Does the Guerilla trade space for time?

This is adapted from an war studies essay from a Second Year War Studies student.

It considers one specific facet of how guerrillas fight a protracted war.

Does the guerrilla trades space for time?

The concept of the guerrilla trading space for time can be considered slightly misleading, it is perhaps more apt to suggest that the guerrilla ‘loans’ space rather than ‘trades’ it. This is because to the Guerrilla the enemy only owns the land on which its soldiers stand. Further to this they believe that possession of territory is dictated by “political control of the population rather than military advance.”  Nevertheless the basic principle remains that space is used to generate more time in order to further conduct a guerrilla campaign. The theory can be seen prior to 1945 in the actions of T.E Lawrence in the Arab Revolt 1916-18 and discussed later in 1938 by Mao Zedong with regards to the Chinese Civil War. It was later adopted and adapted by strategists against the US forces and her allies in the Vietnam War and later in Afghanistan against Soviet Russia and more recently NATO forces. In essence it is a protracted war, whereby victory is achieved by not losing – “their objective in waging war is not necessarily to militarily defeat their larger, more powerful enemy, but impose a cost upon them that they will not want – or be able – to bear.”  However, there have been attempts to fight a guerrilla war using an alternate strategy based upon using speed and to an extent possession of territory. This is exhibited by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and later Regis Debray with the theory of the ‘foco’ which deviates from Maoist principles in consolidating and gaining power before entering into war, rather it promotes aggressive military action that will inspire popular support.

To understand the relationship the guerrilla has with space and time then one must look prior to 1945 to T.E Lawrence, who put into practice and codified many of the principles of guerrilla warfare during the Arab Revolt 1916-18. Although guerrilla insurgencies had occurred prior to the revolt it was Lawrence who established much of the philosophical foundations to facilitate such a strategy. He recognised the advantage geography gave him over the militarily superior Turkish forces, “space [was] greater than the power of armies.”  Noting that because the Turks did not have the manpower to control the entire land the Arabs could use their virtues of mobility to use the “silent threat of the vast unknown desert”  as a weapon. He links this to the philosophical and psychological elements required for success, “suppose we were… an influence, an idea, a thing intangible, invulnerable, without a front or back… Our Kingdom lay in each man’s mind.”  This is essentially stating that in a guerrilla campaign winning the minds of the populace will ultimately lead to victory and possession of territory.

The other important character in the development of guerrilla strategy is Mao Zedong and the three stages of protracted warfare that he developed. He wrote that “the first stage covers the enemy’s strategic offensive and our strategic defensive. The second will be the enemy’s strategic consolidation and our preparation for the counteroffensive. The third stage will be the period of our strategic counteroffensive and the enemy’s strategic retreat.” With regards to the enemy this means that they will move from “superiority to parity and the inferiority and [will go from] the offensive to the safeguarding of their gains and then to retreat.”   It is the second stage, which will be dominated by guerrilla warfare, meaning it is the most important in the protracted war since it is here that the nation will move from weakness to strength, enabling advancement to the third stage to destroy the enemy.

With this doctrine in place, Mao set to developing tactical guidelines that make transition through the three stages possible. Perhaps the most famous of these is the dictum “Fight when you can win, move away when you can’t win.”  This demonstrates how time and space are intrinsically linked to the guerrilla. Retreating from contact and relinquishing territory means the guerrilla can continue to sap the strength of enemy. Thus over time the enemy becomes weaker and the dynamic shifts to the guerrilla having military superiority. When this happens the insurgent moves to stage three and turns to conventional warfare to deal the final blow and defeat the enemy. Mao’s influence can be seen in Vietnam where American documentation shows this tactic is used by the Viet Cong, “When  faced  with  a  superior  force  the  Viet  Cong  normally  attempt to  break  contact  and  withdraw.” , this could not more perfectly reflect Mao’s dictum.

However, one criticism that could be directed at Mao is that he states “premature regularization is strictly prohibited.”  This though restricts the flexibility and fluidity of the guerrilla since it means that premature change equals the sacrifice of time and space and consequently failure. Conversely, it could be argued that being too conservative and delaying longer than necessary before advancing to the next stage is equally as damaging. It can prevent the guerrilla from using their initiative and taking advantage of a situation. The guerrilla movement in Cuba and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s concept of the ‘foco’ was an attempt to establish an alternate to Mao and premature regularization. Unlike Mao who believed in using time to gain popular support Guevara was of the opinion that the guerrilla could generate support through aggressive revolutionary action ‘It is not necessary to wait until all conditions for making revolution exist; the insurrection can create them.’  However, it would be dangerous to deduce from Cuban experience how to conduct a guerrilla war in other countries. Cuba can be seen as an exception where popular discontent was already very widespread, allowing such a strategy to be used. In Bolivia, Che Guevara attempted to use the same strategy, but he failed to recognise that discontent was not so extensive and was subsequently defeated.

This is not to say that Mao was correct in his belief on premature regularization. In the Vietnam War, the Tet offensive in 1968 was a turning point for the Vietnamese, bringing to light the weakness in Mao’s model. The offensive was an attempt to progress to conventional warfare but turned into a costly venture for the North Vietnamese, captured documents revealed “incomparable losses in manpower and equipment.”  This could have been disastrous and led to defeat for the North Vietnamese, but it did not. A revision of Mao’s doctrine enabled the Vietnamese to continue, instead of capitulating as would be assumed by Maoist theory. The Vietnamese reverted back to guerrilla tactics in order to maintain their existence. Showing that there can be fluidity between stages and premature advancement does not equal defeat.

The reason this was possible was because the Vietnamese leadership, under Ho Chi Mihn and General Giap recognised and used the philosophical and psychological features discussed by T.E Lawrence. They understood that this was a war of the minds, not of land, per se. Hence Colonel Tu’s response to Colonel Summers’ comment “you know you never defeated us in battle” with “that may be true but it is also irrelevant.”  This shows the difference between American and Vietnamese strategic cultures. The Americans perceived warfare through the Clausewitzian spectrum that “war is nothing but the continuation of political efforts by other means” , meaning that military success leads to political success. Whereas the Vietnamese took the opposite view, political victory is not dependant on military success but on psychological victory. It means that with the support of the populace they can continue a protracted war until the enemy submits. Time is the insurgent’s friend, but only if they have the necessary support, and use guerrilla tactics that can provide this vital time. As Lawrence stated if you are an ‘idea’ you are ‘intangible’. As long as the idea exists the guerrilla is not losing. This can be enough to bring victory, for time will defeat the enemy who cannot suffer the burden of war for as long as the insurgent.

Similar experiences in fluidity through the stages can be seen in Afghanistan, past and present. Insurgents in Afghanistan have demonstrated on two separate conflicts how to trade space for time. First in their struggle against Soviet Russia, 1979-1989 and currently the United States and her NATO allies, 2001- Date. When Russia invaded in 1979 the mujahedeen took to the mountains, leaving vast areas of territory to the Soviets. From here they used their intimate knowledge of the terrain to launch ambushes and raids on Soviet forces until eventually Russian political resolve broke and troops were withdrawn. In the current conflict, the Taliban are illustrating how guerrillas use time and space to achieve political victory despite being ousted from power in 2001. In spite of this, the Taliban, supported by the infamous al-Qaeda retreated to the mountains and into Pakistan, as has recently been brought to light with the discovery of Osama Bin Laden in the country.  From here they were able to re-consolidate their power and train new insurgents in the safety of knowing that NATO forces would not cross the border into Pakistan. With this security the insurgents have been able to launch a new campaign to regain power which is still being fought to date. Thus by relinquishing control of Afghanistan the Taliban have been able to remain as a political force. This strategy can be seen in other similar conflicts such as Algeria where the ALN were able to retreat to Tunisia, where they “organized and trained their men with impunity, safe from French counter-attacks.”

However, there are also examples of guerrillas using space for time without losing territory, per se. In the Vietnam War the Viet Cong used a tactic known as the ‘bear hug’, which aimed to prevent the Americans bringing down air and artillery fire on them. An example of this can be seen in from the observations of the 173d Airborne Brigade, “After contact was made with a VC battalion in well prepared positions, US forces were pulled back to allow friendly air and artillery fires to be placed on the forward VC positions. VC forces, utilizing a “hugging tactic,” left their positions and followed the US Forces to reduce effectiveness of friendly supporting fires.”  This is a divergence from typical guerrilla tactics, who were advised to “[hasten] to a place where there are no enemy troops” in order to “[get] out of difficult situations.”  This illustrates how the guerrilla can use both have territory and bide themselves more time since it can help dictate what the enemy can and cannot do. This though, is an exception, historically the guerrilla will retreat in the face of superior force.

In conclusion the guerrilla does trade space (in a physical sense) for time, by relinquishing territory the guerrilla is able to survive. But military domination of land is inconsequential since this is not how the guerrilla perceives possession. Possession of land is determined by the populace who live there, for it is they who will determine who is eventually victorious. With the support of the population the guerrilla is able to prosecute the war indefinitely, without it they face defeat, as shown in Bolivia. Space and time are weapons and this is best exemplified in the Vietnam and Afghan conflicts, where fluidity has ensured their survival and has resulted in Vietnamese victory and the continued resistance by the Taliban against NATO forces. The key reason for trading space for time is to keep the ‘idea’ alive, not the soldier, for time is a greater weapon. Trading space for time has been a widespread strategy of the guerrilla and it has certainly proved more effective for them to be patient, having more potential for success than the aggressive stance promoted by Che Guevara.


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