How Can We Judge the Probability of Successful Revolutions? – Forward Observer Shop

How Can We Judge the Probability of Successful Revolutions?

Brigadier General Samuel Griffith, USMC (Ret.) wrote in-depth about his study of partisan resistance and guerrilla movements. One of the things that I find particularly interesting is how he qualified the execution of guerrilla movements. He describes ten factors that determine the outcome of guerrilla and resistance movements. Each factor should be scored for both the resistance movement and the regime in power. Ten factors with ten points each gives you an index of 100. In a future post, we’ll be breaking down the possibility of domestic insurgencies, both by the left and the right wings of the political spectrum, and judging their regional outcomes should the US experience a domestic conflict.

But before we get into those ten factors, take this into consideration:

Historical experience suggests that there is very little hope of destroying a revolutionary guerrilla movement after it has survived the first phase and has acquired the sympathetic support of a significant segment of the population.  The size of this “significant segment” will vary; a decisive figure might range from 15 to 25 per cent.

Movements that don’t gain the support of 15 to 25 per cent of the population, regionally if not nationwide, generally result in failure. Further, if a movement reaches that threshold but its tactics or strategy is not supported, the movement is simply doomed to fail. A Pew Research Poll from December 2011 says that while 44% of America supported the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, 49% disagreed with OWS tactics — and that was a largely ‘peaceful’ movement compared to all out revolution! So what happened to the OWS movement? It was forced to abandon its tactics, due both to the police and failure to maintain popular support. (That, and the colder weather.) For any movement to create real and permanent change, it needs popular support on all fronts, including popular support for its tactics. That starts with the appeal of program.

Appeal of program: Does the populace line up behind a movement? Does the movement represent ideological and moral values to which people not only subscribe but would be willing to risk their lives to support? Does the movement have the moral high ground and do the people believe in what the movement is doing? These are some of the questions we can ask to satisfy this measurement. The ‘appeal of program’ must be internalized by the populace; therefore the program’s goal is to be both simply understood and dynamic. When I say dynamic, think think loud, disruptive, explosive, meaningful, and significant. If you want a good illustration of a simple and dynamic appeal of program, just look at the Ron Paul Revolution. It created hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of mini-Ron Pauls. A good appeal to program leads to popular support.

Popular support: Gaining popular support is the keystone of any resistance or guerrilla movement.  Resistance cells must depend on the empathy, hospitality, and refuge of the populace because the guerrilla doesn’t go home; he is home. Popular support is the result of one or more of two things: aggrievement and shared sacrifice, or common goals. Aggrievement and shared sacrifice often creates a deeper and more passionate support than a common goal. For instance, in football, there’s popular support for a team because a goal is shared: a national championship or Superbowl.  But no one is expected or willing to die to win the Superbowl. On the other hand, let’s look at the revolution in Egypt nearly a decade ago. While Egyptians had a shared goal of changing their government, they had been deeply aggrieved through the rule of despotism and corruption. To create popular support, movement leaders need to find those who are aggrieved and identify a common goal towards the solution (appeal of program). People want revenge and sometimes they get it.

Quality of leadership: There’s an old saying that the military doesn’t produce leaders, it refines them.  Leadership is sometimes developed in team sports, or in the office, or on the battlefield; sometimes it may lay dormant until necessity requires it to be born. Either way, leadership is required.  If we look at Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM), the Shi’ite insurgent movement in Iraq, we see Muqtada al-Sadr: the militia leader with a strong family name and political clout. Muqtada may have had the name, influence, and fortune required to build the Mahdi Army, but without an organization filled with leaders, JAM would not have been so effective. And where would US military history be without Washington and his capable suboordinates?  Were it not for Washington, there may not have been Lee and Grant, or Patton, or Eisenhower. Quality of leadership can determine outcomes so revolutionary movements must identify and choose good leaders.

Quality of troops: Quality of troops includes training and dedication. No amount of whizbang equipment can make up for poorly trained force. Training includes the three basic skills of combat: shooting, moving, communicating. But it doesn’t stop there because revolutionary movements need support functions like intelligence and logistics. There’s a reason why the three-part insurgency includes guerrillas, auxiliary, and the underground. Revolutionary movements who staff themselves with high quality, dedicated soldiers have a much higher likelihood of success, even if their end goal is to wear down an oppressive regime and enforce the area denial of their homelands. Dedication to the mission speaks volumes – just look at Afghanistan for that. Fifteen years after the first boots on ground and the most powerful military in the world is still fighting a bunch of underclassed, outgunned, backwards hillbillies. In the early 2000s, the average age of the Taliban fighter was 35. When I left Afghanistan in 2011, the average age was 23.  We’ve obliterated an entire generation of Afghans, yet the Taliban is still in control much of the country.

Military efficiency: Quality of leadership, quality of troops, economy of force, and mission success combine to produce military efficiency. ‘Economy of force’ is the concept of completing a task with the least resources required. So how do mission requirements compare to the organization’s fighting capability?  What is the force’s supply capability? How quickly can it move from Point A to Point B?  Can it achieve the objective and accomplish the mission? Anti-guerrilla and counterinsurgency forces seek to find, fix, finish, and exploit the guerrilla unit; how efficient will it be to evade detection and death/capture? Can the guerrilla unit simultaneously carry out its own activities to achieve and keep the initiative in the conflict? These are all questions with answers that will satisfy this metric. If the guerrilla unit is inefficient; if they cannot accomplish the mission to due poor training or poor leadership; if they cannot replace an effective leader who’s been killed in action; if they have suffered casualties to strength and are combat ineffective; then these deficiencies need to be identified and quickly resolved. Deficiencies affect internal unity and integrity, which affects the mission.

Internal unity: How is the unit’s morale? How well does the unit work together? How well do troops respond to leadership? Is leadership ensuring the troops are cared for? Is leadership putting the unit in undue risk of physical danger? Can all members of the unit be trusted? Unity is typically derived from shared sacrifice or a common goal. Lack of unity often derives from differing opinions of direction or purpose, or a general or specific lack of trust. Unity affects unit cohesion which affects military efficiency and results in mission failure.

Equipment:  Good equipment can be a force multiplier. The better equipment (assuming you know how to operate and maintain it) and proper employment, the better military efficiency you’ll have. Aside from a battle rifle with ammunition, NVGs/NODs (like the PVS-14) is the best low-light equipment advantage you can have.  Aside from that, will the force have sufficient access to food and water, medical supplies, radios or other communications devices, transport, survival tools and shelter, winter clothing, etc.? Many guerrilla movements are wholly dependent upon support from the populace – the main reason for popular support – for food, medicine, and intelligence. Other equipment can be gained through battlefield recovery. Think about the poor conditions of the Continental Army at Valley Forge where soldiers had little to eat, save the leather of their boots. Now think about the American soldier in Afghanistan with Meals Ready to Eat (MRE), chow tents, and dining facilities. There’s a world of difference there. If we can identify how a revolutionary movement plans to supply itself, what gear they have and how they will employ it, then we can make a more informed determination of how successful they might be against an adversary.

Operational terrain: What’s the operational terrain? This is your Area of Operation, something we refer to as the AO. This is the piece of terrain that a movement attempts to deny to and/or attack the enemy.  The movement owns the domain; this is their battlespace. The most effective guerrillas have expert knowledge of the surrounding terrain, and uses it to their advantage. For instance, there are caves up in the hills that surround Fort Huachuca, Arizona. During the fort’s early days, Indian raiding parties would attack US cavalry, then lead them up the hills, where the raiding party would enter into the cave system on one side, exit out the back, climb back over the top of the hill, then ambush the winded US soldiers as they entered the same cave entrance. That’s an expert use of the terrain.  Whichever side can best use the operational terrain has an advantage.

Operational area communications: How does a revolutionary movement communicate? Hand signals and two-way radios for tactical movement, and physical/digital dead drops for operational communication?  Will the terrain permit the use of cell phones or two-way radios? Does the movement’s communications require line of site, and do they have that kind of coverage in the AO? The more ways to securely and effectively communicate, the better the measure of success an organization has. An adversary’s capability to intercept signals may weigh heavily on a commo plan, but consider this: the inability or unwillingness to communicate electronically will remove not only an effective form of communication from the movement, but will also negate the easiest form of intelligence collection a regime has.

Sanctuary:  Where is the guerrilla unit’s sanctuary? What’s the escape and evasion plan during the enemy’s Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit targeting cycle? Are there homes or other locations where a guerrilla unit can hide to escape a regime force search? Will the guerrilla unit use a hidden mountain base or does the base move with them? Successful guerrilla units avoid detection by hiding in hard to find or hard to search places. In the case of the original Red Dawn movie and in the case of the Chetniks resisting Nazi occupation during WWII, the mountains were natural sanctuary. In a world with satellite imagery and real-time overhead assets, sanctuary may be hard to come by. The bottom line is that the guerrilla needs a place to hide and blend in with his environment. If physical terrain is not an option, then guerrillas must use the human terrain. The simplest example of masking yourself using the human terrain came via the Taliban.  A fighter armed with an AK-47 and engaging in a fire fight thirty seconds ago has now dropped his weapon and is hiding with the populace in the village. Blending in with the human terrain is made easier with smaller guerrilla units of three to five man teams because it’s nearly impossible to disperse a company (40-100) sized guerrilla unit in such a small area. If a revolutionary or guerrilla movement has substantial sanctuary then they have an advantage that may make their movement more successful.


Those are the ten metrics we can use to judge the potential success of a guerrilla movement, however, keep in mind that most insurgencies end in a stalemate, and many insurgencies use violence as a way to achieve political concessions. Insurgent movements, especially regional ones, may be much more interested in introducing ‘self-rule’ or setting up an autonomous regional government than they would be to topple the existing national government. Furthermore, revolutionary and insurgent movements are aided in areas of weak state control where a power vacuum exists, or where the official government suffers from illegitimacy. The Taliban’s shadow government system in Afghanistan is a prime example, where locals actually use the Taliban’s judicial system. Where the Taliban is the legitimate government as perceived by the people, they are the government.


Always Out Front,

Samuel Culper


PS. If you’re concerned about where we’re headed as a country, whether on the near-end of the spectrum or the far end of the spectrum (social, political and economic instability; domestic conflict; or collapse of empire), and want to stay informed on what the headlines don’t cover, then I invite you to try us out. Our special operations and intelligence veterans track the day-to-day risk of global and domestic conflict. If you’re not happy within the first two weeks, I’ll refund your monthly or annual subscription cost – no questions asked. You can get access to our intelligence reporting and training area here.



Mike Shelby is a former military intelligence NCO and contract intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.

1 Comment

  1. Can you write a “part 2” of this article that contains your analysis, based on the points described in the article above, of a few of the current, modern-era movements and/or groups? For example, given the information in the article, how does that impact your analysis of things like the Bundy Ranch standoff +/- the wildlife refuge occupation, the militia movement (maybe pick a one or two of the better-known militia groups), the Sovereign Citizens movement, Eric Frein contrast with Eric Robert Rudolph (maybe with these two you could contrast the success of groups vs “lone wolf” type operatives), etc? I think that you provide some decent information in the article above, and some thin analysis in terms of historical movements, but what would make this article really worthwhile is some analysis that is more relevant to the times we are in and and groups were are either involved with or that exist in the broader context of our movement. Part 2, adding depth to Part 1 would be worthwhile content. Along those lines, I’d really like to see an in-depth article by someone with intel experience that really takes apart the Eric Frein incident piece by piece and analyzes the implications for those who might someday find themselves opposing oppression. Maybe someone has written such an article somewhere and I missed it, but I’d like to see one done by a guy with some intel experience who has actually applied his knowledge in the field against disrupters int he past; you know, someone like you, Sam.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Name *