Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Paper written for Command and General Staff College

The Emergence of Global Revolutionary Warfare


The United States has effectively changed the methods of modern warfare by gaining an overwhelming technological advantage in conventional weapons. This advantage in conventional warfare has given rise or renewed emphasis to revolutionary warfare. For the purposes of this paper, revolutionary warfare is defined as the “application of irregular warfare methods to the propagation of an ideology or political system.”[1] As elusive as the term is, revolutionary warfare maintains common characteristics which include the establishment of safe havens, dramatic engagements of the superior force, and protraction of the conflict.

Through the garnering of such great military power the United States has, for most intents and purposes, rendered conventional warfare obsolete. The destructive power of the United States military is so great that even a force of similar power would avoid engaging it due to the vastness of the mutual destruction. It would appear that we are approaching on conventional terms what was achieved only through nuclear weapons in the past. “One school of thought argues that revolutionary war has flourished in the nuclear age precisely because new weapons have made was between great military powers impossible or too dangerous. Corollary arguments are that the great powers, ponderously armed for a big war have left themselves vulnerable to the tactics of revolutionary war.” [2] Referring to the Viet-Minh in the French-Indochina war, French Air Force general said “One could ask the question whether – by depriving them of an air force and by allotting them miserly amounts of artillery, heavy weapons, and ammunition – the masters of the Communist world did not want to force the (Viet-Minh) to discover and practice warfare methods which are capable of stalemating the most modern Western armaments short of mass destruction weapons.”[3] While the overwhelming display of firepower and technology of Desert Storm did much to enhance the bravado of the US military, it taught potential adversaries that in order to achieve any type of success against a major conventional force, as many of these advantages as possible must be denied. Subsequent military actions in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo showed not only that modern technology can be marginalized in urban and austere environments, but more importantly US tolerance for casualties was remarkably small without overwhelming public support.

It has also been stated that “Revolution” in its simplest terms, is the “…seizure of political power by the use of armed force.” [4] While the United States did not hold specific political power in Afghanistan, Somalia, Bosnia, or Iraq, by virtue its status as the sole remaining superpower and the willingness and ability of the US to project it’s military power, it can be argued to be the de facto political power which must be defeated in order to seize or retain power in any of it’s areas of influence around the world. This being the case, the United States must be drawn into conflict so as to be firmly established as the political power in public opinion before engaging in revolutionary warfare. Contrary to the common view of revolutionary war, the desired end state is not the seizure of political power but rather the limiting of the United States ability to project power. Military force is only as powerful as the political power to project it.
These conflicts, as well as others around the world such as Chechnya, were the embryonic stage of the emerging/re-emerging the revolutionary warfare doctrine. It has been stated that “revolutionary war is also distinguished by what it is not. It is not “war” in the generally understood sense of the word, not international war or war between nations…”[5], but the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 signaled its shift to a global scale.
Safe havens were identified as a geopolitical requisite for successful revolution by Bernard Fall in his 1961 work of the French-Indochina war of the 1950s, Street Without Joy stating “Probably the most important such condition (for revolutionary war) is the existence…an active sanctuary. An active sanctuary is a territory contiguous to a rebellious area which though not ostensibly involved in the conflict, provides the rebel side with shelter, training, facilities, equipment, and if it can get away with it – troops.”[6]

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Osama Bin Laden led Al Queda organization was quickly pointed to as being responsible. It was widely known by US intelligence sources that Al Queda operated out of Afghanistan where the ruling Taliban provided the “active sanctuary” described by Fall. Here, the emerging doctrine separates itself from previous conventional theories of revolutionary warfare. Fall goes on to state that the active sanctuary came into being as a result of the Cold War for the simple reason that the nations providing such services to a rebellion could always count upon one (or even both) of the two superpowers to protect them from the direct reprisals that would have been their fate at almost any other moment of history. There would be no protection for the Taliban, and the response of the United States was as brutal and swift as it was predictable. It is possible that both the Taliban and Al Queda considered a full scale attack and ensuing occupation and regime change in Afghanistan by the United States as unlikely due to the limited US intelligence and logistical assets in the area. It is also possible that Al Queda and the Taliban did not expect the level of success achieved in the September 11 attacks and incorrectly calculated that the US would retaliate with cruise missile and air strikes as had been the precedent through most of the 1990s. It is most probable though that Bin Laden’s Al Queda was planning on the level of success achieved or more, and with the Taliban unaware of the plans, Bin Laden was willing to sacrifice the safe haven of Afghanistan (possibly in favor of Pakistan) in order to achieve his end which included eliciting a full scale US invasion.

Once the United States had committed forces, protraction of the conflict became the lynchpin to success for the revolutionary forces. It has now become a war of attrition, and this is revolutionary warfare in the classic sense. Marshal Tran Hung Dao, leader of the Vietnamese army at the time, wrote in 1278 “The enemy must fight his battles far from his home base for a long time…We must further weaken him by drawing him into protracted campaigns. Once his initial dash is broken, it will be easier to destroy him.” [7] Tran’s strategies relied on depriving attacking Mongol armies of food stores and supplies while stretching its logistical trail; problems which modern US forces surmount with technology and equipment. The US forces are highly dependent on political and public support for continued military operations though, and it is this supply that the application of Tran’s strategy by Al Queda hopes to exhaust through a protracted campaign.

In order to combat this doctrine, historical lessons for achieving success in revolutionary warfare must be learned and applied. “… there is only one way to eliminate (war) and that is to oppose war with war, to oppose counter-revolutionary war with revolutionary war...”[8]. Prior to the invasion of Afghanistan, “[US Secretary of State, Colin] Powell had already told [President] Bush that whatever action he took, [in Afghanistan] it could not be done without Pakistan’s support. So the Pakistanis had to be put on notice.”[9] This was an overt action to eliminate Pakistan as a safe haven.
Most importantly, it must be exceptionally clear that success in the conflict can not be achieved without popular support. “All this differs radically from the American emphasis on guerilla techniques alone and the almost total discounting of the primacy of the political factor in revolutionary warfare operations.”[10] in that “…the overthrowing of a government established in a given country and it’s replacement by another regime…(must be accomplished) thanks to the active participation of the population, conquered physically and morally by simultaneously destructive and constructive processes, according to precisely-developed techniques.”[11] We currently see this being enacted in Operation Iraqi Freedom where military commanders in the theater are briefing kilowatts of power, potable water, medical resources, and schools available to the public as metrics for gauging success. Only by providing a higher and sustainable quality of life than previously enjoyed, can the occupying force hope to gain the public opinion and the subsequent cooperation of the local population. The public opinion of the local population is the fulcrum upon which the success or failure of the entire campaign balances.
There are very few instances in recent military history which were decided by a conventional and definitive end to hostilities. With the proliferation of nuclear weapons among more and more nations, the days of unconditional surrenders and victory parades are likely gone forever. The future battlefield is in the cultures and economies of the world. The ability to overwhelm hostile forces must be coupled with both the ability and desire to project a thriving economy upon the vanquished nation in an exceptionally short period of time. The difficulty of this task is overwhelming, it is incumbent upon the attacker to not only defeat the military power of the enemy, but do it in a gentle enough way so the hostile forces may truly believe that defeat is actually in their best interest.

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