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Aug 21, 2018 | 09:00 GMT

10 mins read

Applying Long War Theory to Insurgencies

VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
Jean-Louis Messonier's painting shows Napoleon Bonaparte heading a weary party during the defense of France.
(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Highlights
  • In contrast to conventional Western military strategists, insurgent commanders seek to prolong battles to ultimately wear down stronger opponents.
  • There are strong parallels between what the Islamic State is currently experiencing and the situation it faced when it was a largely guerrilla movement in 2010.
  • The Taliban might make overtures regarding negotiations, but they are unlikely to truly pursue talks because they believe they can outlast the Americans in Afghanistan.

On Aug. 12, hundreds of Nigerian soldiers mutinied at the airport in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, occupying the tarmac, firing their weapons into the air and disrupting flights. The soldiers were protesting orders that they were to be redeployed to the Lake Chad region to combat the Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP), a group formerly known as Boko Haram, which has been conducting a string of deadly attacks on Nigerian bases in the region. Military officials said the deployment would last less than year, the soldiers told Nigeria's Vanguard News, but the troops noted that they had already served a number of years and were being ordered to the front lines yet again to fight a group whose defeat had been proclaimed — somewhat prematurely — by President Muhammadu Buhari not long after the militants pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in March 2015.

The Big Picture

Political leaders the world over have often proclaimed victory over jihadist and other insurgent organizations after military campaigns. But whether in Iraq, Nigeria or elsewhere, such declarations often prove to be premature when the rebel groups return to prominence. One method of explaining such resurgences is the long war theory, in which rebel groups aim for victory through battles of attrition, rather than through rapid battlefield success.

The protest in Nigeria took place during a Taliban offensive in Ghazni, Afghanistan. The militants managed to take the city and sack the police headquarters before retreating. According to the Long War Journal, the Taliban — a force that retreated from Afghanistan after the United States routed it on the battlefield in the wake of an invasion in 2001 — now controls 47 of Afghanistan's 398 districts while contesting 198 more.

Meanwhile, on Aug. 15, Pentagon spokesman U.S. Navy Cmdr. Sean Robertson said in a news briefing that "[the Islamic State] probably is still more capable than al-Qaida in Iraq at its peak in 2006-2007." This statement was striking given that the group has lost the bulk of the territory it controlled when it declared itself the Islamic State in June 2014 and that it has been heavily pummeled by coalition airstrikes and ground operations by local allies for nearly four consecutive years.

What ties these three vignettes together is that in each, a seemingly defeated force has continued to fight after suffering considerable losses on the battlefield and ceding most, if not all, of its former territory. But far from compelling such groups to abandon the fight, the defeats represent only temporary reverses, for all are pursuing a long war strategy in which setbacks can ultimately be overcome with patience, persistence and fortitude.

Taking a Long View of War

Most conventional Western military doctrine is built upon concepts of modern warfare that were articulated by theorists such as Carl von Clausewitz, Antoine-Henri Jomini and Napoleon Bonaparte. The basic concept behind the rapid war doctrine is to fix and engage the enemy in decisive battles that destroy its ability to wage war and sap its will to continue fighting. Years of battle with guerrillas in Afghanistan and Iraq might have forced the U.S. military to adopt a new counterinsurgency manual in 2006, but it has been difficult for American forces to break free of the mindset outlined by von Clausewitz and the like. Not all of the responsibility for this attachment to tradition rests with the military, however, as the country's politicians and public don't typically have much patience or long attention spans. For evidence, look no further than President George W. Bush's May 2003 "Mission Accomplished" speech or President Barack Obama's ostensible withdrawal from Iraq.

This rapid war approach stands in stark contrast to the basic doctrine of insurgent warfare as outlined by guerrilla warfare strategists such as Mao Zedong, Che Guevara, Vo Nguyen Giap and, more recently, Abu Bakr Naji — or even Osama bin Laden. Because the overriding imperative of the guerrilla fighter is to survive, insurgent theory calls for attacks when the battlefield situation is favorable and retreat when it is not. It is better to live to fight another day than to stand and fight, thereby opening oneself to destruction by a superior force.

While Western commanders seek rapid and decisive victories, insurgent commanders aim to prolong the fighting and create a grinding war of attrition that will wear down stronger forces while allowing the militants to build up their strength.

While Western commanders seek rapid and decisive victories, insurgent commanders aim to prolong the fighting and create a grinding war of attrition that will wear down stronger enemy forces while allowing the militants to build up their strength. If the enemy is a foreign invader, insurgent commanders seek to attack the foreign forces with persistence and savagery in the hopes that such action will compel the occupier to withdraw from the conflict once the cost in blood and materiel outweighs its interest in the country. The withdrawal of the foreign force will then allow insurgent commanders to finally achieve a decisive victory over local foes. Naturally, if there is no foreign invading force, rebel leaders simply aim to wear down their domestic enemies until they can overpower them.

For guerrilla commanders, controlling the human terrain is more important than controlling the physical terrain, meaning insurgent leaders will trade territory for time to strengthen their forces and eventually recapture the area. This is especially true when there is an area of refuge in hostile terrain or a neighboring country that insurgents can retreat to so they can train, rest and regroup.

Mao and Giap put such tactics to good use during their successful insurgent wars, and jihadist groups have also employed such strategies repeatedly since 2001. The Taliban, the core al Qaeda group, al Shabaab, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, ISWAP and the Islamic State in Iraq (now simply the Islamic State) have all overcome significant battlefield losses yet survived to continue the fight.

Perhaps the best articulation of the jihadist concept of long war theory appears in Naji's The Management of Savagery, which was published in 2004. The theorist refers to the long war as "the war of patience" and discusses insurgent campaigns that include the Prophet Mohammed's early campaigns with his followers, as well as more contemporary examples such as the Afghan war against the Russians and jihadist struggles in Egypt and Algeria.

In discussing the long war, Naji makes this observation about Western troops, whom he refers to as the "forces of Taghut" (believers in false gods or idols): "Due to the nature of the psyche of the Taghuts and the psyche of their troops, they are not able to remain under pressure and intimidation for a long period of time." Naji goes on to assert that the Western commander has two main desires: "to shorten the duration of the battle as much as possible" and "to keep his troops from bloodshed as much as possible because he knows that this will scare his troops and it will be one of the factors in prolonging the battle." Given this view, Naji's strategy is unsurprising. "Our plan ... is to prolong the period of the battle by opposing the goals of the enemy and surprising him with strong, painful strikes."

Managing Savagery in Practice

The Management of Savagery has been widely read by members of al Qaeda and the Islamic State — to the extent that some have suggested that the latter's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and followers used the work as a blueprint to establish their group. Indeed, many of Naji's concepts have appeared in Islamic State propaganda, even if the organization does not mention him by name.

In his work, Naji envisioned three stages in the creation of Islamic emirates. The first stage involves "the power of vexation and exhaustion," in which jihadists strive to conduct terrorist attacks and engage in guerrilla warfare operations to debilitate the state and create a vacuum of power. The second stage is "the administration of savagery." While some have understood this to entail the use of brutality to terrorize the populace, the phrase actually refers to the necessity of establishing mechanisms to meet people's needs in the midst of chaos. As part of this second phase, jihadist groups aim to provide the population with security, food and other basic services, establish a Sharia court system, form an intelligence service, develop institutions to educate people in the proper understanding of Islam and train them to fight. Jihadist groups, including the Islamic State, have expended great effort on such administrative tasks in Syria and Iraq, as have similar organizations in war-torn places such as Libya, northern Mali, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia. In the final phase, jihadist groups seek to develop the power to actually establish a state — something al-Baghdadi believed he had accomplished in June 2014.

Because the Islamic State core in Iraq and Syria has now lost most of the areas it once ruled or managed, the group find itself back at stage one — but that certainly does not mean that it is a completely defeated force.

Because the Islamic State core in Iraq and Syria has now lost most of the areas it once ruled or managed, the group finds itself back at stage one — but that certainly does not mean that it is a completely defeated force. As I've previously written, there are strong parallels between what the Islamic State is experiencing today and what it faced in 2010. The group is endeavoring to "vex and exhaust" its foes in Iraq and Syria through terrorist attacks and insurgent operations, and it could once again regain its strength. After all, the group's slogan is "baqiya wa tatamaddad" (remain and expand); the Islamic State does remain and it is clearly seeking to expand once more.

Likewise in Nigeria, the al-Barnawi faction of ISWAP appears to be growing stronger and more capable as evidenced by the successful attacks it has launched in recent weeks against military bases. The group will continue to fight its war of attrition and — if permitted to grow in strength — it will fight to seize and hold territory and populations.

Far to the east, the Taliban have also grown significantly stronger, to the extent that they now control or contest a significant portion of Afghanistan. While they make overtures about negotiating an end to the conflict, they know that after nearly 17 years of war, the Americans are weary from the fight and wish to leave. Accordingly, they are unlikely to accept any political settlement that is not heavily weighted in their favor. Moreover, because of their staying power, countries such as Iran, China and Russia are attempting to forge closer ties with the Taliban. Reflected as it is by Taliban's perseverance and willingness to sustain casualties in order to bloody their foreign and domestic enemies, the group's long war gambit suggests that the organization will remain a powerful force in Afghanistan's future — as will other jihadist groups pursuing similar strategies in other parts of the world.

Scott Stewart supervises Stratfor's analysis of terrorism and security issues. Before joining Stratfor, he was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years and was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations.

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