A couple years ago, I was working a contract with the Tactical Tracking Operations School. In the course of talking to the chief instructor, he told me about a training scenario the company had worked up for a Marine unit using the tracking instructors as OpFor. Shortly after briefing the command, a Marine officer demanded to know where they were getting their information. The OpFor actions matched Taliban TTPs in Afghanistan at the time almost perfectly – TTPs that hadn’t been made public outside of the military network.
They had drawn on after-action reports from Vietnam and Rhodesia. The OpFor was using TTPs used by the Vietcong and ZANLA and ZIPRA guerrillas. None of the recent battle reports had any bearing on the scenario as drafted.
As I’ve continued my own study of guerrilla and proxy warfare, it’s become evident that many things that are catching us by surprise these days aren’t anything new. The term “IED” was newly coined in 2005; the tactic was anything but.
In February, 1967, Recon Team “Duckbill” was inserted into an LZ near Nui Cu. Shortly after the Marines were on the ground, they began taking heavy fire from the VC, who had the LZ surrounded. As they ran to cover, Cpl Mike Holmes was severely wounded by the detonation of a 155mm artillery shell. Shortly thereafter, as the second half of the patrol was coming in to land to support the beleaguered Marines, Sgt Joe Barnes was killed outright by the explosion of a 250lb bomb that had been buried on the LZ.
Sgt Barnes’ leg was the only part of him that was ever recovered.
Another 155 detonated, wounding Hospitalman Brodie, before the VC were suppressed and the birds came in to take the team out. They had been on the ground for forty-nine minutes. Later patrols discovered that the entire LZ and surrounding hillsides had been liberally laced with explosives, wired with over a mile of comm wire. None of the Recon Marines had hit a tripwire or otherwise triggered a booby-trap (now called Victim-Activated IEDs). Every one had been command-detonated.
This should sound plenty familiar to any veteran of Iraq.
Fast forward to 2005. The Iraqi insurgency’s primary weapon against Coalition forces is the IED, usually consisting of one to five 155mm artillery shells buried in the side of the road, command-detonated by a trigger man watching the Coalition vehicles moving across his target box. In 2006, an IED was found in As Sadan Market consisting of three 500lb bombs buried under the road. As the supply of 155s in Iraq dwindled, either found and destroyed by Coalition forces or used up by the IED cells, they shifted to homemade explosives, but the basics remained the same.
Strategy and guerrilla tactics that work are time-tested. There is very little that any insurgent/guerrilla group these days is doing that has not already been done by the guerrillas of the 20th century. The Vietcong and Mao Zedong’s campaign to seize power in China have been some of the most successful guerrilla campaigns in recent history, so expect a great deal of recycling from both.
As I wrote in The ISIS Solution, “While the city of Raqqa in Syria was initially taken by the rest of the Syrian rebels, dominated by Jabhaat al Nusra, since early 2013, ISIS has solidified its hold on the city, eventually declaring it the current capitol of the new caliphate.” Raqqa has, in a way, become ISIS’ testbed for their new model of hardline Takfiri governance, and also provides an interesting parallel to Mao Zedong’s initial guerrilla campaign in China.
After an abortive attempt at Jiangxi, Mao established a “Soviet” at Yan’an, a remote rural city, where Chinese Communist governance was worked out, that acted as a base for further CPC expansion through the country, just as ISIS is using Raqqa. ISIS has also utilized a combination of military action and terror, similar to Mao’s guerrilla strategy against the Chinese Nationalists.
To make an even closer parallel, the CPC tended to prefer to fight the Nationalists, avoiding the Japanese during World War II. ISIS, for all its announced antipathy to the Assad regime, has done very little direct fighting with Assad’s forces. It has instead focused on consolidating control of regions already wrested away from Damascus, as well as fighting the Iraqi Army on the other side of the border.
The key to understanding what is going on lies in looking at history. Everything has roots in history, whether it is strategy and tactics, or simply the tribal/sectarian/social/class/political dynamics that have shaped the situation being examined. Nothing happens in a vacuum, either in space or time, and looking at any situation in isolation produces dangerous blind spots.
We’ve looked at the Middle East in isolation for a long time. We’ve looked at Mexico in isolation for just as long. Everything is connected, however distantly. The key to winning wars, or simply managing chaos, is understanding not only what is going on, but why, and how it has been dealt with in the past.