Insurgency is a political-military strategy to take control of a country. One front is the military battlefield. The more important front is the political front. Insurgents aim to demoralize the enemy public while increasing their own popular support.

Guerrillas still create a mythology that they are growing more powerful to achieve their political objectives. This strategy uses the Fog of War and propaganda to create illusions of power.

Clausewitz on the Fog of War:

All action takes place, so to speak, in a kind of twilight, which, like fog or moonlight, often tends to makes things seem grotesque and larger than they really are.

Guerrilla warfare uses uncertainty and fear. Individuals see an unknown force and use their imagination to fill the gaps. We exaggerate the size and ability of the enemy and become paralyzed with fear. The fog of war is a “force multiplier” for guerrillas.

Guerrillas seem to strike anywhere they choose, but you cannot find them to strike back. Guerrillas are everywhere and nowhere. Fear grows and erodes the political support for the war against the guerrillas.

We should know that the power of an insurgency does not grow infinitely. Insurgency is an offensive operation to overthrow the government. As an offensive, it has a narrow window of opportunity to achieve its objectives. All insurgencies reach a Culminating Point and then decline in offensive power.

Most seem to grasp the concept of a culminating point when looking at conventional military forces. More information is available to describe the progress of conventional armies, so we can tell when they are running out of steam.

The guerrillas are better able to conceal weaknesses. We know from historical examples that guerrillas take heavier casualties than conventional forces, that guerrillas are as afraid of mountains and jungles as conventional forces, and that guerrillas rarely win wars on their own. Guerrillas are often small in size and are unable to carry out operations outside a small section of the country. They are not powerful – they must hide.

Historical hindsight cuts through the fog of war and makes events seem clearer than they do at the time.

Guerrillas build their own mythology through symbolic battlefield victories.

Attacks are partly calibrated for propaganda value: Snipers, hit and run raids, terrorist strikes. Each of these is an abnormal event. Most cities and towns are secured. Nearly all convoys reach their destination without being attacked. Very few soldiers die every day.

The Fog of War obscures normal metrics. A handul of companies skillfully create the impression that there are thousands of guerrillas out there in the darkness. A drumbeat of attacks signals that the guerrillas are spreading or growing more numerous. Is that actually true?

The government’s ability to defend and hold thousands of towns is more significant than a handful of guerrilla attacks. The attacks are an abnormality. Yet we focus our attention on the successful attacks. We have a cognitive bias that assigns greater importance to rare, abnormal events than everyday, normal events. Guerrillas take advantage of this bias.

Journalists, unwittingly I hope, amplify the message with words like “spread,” “grow,” “popular” without quantifying these words. These words lack substance.

The “oil spot” theory in Counterinsurgency restores a form of metrics to guerrilla warfare. The idea comes from spatial analysis. Take a map and place a drop of oil on regions you control. Hold these regions, then spread the oil to cover more and more of the map. If you are winning, the oil spot will spread and deny these spaces to the guerrillas.

The oil spot idea is an easy way of estimating the actual strengths and weakness of both sides of the conflict. It reduces uncertainty and permits rational action.

The greatest guerrilla strategists understood the myth better than anyone else. Irregular warfare is weak and has limited use. At some point, guerrillas have to form conventional military forces and fight standard battles.

Mao Zedong guided the Chinese Communists through three phases. In the first two phases, the Insurgency disrupted and demoralized the Nationalist government while increasing the number of Communist supporters. In the third phase, Mao organized a conventional military force to takeover China.

Guerrillas are a threat, no doubt. But they should be viewed as rationally as possible. The myths have to be destroyed.

And I honestly do not know how to do this. It is possible for conventional military forces to overcome their fear of guerrillas through experience and good leadership, but the civilian public is the most vulnerable to propaganda. Terrorist attacks are part of the information war. A few attacks increase fear and irrational pessimism. What, exactly, do you tell civilians? You shouldn’t be afraid of being blown up? Well…

I keep playing with an idea of a false “counter-narrative.” But I do not see how that can work in practice. Propaganda from conventional forces is recognized as such so people naturally dismiss it. An alternative is a total news blackout – but extreme censorship can only increase fears of the government in addition to guerrillas. Truth wins out about 30 years too late. It helps us write histories at least.

Breaking the mythology sounds easier than it is. The myth is a robust strategy. If we destroy one myth, another pops up. The Fog of War and uncertainty remain constant as do primal emotions.