Guerrilla (also called a partisan) is a term borrowed from Spanish (from "guerra" meaning war) used to describe small combat groups. Guerrilla warfare operates with small, mobile and flexible combat groups called cells, without a front line. Guerrilla warfare is one of the oldest forms of asymmetric warfare. Primary contributors to modern theories of guerrilla war include Mao Zedong and Che Guevara. While "asymmetric warfare" is the military term for guerrilla tactics, it is often referred to in the pejorative as "terrorism."
The term was invented in Spain to describe the tactics used to resist the French regime instituted by Napoleon Bonaparte (one should however remember, that the tactics themselves were known and used even centuries earlier). The Spanish word means "little war". The Spanish word for guerrilla fighter is guerrillero. The change of usage from the tactics to the person implementing them is a late 19th century mistake. In most languages the word still denotes the style of warfare. However this is changing under the influence of the English usage.
Guerrilla tactics are based on ambush and sabotage, and their ultimate objective is usually to destabilize an authority through long, low-intensity confrontation. It can be quite successful against an unpopular foreign regime: a guerrilla army may increase the cost of maintaining an occupation or a colonial presence above what the foreign power may wish to bear.
However, guerrilla warfare has generally been unsuccessful against native regimes, which have nowhere to retreat to and are highly knowledgeable about their own people and their society and culture. The rare examples of successful guerrilla warfare against a native regime include the Cuban Revolution and the Chinese Civil War, as well as the Sandinista overthrow of a military dictatorship in Nicaragua. More common are the unsuccessful examples of guerrilla warfare, which include Malaysia, Bolivia, Argentina, and the Philippines. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), fighting for an independent homeland in the north and east of Sri Lanka, achieved significant military successes against the Indian Peacekeeping Forces (IPKF) sent to the island by Rajiv Gandhi to stabilize the situation, but waged a win-loss war against the Sri Lankan government itself for twenty years. The loss of their stronghold in the Jaffna Peninsula to government forces in December 1995 struck a blow to the Tigers' war morale, which culminated in their ceasefire following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Guerrillas in wars against foreign powers do not principally direct their attacks at civilians, as they desire to obtain as much support as possible from the population as part of their tactics. Civilians are primarily attacked or assassinated as punishment for collaboration. Often such an attack will be officially sanctioned by guerrilla command or tribunal. An exception is in civil wars, where both guerrilla groups and organized armies have been known to commit atrocities against the civilian population.
Guerrillas are often characterised as terrorists by their opponents. Guerrillas are in danger of not being recognized as combatants because they may not wear a uniform, (to mingle with the local population), or their uniform and distinctive emblems may not be recognised as such by their opponents. Article 44, sections 3 and 4 of the 1977 First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, "relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts", does recognise combatants who, due to the nature of the conflict, do not wear uniforms as long as they carry their weapons openly during military operations. This gives non-uniformed guerrillas lawful combatant status against countries that have ratified this convention.
Guerrilla warfare is classified into two main categories: urban guerrilla warfare and rural guerrilla warfare. In both cases, guerrillas rely on a friendly population to provide supply and intelligence. Rural guerrillas prefer to operate in regions providing plenty of cover and concealment, especially heavily forested and mountainous areas. Urban guerrillas, rather than melting into the mountains and jungles, blend into the population and are dependent on a support base among the people.
Foreign support in the form of soldiers, weapons, sanctuary, or, at the very least, statements of sympathy for the guerrillas can greatly increase the chances of victory for an insurgency, although it is not always necessary.
Maoist theory of people's war divides warfare into three phases. In the first phase, the guerrillas gain the support of the population through attacks on the machinery of government and the distribution of propaganda. In the second phase, escalating attacks are made on the government's military and vital institutions. In the third phase, conventional fighting is used to seize cities, overthrow the government and take control of the country.
Examples of successful guerrilla warfare:
In many cases, guerrilla tactics allow a small force to hold off a much larger and better equipped enemy for a long time, as in the Second Chechen War and the Second Seminole War.
Guerrillas in Europe
In centuries of history, many guerrilla movements appeared in Europe to fight foreign occupation forces. The tactis of Roman dictator Quintus Fabius Maximus against Hannibal could be considered a predecessor of guerilla tactics. During The Deluge in Poland most of guerrilla tactics were applied. In the 19th century, peoples of the Balkans used the tactics to fight the Ottoman empire.
Europe 1800 – 1900
In the Napoleonic Wars many of the armies lived off the land. This often led to some resistance by the local population if the army did not pay fair prices for produce they consumed. Usually this resistance was sporadic, and not very successful, so is not classified as guerrilla action. There are three notable exceptions though:
- The rebellion in the Tyrol of 1809 lead by Andréas Hofer.
- In Napoleon's invasion of Russia of 1812 two actions were ordered by Tsar Alexander which could be seen as initiating guerrilla tactics. The Burning of Moscow after it had been occupied by the Napoleon's Grand Army so depriving the French of shelter in the city is a classic guerrilla action. The second was his imperial command that the Russian serfs should attack the French, this did not so much spark a guerrilla war as encourage a revengeful slaughter.
- In the Peninsular War the British gave aid to the Spanish guerrillas who tied down tens of thousands of French troops. The British gave this aid because it cost them much less than it would have done to equip British soldiers to face the French troops in conventional warfare. This was one of the most successful partisan wars in history and is the origin of the word guerrilla in the English language.
The Poles used it during the January Uprising.
Europe 1900 – 2000
The wars between Ireland and Great Britain have been long and over the centuries have covered the full spectrum of the types of warfare. The Irish fought the first successful 20th century war of independence against the British Empire and the United Kingdom. After the military failure of the Easter Rising in 1916, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) resorted to guerrilla tactics involving both urban warfare and flying columns in the countryside during the Anglo-Irish War of 1919 to 1921. The British security forces were fought to a standstill and the government of the UK agreed to meet representatives of the Irish uprising to negotiate a settlement. The settlement which resulted — the Anglo-Irish Treaty — satisfied few. It created the Irish Free State of 26 counties as a dominion in the British Empire; the other 6 counties remained part of the UK. The IRA fought an unsuccessful civil war against the Irish free staters using tactics similar to those used against the British but lost. The partition of Ireland laid the seeds for the later troubles.
World War II
In World War II, several guerrilla organisations (often known as resistance movements) operated in the countries occupied by Nazi Germany. These included the Polish Home Army, Soviet partisans, Yugoslav partisans, French resistance or Maquis, Italian partisans, ELAS and royalist forces in Greece. Many of these organisations received help from the Special Operations Executive (SOE) which along with the commandos was initiated by Winston Churchill to ""set Europe ablaze". The SOE was originally designated as 'Section D' of MI6 but its aid to resistance movements to start fires clashed with MI6's primary role as an intelligence gathering agency. When Britain was under threat of invasion, SOE created Auxiliary Units to conduct guerrilla warfare in the event of invasion. Not only did SOE help the resistance to tie down many German units as garrison troops, so directly aiding the conventional war effort, guerrilla incidents in occupied countries were useful in the propaganda war, to help repudiate German claims that the occupied countries were pacified and broadly on the side of the Germans. When the USA entered the war the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) co-operated and enhanced the work of SOE as well as working on its own initiatives in the Far East.
Post World War II
After World War II, during 1940s and 1950s, thousands of fighters in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania participated in unsuccessful guerrilla warfare against Soviet occupation.
In the late 1960s the Troubles in Northern Ireland which had their seeds in the Anglo-Irish War started, they came to an end with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in the mid-1990s. The peace is fragile and it is too early to tell if a permanent end to the conflict has occurred and which group, if any, won. Although both loyalist and republican paramilitaries carried out terrorist atrocities against civilians which were often tit-for-tat, a case can be made for saying that attacks such as the Provisional IRA carried out on British soldiers at Warrenpoint in 1979 was a well planned guerrilla ambush  (http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/august/27/newsid_3891000/3891055.stm). The Provisional IRA, Loyalist paramilitaries and various anti-Good Friday Agreement splinter-groups could be called guerrillas but are usually called terrorists by both the British and Irish governments. The news media such as the BBC and CNN will often use the term "gunmen" as in "IRA gunmen"  (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/war/troubles/hungerstrikes/negotiations.shtml) or "Loyalist gunmen"  (http://www.cnn.com/almanac/9611/27/) committed a "terrorist" act. Since 1995 CNN also uses guerrilla as in "IRA guerrilla" and "Protestant guerrilla"  (http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/9712/27/n.ireland.killing/). Reuters, in accordance with its principle of not using the word terrorist except in direct quotes, refers to "guerrilla groups" (http://www.reuters.co.uk/newsPackageArticle.jhtml?type=topNews&storyID=584330§ion=news).
Currently, the Basque ETA and Corsican FLNC and other groups such as the Greek Marxist November 17 claim to be guerrillas, but are commonly recognized as terrorists since they almost exclusively murder civilians instead of attacking legitimate military targets, and this is how the governments and media of their respective countries prefer to refer to them.
The ongoing war between pro-independence groups under the in Chechnya and the Russian government is currently the most active guerrilla war in Europe. Most of the incidents reported by the Western news media are very gory terrorist acts against Russian civilians committed by Chechen separatists outside Chechnya. However within Chechnya the war has many of the characteristics of a classic guerrilla war. See the article History_of_Chechnya for more details.
Guerrillas in the American Revolutionary War
While the American Revolutionary War is often thought of as a guerrilla war, guerrilla tactics were uncommon, and almost all of the battles involved conventional set piece battles. Some of the confusion may be due to the fact that generals George Washington and Nathaniel Greene successfully used a strategy of harassment and progressively grinding down British forces instead of seeking a decisive battle. Nevertheless the theater tactics used by most of the American forces were those of conventional warfare. One of the exceptions was in the south, where the brunt of the war was upon militia forces who fought the enemy British troops and their Loyalist supporters, but used concealment, surprise, and other guerrilla tactics to much advantage. General Francis Marion of South Carolina, who often attacked the British at unexpected places, then would fade into the swamps by the time the British were able to get organized enough to return fire, was named by them The Swamp Fox. However, even in the south, most of the major engagements were set-piece battles of conventional warfare.
Guerrillas in the American Civil War
John Singleton Mosby formed a guerrilla unit during the American Civil War, which Mosby called his "Partisan Rangers".
In the late 20th century several historians have focused on the non-use of guerrilla warfare to prolong the war. Near the end of the war, there were those in the Confederate government, namely Jefferson Davis who advocated continuing the southern fight as a guerrilla conflict. He was opposed by generals such as Robert E. Lee who ultimately believed that surrender was better than guerrilla warfare.
Guerrillas in Latin America
In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Latin America had a number of urban guerrilla movements whose strategy was to destabilize regimes and provoke a counter-reaction by the military. The theory was that a harsh military regime would oppress the middle classes who would then support the guerrillas and create a popular uprising.
While these movements did destabilize governments, such as Argentina, Uruguay, Guatemala, and Peru to the point of military intervention, the military generally proceeded to completely wipe out the guerrilla movements, usually committing several atrocities among both civilians and armed insurgents in the process.
Several other Cuban-backed Marxist guerrilla movements attempted to overthrow US-backed right-wing dictatorships, whilst US-backed Contra guerrillas attempted to overthrow the left-wing democratic Sandinista government of Nicaragua.
Guerrillas and the Vietnam War
Within the United States, the Vietnam War is commonly thought of as a guerrilla war. However this is a simplification of a much more complex situation which followed the pattern outlined by Maoist theory.
The National Liberation Front (NLF), drawing its ranks from the South Vietnamese peasantry and working class, used guerrilla tactics in the early phases of the war. However, by 1965 when U.S. involvement escalated, the National Liberation Front was in the process of being supplanted by regular units of the North Vietnamese Army.
The NVA regiments organized along traditional military lines, were supplied via the Ho Chi Minh trail rather than living off the land, and had access to weapons such as tanks and artillery which are not normally used by guerrilla forces.
Over time, more of the fighting was conducted by the North Vietnamese Army and the character of the war become increasingly conventional. The final offensive into South Vietnam in 1975 was a completely conventional military operation with no elements of guerrilla warfare.
By the end of the Vietnam War, U.S.-led forces had killed or incapacitated a large share of the NLF's guerrilla fighters.
Guerrilla warfare in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Kurdish Northern Iraq
Guerrilla warfare formed an integral part of the campaigns in Kosovo in the late 1990s and Afghanistan in 2001, which created a unique style of warfare which combined low technology guerrilla warfare with high technology air power. In these campaigns, guerrilla fighters with coordination from special forces would engage the enemy forcing them to move out into the open where they could be destroyed using air power supplied by the United States. In both cases, the guerrillas were able to take advantage of their local knowledge and willingness to take casualties to great effect when supplemented by outside air power. In Kosovo the Kosovo Liberation Army, a separatist paramilitary, was aided by the NATO air forces. In Afghanistan numerous anti-Taliban militias (consisting of regular soldiers and guerrillas) were aided by US air power.
This formula was used again, in War on Iraq, against the Iraqi Army by Kurdish Peshmerga guerrillas with the aid of U.S. special forces and the U.S. Air Force.