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Wondering how the Afghanistan-Libya-Syria? template of air power, special operations forces, and native forces got going? Simon Anglim, author of a wonderful new book on Orde Wingate, has a new piece worth your attention in the Journal of Military Operations. Paramilitary support operations, as Anglim calls them, have a long and somewhat checkered history. There are essentially two methods of supporting an insurgency that Anglim catalogs: first, issuing weapons and supplies to irregulars while using small units existing outside formal command structures to plan operations against the enemy's nerve centers and communications. Wingate was not a huge fan of this method:
Wingate was vitriolic about [T.E.] Lawrence’s approach to paramilitary support – issuing weapons, ammunition and money to anyone claiming they would fight, in the hope that they would wage protracted ‘People’s War’ along enemy lines of communication, forcing enemy formations to disperse and breaking their will via frustration and exhaustion. Wingate knew that winning the ‘armed struggle’ in reality necessitated success in battle, requiring disciplined, well-trained and well-armed professional guerrilla forces – the opposite of anarchic tribesmen like Lawrence’s Bedouin:
Certainly there were also personal issues involved, as Lawrence had written some nasty things about Wingate's mentor. But there was also a genuine philosophical difference prompted by Wingate's rather desultory experiences with guerrillas. Whlle fighting againt the Italians in Ethiopia, Wingate had experienced the problems of trying to hand out weapons and then expecting that the weapons themselves would unify squabbling tribesmen, warlords, and 'accidental guerrillas' with their own disparate agendas. More often than not Wingate found that the results did not result in strategic effect for British policy aims. Moreover, Wingate also lived in a time when the primary counterinsurgents suppressing internal rebellion were the thoroughly destructive Imperial Japanese Army and the German military and paramilitary warmaking apparatus. Both maintained iron grips on conquered lands, even if the Japanese could never gain strategic control over the whole of China and the Germans struggled mightily to cope with partisans in Yugoslavia and the Eastern Front. Compared to the "Three Alls," even the horrific brutality of a Assad or Gaddafi looks rather tame in comparison.
Either way, the partisans on both fronts did not create a true strategic threat to their German and Japanese opponents. Soviet destruction of German military power in Belorussia 1944 in Operation Bagration did what partisan bands could not, and Japanese ground military power in China was only uprooted after the Soviet destruction of the Kwantung Army in 1945's Manchurian Strategic Offensive. As Wingate noted, "When opposing ruthless enemies, such as Japanese or Germans, it is wrong to place any reliance upon the efforts of the individual patriot, however devoted. Brutal and widespread retaliation instantly follows any attempt to injure the enemy’s war machine, and, no matter how carefully the sabotage organisation may have been trained for the event, in practice they will find it impossible to operate against a resolute and ruthless enemy." Survival at all costs was the prominent concern when faced with such opponents, especially since those who survived long enough to see the Japanese and Germans leave would have a head start in the postwar struggle over domestic political power.
Wingate attempted to create a new mode of warfare rooted around a different vision. Regular units specializing in operations inside enemy lines, supplied by air and able to draw on close air support, would convert "potentially drawn-out and desultory guerrilla warfare into combined-arms operations having swift, decisive strategic effect." His Long Range Penetration (LRP) forces would find targets for bombing attack deep behind enemy line. But as Anglim observes, "airpower on its own was perhaps less important than the ability of ground forces to summon it, and then exploit its impact." Ultimately, the United States carried out a version of this sort of warfare on a grand scale in Afghanistan in 2002, and Anglim argues that Britain, France, and Qatari special operations forces in Libya provided forward air control, operated anti-tank missiles, and coordinated rebel ground offensives with NATO airstrikes. In 2003 in Kurdistan, the United States took Mosul in concert with Kurdish irregulars. The key to Wingate's mode of warfare was the prosecution of integrated air-ground offensives with an aim to generate strategic effect through operational guidance of ground forces to ensure that weapons are used appropriately and tactics are sound. Such a presence need not necessarily be too large, but must also be sufficient for the task.
Whether or not paramilitary support operations are in the national interest is a policy question, but Anglim has admirably outlined the British operational lineage of the "Afghan method" that many have assumed was explicitly American and invented in 2001. Of course William "Bull" Donovan and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) also worked on similar ideas, and the Special Operations Executive (SOE) implemented a similar operational design at times. But Wingate expressed the primary ideas with perhaps the most clarity.