The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Guerrilla Warfare: The Way of the Weak


Kurdish Female Soldier

“War is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means.”
Clausewitz, On War

The first and most fundamental principle of warfare is to know what your goal is. This applies to any type of war, anywhere, at any time, no matter what tactic is used.

Last year (this is a reprint, but one most readers probably haven’t read)  I was one of the first people to predict that Israel would lose to Hezbollah—because Israel’s stated goal was to destroy Hezbollah as an organization. Given that during a nearly two decade occupation Israel had been unable to destroy Hezbollah it was laughably obvious that Israel wasn’t going to succeed this time. (It turned out that the magnitude of their loss was greater than I expected.)

In the Iraq War the US has a similar problem: the goals that were achievable have been achieved (overthrowing Saddam).  But the goals that remain are unclear:  creating a democracy friendly to the US, establishing permanent bases, making sure western companies have the oil contracts; and these remaining goals are probably not possible to acheive with the amount of military force and spending the US is willing to allocate. Therefore, it has been clear for a long time (since before the invasion) that the US would not “win” the occupation in any real sense of the word. Indeed, at this point, the US is reduced to praying it can leave and not have the country crack up in a hot civil war. That goal might be achievable.

So it is with guerrillas. Guerrillas have to know what they can do, what they can’t do, and what they want to do. The primary virtue of guerrillas is that it is hard to wipe them out. The primary weakness of guerrillas is that they aren’t all that good at straight up fighting; as a rule, a competent regular army will routinely hand out loss after loss to guerrillas; guerrillas have to be content with picking off isolated units, with causing pinprick damage like bombs and snipers, and with disrupting weakly defended supply and rear units. But in straight up firefights, with very rare exceptions, it’s usually pretty unpleasant to be a guerrilla.1

We can take Clausewitz a step further. War is less the continuation of politics than the failure of politics. Nations and people engage in war when they feel they can get something they want more easily or advantageously with force than through other means.

If people feel that the occupation of their country won’t end peacefully, then war is inevitable. If certain groups wish to impose their religion and know that it will not be allowed, then war is a route to their goal. If people want law and order and occupation forces are unable to provide it,  then a new government is necessary—and if one cannot be obtained through peaceful means then it may be obtained through violent ones.

The failure of politics leads to war: the failure to provide law and order, the failure to rebuild infrastructure, the failure to provide belief in a promising future, the failure to align the interests of the occupation with the interests of the population. All of this sets up the preconditions for guerrilla warfare and rebellion.

Guerrillas in Iraq, for example, were fighting for when the US leaves. This was clear in the pattern of attacks, which throughout the war have been much heavier on opposing Iraqi groups and Iraqi “government” forces than they have been on Coalition forces. Enough pressure has to be kept on the US to make the US leave, but the guerrillas know they cannot defeat the US in conventional terms. They can only cause more attrition than the US is politically capable of handling. So the goals of the various Iraqi armed groups might be said to be “To convince the US to leave by making the cost of staying too high, and to be in a good position to fight for or negotiate for their place in Iraq after the US has left.”

In Palestine—another guerrilla war, for all that it is not called that—the goals of the two sides are as follows: for Israel, to crush the Palestinian resistance while establishing facts on the ground which will allow them to impose the most favorable settlement in a two-state solution possible; for the Palestinians, to not let the Israelis win.

Note that the Palestinian goal isn’t really to establish a Palestinian state. The Palestinians will take one if they can get a viable one, but they aren’t in a position to really pursue it. The goal is to not lose to the Israelis. (This is one reason why Arafat walked away from Clinton’s talks.) The Israelis have been occupying Palestine for decades now. They can clearly hang on for a long time. They aren’t going to be “forced” out; the Palestinians don’t have what it takes and the Israelis have a high tolerance for low level attrition losses.

The Palestine and Israel situation points out something important about the nature of guerrilla warfare: guerrilla warfare is the strategy of the weak vs. the powerful. Palestinian losses and Iraqi insurgency losses are much higher respectively than those of the occupying forces. They always have been. The guerrilla’s equipment is not as good. The guerrillas, in most cases, are not as well trained. They aren’t nearly as well organized. They are just not as good at fighting and killing. In fact, the superiority of the coalition over the Iraqi insurgency, or of the Israelis over the Palestinians, is so striking that one wonders how it is that neither can actually really defeat their enemies.

Let’s move to that next, with a quote from the greatest guerrilla leader of the 20th century , Mao Tse Tung:

“Many people think it impossible for guerrillas to exist for long in the enemy’s rear. Such a belief reveals lack of comprehension of the relationship that should exist between the people and the troops. The former may be likened to water the latter to the fish who inhabit it. How may it be said that these two cannot exist together? It is only undisciplined troops who make the people their enemies and who, like the fish out of its native element cannot live.”
– Mao Tse Tung, On Guerrilla Warfare

The relationship between locals and guerrilla troops is the most important point in Mao’s entire essay, and indeed the most important thing you need to know about guerrilla warfare, occupations, terrorism and insurgency. If the movement has the support of the population, they cannot be destroyed. Period. No matter how many you manage to kill, there will always be more. Now support doesn’t mean answering affirmatively to “do you prefer the guerrilla movement” in a poll, it means practical support: are locals willing to feed guerrrillas, hide them, and act as their ears and eyes? The general estimate is that if a guerrilla movement has between 10% to 20% of the population of an area behind it, until you can break that support of the population for the guerrillas, any victories over them will be purely temporary.2

This doesn’t mean national support.  For example, if 20% of the population of California supported a violent succession movement, that would be sufficient to allow it to operate relatively successfully. For much of the occupation Iraqi, Shia have mostly not been shooting at Americans, but Iraqi Sunnis have supported more than enough insurgents to keep entire provinces in anarchy.

Let’s examine what having support means. If you’re a guerrilla leader, you must do everything possible to build the support of the population. In Iraq this has meant that such law as is provided is often provided by various militias: if someone rapes your sister, steals your car, or murders your son, you go to militias for help, and they help you. Sadr helped put some power back on line for Sadr city. But more than positive things, what it means is making sure that the enemy does horrible things to the population,  but not too horrible. The killing of the mercenaries in Fallujah, for example, was a classic guerrilla move, carefully staged (including the pictures, which are clearly stage managed) to cause an American overreaction. That overreaction occurred, Fallujah was eventually effectively destroyed, and horrible atrocities occurred. Sunnis then learned to hate Americans even more. On a lesser scale, every time an American soldier frags some old man at a stoplight, every time a girl is raped, every time there is “collateral” damage that takes out a wedding, all of these are grist for the guerrilla propaganda mill. Mao is relentless in his writing that one of the major jobs of guerrillas is propaganda, and that every large guerrilla unit (bearing in mind this was in the early 20th century) should have its own press.

It should go without saying, but apparently doesn’t, that if you don’t want to arouse more hatred, then doing things like torturing people, sweeping up large numbers of people who aren’t associated with the insurgency, and locking them up in a prison associated with torture from the old regime is working against your own goals: the equivalent of handing the guerrillas supporters on a silver platter. Any atrocity that is not sufficiently large to make a specific person think “there’s a good chance this will happen to me” isn’t just immoral, it’s stupid. It is aiding and abetting the enemy.

As an army fighting an anti-insurgency campaign there are two routes to take to deal with the population’s support for a guerrilla movement. You can try and win the population over largely with honey, or you can make the population so scared and powerless that they won’t, or can’t, support the guerrillas The second method is a heck of a lot easier, though the first method has been used successfully, most notably in the Malaysian Emergency.

Let’s talk about the easy way first. Scare and weaken the population into no longer supporting the insurgency. The primary method here is mass killing, and removal of the population to camps. If a city (like Fallujah) is a problem, you destroy it entirely, and you kill everyone in it, or at least every fighting-age male. This is one reason why US marines would not allow men out of Fallujah in the run up to the final assault. Do this often enough, and people get the message that supporting the insurgency is a really bad idea. And if you’re willing to kill hundreds of thousands or millions of civilians,  you’re bound to get a lot of the right people, along with a lot of the wrong people. Immoral? Of course, but it does work. Take other towns and cities which are troublesome but not quite so bad, and move their populations to camps. This allows you to control the population in such a way that they can’t support guerrillas.3 Both of these methods were used by the US in the Philippines on a large scale. They worked. Wiping out a huge chunk of the population also worked for Russia against Chechnya, notable for inspiring enough hatred to spawn female suicide bombers, who were mostly avenging male relatives or lovers tortured to death by the Russians; and for Turkey against their own Kurds, a campaign notable for wiping out entire villages, killing the men and raping the women. The camp strategy is currently being used by India against some of its indigenous guerrilla movements. A sufficiently ruthless commander could win the Iraq occupation in a few years, if given the green-light to commit massive atrocities and kill a few million Iraqis.

The ruthless strategy doesn’t work when you don’t have the stomach or moral imbecility for it (e.g., the US in Iraq), or when you don’t have the means to wipe out enough population (e.g., the Japanese in China). It also has the effect of wrecking the economy of the nation you do it to, which can be a negative, but doesn’t have to be. If you’re conquering a nation for its natural resources, you really only need enough natives to extract them, after all. And if there’s no other economy but your plantations, mines and oil fields, then that just means the workers are cheaper.

The “kill them with kindness strategy” is harder to pull off. It requires more men on the ground, and those men have to have fire discipline. The attitude of US troops that they’d rather make a mistake and blow away an Iraqi family is the exact antithesis of the sort of fire discipline required not to alienate the population. You must be willing to take some losses you wouldn’t otherwise take in order not to hand propaganda coups to the guerrillas

You need more men on the ground because you must protect the population from the guerrillas. If you aren’t committing enough atrocities, then the guerrillas will either try and taunt you into doing so, or they’ll commit them for you; this is the method behind the apparent madness of car bombs and suicide vests. The guerrilla in this case is saying, “If you ever want peace and order, if you ever want to feel safe, you will have to let me rule because the enemy can’t stop me. The only group that can stop the killing is us, because we’re doing it, and the occupiers are too weak or incompetent to stop us.”

In a sense this guerilla strategy is the mirror of the ruthless strategy. In the ruthless strategy the anti-insurgency force says, “We’ll keep killing, torturing and raping you in gross quantities till you stop supporting the insurgency.” when guerrillas do the same thing, it’s a retail version. (Although, as Iraq has demonstrated, the numbers can approach gross lots much faster than one would think. B52s aren’t needed to kill large numbers, they just make it easier.)

Safety is job one. If there is no safety in a country, the people will support whoever they think can provide it.

Job two is prosperity. The hard way requires that you flood the country with money, jobs and prosperity. Important people (tribal leaders, Imans, village headman, etc) should be getting rich. Ordinary people should have jobs. Farmers should find that crop prices are up (support them if necessary, for God’s sake). They should recognize that they are better off under you than they could ever be under the guerrillas

The goal of reducing support for the guerrillas isn’t just about aid, it’s about informants. To break an insurgency you absolutely must have informants. You need people telling who are the leaders of the cells, warning you of attacks, etc. And you must be able to protect your informants. Every time I read that in Afghanistan some villagers who had accepted NATO help, or who were friendly with NATO, or who taught girls, have just been killed by the Taliban, I wince.

Job one in the friendly way is protecting your people—not your troops, who are expendable, but your allies, especially local influentials in the population. It’s important to get this through one’s head: a soldier’s life is not worth more than a the life of a friendly local in an anti-insurgency campaign. Not if you want to win.

Create prosperity, maintain law and order. Recruit informants. Protect your allies.

So much for the strategy of an insurgency, pro or con. Let’s talk about the operational and tactical details, the stuff that determines whether Petraeus’s plan can work even in the short term, as just one example.

In general, guerrilla units disperse to operate: When the enemy is in over-extended defense, and sufficient force cannot be concentrated against him, guerrillas must disperse, harass him, and demoralize him.

When encircled by the enemy, guerrillas disperse to withdraw.

When the nature of the ground limits action, guerrillas disperse.

When the availability of supplies limits action, they disperse. Guerrillas disperse in order to promote mass movements over a wide area.
– Mao Tse Tung, On Guerrilla Warfare

When Petraeus flooded Baghdad with troops, what did the enemy do? They dispersed much of their force into the provinces. Dispersal operates at the highest geographic level like that, and at the smallest level. Let’s say you’re operating in urban environments and you encircle a group. They drop their weapons and disperse amongst the population. How are you going to capture or kill them unless people are either willing to point them out to you or you are willing to simply kill everyone? (Or every male, as the Marines did in Fallujah.)

Let’s say a guerrilla unit wants to move from city A to city B? Do they travel as a convoy? No, each man travels by himself, without weapons, in civilian garb, and once he reaches the city they regroup and are rearmed by local cells or just by the local black market. You can slow this process down by the sort of methods the Israelis use, of dividing the country into cantons and restricting movement between them, but you can’t stop it entirely (and remember that the Israeli occupied territories are tiny compared to Iraq).

Let’s say there are no good targets. You simply don’t fight. But unless your enemy has enough forces to garrison every part of the country in such numbers that you can’t defeat any group in detail, you control all parts of the country where the enemy is not and the population supports you.

What happens if the the anti-insurgency forces break up into smaller groups to pursue the guerrilla forces which have likewise broken up? Or what happens if you start putting small units in every little neighborhood, to provide law and safety. Sun Tzu and Mao tell us…

If we are concentrated while the enemy is fragmented. If we are concentrated into a single force while he is fragmented into ten, then we attack him with ten times his strength. Thus we are many and the enemy is few. If we attack his few with our many those who we engage in battle will be severely constrained.
– Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Guerrillas concentrate when the enemy is advancing upon them, and there is opportunity to fall upon him and destroy him. Concentration may be desirable when the enemy is on the defensive and guerrillas wish to destroy isolated detachments in particular localities. By the term ‘concentrate’, we do not mean the assembly of all manpower but rather of only that necessary for the task. The remaining guerrillas are assigned missions of hindering and delaying the enemy, of destroys isolated groups, or of conducting mass propaganda.
– Mao Tse Tung, On Guerrilla Warfare

So if the occupiers divide their forces up, the guerrillas concentrate and attack in overwhelming force. Because guerrillas can move like fish in the ocean, which is to say, they can usually concentrate at the site of the attack without the defenders knowing because they don’t move as obvious formations of enemy troops, they will in almost every case have tactical surprise. It is a testament to US military superiority (and air and artillery) that despite multiple attempts to overrun various smaller US bases, the US has held on to them. But it is always a risk, because you can never tell when an attack is going to happen and the enemy knows when you concentrate (they can hardly miss it, with the population as their eyes and ears) but you can’t tell when guerrillas will concentrate and attack.

In addition to the dispersion and concentration of forces, the leader must understand what is termed ‘alert shifting’. When the enemy feels the danger of guerrillas, he will generally send troops out to attack them. The guerrillas must consider the situation and decide at what time and at what place they wish to fight. If they find that they cannot fight, they must immediately shift. Then the enemy may be destroyed piecemeal. For example; after a guerrilla group has destroyed an enemy detachment at one place, it may be shifted to another area to attack and destroy a second detachment. Sometimes, it will not be profitable for a unit to become engaged in a certain area, and in that case, it must move immediately.
– Mao Tse Tung, On Guerrilla Warfare

Again, if a strong force is attacking, disperse, find a weaker force, and re-concentrate to attack it.

Let’s wrap this up, letting Sun Tzu, who wrote the first known treatise on military strategy, start us along the path:

Being unconquerable lies with yourself, being conquerable lies with the enemy. Thus one who excels in warfare is able to make himself unconquerable, but cannot necessarily cause the enemy to be conquerable.
—Sun Tzu, On War

Guerrilla warfare is the strategy of the weak faced with the strong. It is also the warfare of an oppressed population against those who oppress them. These points can’t be stressed enough. Although a guerrilla movement needs nowhere near the support of a majority of the population, it can’t survive without substantial, popular support. The Taliban have many followers. So does the Sunni insurgency. So does Hamas. So did Hezbollah when they were fighting a guerrilla war.

Whenever you are fighting a guerrilla movement of any power, you are also, effectively, at war with part of the population. On top of the strategic and tactical implications already discussed, this has moral implications that should be carefully thought through, and even more carefully as the percentage of support creeps up and past 50%, as it does in many cases. Does the will of the people matter? Do you have the moral right to force them to accept what you think is best?

This is the case even of movements at less than 50%. Perhaps the majority of the population doesn’t support the guerillas, and thus you have a moral mandate to fight them, but why is it that a significant minority is so angry they are willing to support this level of violence? If you don’t understand that “why”, not only will you have a hard time defeating them but the phrase “tyranny of the majority” could have real resonance. Of course, the minority could be supporting the guerrillas because the guerillas have terrorized them into support, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they like you, either.

Guerrilla warfare is what the weak do when the strong have defeated them. It’s the moment when they say, “No, this isn’t over till I say it is.” At that point, you have a choice of putting the boots to their ribs untill they submit to occupation, or you can try and convince them that fighting you isn’t the best path to the peace, prosperity, dignity and self determination that all people want.

Or you can walk away, and let them rule themselves.4

War is indeed politics with an admixture of other means. Understanding those means, what their limitations are, what is required to use them and win, and the moral choices they will force on you, should be required of anyone who is in a position to commit a country or a people to war. Once let loose, the dogs of war often slip the leash of he who thought to control them.


Originally Published at BOPNews in slightly different form, back in 2004. Has been published in the Agonist and FDL at other points.  One of my personal favorite articles I’ve written.

The picture at the top is of a female Kurdish soldier, almost certainly a guerilla, though I can’t say for sure. It is from this Kurdish gallery archive site, which is more than worth your time to visit.


1. Important aside: Hezbollah’s troops, while trained to operate as guerrillas, are regular soldiers. As one military analyst quipped to me “what do you call light infantry trained to operate as guerrillas? Special forces”. Israel smashed its face in against a heavily fortified special forces army. Puts it in a new light, doesn’t it?

2. In the Revolutionary war one estimate is that the rebels had about a third of the population, the Tories about a third, and about a third just wanted all the guys with guns to go away. Note that the rebels did manage to field a conventional army, with the strong support of France. It is generally a good sign for an insurgency if it can support a regular army alongside the guerrilla resistance, again, because guerrillas can only win by wars of attrition “to hell with it, it’s not worth it”, not through battlefield success. A regular army is not so limited.

3. Protecting the population may sometimes require setting up camps or fortifying existing villages. Because camps are used in the ruthless method as well, and because the ruthless method is used more often, they’re generally considered bad things. But they are usually part of the kinder anti-insurgency strategy as well, especially in rural areas.

4. The full text of Mao’s “On Guerrilla Warfare” can be found here. The section with most of the more generic advice (not particular to the Chinese/Japanese war) can be found here.

5. This isn’t always easy. For example, in Northern Ireland, the Brits would have loved to walk away. Problem was – the majority of the population wanted them to stay. Ouch.

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  1. Eric Gen

    I thought this sounded familiar. You’d mentioned that this site would also provide a place for your older writings.

    Any chance for some John Q. Treasury? Old or new? The current state of the world ought to provide plenty of material to choose from.

    Anyway, glad you’ve resurfaced. I found this site a week or so ago googling. Right after that it surfaced in some comments on the Agonist, and Sean-Paul linked to you this morning.

    Best regards!

  2. Hey Eric, nice to see you here. I might see about some John Q. Treasury. I’m trying to get back into writing fiction, that might make a nice transition, being half and half.

  3. Bruce Wilder

    In the past, counter-insurgency was considered very costly, in and of itself, regardless of whether its goals were extraction or containment, and it was the costliness that put its pragmatic feasibility into question. I expect the economics have changed a bit, with the decreased cost of surveillance and long-distance potshots, and the looming problem of global resource limits. If powerful, remote elites really do not care about mass welfare, or just want to keep resource consumption by the hoi polloi down, they can keep the revolting masses fenced, under surveillance and in simmering chaos, and that might be considered “good enough”.

    I’m not saying that any particular power, including the U.S. in its imperial decadence, would deliberately adopt this stance, but the U.S. and others could herd themselves into such a dystopia quite easily.

    By the time any society is reduced to guerilla warfare, social cohesion and organization has already been ground down to a remarkably low level. If the oppressed cannot climb the fence, that may be enough to secure the goals of the remote elite, and any more enlightened idea will run up against global resource limits. The alternatives to costly nastiness may be as costly as the nastiness.

    Western European civilization rose out of the dystopia of feudalism, under which the elite literally lived behind walls, and prospered by pillage, because they discovered a much larger, resource-rich world into which to expand, and competition between societies, advantaged nation-states that built somewhat stronger institutions of cooperation and industry, in at least parts of their domains. Didn’t save the American Indians from the small pox or the settlers, the native Irish from the famine or the Congo from Leopold. But, it motivated at least a moderate elite interest in social welfare, particularly during large-scale international conflict among Great Powers.

    The problem is not how to win a counter-insurgency on behalf of decency. If the goals really are decency, the problem of means is recast. The problem is how to win either a counter-insurgency or an insurgency on behalf of any decent goal, when the managers of the counter-insurgency do not care about decency or even bringing the conflict to a conclusion.

  4. Ian:
    Do you think PBO or HRC has ever read Mao’s “On Guerrilla Warfare”? Or even Petraeus(or other US generals) for that matter?

  5. Ian Welsh

    I’m sure Petraeus has, and the others. Yeah. They just don’t have an instrument which can use Mao’s knowledge effectively. American soldiers have terrible fire discipline, and this is by design.

  6. markfromireland

    @ Phil Perspective May 5, 2014

    Don’t know about the others but Petraeus certainly has – I read an article by him a few years back that quoted it in such a way that it was plain he was thoroughly familiar with it. I’m a bit pressed for time.

    It’s one of the standard works for most OTC – generally how it goes is excerpts for generalist courses – the standard courses taken by all junior officers. And the full work for those officers of middle to senior rank who are specialising.

    This last very much follows the major|minor format that you find in American universities.

    If memory serves you’re in the UK? Quite a few British universities offer courses at post-grad level either in military studies or in foreign policy analysis where specialising in studying “irregular warfare” is an option. I suppose that St. Anthony’s is the best known closely followed by the University of Sussex’s one International relations|Irregular Warfare|Module code: 959M1 University of Sussex if you’d like to take a look at the detailed syllabus and reading list it’s here (PDF)

    Irregular Warfare MA Option – Department of International Relations
    University of Sussex

    At the back of that PDF there are some quite useful links and lists of books and other resources for those interested in this topic.


  7. markfromireland

    As said a bit pressed for time today so this is necessarily brief it’s also slightly off-topic:

    Ian thanks for re-posting this, I remember it, I’ll echo what Eric Gen said above about re-prints. Have you ever considered self-publishing e-books?It can be done pretty cheaply/free and might generate some extra income.

    I was asked today by email about good books on post-Soviet Russia and Central Asia:

    Anything by Roy Allison is pretty good. Three in particular:

    Russia, the West, and Military Intervention by Roy Allison (9 May 2013) – Expensive but good. I paid about £50 which would have beeb about $70 for it (new) and would pay that again if I needed to replace my copy for some reason.

    Putins Russia and the Enlarged Europe (Chatham House Papers) by Roy Allison, Margot Light and Stephen White (1 Nov 2006)

    -It’s a little bit dated but well worth it if you can pick up a cheap second.hand copy. Not sure I’d buy it full-price simply because things have moved on a bit since it was published,

    Security Dilemmas in Russia and Eurasia [Paperback] Roy Allison (Editor), Christoph Bluth (Editor)

    – good backgrounder, if you can pick it up cheaply second-hand it’d be well worth your while.


    Superpower Competition and Crisis Prevention in the Third World (Ford/Southampton Studies in North/South Security Relations) [Paperback] Roy Allison (Editor), Phil Williams (Editor)

    I haven’t read this one myself yet, but have ordered it on the recommendation of somebody whose judgement I trust.


  8. Aaron Armitage

    “They must either be destroyed, or conciliated by benefits.” –Machiavelli

  9. oldskeptic

    Ian Welsh: “American soldiers have terrible fire discipline, and this is by design.”

    So true, that is not a bug it is a feature. Comes from the very DNA of the American forces.
    Throw enough firepower at the problem and you will win … unless you don’t win (usual), or can’t afford to do it (coming).

  10. Formerly T-Bear

    IIRC about two years ago Russia/Ukraine suffered a massive crop failure at the same time as another massive crop failure occurred in Australia and put the world supplies at a extremely dangerous level of reserves. It is conceivable that the vis-a-tiergo motive of US/Troika re Ukraine is to have, if not complete control of the territory, a control over the information coming out of that territory, hence the $5 billion outlay and the employment of mercenary fascist thugs placing guns to the heads of the Ukrainian parliament to remove power from a legitimately elected president who chose not to kowtow to troika pressures when Russia clearly outbid the EU/CIA offer, and all that was to follow.

    World reserves of grains are likely to be at emergency levels, levels incapable of supporting the present world population. Should this be so, such information would open the doors to massive instabilities as well as introducing massive financial manipulations of market prices, mostly in directions disturbing the status quo. All it likely would take is a series of crop failures to put the economic system under impossible stress, and the political system under existential duress. Drought is already threatening the crops in the US. Crops in Australia, South America and the Ukraine are what stand between those in power and being turfed from power. This is likely the dog that was not heard barking.

  11. markfromireland

    @ Formerly T-Bear May 7, 2014

    There’ve been 2 recent failures in Russia and – Ukraine:

    2010 — droughts in Russia and Ukraine reduced their wheat harvests by 32.7% and 19.3%, respectively.

    2012 — which is I think the one you’re referring to as there were droughts in Russia, Ukraine, and Australia, Argentina, and the USA. Separate regional droughts occurring simultaneously was heretofore a rather rare occurrence.

    There’s a good Financial times article here: November 8, 2012 7:50 pm Wheat soars after Russian crop failure By Javier Blas in London

    You also might want to download the PDF of this report:

    The three major grain-producing countries of the former Soviet Union—Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan—have become a large grain-exporting region. During 2006-11, grain exports by the three countries together averaged 41 million metric tons a year, about 14 percent of the world total (including rice).

    • According to USDA projections, by 2021 these three countries will provide 22 percent of the world’s grain exports.
    • Russia’s wheat exports alone are projected to almost equal those of the United States, and total wheat exports by Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan will exceed those of the United States by 87 percent.
    • However, growth of the livestock sector within these countries, aided by government policy, could mitigate these developments as expanding livestock herds reduce feed grain surpluses available for export.
    Further growth of the region’s grain exports will provide 22 percent of the world’s grain exports.

    Source: USDA: Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan Rising Stars in World Grain Exports » Blog Archive

    Direct link to PDF: Complete PDF Report:: Rising Grain Exports by the Former Soviet Union Region

    If you want to follow and do some number crunching on grain output stats both current and historical WASDE is the place to get them: USDA | Commodity Forecasts | World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates

    Resources Research is a blog I follow. (Note to Ian I think you might find it particularly interesting).

    The UN’s IRIN network food security topical pages are here: IRIN | Food Security

    Finally — and this is getting us back to the topic of Russia vs. American led West. One of the things about which the Russians are absolutely seething is that Western countries led by the USA sabotaged the Grain Union between Russia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. See:

    Russia-Kazakhstan-Ukraine single grain pool talks stall |


    ITAR-TASS: World – Talks on Russia-Ukraine grain pool suspended — Russian Grain Union


  12. EmilianoZ

    Italians can never beat you, but you can certainly lose to them.
    Johan Cruyff

  13. markfromireland:
    I live in the US.

  14. Formerly T-Bear

    markfromireland May 7, 2014

    Thank you for that fine assortment of links, I shall make a note of them for future reference, they should be most valuable. Hitherto, I’ve had reticence to deep scepticism about such ‘official’ sources of statistics as being invitingly open to manipulations for ideological and political ends, particularly when quantitive measures are presented without knowledge of source or method of acquisition of the product. In addition, the methodology of interpretation of those statistics is a real quagmire to navigate. Thirdly, those products provide a picture of one moment in time and not a continuous view of agricultural dynamics; continuity and the information implied (unless close intimate scrutiny over long stretches of time have been observed) can be impossible to obtain for the casual encounter. Nonetheless, your contribution is significant and appreciated.

    Looking at the map:
    the areas of severe, extreme and exceptional drought cover some of the major food production areas in North America already and look to move rapidly into vital areas further north and east if the weather patterns persist. South American production is falling out of sure control; Australia is still in extended severe drought and production uncertain. This leaves the limited production from continental Europe and that of Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan as available resources to feed several billions. Political influence (and control) over the last three may be seen as required to assure political stability elsewhere. Kazakhstan and the Ukraine provide two of those three resources, Russia would likely take economic advantage after taking care of its own needs first. My projection may be in error on this subject.

  15. James

    Re: the US military leaders reading Mao’s essay.

    The Fleet Marine Force published a copy which includes a fairly interesting introduction by a (retired) Marine General. It (at least used to be) on the Marine Corps reading list for sergeants through captain level.

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