Uncomfortable Wars: Toward a New Paradigm of Low-Intensity Conflict. – Review

Uncomfortable Wars: Toward a New Paradigm of Low-Intensity Conflict. – Review – book review

Ernest Evans

Max G. Manwaring, ed., Uncomfortable Wars: Toward a New Paradigm of Low-Intensity Conflict (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991)

Perhaps one of the most beneficial results of NATO’s successful military campaign in Kosovo is that it has put an end to any illusions that the cold war would be followed by a “new world order” characterized by harmony and cooperation among nations of the world. Although not all will agree with Dr. John Mearsheimer’s 1990 assertion that “we will soon miss the cold war,”(1) the cold war has been followed by an international environment that can best be characterized as an era of Rudyard Kipling’s “Savage Wars of Peace.” As the series of wars in the former Yugoslavia has demonstrated, the cold war kept under control certain conflicts over ethnicity, religion, and race; with the new era of peace between the two former blocs these conflicts have re-emerged.

Although violent internal conflicts have continued and even accelerated, it is important not to forget the hard-learned lessons of the cold war. Those lessons are valuable not only for conflicts such as Sendero Luminoso in Peru and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute that have continued into the post-cold war world, but also for organized criminal activities and international peace enforcement operations that have expanded greatly.

The books under review in this article focus on “the Manwaring principles” developed by Dr. Max Manwaring during his years at the U.S. Southern Command’s Small Wars Operations Research Directorate. The six Manwaring principles were derived from a systematic survey of the way in which forty-three post-World War II governments either defeated or succumbed to an organized and externally supported insurgency. Manwaring and his scholarly colleagues have argued that by looking at the interdependent, interrelated principles as a whole one can explain the successes and failures of those various governments.

Simply stated, the six principles are as follows:(2)

* Legitimacy. This is the first and most important principle. A government must be perceived as responsive to the needs of its citizens if it is to defeat an insurgency.

* Organization. The endangered government must be organized so that there is a strong, unified effort to defeat the insurgency.

* Military and other support to a targeted government. External supporters of an embattled government face the difficult challenge of providing steady, long-term aid without destroying the legitimacy of the government.

* Intelligence. The threatened government must be able to collect accurate, detailed, and timely intelligence about its insurgent opponents; and it must gather intelligence with respect for the rights of its citizens so that it does not destroy its own internal and external legitimacy.

* Discipline and capabilities of the armed forces. If good intelligence is to be followed up, there must be a well-trained and well-disciplined military force.

* Reduction of outside aid to the insurgents. Although there are cases of successful insurgencies that have not received much outside aid, most successful insurgencies need some degree of foreign assistance. Reducing such assistance is a key task of the endangered government.

The books under review evaluate a wide variety of case studies from every region of the world with reference to the Manwaring principles. The studies build a strong argument not only for the explanatory value of these principles with respect to the violent conflicts of the cold war but also for their value in the ongoing conflicts.

As Manwaring argues, the legitimacy principle is the most important. Analyses of insurgencies in the cold war have long stressed the importance of governmental legitimacy. For example, the turning point in the Hukbalahap insurgency in the Philippines after World War II was the decision of Minister of Defense Ramon Magsaysay to have the Filipino military guarantee the honesty of the 1951 elections.(3) Similarly, the 1963 elections in Venezuela and the 1975 elections in Portugal were key factors in discrediting the claim of those countries’ communist parties that peaceful, democratic change was not possible.(4) The well-known Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara acknowledged the importance of elections in legitimizing governments when he wrote in his book Guerrilla Warfare:

When a government has come into power through some sort of popular vote,

fraudulent or not, and maintains at least an appearance of constitutional

legality, the guerrilla outbreak cannot be promoted, since the

possibilities of peaceful struggle have not yet been exhausted.(5)

The books under review provide additional documentation of the potential legitimizing impact of free and open elections. There are, for example, several case studies of the war in El Salvador that point out both the delegitimizing impact of the fraudulent 1972 and 1977 elections and the legitimizing impact of the honest elections of 1982, 1984, and 1989.(6)

However, the books also provide case studies indicating that neither during the cold war nor in the post-cold war world are democratic elections automatically a legitimizing factor. They point to several cases in which there have been free and open elections coinciding with major insurgent movements. Those cases fall into two basic categories:

1. Cases such as Peru and Colombia where local insurgents have found a valuable ally in narco-traffickers. Although money supplied to the rebels in Peru and Colombia by their narco-trafficker allies in exchange for allowing them to remain in business does not guarantee popular support, it helps to generate support because it enables the rebels to pay both full-time and part-time guerrillas and activists quite well.(7)

2. A second and more widespread phenomenon relates to the nature of most post-cold war conflicts. It was noted above that the cold war kept many cases of ethnic, racial, or religious conflict in check for several decades, and that with the end of the cold war such conflicts are resurfacing. Elections are much less effective in resolving ethnic conflicts than they are in resolving ideologically rooted ones. For example, Northern Ireland’s elections have been free and fair since the British government introduced sweeping reforms of the province’s electoral process in the early 1970s. However, that has not ended the conflict.(8) Similarly, when Cyprus gained independence in 1960 there were very elaborate guarantees of free and open elections and of power sharing between the Greek and Turkish communities. Those guarantees were unable to prevent the ethnic conflict that began in 1963 and continues.(9)

The reason free and open elections do not guarantee government legitimacy in ethnically divided societies is that in such societies there is seldom widespread agreement as to whether the country in question is itself legitimate, much less its electoral arrangements. To the Irish Republican Army, the province of Northern Ireland is an illegitimate, British-imposed partition of Ireland; political issues in Ireland must be decided by the votes of all thirty-two Irish counties not by separate elections in the twenty-six-county Republic of Ireland and the six-county Northern Ireland province. Thus, to the IRA it is wrong to defend the current government in Northern Ireland by saying that the government reflects the electoral wishes of the majority of the voters.

The bloody wars that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia may well be a harbinger of the type of violent conflict that will characterize the twenty-first century, in which elections are seldom a legitimizing factor because the status quo forces deny the secessionist forces the right to secede, regardless of the wishes of the population in question. And, as the bloody war over Kosovo has shown, “push comes to shove” when the principles of national self-determination come into conflict with the equally widely held principle of nonintervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states.

Looking at the second of the Manwaring principles, unity of effort, a number of the articles in the books argue that a key reason why the major programs of U.S. military and economic aid to El Salvador were slow to produce significant achievements was the lack of unity of effort among the U.S. agencies charged with administering this assistance.(10) As General John R. Galvin, a former commander-in-chief of the U.S. Southern Command, said in a 1987 interview,

There simply isn’t enough of a unified effort of the U.S.

administration–the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the

other departments and agencies–somehow tied together in order to carry out

a unified strategy. The organization is not there and the strategy is not


In the UN peace operations, there have been similar failures and setbacks because of a failure to maintain a unity of effort among the nations and organizations involved in the operations. For example, the many problems of the UN Operation in the Congo (UNOC) when it was first deployed in 1960 stemmed from a lack of unity of efforts among the military contingents making up the force. Specifically, among the thiryt-five countries that initially contributed contingents to UNOC there was total lack of agreement as to the strategic objective of the UN force. About a year after its creation UNOC was able to markedly improve its military and political effectiveness because of a reduction in the number of countries contributing troops; the governments of the remaining contingents were in closer agreement as to UNOC’s strategic objectives and hence were better able to achieve unity of effort.(12)

The second UN operation in Somalia (UNOSOM II) similarly illustrates the detrimental impact of a lack of unity of effort among the military forces making up a peace operation. When, in response to an attack on a Pakistani unit in June 1993, the UN Security Council passed resolution 837 (which called for the apprehension and punishment of those responsible for the attack), a number of the nations that had contributed military forces to UNOSOM II disagreed with the expansion of the UN’s objectives in Somalia. Given this breakdown of agreement over strategic objectives, the necessary unity of effort among the various national contingents in UNOSOM II could not be maintained; this reduced unity of effort was a major cause of the 3-4 October 1993 firefight in Mogadishu that resulted in the deaths of eighteen U.S. servicemen and the subsequent termination of UNOSOM II.(13)

The problems demonstrated by the cases of the Congo and Somalia are well worth remembering in light of the ongoing peace operation in Kosovo. Specifically, maintaining unity of effort among the NATO contingents will be hard enough; there is the additional problem of coordination between NATO and the military contingent sent to Kosovo by Russia.

With respect to the third of the Manwaring principles, the level of outside assistance to the endangered government and its military forces, outside assistance is not essential for a government to defeat an insurgency. For example, in Guatemala’s counterinsurgency campaign in the mid-1980s the authorities were able to defeat a major guerrilla movement without massive aid from the United States–U.S. aid having been forbidden by the U.S. Congress because of human rights abuses by the Guatemalan security forces.(14)

Not only is substantial outside assistance not essential to government success but it is not always helpful. In the case of aid to Peru in its struggle with Sendero Luminoso, the large quantities of heavy weaponry provided to the Peruvian military by the Soviet Union were of little use in a counterinsurgency campaign. And U.S. assistance to Peru in the 1980s was also of little value to the campaign against Sendero because the aid was limited strictly to counter-narcotics operations.(15) Ethiopia benefited only marginally from the aid it received from the Soviet Union because although the Soviets were generous with military assistance they gave the Mengistu government little economic aid to combat the terrible famines that were then occurring in Ethiopia.(16)

Even with these caveats, there can be no doubt that outside aid usually is a vital part of a government’s overcoming an insurgency. For example, the successes of the government and military in El Salvador in preventing a military victory by the FMLN could not have taken place without the billions of dollars in military and economic aid that the United States provided to El Salvador in 1981-92.(17)

The fourth Manwaring principle, the quality of government intelligence, is clearly as relevant to peacetime operations as it is to counterinsurgency campaigns. For example, all of the studies of Sendero Luminoso in Peru indicate that a key factor in the government’s victory was the capture of SL leader Abimael Guzman in 1992. His capture was made possible by major reforms and improvements in the intelligence operations of the Peruvian police and military in the late 1980s and early 1990s.(18) Conversely, the failure of the peace operation in Somalia was due in large part to a failure of the U.S. and UN military contingents to develop adequate, timely intelligence about militia groups in Somalia.(19)

Several essays in the studies provide ample documentation of the critical importance of the fifth Manwaring principle, the quality and effectiveness of the government police and military forces. In the defeat of the FMLN’s efforts to achieve a military victory, a key factor was the major improvement in the effectiveness of the government’s security forces in the 1980s. If at the time of the 1989 “El Salvadoran Tet Offensive” of the FMLN the government security forces had been of the quality that they were in 1980-81 there can be little doubt that the rebels would have won; by 1989 the El Salvadoran military and police were much more effective.(20)

The insurgents’ victory in Ethiopia was due in large part to a failure by the Mengistu government to develop an effective military. The military dictatorship so politicized the military, in the interests of staying in power, that all standards of efficiency, promotion by merit rather than by political loyalty, proper training, and so forth were destroyed.(21)

The importance of high-quality government security forces is relevant to ongoing peace operations. In explaining the failure of UNOSOM II in Somalia in contrast to the earlier successes of UNITAF, a key factor is that both in quantity and quality UNOSOM II was a much less capable military force than was UNITAF.(22) Finally, there is the level of outside assistance to the rebels. All of the cases evaluated in the studies clearly document the importance of outside aid. With respect to the insurgency in El Salvador, a key component of rebel successes was the substantial outside aid provided by Cuba and the Soviet Union; the accelerating disintegration of the Soviet bloc in 1989-91, which led to the end of most such outside aid to the FMLN, was a key reason why the rebels decided to negotiate a peace accord in 1990-92.(23) If the rebels in Guatemala at the same time were less successful than their El Salvadoran counterparts, the reason was in part that they were a much lower aid priority for the Soviet bloc than was the FNLN.(24)

The new success of Sendero Luminoso in Peru and of the insurgents in Ethiopia are exceptions that prove the rule. Sendero Luminoso was able succeed without outside aid because of the alliance it formed with Peru’s narco-traffickers, who provided generous financial assistance in return for Sendero Luminoso’s tolerating and sometimes protecting their narcotics operations.(25) In Ethiopia the rebels succeeded without significant outside aid because of mistaken policies of the Mengistu government’s Soviet bloc supporters, which dumped such excessive amounts of arms on the Ethiopian military that the rebels found it easy to steal all the arms they needed from the poorly trained, poorly motivated government forces.(26)

It would be a terrible mistake to assume that because the cold war is over there is nothing to be learned from wars fought during that era. On the contrary, in the “savage wars of peace” of the current era, the hard-won lessons of the cold war’s violent conflictst are all too relevant.


(1.) John Mearsheimer, “Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War,” Atlantic Monthly 266 (August 1990): 35-50.

(2.) For an overview of the Manwaring principles see Manwaring, “Toward an Understanding of Insurgency Wars: The Paradigm,” in Uncomfortable Wars.

(3.) There is an interesting anecdote about the 1951 Filipino election: An old peasant had been providing assistance to the Huk guerrillas for a number of years. He had nothing but scorn for the electoral process in the Philippines. It was obvious to him that in his region the elections were rigged. After the results of the 1951 election were reported the old peasant was shocked; the candidates he had supported had won. When the Huks came to him a few days later to ask for assistance he refused, saying that the government now represented the wishes of the population. When he refused to be moved by persuasion or threats, the Huks beat him severely and left him for dead. He died a few days later in a hospital; but before dying, he told his story to American military officer Edward Lansdale, a well-known student of guerrilla warfare. Charles W. Thayer, Guerrilla (New York: Harper & Row, 1963).

(4) As U.S. Ambassador to Portugal Frank Carlucci said later: “I think it was the [1975] election that turned the situation around.” Kenneth Maxwell, The Transition in Portugal (Washington, D.C.: The Wilson Center’s Latin American Program, 1981), 30, 37.

(5.) Ernest “Che” Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), 2.

(6.) Several of the books provide overviews and analyses of the war in El Salvador. See Edwin G. Corr, “Application of Theory and Principle: The Case of El Salvador,” Managing Contemporary Conflict, 71-87; Edwin G. Corr and Courtney E. Prisk, “El Salvador: Transforming Society to Win the Peace” Low-Intensity 223-53; Max G. Manwaring and Courtney E. Prisk, “The Need for Strategic Perspective: Insights from El Salvador,” Uncomfortable Wars, 105-25.

(7.) For a discussion of the relations between Sendero Luminoso and Peru’s narco-traffickers see John T. Fishel, “Coca, Cocaine, Sicarios, and Senderistas,” Global Dimensions of High Intensity Crime and Low Intensity Conflict, 184-203.

(8.) For an discussion of the Northern Ireland conflict see Thomas Marks, “Northern Ireland and Urban America on the Eve of the 21st Century,” Global Dimensions of High Intensity Crime and Low Intensity Conflict, 53-96.

(9.) For a discussion of the conflict in Cyprus see Murray J. M. Swan, “Peacekeeping in Cyprus,” The Savage Wars of Peace, 21-39.

(10.) For a discussion of the problems of achieving unity of effort, see John T. Fishel, “Achieving the Elusive Unity of Effort,” Gray Area Phenomena, 109-27.

(11.) Max G. Manwaring and Courtney E. Prisk, “The Need for Strategic Perspective: Insights from El Salvador,” Uncomfortable Wars, 118.

(12.) For a discussion of the UN peace operation in the Congo see J. Matthew Vaccaro, “The UN Peace Operations in the Congo: Decolonialism and Superpower Conflict in the Guise of UN Peacekeeping,” The Savage Wars of Peace, 73-90.

(13.) For a discussion of the peace operations in Somalia see Thomas J. Daze and John T. Fishel, “Peace Enforcement in Somalia: UNOSOM II,” The Savage Wars of Peace, 155-74.

(14.) For an overview of the Guatemalan counter insurgencies efforts of the 1980s see Caesar D. Seareres, “The Guatemalan Counterinsurgency Campaign of 1982-1985: A Strategy of Going It Alone,” Low Intensity Conflict, 101-23.

(15.) For an evaluation of the insurgencies in Peru see Max G. Manwaring, Courtney E. Prisk, and John T. Fishel, “Other Actions That Make a Difference: The Case of Peru,” Uncomfortable Wars, 93-101.

(16.) For a discussion of the revolution in Ethiopia see James Cheek, “Ethiopia: A Successful Insurgency,” Low Intensity Conflict, 125-49.

(17.) From fiscal year 1979 through fiscal year 1991, the U.S. government provided more than $4 billion in assistance to El Salvador. Of this, about $3.35 billion was economic aid and about $1.03 billion was military assistance. Edwin G. Corr and Courtney E. Prisk, “El Salvador: Transforming Society to Win the Peace,” Low Intensity Conflict, 232.

(18.) For a discussion of these reforms in the Peruvian intelligence services, see David Scott Palmer, “The Shining Path in Peru: Insurgency and the Drug Problem,” Low Intensity Conflict, 163-65.

(19.) For an evaluation of the intelligence failures of UNOSOM II see John T. Fishel and Thomas J. Dave, “Peace Enforcement in Somalia: UNOSOM II,” The Savage Wars of Peace, 170-71.

(20.) For a discussion of this steady improvement in the effectiveness of the El Salvadoran military in the 1980 see Edwin G. Corr and Courtney E. Prisk, “El Salvador: Transforming Society to Win the Peace,” Low Intensity Conflict, 235-38.

(21.) The poor quality of the military forces of Ethiopia’s Mengistu government is discussed in James Cheek,” Ethiopia: A Successful Insurgency,” Low Intensity Conflict, 144.

(22.) For a discussion of the quality of the various peacekeeping forces deployed to Somalia see Thomas J. Daze and John T. Fishel, “Peace Enforcement in Somalia: UNOSOM II,” The Savage Wars of Peace, 165-67.

(23.) This point is made in Kimbra L. Fishel and Edwin G. Corr, “UN Peace Operations in El Salvador: The Manwaring Paradigm in a Traditional Setting,” The Savage Wars of Peace, 48-49.

(24.) Caesar D. Seareres, “The Guatemalan Counterinsurgency Campaign of 1982-1985: A Strategy of Going It Alone,” Low Intensity Conflict, 117-18.

(25.) David Scott Palmer, “The Shining Path in Peru: Insurgency and the Drug Problem,” Low Intensity Conflict, 162-63.

(26.) James Cheek, “Ethiopia: A Successful Insurgency,” Low Intensity, 145-47.

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