Rolling Back Revolution: The Emergence of Low Intensity Conflict

Rolling Back Revolution: The Emergence of Low Intensity Conflict

by Ivan Molloy
Pub. Date:
Pluto Press


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Rolling Back Revolution: The Emergence of Low Intensity Conflict

Ivan Molloy analyses the de facto foreign policy strategy of low intensity conflict (LIC) as propagated by the United States. He recounts how LIC emerged during the Reagan Administration as a way of counteracting the legacy left by the Vietnam War, which constrained America from getting involved in direct military intervention. Part covert, part overt, LIC was developed as a low-cost and low-risk method of dealing with revolutionary movements and post-revolutionary governments (usually Marxist) considered threatening to national interests. As such, this secretive strategy was an integral component of the Iran-Contra affair, and at the heart of the Reagan Doctrine.Molloy argues that LIC was a means of civilianising and privatising America’s foreign policy. He reveals that LIC was always more of a political, rather than military, tool. The United States used LIC selectively in the 1980s to combat guerrilla movements and undermine targeted regimes to achieve its foreign policy objectives. The author uses Nicaragua and the Philippines as major case studies to analyse the profile of this multi-dimensional strategy as it emerged in the 1980s. He also demonstrates – using such examples as Cuba, Yugoslavia and East Timor – that this complex strategy is still evident today and even pursued by other states.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745317076
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 07/20/2001
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.32(w) x 8.46(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Ivan Molloy is Head of Politics and International Studies at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia.

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What exactly is LIC? Before investigating this strategy's emergence during the Reagan era, both its nature and the context of its evolution needs to be understood. In this chapter, I define this strategy in terms of its objectives and applications (or more precisely its likely environment for full operation), and construct a conceptual model of its 'conflict profile' to support my analysis of LIC's major forms and dimensions. In addition I discuss the ideological rationale that grew around its operation and the nature and activities of the major 'agencies' that implemented LIC in the 1980s. All the above is essential to fully understanding this strategy.


As with low intensity warfare, LIC is multidimensional and predominantly political/psychological in nature. It emerged in the 1980s as the collective result of the Reagan Administration's efforts to develop a common response to revolutionary nationalist movements in a variety of target states. Basically, LIC served two purposes during the Reagan years: it enabled the United States and allied Third World governments to engage in low intensity warfare environments created by revolutionary nationalist movements, and it enabled the US to create its own LIW environment in target states. Within such an environment, the US could wage 'revolution' against revolutionary nationalist governments antagonistic to its interests, and thereby circumvent domestic constraints that a more direct form of US intervention might provoke.

General agreement exists between political and military analysts that low intensity conflict emerged with specific goals, targets and applications. LIC's minimum objective during the Reagan era was to maintain US economic, strategic and other interests loosely defined as vital to national security. Its maximum objective was to expand US power and influence in the Third World at the expense of the Soviet Union, its proxies and anti-US revolutionary nationalist forces without the United States again becoming directly involved in a protracted and costly military conflict. Although LIC's operation depended entirely on circumstance and opportunity, the overriding consideration was that any operation should remain a low-cost, low-profile and low-risk one. If these conditions were fulfilled, LIC would effectively enable the US to create and engage in protracted low intensity warfare in the Third World.

LIC's specific targets in the 1980s included movements struggling for power such as the New People's Army in the Philippines, or those having already seized it as in the case of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. However, its operation depended on the existence of 'windows of opportunity' in the target state. LIC also targeted the United States in terms of attempting to generate domestic support for US foreign policy and eradicating the Vietnam Syndrome that severely constrained the Reagan Administration's military options.


Although the broad thrust of LIC is widely described and documented, low intensity conflict lacks an agreed and common definition. The broad range of activities LIC encompasses produced considerable confusion and debate within the Reagan Administration and US military about the nature of LIC and its operational parameters, to such an extent that it was rumoured to have sometimes blocked implementation of actual policy. General Paul F. Gorman US Army (Ret.), a chairman of the Reagan Administration's Regional Conflict Working Group Commission on Integrated Long Term Strategy, noted that even the bombing of Libya and the invasion of Grenada were considered by some within the US defence establishment to be within the range of LIC activities. Gorman rejected this position himself, however, as he regarded any use of conventional forces for fire support or manoeuvre as 'mid-intensity conflict'. Each branch of the US military exacerbated this doctrinal confusion, not only defining LIC differently but also having a different concept of its role in the pursuit of this strategy. As Colonel Kenneth Alnwick (USAF) noted, each service branch tended to consider itself the major vehicle for waging low intensity conflict, thus obstructing the emergence of any joint service doctrine for LIC operations.

Nevertheless, an important step towards a joint services doctrine was eventually taken by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), who, on the direction of the Army Chief of Staff on 1 July 1985, formulated a definition of LIC in a joint-low intensity conflict project:

... a limited politico-military struggle to achieve political, social, economic, or psychological objectives. It is often protracted and ranges from diplomatic, economic, and psychological pressures through terrorism and insurgency. Low-intensity conflict is generally confined to a geographic area and is often characterized by constraints on the weaponry, tactics, and level of violence.

Though seemingly similar to LIW, LIC in fact is a strategy for action within a particular warfare environment – that environment being LIW.

The JCS project also found that low intensity conflict entailed a range of civil-political activities that no single service or department of the Reagan Administration could conduct alone. Further, while from a purely military perspective the term 'low intensity conflict' appeared ambiguous, the many activities associated with this approach were not. They generally shared a common operational environment outside the range of conventional combat. The JCS project defined LIC as embracing activities that could be divided into four categories: insurgency/counterinsurgency, terrorism counteraction, peacetime contingency and peacekeeping operations. Through these categories the United States could provide:

... diplomatic, economic, and military support for either a government under attack by insurgents or an insurgent force seeking freedom from an adversary government; in cooperation with our allies, protection of personnel, property, and institutions from terrorism; military presence, humanitarian assistance, noncombatant emergency evacuation, limited strike, and similar operations; and support or participation in peacekeeping operations.

However, Colonel Harry G. Summers, a noted strategist upon whose work many elements of the Reagan Administration's response to revolutionary nationalism were based, argued that such a definition made no distinction between peacetime and wartime activities in support of an ally without committing US combat forces, and supporting an ally through the direct commitment of such forces. Instead, he defined appropriate LIC parameters of operation as: 'Non-nuclear situations ranging from terrorism and crisis to revolutions and counterrevolutions, requiring tailored mixed political-economic-military and other US responses in support of allies; but not involving direct commitment of US combat forces.'

Summers also substituted the term 'collective security' for LIC, believing that this more accurately described US intentions and attempts to secure its own security by supporting those of its allies threatened by insurgency.

The emergence of low intensity conflict therefore inspired a number of definitions; however, most were too narrow as they failed to account for the many different dimensions of activity that can be associated with the strategy and what fundamentally links these activities.

This common shortcoming derived from the predominantly political/ psychological nature of low intensity conflict. Above all, LIC emerged as a strategy that involves no mobilisation of the US economy, few if any troops and few admitted casualties because military victory, though welcomed, is not its primary objective. LIC is instead distinctive because its major priority is to discredit politically the target revolutionary nationalist movement or government. When viewed from other perspectives, LIC's many elements appear ad hoc and unrelated. Only when viewed from this political/psychological perspective does the strategy assume a degree of coherence. As a major priority LIC seeks to deny popular support (within the target country and from sympathetic sources in the United States and internationally) for either anti-US regimes or anti-US forces in the Third World. Once this political/psychological objective is achieved, 'military victory' follows. Relying heavily on psychological warfare to win the 'hearts and minds' of the target population, LIC redefines victory in terms of gaining popular support for US foreign policy objectives. Victory in LIC terms is thus essentially political and can vary in its application from place to place and time to time. It can simply mean producing a change of 'attitude' or 'political allegiance' in the target population, or alternatively it can mean avoiding undesired outcomes such as the nationalisation or confiscation of American interests, or, for example as in the case of the Philippines in the 1980s, the possible expulsion of US military bases.

Low intensity conflict is a multidimensional strategy involving both covert and overt means. Theoretically LIC can be an alternative when direct intervention appears precluded by a lack of domestic and international support for such action, and when the risk of military confrontation with another major power, such as the then Soviet Union in the 1980s, is high. On the other hand, the strategy can be a forerunner to 'conventional' intervention where its operation sufficiently destroys the political support base of the opposition while generating sufficient support from the US public for direct military intervention to compel victory on the battlefield (thereby formalising and consolidating the political victory already achieved). Further, LIC might also be followed by direct military intervention if the situation in the target state deteriorates to the point where the United States has no option but to intervene directly to protect its interests, regardless of domestic and international constraints, for example, the US intervention into Panama (and perhaps later in Iraq).

To adopt this latter perception, however, risks confusing LIC's potential with its operation in practice. The most compelling explanation for LIC's emergence in the Third World in the 1980s was the need for an alternative strategy to direct US intervention.

LIC as Defined by the Reagan Administration

Since low intensity conflict emerged as a multifaceted strategy, it is not surprising that no commonly accepted, concise definition should exist. Nevertheless, in the January 1988 White House publication, National Security Strategy of the United States, the Reagan Administration did broadly outline the nature and parameters of US actions which broadly constitute the essence of this strategy.

According to the Administration, low intensity conflict embraced the main principles of waging revolutionary and counter-revolutionary warfare in a low intensity environment. These principles included: the provision of security assistance to allied governments for the development of their economies and armed forces as a 'bargain-priced' means of ensuring the protection of US security interests; to conduct covert action to deal with 'developing threats to our [US] security before the employment of US military power or other actions entailing higher costs and risks are required'; efforts to 'ameliorate the underlying causes of conflict in the Third World by promoting economic development and the growth of democratic political institutions'; support for selected resistance movements 'opposing oppressive regimes working against US interests'; use of 'instruments of US power' to help friendly nations under internal or external threat; and 'steps to discourage Soviet and other state-sponsored adventurism, and increase the costs to those who use proxies or terrorist and subversive forces to exploit instability'. In the above document the Reagan Administration thus outlined all the elements in its foreign policy arsenal with which it attempted to combat revolutionary nationalism, particularly in Central America.

What is especially distinctive about this account is the implicit avoidance of direct military intervention and the emphasis placed on covert action and other measures that would obviate such intervention. Equally distinctive is the omission of any reference to the political/psychological objective, which locates all these elements within the LIC framework. This indicates: first, the Reagan Administration apparently assumed that US-backed forces in the Third World were morally superior to their opponents; second, it assumed a relative weakness in the US's capacity to pursue direct military intervention to secure foreign policy objectives, and third, in lieu of such intervention the US relied heavily on psyops to achieve its objectives. Finally, such an omission indicates the Administration's increasing emphasis on dubious means, and indeed agencies, the operations of which might not have been sanctioned by Congress, or even fully understood by the Administration itself.


While most observers readily agree on LIC's parameters, none have articulated a fully-fledged conceptual model of LIC's conflict profile to aid its identification in practice, which in turn reflects the lack of an adequate definition of the strategy. To construct such a model, the nature, extent and interrelationship of LIC's agencies and its full operational dimensions (hence its 'profile') need to be outlined and analysed.

Sketching a conceptual profile of LIC based on what most agree is its nature and the range of activities it encompassed in the Third World in the 1980s provides a useful analytical tool for identifying LIC in operation (that is, its 'footprint'). However to do this, LIC's central theme must first be understood, as should its major forms in terms of the distinctive configurations LIC activities can assume, and the ideological rationale used to justify and legitimise such activities.

The Theme: Civilianising Conflict

In the Reagan era, the imperative of pursuing low intensity conflict was for the US to avoid direct 'high intensity' conventional military intervention into LIW environments, as this sort of intervention was incompatible with the primarily political nature of low intensity warfare. Reflecting this central precept, the major theme of LIC became one of 'civilianising' conflicts as much as possible in target states.

One of the most basic and widely accepted premises underpinning LIC is that the civilian population is the most critical factor in low intensity warfare. Civilianising conflicts blurs the distinction between civilian and military involvement thus obscuring the nature of such conflicts while embedding them in the social fabric of target states. This avoids antagonising nationalist sentiments among the local people, which often militated against US military intervention in the past. Civilians can be used in a number of ways in this civilianising process. They can be used as sources of intelligence. They can be armed to attack the target government as were the Contras in Nicaragua. Or they can be armed and mobilised to protect villages and government installations against insurgent attacks, as were the Civilian Home Defence Forces (CHDFs) and the vigilantes in the Philippines in the 1980s. Either way, during the Reagan years the civilianising of a revolutionary or counter-revolutionary conflict in a target state enabled the US to pursue military and other interventionist objectives by proxy.

LIC's characteristic emphasis on civilianising conflicts further indicates the essentially political nature of this strategy and its replication of some tactics of Mao's 'people's war'. People's war seeks the total mobilisation of the local civilian population by political indoctrination and other means to support and pursue revolutionary warfare. In other words, the strategy (pursued so effectively by the Chinese communists) involves waging 'total war' wherein the enemy is deprived of a mass support base, which then leads to the eventual defeat of the opposing forces – militarily and otherwise. In this sense, LIC seeks to turn a popular Third World revolutionary insurgent strategy back against its proponents. Also, civilianising conflicts was and is far cheaper than conventional military intervention: the crucial lesson from Vietnam was that in low intensity warfare, conventional military forces are not only counterproductive but also very costly.

LIC's Major Forms: Its Revolutionary and Counter-Revolutionary Strands

Low intensity conflict consists of two major forms or strands: the revolutionary strand often termed 'unconventional war' by the US military, and the counter-revolutionary strand alternatively labelled 'Foreign Internal Defense' (FID). In the former, the Reagan Administration sought to create its own LIW environments wherein its 'agencies' could wage revolution against revolutionary nationalist governments (as in the Nicaraguan and Angolan contexts), or regimes considered to be Soviet proxies (as in Afghanistan). In the latter strand, the US used intensified counterinsurgency psyops, among other operations, to wage protracted political warfare campaigns in support of friendly Third World governments combating revolutionary nationalist movements (as in El Salvador and the Philippines).


Excerpted from "Rolling Back Revolution"
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Copyright © 2001 Ivan Molloy.
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Table of Contents

List Of Abbreviations




1 What Is LIC?

2 An Inevitable Strategy: LICs Emergence In Context

3 From Approach To Strategy

4 The Reagan Doctrine: Selling LIC To America

5 Central America: The Strategy's Proving Ground?

6 Nicaragua: A Case Of Revolutionary LIC

7 LIC In The Philippines?

8 The Counterrevolutionary Profile

9 LIC Continued?



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