and campaigns/battles.[2]

Although U.S. manuals utilize decision-points as the constituent elements on lines of operation/effort, Mao would use the Marxist-Leninist term “struggles.” A series of struggles (i.e., battles) thus comprises a “campaign,” as it would in conventional usage.  Lines of effort, in turn, are comprised of these campaigns, which move through time and space.

Mao saw the political line of effort comprised of two struggles (campaigns): popular and resource mobilization. Furthermore, any struggle, he wrote, would have numerous smaller struggles (sub-campaigns in Western literature). In perhaps his greatest insight, he observed that these unfolded not only on the ground (tangible space) but in the mind (intangible space). Every act had to be considered for both its immediate effects (e.g., assassinating a recalcitrant village elder) and its follow-on effects (e.g., the fear generated from the assassination). Such assessment was carried out at all levels of planning (tactical, operational, and strategic) and was implemented perhaps to its pinnacle by the Vietnamese.[3]

What was particularly dazzling was Mao’s use of multiple frameworks in his conceptualization process. He had no trouble, as noted above, using standard military terminology and concepts for violence. Battles along a line of operation became a campaign, and a series of campaigns executed a military strategy. Simultaneously, he used appropriate political vocabulary and ideas to discuss struggles merging into campaigns, unfolding as efforts directed in time and space (i.e., lines of effort). The non-violence line of effort, which was called “political warfare,” was perhaps the most complex because its struggles could be conceptualized in a variety of different ways. What Mao found most useful, however, was to use the target audiences as the objects of struggles. This decoupled these campaigns from their delivery systems. “Information warfare,” to use a particularly apt example, was not a campaign, only a means to influence a target audience, which simultaneously was being influenced by other means (e.g., subversion, which was included within political warfare). [4] U.S. leadership never understood the relationship between the non-violence line of effort and the other lines of effort. This should not be a surprise because operational art itself entered U.S. usage only relatively recently through the study of the Soviet Union.

It is principally “others” who have grasped the implications of Mao’s insights and their meaning for counterinsurgency. Peru and Colombia are two clear cases. In fact, most insurgencies are unsuccessful, and they fail precisely because they fail to advance simultaneously along the five lines of effort outlined by Mao. FARC, for instance, adopted people’s war as its warfighting doctrine yet consistently overemphasized the violence line of effort. It became a large foco in search of a mass base, thus a perfect target for a multifaceted, whole-of-government response by the state.

The FARC case illustrates that, whether Maoist or not, insurgencies must pursue the Maoist strategic essentials as realized in operational art. Although each state that has achieved victory has done so in a particular manner, appropriate to its national circumstances (especially culture), ample evidence exists to demonstrate that the assessment that led to correct adaptation followed the analytical outline already discussed. Analysis of insurgent strategy and operational art led to detailed plans intended to neutralize the identified elements.

This is where the value of Mao’s analysis lies today. It is all but a truism to observe that each insurgency is different. Nevertheless, Mao has provided an approach which, when turned inside out, allows insight into any insurgent project (and any irregular challenge). Beyond all else, counterinsurgency must be built upon political mobilization enabled by security. The more that the irregular challenge veers toward pure terrorism and divorces itself from a mass base, the more relevant traditional “hearts and minds” activity will become (“wells, roads, and shots”). The closer the challenge is to implementing fully Mao’s five lines of effort, the more good governance rooted in legitimacy must be the state’s response.

The reality that the strategic quest for legitimacy is the heart of the matter is often said, but little understood. It was the conundrum faced by the United States in Vietnam, where a contest of Vietnamese nationalisms, communist and noncommunist, saw advantage go to the former due to the latter being fatally wounded by corruption and inefficiency. The United States tried unsuccessfully for a decade (1955-65) to support nation-building, then intervened directly with regular forces (1965-73) in an effort to change the correlation of forces. In contrast, the Taiwan advisory mission of only dozens sought to reinforce “will” by emphasizing activities that comprised campaigns on the non-violence line of effort. It sought to emphasize “why we fight” programs and actions to build legitimacy that would allow enhanced national mobilization.

Not surprisingly, “why we fight” remains the heart of the challenges the United States faces around the globe. It is significant that the most salient illustration of an answer—transparent and effective governance by a democratic, market economy state—has been provided by Colombia, a country in which the United States has been intimately involved since World War II. Bogota grasped the heart of the matter and built success. That success first came from a sound assessment of the flawed adoption of the people’s war approach by FARC within a rapidly changing global context; second, through mobilizing the inherent strengths of a democratic order. The strategy of “Democratic Security” used lines of effort that neutralized FARC’s own strategy and operational art even as popular mobilization swamped the insurgents.

Asked at one point what “counterinsurgency philosophy” he was following, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe noted that he was only engaging in politics, determining the needs of the people and then rallying them behind programs that addressed those needs. Since the system had legitimacy, the people were willing to support it in its effort to neutralize the counter-state, which in turn was built upon winning the myriad local wars. In that final effort, the central weapon was the approximately 600 platoons of the Home Guard, or “Peasant Soldiers.” Even the political opposition supported the state’s effort, and an array of nonviolent efforts complemented violence. Abroad, Colombian representatives spoke with one voice when it came to the legitimacy of the democratic order. It was a Colombian people’s war that overwhelmed the increasingly externally sustained, dwindling forces of FARC. Tactical shifts, such as greater emphasis upon special operations, could then follow.

These are the lessons for counterinsurgent forces today, whether dealing with global insurgency or its individual theaters. Bin Ladin and his al-Qa`ida project are neo-Guevarist, but in localities it is often people’s war that dominates “terrorist” strategy and operational art. As a result, it is a balanced, multifaceted response, appropriate to the local level, however defined, that will produce victory. Armed reform must be the counter to revolutionary warfare. Success is never merely protection of the status quo, but the building of a new world that is superior to the vision advanced by the revolutionary challenger. Mao would be the first to admit that the devil is in the details, but he would conclude that tactics are meaningless in the absence of sound strategy and operational art driven by an accurate and penetrating analysis of the conflict.

Dr. Thomas A. Marks is a political risk consultant based in Honolulu and the author of several benchmark works on Maoist insurgency, including Maoist People’s War in Post-Vietnam Asia (Bangkok, 2007) and Counterrevolution in China: Wang Sheng and the Kuomintang (London, 1998).

[1]  Mao repeated constantly in all his work that guerrilla units could not be decisive and had to “regularize” to become copies of regular government units (i.e., battalions, regiments, armies). Simultaneously, however, he emphasized that the transition was a delicate balancing act driven by the need of guerrilla warfare to mobilize the people even while neutralizing government regular forces. The terms “main forces” and “regular forces” ultimately came to be used as synonyms as the Vietnamese favored the first term.

[2]  To be clear, this reading of Mao is the author’s, as discussed in his various works on the subject, especially his most recent book, Maoist People’s War in Post-Vietnam Asia (Bangkok: White Lotus, 2007). The subject of just what and who Mao consulted remains a neglected topic of research. It is not altogether clear, for instance, that he actually wrote On Guerrilla Warfare, as opposed to putting his name on a staff product.

[3]  The best discussions remain those of Douglas Pike, Viet Cong (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1966) and Douglas Pike, PAVN (Novato, CA: Da Capo Press, 1986).

[4]  Also used to translate the Chinese “political warfare” is the term “allegiance warfare,” which is that used by Monte Bullard in his excellent The Soldier and the Citizen: The Role of the Military in Taiwan’s Development (Armonk, NY: ME Sharpe, 1997). His earlier work on the institutionalization of political warfare in China may be found in Monte Bullard, China’s Political-Military Evolution: The Party and the Military in the PRC, 1960-1984 (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1985). Concerning the Chinese “PolWar” system, see Edward C. O’Dowd, Chinese Military Strategy in the Third Indochina War: The Last Maoist War (New York: Routledge, 2007).

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