Guerrilla warfare is the irregular warfare and combat in which a small group of combatants use mobile military tactics in the form of ambushes and raids to combat a larger and less mobile formal army.
The term means "little war" in Spanish and has been in use since at least the 18th century. The concept acknowledges a conflict between armed civilians against a powerful nation state army, either foreign or domestic and uses tactics such as ambush, sabotage and mobility in attacking vulnerable targets in enemy territory. The tactics of guerrilla warfare were used successfully in the second half of the 20th century by -- among others -- the People's Liberation Army in the Chinese Civil War, Fidel Castro's rebel army in the Cuban Revolution, and by the Viet Cong, the North Vietnam Army in the Vietnam War, by the Polisario Front in the Western Sahara War, the Kosovo Liberation Army in the Kosovo War, and the Irish Republican Army during the Irish War of Independence. Most factions of the Iraqi Insurgency, Colombia's FARC, and the Communist Party of India (Maoist) are said to be engaged in some form of guerrilla warfare — as was, until recently, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist).
Guerrilla (Spanish pronunciation: [ɡeˈriʎa]) is the diminutive of the Spanish word guerra "war". It derives from the Old High German word Werra or from the middle Dutch word warre; adopted by the Visigoths in A.D. 5th century Hispania.
In War and Peace (written in 1865-1869, in part about Napoleon's invasion of Russia), Leo Tolstoy says that guerilla warfare is named after the Guerillas in Spain. He appears to be referring to a specific group that used guerilla warfare in a war fought in Spain before the 1860s. That war began in 1808 with the ocupation of Spain by Napoleon's French army. Bands of guerillas (so named; one of the most important led by Juan Martin Diez) and the regular Spanish army both fought Napoleon. Our modern word "guerilla" traces its origin to these bands in this war. These guerillas were very effective in fighting Napoleon. Their principal function was to disrupt the supply and communication lines of the French army by intercepting messages and by seizing convoys of supplies, arms, and money. They did so much damage to Napoleon's army that Joseph Leopold Hugo, a French general, was ordered to "pursue exclusively" Diez and his guerrillas. According to Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, the word "guerilla" was first used as a noun in 1809 and as an adjective in 1811.
Guerrillero is the Spanish word for guerrilla fighter, while in Spanish-speaking countries the noun guerrilla usually denotes guerrilla army (e.g. la guerrilla de las FARC translates as "the FARC guerrilla group"). Moreover, per the OED, 'the guerrilla' was in English usage (as early as 1809), describing the fighters, not only their tactics (e.g."the town was taken by the guerrillas"). However, in most languages guerrilla still denotes the specific style of warfare.
The use of the diminutive evokes the differences in number, scale, and scope between the guerrilla army and the formal, professional army of the state.
‘The enemy is infinitely inferior to the King’s Troop in open space, and hardy combat, is well fitted by disposition and practice, for the stratagems of enterprises of Little War...upon the same principle must be a constant rule, in or near woods to place advanced sentries, where they may have a tree or some other defence to prevent their being taken off by a single marksman.'
So conscious of hidden marksmen was Burgoyne that he asked his men, ‘When the Lieutenant General visits an outpost, the men are not to stand to their Arms or pay him any compliment’, clearly being aware he would be singled out.
The strategy and tactics of guerrilla warfare tend to focus around the use of a small, mobile force competing against a large, unwieldy one. The guerrilla focuses on organizing in small units, and may be dependent on the support of the local population.
Tactically, the guerrilla army would avoid any confrontation with large units of enemy troops, but seek and eliminate small groups of soldiers to minimize losses and exhaust the opposing force. Personnel as well as resources are preferred targets. The main focus of a guerrilla army is to weaken the enemy's strength; to degrade their numbers and lower morale, forcing them to withdraw.
Guerrillas may also disguise themselves as members of the civilian population, in order to make it more difficult for enemy troops to identify them.
Since Classical Antiquity, when many strategies and tactics were used to fight foreign occupation that anticipated the modern guerrilla. An early example was the hit-and-run tactics employed by the nomadic Scythians of Central Asia against Darius the Great's Persian Achaemenid Empire and later against Alexander the Great's Macedonian Empire.
The Fabian strategy applied by the Roman Republic against Hannibal in the Second Punic War could be considered another early example of guerrilla tactics: After witnessing several disastrous defeats, assassinations and raiding parties, the Romans set aside the typical military doctrine of crushing the enemy in a single battle and initiated a war of attrition against the Carthaginians that lasted until a change in leadership followed by the famous Battle of Cannae.
In expanding their own Empire, the Romans encountered numerous examples of guerrilla resistance to their legions as well. The success of Judas Maccabeus in his rebellion against Seleucid rule was at least partly due to his mastery of irregular warfare.
The victory of the Basque forces against Charlemagne's army in the Battle of Roncevaux Pass, which gave birth to the Medieval myth of Roland, was due to effective use of a guerrilla principles in the mountain terrain of the Pyrenees. Mongols also faced irregulars composed of armed peasants in Hungary after the Battle of Mohi. The various castles provided power bases for the Hungarian resistance fighters; while the Mongols devastated the countryside, the Mongols were unable to take the castles and walled cities. The Hungarians eventually ambushed and destroyed the Mongol rearguard troops, two toumens, at Carpathian mountains 1242, where light horse is at disadvantage because of terrain.
One of the most successful of the guerrilla campaigns was that of Robert the Bruce in the Scottish War of Independence when using strategies of ambushes, avoiding large battles, destroying enemy strongholds and using a scorched earth policy, the Scots forced the English out of Scotland without a single largescale battle until the Battle of Bannockburn eight years after the start of the war.
In the 15th century, Vietnamese leader Le Loi launched a guerrilla war against the Chinese. One of the most successful guerrilla wars against the invading Ottomans was led by Skanderbeg from 1443 to 1468. In 1443 he rallied Albanian forces and drove the Turks from his homeland. For 25 years Skanderbeg kept the Turks from retaking Albania, which due to its proximity to Italy, could easily have served as a springboard to the rest of Europe. In 1462, the Ottomans were driven back by Wallachian prince Vlad III Dracula. Vlad was unable to stop the Turks from entering Wallachia, so he resorted to guerrilla war, constantly organizing small attacks and ambushes on the Turks.
During the Deluge in Poland, guerrilla tactics were applied. In the 100 years war between England and France, commander Bertrand du Guesclin used guerrilla tactics to pester the English invaders. The Frisian warlord Pier Gerlofs Donia fought a guerrilla conflict against Philip I of Castile and with co-commander Wijerd Jelckama against Charles V.
During the Dutch Revolt of the 16th century, the Geuzen waged a guerrilla war against the Spanish Empire. During the Scanian War, a pro-Danish guerrilla group known as the Snapphane fought against the Swedes. In Balkan tradition, the Hajduk was an outlaw who engaged in robbery and guerrilla warfare against the Turks.
In 17th century Ireland, Irish irregulars called tories and rapparees used guerrilla warfare in the Irish Confederate Wars and the Williamite War in Ireland. Finnish guerrillas, sissis, fought against Russian occupation troops in the Great Northern War, 1700-1721. The Russians retaliated brutally against the civilian populace; the period is called Isoviha (Grand Hatred) in Finland.
In the 17th century, Marathas on the Indian peninsula under their leader Shivaji waged successful guerrilla war against the Mughal Empire then founded the Maratha Empire which lasted until superseded by the British Empire.
In the 17th and 18th century, Sikh fighters in the Punjab region waged successful guerrilla warfare against Mughal, Persian and Afghan invasions, until they founded the powerful Sikh empire under Ranjit Singh.
In 1808, when Napoleon's army began its occupation of Spain, bands of guerillas that formed spontaneously were very effective in fighting the army. Our modern word "guerilla" comes from these bands fighting in Spain (see Etymology above).
In the Irish War of Independence in 1919-21, guerrilla warfare was used in a successful attempt to allow Ireland to set up its own parliament and to leave the United Kingdom. However the same tactics failed to overthrow the Anglo-Irish Treaty in the Guerrilla Phase of the Irish Civil War.
Many clandestine organizations (often known as resistance movements) operated in the countries occupied by Germany during the World War II. The first guerrilla commanders in the Second World War in Europe was Major Henryk Dobrzański "Hubal". In March 1940, a partisan unit lead by Hubal completely destroyed a battalion of German infantry in a skirmish near the village of Huciska. In the former Yugoslavia, guerrillas under General Draža Mihailović, known as Chetniks, and communist guerrilla under Josip Broz Tito known as Partisans, engaged the Germans in a guerrilla war (The Chetniks would later switch sides and collaborate with the German forces). By 1944 the Polish resistance was thought to number 400,000. The strength of the Soviet partisan units and formations can not be accurately estimated, but in Belarus alone is thought to have been in excess of 300,000. Tito's partisans numbered approximatley 800,000 men by the end of the war.
On the other side of the world, guerrilla forces in Southeast Asian countries were a mill stone around the neck of the Japanese. For example, tens of thousands of Japanese troops were committed to anti-guerrilla operations in the Philippines. Not only did this cause a drain on Japanese military resources, but the guerrillas prevented the Japanese from making the most effective use of the islands' resources (food, ore, civilian labor, etc.) in their war effort.
During the 1960s Che Guevara developed the foco theory of revolution by way of guerrilla warfare, also known as focalism (Spanish: foquismo), based upon experiences surrounding the rebel army's victory in the 1959 Cuban Revolution, and was formalized as such by Régis Debray. Its central principle is that vanguardism by cadres of small, fast-moving paramilitary groups can provide a focus (in Spanish, foco) for popular discontent against a sitting regime, and thereby lead a general insurrection. Although the original approach was to mobilize and launch attacks from rural areas, many foco ideas were adapted into urban guerrilla warfare movements by the late 1960s.
Present ongoing guerrilla wars, and regions facing guerrilla war activity include:
The guerrilla can be difficult to beat, but certain principles of counter-insurgency warfare are well known since the 1950s and 1960s and have been successfully applied.
The widely distributed and influential work of Sir Robert Thompson, counter-insurgency expert of the Malayan Emergency, offers several such guidelines. Thompson's underlying assumption is that of a country minimally committed to the rule of law and better governance.
Some governments, however, give such considerations short shrift, and their counterguerrilla operations have involved mass murder, genocide, starvation and the massive spread of terror, torture and execution. The totalitarian regimes of Hitler are classic examples, as are more modern conflicts in places like Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan's anti-Mujahideen war for example, the Soviets implemented a ruthless policy of wastage and depopulation, driving over one third of the Afghan population into exile (over 5 million people), and carrying out widespread destruction of villages, granaries, crops, herds and irrigation systems, including the deadly and widespread mining of fields and pastures. See Wiki article Soviet war in Afghanistan.
Some writers on counter-insurgency warfare emphasize the more turbulent nature of today's guerrilla warfare environment, where the clear political goals, parties and structures of such places as Vietnam, Malaysia, or El Salvador are not as prevalent. These writers point to numerous guerrilla conflicts that center around religious, ethnic or even criminal enterprise themes, and that do not lend themselves to the classic "national liberation" template.
The wide availability of the Internet has also cause changes in the tempo and mode of guerrilla operations in such areas as coordination of strikes, leveraging of financing, recruitment, and media manipulation. While the classic guidelines still apply, today's anti-guerrilla forces need to accept a more disruptive, disorderly and ambiguous mode of operation.