An important question for many reasons is, How big does a revolutionary group need to be to start a civil war? The “critical mass” question is important for every phase in the “etiology” of revolution, from its ignition to its final victory or defeat. For this article, I’ll just focus on one dimension, the force ratio between the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary armies.
Clearly, one disgruntled person is not enough to start a revolution. However, the actual size of many revolutionary organizations, once they started to make serious progress, was actually quite small. Take, for example, the guerrillas operating in the Sierra Maestra mountains at the beginning of the Cuban civil war. With only a small force, Castro could have waited before beginning serious military operations against the Batista regime, if he had followed the standard Maoist template for revolution. (First, according to Mao, you build a political and organizational base in the rural population. Then you start guerrilla operations.) Castro believed instead that some initial raids against police and military installations would inspire people to join the revolutionaries, switching the first and second stages of the Maoist strategy completely around. And, obviously, he was right—though, as always, one has to be careful about generalizing too quickly, applying “lessons learned” from one revolutionary conflict, in a particular country at a particular time, to another such conflict elsewhere and elsewhen.
Terrorists, too, operate in very small groups. In fact, a great deal of revolutionary propaganda and strategy documents, from terrorist groups as varied as the IRA and al Qaeda, justify terrorism on the grounds that “the masses” just aren’t ready yet. The dedicated cadre of revolutionaries can only create a revolutionary mindset, they argue, by triggering a series of events starting with terrorist attacks. Different terrorists have varying predictions of what will follow—for European Marxist groups, a repressive police crackdown that tears away the mask of decency from the capitalist state; for Islamists, a sudden mass awareness that the imperial colossus is not invulnerable—but the story starts always with the small, enlightened, dedicated, and disciplined revolutionary cell doing whatever they think is necessary to start the revolution.
Terrorists and guerrillas can be wrong. None of the groups like the Red Brigades or the IRA ignited the mass revolution they had expected. Al Qaeda lost its base in Kabul, since the United States and its allies proved not as fearful of fighting a war in Afghanistan as expected. But the general principle is true: it doesn’t take a mass movement to start a revolution.
Sustaining it, however, is another question entirely. Guerrillas and terrorists, fighting “the war of the flea,” need at all costs to maintain the initiative. Many of their needs, therefore, depend on having sufficient numbers of fighters, agents, and supporters. Information about what the government is doing, a steady supply of recruits to replace losses, couriers willing to take clandestine messages between commanders—these and other functional pieces of any revolution’s anatomy require, at bottom, enough people to keep the revolutionary going.
At a purely military level, the revolutionaries need enough relative strength compared to the government’s military and paramilitary forces to sustain guerrilla operations, including patrols of “liberated zones” and raids on government facilities. While guerrillas don’t need to match the government, soldier for soldier, they need enough fighters to sustain these kinds of operations.
Looking at this force ratio from the other side, students and practitioners of counterinsurgency often cite a “magic ratio” between government and guerrilla forces—usually 8:1, but often as high as 10:1. According to this counterinsurgency canon, if the government’s military strength hasn’t reached the 8:1 threshold, it can’t re-take the initiative at the operational and theater planes of strategy from the guerrillas.
It’s best to understand the magic ratio as an average, not an absolute number required for all governments fighting guerrillas. For example:
- In 1985, approximately 120,000 Soviet and 30,000 Afghan soldiers fought 150,000 mujahideen. Even if you were to add the 100,000 Afghan Communist paramilitary troops (of very questionable value) to the scales, the balance was far from the 8:1 ratio. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Soviets gave up and retreated, but it’s easy to forget how tenaciously the Najibullah government held on for a couple of year after the Soviet withdrawal.
- In 1950, at the crescendo of the Huk Rebellion, the Philippine army had only a 3:1 or 4:1 advantage over the Hukbalahap insurgents. However, the Huks dramatically lost ground to the Filipino government over the next few years.
- In the mid-1980s, the government of El Salvador enjoyed as high as 10:1 advantage over its FMLN adversary, but it still did not make military or political headway against the guerrillas until the end of the decade.
Obviously, there are too many peculiarities of each conflict at play for any absolute ratio, like the 8:1 figure, to make sense. In the Philippines, for example, Defense Minister (and later President) Ramon Magsaysay substantially restructured the armed forces at the regimental and battalion levels, making it easier for them to defeat a guerrilla army than other militaries fighting other insurgencies. The triple-canopy jungles of South Vietnam helped the National Liberation Front ambush and fade away, but not every country has that much concealing terrain to mask guerrilla movements. Daniel Ortega and other Sandinista leaders had a much better ability to organize and recruit than the contra armies they later fought. Fidel Castro had a much better nose for revolutionary potential (or, perhaps, just much better luck) than the Tupemaro leaders in Uruguay.
However many variables you want to throw into the equation, the principle of the force ratio still stands. The number of capable fighters on each side determines the ability of the guerrillas to maintain the initiative. Training, operational and tactical doctrine, equipment, leadership, and other characteristics of the government and guerrilla armed forces add further weight to one side or the other of the scale. The fact of the balance, and its effect on the course of the war, is undeniable.
It’s worth noting here that terrorists have no equivalent balance of force considerations. A very small group of terrorists can continue to bomb, kidnap, and assassinate, even if the government increases the size and quality of its security forces by a full order of magnitude. The horrific nature of terrorism usually keeps the number of recruits willing to abandon their scruples, and increasingly in an age of suicide attacks, their lives, to a minimum. However, to continue as a terrorist organization or network, the cause doesn’t need that many fighters or supporters.
For people who guffaw at the idea that terrorism requires more law enforcement than military action, it’s worth taking stock of that last observation. Terrorist groups that spring from within a society don’t need foreign bases, substantial military support from foreign governments, or operational support from a foreign army. Guerrillas might be able to turn these boons to their advantage, but domestic terrorists can’t, and don’t need to. Even foreign-based terrorists, such as al Qaeda, need a lot less from foreign safe havens and patrons than many people assume. Atta’s group could have learned how to pilot an airliner in many countries to be sure, but they could gather information on Logan Airport only from within the United States. Even if the Bush Administration had invaded Afghanistan the day after it took office, the operational stages of the 9/11 attacks within the United States were already underway.
Finally, when do you know when you’ve defeated the revolutionaries? Often, the answer is, You can’t, and don’t assume that victory means complete elimination of the enemy. Aside from the Communist Huk Rebels, the main enemy of the 1940s and 1950s, the Philippine government has been fighting Moro separatists practically since the day the Philippines gained its independence. At no point has the Moro movement ever completely disappeared, though it would be disingenuous to say that the Filipino government has never defeated them. The Moros have often been confined enough to be, at worst, a nuisance. Final victory may not be possible with the forces available, or the leaders of the next phase of the insurgency may melt into the population until the time is again ripe for armed resistance. Belief in total victory may not only be completely misguided, but also highly dangerous. Massacre, mass displacement, and genocide are the tools of people who believe that such total extermination of all resistance is both possible and necessary.
Having said a lot already on the theory side, I’ll say only a few words on the practice side. Clearly, this question of numbers is important, for both the international struggle with al Qaeda and the regional conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Here are a few salient points:
- Forceful action abroad can have only marginal effects on al Qaeda. In the pursuit of a long-term goal, whittling down al Qaeda, it’s important to deny it as many safe havens as possible, kill or imprison its leaders and fighters, and shut off easy sources of funding and training. However, the size of the al Qaeda network abroad is less important than the activities of al Qaeda operatives within the United States, or in places where dramatic attacks against large numbers of American civilians are possible.
- Yet again, it’s important to call attention to how little progress the United States has made in Afghanistan. The central government is far from reaching a sufficient balance of forces against the Taliban, warlords opposed to the central government, narcotics traffickers, and brigands. In fact, over the last few years, these groups have become even more intertwined than they were before the 2001 invasion.
- We can make too much of individual terrorist attacks in Iraq. The number of terrorist attacks against Iraqi and foreign targets will not drop to zero any time soon—if ever.
- At the same time, the balance of forces in Iraq isn’t where it needs to be. The number of Iraqi soldiers, policemen, local militia members, and border guards trained is a misleading statistic—and the numbers are far short of the original goals in any case. Hastily trained troops—if you can say they are trained at all to fight the different insurgent groups—won’t swing the balance significantly against the insurgents. Since not all the insurgent groups are the same, the balance of forces matters differently in practically each case. If there had been a larger contingent of well-trained, well-equipped Iraqi troops in Fallujah, the world might have seen the first instances of Iraqi government troops defeating guerrillas like al-Sadr’s Army of the Mahdi. However, winning house-to-house battles with that type of insurgent is no guide to how well the Iraqi security forces can deal with Ansar al-Sunnah and “al Qaeda in Iraq,” which are more interested in high-profile kidnappings, televised executions, and suicide attacks than running gun battles with American and Iraqi soldiers.
Many discussions about current events circle back to the same questions: How soon will the Iraqi government be able to defend itself? What signs should we seek that we are reaching that threshold? Clearly, we’re not there yet, and a raw statistic about the number of troops in uniform is almost no guide at all.