Small Wars Journal

Comparing Mao and Kilcullen

Thu, 11/17/2011 - 7:27am

Guerrilla warfare is not a new phenomenon. Even though the term ‘guerrilla’ originates from the actions of Spanish soldiers fighting against Napoleon’s French army in early 1800s, it is widely accepted that the idea of applying guerrilla tactics against the enemy dates back to almost two millennia ago. Mao Tse-Tung is one of the most renowned figures who not only employed guerrilla tactics against the enemy, but also wrote extensively about the guerrilla warfare. In his seminal book written in 1937, On Guerilla Warfare, he plainly puts forward the nuts and bolts of guerrilla warfare, provides a quasi-handbook for future employers of those tactics, and hints various ways to convert deficits into accomplishments. In the years that followed, a great deal of books were written directly or indirectly about Mao’s work. Without a doubt, every single one of them was worthy of reading in terms of providing insight into Mao’s perspective, yet only a handful were worthy of closer examination and sparked serious academic discussion.

The Accidental Guerilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One, the book written by counterinsurgency and modern warfare expert David Kilcullen in 2009, is one of those rare books. In his book, Kilcullen seeks to lay down a sound and practical framework to counter the guerrilla movements and make an analysis of the guerrilla warfare in the post-Cold War era. In other words, assuming that guerilla warfare is metaphorically a fire, Mao seeks to spread it to the farthest point possible, while Kilcullen seeks to understand the reasons behind the fire and proposes ways to extinguish and prevent it. Given that the majority of armed conflicts in the post-World War II era have occurred within states rather than between states, it is worthy of making a compare and contrast review of these books in order to better understand the dichotomous relationship between insurgency and counterinsurgency, as well as think of better and more effective ways for conflict prevention.

To begin with, Mao puts a great deal of emphasis upon three major elements throughout the book. The asymmetry between a conventional and an unconventional force is indeed one of them. Mao sees this power gap as an opportunity rather than a deficit and maintains that “conditions of terrain, climate, and society in general offers obstacles to [invader’s] progress and may be used to advantage by those who oppose him. In guerilla warfare, we turn these advantages to the purpose of resisting and defeating the enemy.”[i] In other words, he believes it makes critical sense to ‘provoke and bait’ the enemy to unfamiliar territory and circumstances; dragging the enemy into a murky struggle may even be a precondition for victory. Asymmetry, therefore, is not a source for vulnerability for guerrilla. On the contrary, it is an opportunity to stick to the “conservation of his own strength and destruction of enemy strength.”[ii]

For Mao, the second major element that is of crucial importance is the role of ‘people.’ It is made clear that the guerrilla movement is doomed to fail without the support of locals. In Mao’s words, “because guerrilla warfare basically derives from the masses and is supported by them, it can neither exist nor flourish if it separates itself from their sympathies and cooperation.”[iii] People are the backbone of a guerrilla movement because they constitute the recruitment pool and play an important role in supply and logistics. Also, the struggle is thought to be in the interest of them.

The third element Mao emphasizes is the distinct feature of guerrilla warfare. He argues that “the general features of orthodox hostilities, that is, the war of position and the war of movement, differ fundamentally from guerilla warfare…The enemy’s rear is the guerrilla’s front.”[iv] In this context, Mao maintains that guerrillas should always be constantly active, mobile and alert no matter how inconvenient the conditions of terrain, weather, or communication lines are. Deception, speed and surprises are all potential game changers. Due to their greater independence, mobility, and maneuver capability compared to centralized forces, guerrillas have the ability to inflict psychological damage in addition to physical damage on the enemy. It might at first sight look like their weakness to operate in small groups that can be wiped out in a matter of minutes. However, since they avoid the static dispositions, they can easily and secretly move into the vulnerable rear of the enemy.[v] Mobility, therefore, is a sine qua non principle along with the asymmetry and people, from Mao’s perspective.

Still, it is worth noting that Mao does not claim guerrilla action alone is decisive in the struggle for political control. He rather sees it as a natural and necessary development in an agrarian-based revolutionary war, where the main goal is always to first go through an organization, consolidation, and preservation stage (Phase I), to escalate this progressive expansion to a conventional war (Phase II), and to destroy the enemy (Phase III). In addition to the elements above, Mao prescribes how guerillas should be equipped, organized, mobilized, propagandized, commanded, and taught to behave. Even a moral code in the name of “The Three Rules and the Eight Remarks” is included to this end. Even though the exhaustive details, descriptions, and rules may bore the reader at first, they constitute a valuable source in terms of portraying the conditions and conjuncture under which Chinese soldiers were fighting against Japanese. Also, they strengthen the claim that Mao is the first person to systematically study guerrilla warfare.

Kilcullen covers a portion of On Guerilla Warfare. In addition, he contributes to the counterinsurgency literature by pinpointing the modus operandi of various insurgent groups in different regions and putting forward ways considered to be more effective and decisive to counter their movement. Kilcullen’s intention to blend his academic enthusiasm with field experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Southeast Asia is indeed praiseworthy. However, his habit of presenting every set of reasons, consequences, and solutions in bullets and numbers, as well as his interest in giving excessive amount of details occasionally makes it harder for the reader to grasp the gist of what he actually argues.

One of Kilcullen’s major arguments is that people the US has been fighting against since 9/11 are not radicals, but accidental guerrillas. For him, the logic behind the accidental guerrilla syndrome is different than the orthodox understanding of guerrilla warfare. Accordingly, in 21st century insurgency “[a terrorist group] moves into remote areas, creates alliances with local communities, exports violence that prompts a Western intervention, and then exploits the backlash against that intervention in order to generate support.”[vi] In this context, insurgents fight not because they seek the enemy’s destruction, but because they believe the enemy seeks theirs. He underlines that his reverse logic was in effect in the US fight against Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as conflicts in FATA region of Pakistan, Chechnya, and Thailand. However, the US counterinsurgency policies failed due to its inability to understand that different notion of guerilla warfare till 2007­, especially in Iraq.

Kilcullen underlines that the type of war the US is waging in Iraq and Afghanistan is quite different than the conventional, state-to-state wars of the past. He identifies this new type as hybrid warfare, combining “new actors with new technology and new or transfigured ways of war.”[vii] The Iraq War, for instance, fits this description perfectly in terms of being “a hybrid conflict that involves not only a domestic insurgency including accidental guerrillas and local fighters but also elements of sectarian and ethnic conflict, international terrorism, foreign fighters and regional nation-state rivalry relating to Islamic civil war and Shi’a awakening.”[viii] His and Mao’s arguments are parallel in terms of underlining the significant role ‘people’ or ‘locals’ play in supporting or weakening insurgent groups, as well as providing security in their regions. The counterinsurgent, then, should take the changing features of warfare into consideration and apply ethnographic fieldwork methods to win the ‘hearts and minds’ in true sense to formulate an effective counterinsurgency policy.

Ethnographic elements occupy a considerable space in Kilcullen’s counterinsurgency model. He underlines that it is essential to know the enemy and its culture through close interaction with the local population, speaking their language, seeing the world through their lenses in order to formulate the right policies. In his words, this model is “founded on a detailed understanding of the population in terms of local culture, politics, ethnic and sectarian makeup, and geographical, demographic, and economic spread.”[ix] If applied, then, the model can be considered as an effective way to provide security to population by building reliable partnerships and local alliances with prominent figures and other members of the local population. Given that, Kilcullen argues that it is unlikely the US counterinsurgency measures will lead to positive outcomes so long as the US soldiers look like “imperial stormtroopers with Darth Vader sunglasses and grotesque and cowardly body armor isolated from population.”[x] In relation to that, he endorses the different vision and efforts of General David Petraeus to alter the previous ‘enemy-centric’ approach to ‘population-centric’ approach in Iraq.

Kilcullen concludes the book by presenting his ideas that might suggest new paradigms for future counterinsurgency efforts. For him, a new approach is required because “like dinosaurs outcompeted by smaller, weaker, but more adaptive mammals, in this new era nation-states are more powerful but less agile and less flexible and slower to adapt than their non-state opponents.”[xi] Under this light, he believes that the US needs (1) a new lexicon to think clearly about new threats, (2) a grand strategy that can be sustained by the American people, key allies and partners worldwide, (3) remedy the imbalance in government capability, (4) an interagency capability to rapidly acquire, apply and proliferate techniques in a changing situation, and (5) a capacity for strategic information warfare.[xii] In this section, it is unfortunate that he is not bringing a new dimension to counterinsurgency; he only reformulates what has been suggested in the literature and tried before.

Even though Mao and Kilcullen view the issue from different perspectives, the themes they deem important are to a large extent the same. To elaborate, for instance, ‘people’ or ‘locals’ are at the epicenter of both guerrilla warfare and counterinsurgency. How they think of an effective counterinsurgency method is concurring as well. As Griffith argues in Mao’s book, anti-guerrilla operations may be summed up in three words: location, isolation and eradication.[xiii] In the same vein, Kilcullen argues that “in counterinsurgency terms, ‘clearing’ an enemy safe haven does not mean destroying the enemy in it but rescuing the population in it from enemy intimidation or, more clinically, separating the enemy from the population.”[xiv] Also, both refer to the power asymmetry between the ‘enemy’ and ‘insurgents’ as a fueling factor of guerrilla movements.

Despite the high number of complementary themes in the books, some of Mao’s principles fall short of enlightening the post-Cold War conflicts and fail to contribute to dynamic counterinsurgency operations. This, in a way, confirms that wars in every period have independent forms and independent conditions, and, therefore, every period must have its independent theory of war.”[xv] To illustrate, for instance, Kilcullen argues that “unlike Maoist protracted warfare, Taliban fighters tend to adopt the ‘focoist’ strategy according to which the presence of a roving armed band is supposed to arouse opposition to the government and ultimately instigate a popular uprising or revolution through inspirational violence.”[xvi] Still, it is fair to argue that the ‘Yin-Yang analogy’ applies to these books; they are indeed different, yet they contain each other.

It is highly recommended for international affairs students, pundits, and policy-makers to read both books with a discerning and critical eye. Reading Kilcullen only without knowing the fundamentals of guerrilla warfare would be a futile attempt to understand what counterinsurgency is. Along the same line, reading Mao only without linking the theory and praxis of 1930s to the post-Cold War notion of insurgency and security would equally be fruitless to understand the relevancy of his thoughts.

Indeed, both books are not without weaknesses. To name some, Mao overlooks the human cost of guerrilla warfare; throughout the book he refers to guerrillas as if they are living to die. As for Kilcullen, his book is neither an academic text, nor a leisure reading book. This ‘genre crisis’ makes his main arguments and recommendations elusive and at times unconvincing. In addition, as mentioned earlier, a great deal of attention is required not to get lost in the details. Arabic names of the customs of tribes, regiment names, details of past operations in various venues can be very distracting and irrelevant at times.

It would be stating the obvious to reiterate that Mao’s contribution to security studies literature is greater, and On Guerilla Warfare is timeless. Time and the future direction of international security will show whether Kilcullen’s The Accidental Guerilla will be deemed as ‘just another book’ in the related literature or as a groundbreaking cult in the following decades. Despite their weaknesses, both books are extremely important contributions to the literature. Therefore, reading, digesting, comparing, and critically evaluating both prior to stepping inside the vast world of international security studies, in particular insurgency/counterinsurgency studies, would definitely be a valuable asset and advantage. 

Works Cited

Daniel III, J. Furman. “Rediscovering Counterinsurgency.” Lecture, The George Washington University, Washington, DC, March 3, 2010.

Kilcullen, David. The Accidental Guerilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Tse-Tung, Mao. On Guerilla Warfare. New York: Preager, 1961.

[i] Mao Tse-Tung, On Guerilla Warfare (New York: Preager, 1961), 42.

[ii] Ibid, 95.

[iii] Ibid, 44.

[iv] Ibid, 51.

[v] Ibid, 25.

[vi] David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 34.

[vii] Ibid, 5-6.

[viii] Ibid, 149.

[ix] Ibid, 106.

[x] Ibid, 136.

[xi] Ibid, 294.

[xii] Ibid, 294-301.

[xiii] Tse-Tung, 32.

[xiv] Kilcullen, 145.

[xv] Tse-Tung, 49.

[xvi] Kilcullen, 86.



































About the Author(s)

Arda Bilgen is a scholar focusing on Turkish foreign policy, Turkish domestic politics, transnational security, terrorism, and security-development nexus. He held research assistantship positions at various institutions including, but not limited to, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Hudson Institute, American-Turkish Council, and International Strategic Research Organization. As a Fulbright Scholar, he holds an MA degree in International Security Studies from the George Washington University in Washington, DC and a BA degree in International Relations from Bilkent University in Turkey.


An excellent review. Thanks for submitting such a thoughtful piece.


Sat, 11/19/2011 - 4:14am

The saddest and possibly the scariest part of all of this is that these people end up being heroes to many and they are spoken of kindly by some professors in colleges. It is all so sad.

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Robert C. Jones

Fri, 11/18/2011 - 11:13am

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

Concur 100% with what Dave said.

Dave Maxwell

Thu, 11/17/2011 - 10:21pm

Interesting comparison though I still keep On Guerrilla Warfare with my Sun Tzu and Clausewitz on my desk always at hand and the Accidental Guerrilla is on my bookshelf. The Accidental Guerrilla is a good read but it is not on the same level as my top 3 and although I agree with many of Arda Bilgen's points I think it is an apples and oranges comparison between Mao and Kilcullen.