Fighting phantoms: guerrilla warfare from Lawrence to the Taliban

9 mins read

Liar and self-promoting charlatan? Or military genius and romantic revolutionary? The controversy about T E Lawrence – ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – has raged since his death 75 years ago. Dr Neil Faulkner, Editor of Military Times and Co-director of the Great Arab Revolt Project, explores his relevance to contemporary warfare.

The aim of Operation Moshtarak in February 2010 was to capture the city of Marjah in Afghanistan’s war-torn Helmand province. Fifteen thousand troops, mainly American, British, and Afghan, were to take on between 400 and 1,000 Taliban insurgents holed up in a city of 80,000 people.

Western commanders talked confidently of a ‘new model war’. An Afghan administration and police force would move into Marjah immediately behind the soldiers. Engineers were on hand to maintain power and water supplies. ‘We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in,’ explained US General Stanley McChrystal. There would be no cut and run: territory recaptured from the insurgents at such great effort was to be retained.

But as the offensive unfolded over succeeding weeks, reported Taliban casualties were few. And Marjah turned out not to exist. Faithfully reported by global news media, it was in fact invented by US military officials. ‘This is all a war of perceptions,’ explained McChrystal. As The Washington Post reported on 22 February, the decision to launch the offensive was largely intended to impress US public opinion with the effectiveness of military action in Afghanistan by showing it could win a ‘large and loud victory’.

In reality, Marjah is a vaguely defined area of villages, markets, and family compounds. At the centre, where farmers gather to trade, the only permanent fixtures are a mosque and a few shops. If there are tens of thousands of people, they are spread across about 125 square miles.

Marjah was invented because a military operation has to have a clear-cut goal to be deemed a victory. President Obama had ramped up the war with a doubling of the total US troop deployment since coming to office, but public support was waning, with polls showing a majority of Americans turning against the war for the first time. The generals needed a victory, so they created Marjah and planned Operation Moshtarak to capture it.

A phantom city was needed because the enemy is a phantom. A task force is assembled and motors into bandit-country. If it is too small, it risks annihilation. If it is too big, it finds itself punching the air. For one of the golden rules of guerrilla warfare is that you only stand and fight if you are certain to win. So the invaders of Afghanistan find themselves waging a war against an enemy who is never there.

The Arab Revolt

‘Suppose we were (as we might be),’ wrote Lawrence, ‘an influence, an idea, a thing intangible, invulnerable, without front or back, drifting about like a gas? Armies were like plants, immobile, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. We might be a vapour, blowing where we listed… Ours should be a war of detachment. We were to contain the enemy by the silent threat of a vast, unknown desert …’

Lawrence was a young officer who had spent the first two years of the First World War in the intelligence department in Cairo, a position he owed to his fluent Arabic and his detailed knowledge of Syria, both acquired while working as an archaeologist in the Middle East. On a diplomatic mission to the Hijaz region of western-central Arabia towards the end of 1916, he had formed a personal relationship with Prince Feisal, the commander of one of the Arab forces now ranged in revolt against Ottoman rule. Feisal asked that Lawrence should be permanently attached to his service as a British liaison officer. Lawrence’s superiors agreed.

The Ottoman Empire, though much reduced, still controlled a vast territory stretching from a tongue of land in south-eastern Europe all the way to the Caucasus, the Tigris, the Yemen, and the Suez Canal. Plunging into the world war, this ramshackle traditional empire, though fighting a war on four fronts, against the Russians in the Caucasus and the British in Gallipoli, Sinai, and Mesopotamia, had proved a much tougher opponent than its enemies predicted.

Not the least of concerns to both the Russians and the British, the rulers of large Muslim populations, was the Ottoman Sultan’s call to jihad against the empire’s enemies. The Arab Revolt, led by the Emir of Mecca, a descendant of the Prophet and protector of the Muslim holy places, had been encouraged by secret British diplomacy as a source of both military and ideological support for the Allied cause.

But after momentary success – principally the capture of Mecca itself, along with the Red Sea ports of Jidda and Rabegh, through which British supplies could reach the rebels – the Revolt had stalled. Medina remained in Ottoman hands, and the city’s 10,000-strong garrison, sitting at the end of the 1300 km-long Hijaz Railway from Damascus, was receiving reinforcement. When the Turks went onto the offensive, the Arabs fell back, and the tribal irregulars forming the army began to melt away. In late 1916, the Revolt hung by a thread.

A new theory of war

Lawrence, newly arrived in the Hijaz, was witness to this looming disaster. His response appears to have been a radical re-conceptualisation of the war, though, by his own account, his ideas were not fully formed until March 1917. Then, during ten days laid up in a tent recovering from illness, in-between bouts of fever and dysentery, he turned conventional military thinking on its head and created a new theory of modern guerrilla warfare.

What if the Arabs ignored the Turks? What if they simply marched away from them into the desert where they could not follow? What if they then constituted themselves as a ‘silent threat’ and waged a ‘war of detachment’?

This they did. In fact, even before Lawrence had worked it out exactly, they had made a start by marching 200 miles north – away from the Turks threatening them around Medina – and establishing a new base at Wejh. Supplied here from the Red Sea by the Royal Navy, they then staged a series of camel-mounted raids on the Hijaz Railway. Running through a thousand kilometres of desert wilderness, a single-track lifeline on which the whole Ottoman grip on Arabia depended, the Turks had no choice but to defend it.

But against an insurgency that was everywhere and nowhere – against an enemy who could appear suddenly out of the desert haze at any point – to defend the line at all was to defend all of it. So instead of a concentration of force at the decisive point – at Medina, from which a thrust towards Mecca might have snuffed out the rebellion – the Turks became strung out like beads, forced to plant a garrison of 100, 200, 300 men every few kilometres, points from which they could watch, guard, patrol, and defend the line.

Then, in June 1917, Feisal’s Northern Army, inspired by its brilliant British military advisor, leapt forwards again, some 250 miles to Aqaba. But they did not go direct: following a 500-mile overland route through the desert, a small commando group appeared out of the wilderness north-east of Aqaba, raised the local tribes in revolt, and rolled up the Ottoman positions all the way down to the coast.

With a new forward base, the insurgency could be supplied as it spread up the line into Syria. British intelligence reports from 1918 reveal its extraordinary success. The Arab armies comprised a maximum of about 5,000 regulars and a fluctuating force of up to 20,000 tribal irregulars. Yet there were more Turks deployed against them than there were fighting General Allenby’s army of 340,000 men west of the Jordan in Palestine.

In fact, given that the bulk of the serious fighting was done by Feisal’s Northern Army, which was never more than 8,000-strong, often falling as low as 3,000, the imbalance was yet more extreme. The raw statistics imply that one of Feisal’s guerrillas was 35 times more effective in tying down Turkish troops than one of Allenby’s Tommies – an extraordinary example of ‘economy of force’ and ‘asymmetrical warfare’.

The 15 principles

Lawrence’s ideas on guerrilla warfare were touched upon in his famous ‘Twenty-seven articles’, which appeared in an internal British intelligence bulletin in August 1917. They were then fully developed in three post-war treatises, the length and content of which were in each case similar: ‘The Evolution of a Revolt’ in The Army Quarterly (1920); Chapter 35 of the 1922 edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom (Chapter 33 in the more widely read 1926/1935 edition); and ‘Science of Guerrilla Warfare’ in the Encyclopedia Britannica (1929). (The latter, it should be said, was an edited assemblage based on Lawrence’s writings by military historian Basil Liddell Hart.)

Reading closely, one can identify 15 distinct principles of guerrilla warfare in these treatises (see box ‘Lawrence of Arabia’s Fifteen Principles of Modern Guerrilla Warfare). Viewed as a whole, they are extraordinary in many ways.

First, they invert many of the cardinal principles of conventional military theory, like concentration of force, and the centrality of pitched battle to destroy the enemy’s main forces and will to fight. In this sense, they are the work of a brilliant maverick, an unconventional intellectual who had not even undergone the routine military training given to volunteer wartime officers (though he probably learnt something as a member of the Oxford University Officers Training Corps), and who, in consequence, seems to have found it easy to think ‘outside the box’.

Second, they draw on the traditional tactics of the ‘eastern way of war’ – as embodied in Bedouin tribal raiding – yet elevate this into a strategy for what would later be called a ‘national liberation struggle’. The Arab leaders themselves, by contrast, were committed to building state structures in keeping with their aspiration to modern nationhood. So their emphasis was on creating a regular army, not on guerrilla warfare. Again, just as Lawrence was not hidebound by British military tradition, nor was he constrained by Arab political ambition: in this respect, too, he could think ‘outside the box’.

The third striking thing about the Fifteen Principles is how seminal they are. Guerrilla warfare is as old as human conflict, but Lawrence’s treatises represent the first systematic conceptualisation of its strategy and tactics. And this conceptualisation is remarkably comprehensive. Later theorists of guerrilla warfare – notably Mao, Giap, and Che – have added little of substance, except in their discussion of a) degrees of guerrilla infiltration and control in different parts of contested territory, and b) stages in the development of the insurrection as the balance of forces shifts and the character of the conflict changes. These ideas do not contribute strategic and tactical principles as such; rather, they are descriptions of the spatial and temporal forms of a developing guerrilla insurgency. It is Lawrence who is the real teacher of the guerrilla fighter.

Belated recognition

The fourth remarkable thing is lack of recognition for the intellectual achievement. Despite the central significance of guerrilla warfare in the last century of world history, Lawrence has rarely been acknowledged. Robert Taber’s classic 1965 book, The War of the Flea: a study of guerrilla warfare, theory and practice, has not a single mention of either Lawrence or the Arab Revolt. Only recently has awareness grown – notably among modern US Army officers – of Lawrence’s significance as a military theorist.

The exigencies of imperial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made the study of guerrilla warfare a professional necessity, and officers on active service in combat zones have been encouraged to read Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Leading counterinsurgency specialist Lieutenant-Colonel John Nagl echoed Lawrence in the title of a recent book, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: counterinsurgency lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (2002). His point is that the full quotation – ‘to make war upon rebellion is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife’ – encapsulates perfectly the strategic challenge facing foreign invaders fighting native guerrillas.

But Seven Pillars of Wisdom, however carefully read by US officers, is likely to be the book of their defeat in Afghanistan. The counterinsurgent regular cannot replicate the strategy and tactics of the insurgent guerrilla. The former is an invader, an outsider, an alien presence in the landscape and lifeways of the country. The guerrilla is embedded in local society, organically part of its families, villages, and tribes. This basic dichotomy manifests itself in a dozen practical, and potentially deadly, ways.

The regular is imposed on the military landscape and is dependent on heavy equipment, modern communications, and external supply. Intelligence depends on observation posts, patrols, and interrogation, and security entails the full panoply of fortified posts, armoured vehicles, and firepower. The invaders are therefore highly visible, relatively immobile, and poorly informed.

Compare the guerrilla. He is largely self-sufficient or sustained by local supplies. Highly mobile, with superb intelligence from his social network, and indistinguishable from the civilian population of which he is part, he is almost always invisible, yet has the capacity to strike anywhere, anytime.

The regular strives to dominate landscape by visible threat and heavy firepower. But wherever he is, the guerrilla is not. How did Lawrence put it? ‘It seemed a regular soldier might be helpless without a target, owning only what he sat on, and subjugating only what, by order, he could poke his rifle at.’

Thus it is the guerrilla who truly dominates the landscape, for his embeddedness makes him an invisible, secure, and ineradicable presence. He is powerful because he is a phantom.

Let the last word go again to Lawrence. He could be describing Operation Moshtarak in February 2010 – 15,000 men chasing phantoms out of a non-existent city in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. But of course, it is the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918.

‘It [the rebellion] had a sophisticated alien enemy, disposed as an army of occupation in an area greater than could be dominated effectively from fortified posts. It had a friendly population, of which some two in the hundred were active, and the rest quietly sympathetic to the point of not betraying the movements of the minority. The active rebels had the virtues of secrecy and self-control, and the qualities of speed, endurance, and independence of arteries of supply… The presence of the enemy was secondary. Final victory seemed certain, if the war lasted long enough for us to work it out.’

1 Comment

  1. As usual, T.E. Lawrence as the initial western individual to collect and deliver a comprehensive guide to fighting as a guerrilla, defines and delivers the principles of it. Call it guerrilla tactics, insurgent or asymmetrical warfare, regardless of the name applied to it, this type of warfare requires quick movement with an easily supplied group, that can fight and then disappear into the landscape as quickly as possible to prevent counter attacks and is the warfare of the past, the present and the future. Standing armies won’t be winning many wars without the tactics that Lawrence utilized one hundred years ago. The line that comes to mind is “it is hard to argue with success”.

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