How Irregular Wars Changed Our World

Originally published in United Academics Magazine on January 28, 2013.

Guerrillas, raiders and terrorists are from all times and their methods offer valuable military lessons, especially in our modern era of unconventional wars.

Some wars are waged without large and well-organized armies but still have great effect. Only think about the nineteen al-Qaeda hijackers in the US who managed to start a world-wide War on Terror in 2001 or the groups of angry civilians in the Arab Spring who overthrew their repressive governments the last two years.

According to John Arquilla, professor of Defence Analysis at the US Naval Postgraduate School in California, similar “irregular” wars have happened in the past, although they received little attention in the history books. With his latest book Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits: How Masters of Irregular Warfare Have Shaped Our World, which appeared last year, he has tried to fill this gap. In an interview he said: ‘While everybody knows the great captains of traditional warfare like Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte and Frederick the Great, nobody really knows the great captains of irregular warfare and it’s about time, especially in an age where there are two dozen wars going on around the world and not one of them is a conventional one.’

Unknown Masters

Who has heard of Robert Rogers, Francisco Espozy Mina or Vo Nguyen Giap? Arquilla argues these masters of irregular warfare played crucial roles during the emergence of the United States, the defeat of Napoleon in Europe and the success of the locals in the Vietnam War. In his book, he tells their stories and that of fifteen other influential guerrillas, raiders, and counterinsurgents of the past 250 years.

Arquilla’s favourite example is the German General and gentleman Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, who led resistance in Germany’s East-African colony (present day Tanzania) during World War I. ‘With a few hundred German soldiers and a few thousand native Astaris, he defended the whole colony extremely skilfully for four years,’ Arquilla said. ‘He tied up hundreds of thousands of allied troops and nearly a million porters – the Allies had to have porters carrying their weapons and supplies because there were no roads there in the whole theatre of war – and he pointed out how small groups, operating fairly independently, could still be mutually supportive and could create enormous problems for a conventional army.’ After the British gave notice of Germany’s surrender to von Lettow in 1918, they asked him to share with them the supplies he had just plundered from a British depot because they were near-starving.

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck
German General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (1913) who fought a very successful guerrilla war against allied forces in East-Africa in World War I. (Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R05765. Foto: o. Ang. | 1913).

A more recent example of a successful guerrilla-type operation is the first US strike at the Taliban in Afghanistan, immediately after 9/11 . ‘In Afghanistan we were at our very best when we were the insurgents,’ Arquilla said. ‘In the late fall of 2001 we simply had eleven American special forces A-teams in Afghanistan, about 200 soldiers. You can mix a very small ground force with air power and achieve remarkable results.’

The US Green Berets, outnumbered forty to one, teamed up with local Afghan warlords and pursued (partly on horseback!) the Taliban across the mountainous Afghan terrain and, with significant air support, were able to defeat them in a matter of months. After this irregular phase of the war, thousands of American troops arrived and the situation changed from invasion to occupation of the country. Roles reversed and the Americans became the governing power and the Taliban the insurgents, and this still causes problems to this day.

Bart Decker on horseback
American Air Force Combat Controller Bart Decker on horseback with Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan. The U.S. successfully used guerrilla techniques immediately after 9/11 when fighting the Taliban. (Photo taken by Chris Spence, 5th Special Forces Group, 2001).

Small Units, Innovative Ways

What exactly makes warfare irregular and what makes the irregulars so effective? ‘A central aspect,’ Arquilla wrote in his book, ‘is the employment of small military units in innovative ways, primarily against larger, more traditional formations.’ These units can consist of guerrillas (also called insurgents), terrorists or special forces and their tactics include ambushes, sabotage and raids.

Their effectiveness is explained by ‘their relative invulnerability to attacks on their supplies, their ease of movements, their stealth or their ability to strike again and again by surprise,’ Arquilla said. ‘So in a lot of ways, classical military calculations are overturned by this, as I call it the “reverse mathematics” of irregular warfare,’ he said. ‘The very things that are associated with the strength of conventional forces, are actually things that make them quite vulnerable and the things that make irregular forces look vulnerable, are actually things that feed into their strengths.’

Viet Cong tunnel complex
A typical Viet Cong tunnel complex during the Vietnam war (1960 – 1970). (Sources: People’s Army of Vietnam & U.S. Army Records).

When asked about the success of irregular warfare through history, David Kilcullen, senior counterinsurgency advisor for General David Petraeus in 2007 (the commander of the multi-national force in Iraq at the time) answered: ‘It depends how you define success.’ Dr. Kilcullen is a leading theorist on counterinsurgency, a former lieutenant colonel of the Australian army and now runs his own strategy consultancy firm in Washington D.C.

‘Typically in the counterinsurgency literature we define success as the insurgency successful overthrows the government that it is challenging and then sort of becomes the government,’ he said. ‘If you look at success in that very black and white definition, than actually insurgents success rate is only about 20%.’

However, it turns out that when the government wins, they often had to modify some key element of their policy or they had to make a big accommodation with the grievances of a part of the population. ‘So I think if you code success a little differently, and you include forcing the government to make significant policy changes that deal with your grievance, the success rate is much higher. Then it’s probably around 50%,’ Kilcullen said.

Fighting Us Because We Were There

Another fascinating insight that Kilcullen got during his many foreign military deployments concerns the motivation of insurgents. He wrote about this in his 2009 book The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One.

‘A lot of the people that were fighting us in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and a bunch of other places, were fighting us because we were there,’ he said. ‘They weren’t fighting us because they had something against the West, but because international forces turned up in their country to deal with a small terrorist threat and threw their country into turmoil.’

As an analogy, Kilcullen says to imagine that you live in a poor part of town and a gang moves into your area and they start robbing the rich people on the other side of town. The gang is not harming you and you don’t necessarily support them, nor are you in favour of them, but mainly you don’t care about them because they are not targeting you. But then the police come into your area to find that gang and they start blowing up people’s houses and arresting people because they don’t have enough information to find the gang members, and they have to do a large-scale search. Then the police is hurting you and becomes the enemy.

‘If you look at Bin Laden’s writing,’ said Kilcullen, ‘one of the things that he wrote in 2004 was that his strategy was exactly that’. He was going to send small numbers of radicals into different parts of the world which would make the West come after them. This would bog the West down in a series of large-scale military interventions of which they would eventually get tired so that he could bleed them dry and achieve his long-term objectives. ‘So we were actually, in the early part of the War on Terrorism, playing directly into the hands of that al-Qaeda strategy by going in,’ said Kilcullen.

The Future of Warfare

Kilcullen believes Western militaries should change their focus to improve matters. According to him, irregular wars have always been regarded as less important than state-on-state conflicts, despite the fact that, the last couple of centuries, over 80% of conflicts on the planet have been irregular. Considering the extremely severe consequences of large conventional conflicts (think World War I and II), this is understandable, but it is time for change. ‘I think we tended to optimize for state-on-state conflicts and adapt to irregular warfare,’ he said, ‘but what we should be doing is optimizing for irregular warfare and hedging with certain capabilities against the possibility that there might be a conventional conflict. We need to reverse the polarity.’

This does not mean much in terms of budgets and equipment in his opinion. ‘It doesn’t make much difference from a hardware standpoint,’ he said. ‘It’s really a software difference. It’s training and doctrine and the selection and recruitment of people that are mature enough to operate in these different environments.’

John Arquilla believes a more radical transformation is needed. ‘Every day, the U.S. military spends $1.75 billion, much of it on big ships, big guns, and big battalions that are not only not needed to win the wars of the present, but are sure to be the wrong approach to waging the wars of the future,’ he wrote in the magazine Foreign Policy in 2010.

Things could be cheaper, smaller and smarter, and the way for the US military to achieve this, is by becoming irregular themselves, he believes. Instead of a strategy of “shock and awe” and the Powell doctrine of “overwhelming force”, they should move from a few big units, to many small ones. They should use a more network-like command structure with much autonomy in individual units, not unlike how al-Qaeda operates, and they should use a “swarming” approach which is a form of attack undertaken by small units coming from several directions or hitting many targets at the same time.

It seems that every few decades the nature of warfare changes, often as a result of new technologies like the machine gun, tanks, planes, radio or the invention of nuclear weapons. The main innovation of the last two decades has been information technology and in 1996 Arquilla, with his colleague David Ronfeldt, coined the term “netwar” to describe the world’s emerging form of network-based conflict. ‘Before the Internet and the World Wide Web, a terrorist network operating cohesively in more than 60 countries could not have existed,’ he wrote in Foreign Policy. Militaries are notoriously slow in adapting to new circumstances but he thinks that if the West now fully embraces the principles of networking and the other successful techniques of irregular warfare, they should prevail.


Arquilla, J. (2011). Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits: How Masters of Irregular Warfare Have Shaped Our World. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.

Kilcullen, D. (2009). The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stanton, D. (2009). Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan. New York: Scribner.

Back to Science features

Share this:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *