Le’ Notes #15: The Indonesian Way of Guerrilla Warfare

This post is a collection of notes on reading A. H. Nasution’s Fundamentals of Guerrilla Warfare.

While most scholarship on guerrilla warfare gravitates around Mao and Giap, the name “Nasution” does not pop up that often. Which is quite unfortunate, considering Indonesia (and by “Indonesia”, I also include colonial Indonesia, though, at that time, Indonesia was yet to be conceived) has had a long history of fighting guerrilla wars against colonists. However, it was not until circa 1928 when the resistance started to consolidate. Prior to 1928, there were only local kings and sultanates organising localised resistance against the Dutch. The experiences of fighting guerrilla wars then became ingrained in Indonesian military thinking, and Nasution’s treatise, Fundamentals of Guerrilla Warfare, was part of that process.

Prior, it seems appropriate to revisit the general ideas of guerrilla warfare. I have discussed this in an earlier Note. However, here, I’ll bring Lawrence Freedman into the fray, as his book, Strategy: A History, provides several starting points on how to think about guerrilla warfare.

Guerilla warfare was about the response of an enraged society to illegitimate military force. – Freedman, Strategy: A History, p. 179

Unlike conventional warfare, guerrilla warfare is purely defensive in nature. As Freedman writes, it is mostly fought on home territory and as such, has advantages of popular support and local knowledge of the terrain. Though guerrillas are indeed formidable fighters, they are “a last and desperate” resort of a people on the brink of defeat. In the end, the guerrillas must consolidate into a proper conventional army if they want to actually defeat their adversary. As Freedman writes,

[Guerrilla warfare] is a lesser strategy, a defensive expedient, but not a source of victory. – Freedman

Nasution’s main thoughts on guerrilla warfare

Abdul Haris Nasution

A heads-up on reading Nasution. The book itself was published in circa 1948-1953. That was a time when the fledgling nation of Indonesia was constantly under threat by the Dutch who wanted to reclaim their territory in the East Indies. As such, most of Nasution’s thoughts are rooted in this turbulent period of time, when Indonesia only had a ragtag army (mostly Japanese-trained) and very little means to survive an attack from a powerful conventional force.

War in this century has become a total people’s war. – Nasution, p. 11

Nasution believed that a guerrilla war was essentially a total war. Of course, we might draw parallels to Clausewitzian thought, however, we shouldn’t hastily jump to conclusions. Here, Nasution believed that all available sources of power should be mobilised to crush the enemy, from the armed forces to political sources of power. There’s also the added psychological factor in a total war. Nasution approved of the use of psychological warfare as a means to break the enemy’s will and nurture our own forces.

Interestingly, Indonesian forces opted for guerrilla warfare out of pragmatism. As Nasution wrote,

We used guerrilla warfare not because we believed in its ‘ideology’ but because we were forced into it and could not establish a modern, organised force equal to the Dutch. – Nasution, p. 16

Why was Nasution obsessed with total mobilisation? He believed that simply warding off enemy attacks was not sufficient in ensuring the enemy’s defeat. That kind of defensive was “passive”, as it did not lessen the strength of the enemy. The enemy’s ranks could easily be replenished, while the defender had limited resources to sustain a resistance.

Defending oneself should mean eliminating the threat of further attacks, or in other words, to destroy and conquer the attacker. – Nasution, p. 14

Furthermore, Nasution viewed holding a defensive position was not merely receiving blows, but rather waiting for the right time to strike an offensive.

A defensive cannot defeat an enemy; this can only be done by an offensive. A defensive action serves temporarily to prepare and await the correct time for the offensive. – Nasution, p. 17

To Nasution, defensive measures meant resisting and denying resources to the enemy. Drawing from previous examples of resistance against the Dutch in the First Dutch Aggression in 1947, the Indonesian guerrilla was expected to not cooperate in any way with the Dutch, to execute a scorched earth (bumi hangus) policy, and continuously confuse and bewilder the Dutch until the time to launch a decisive offensive presented itself. Though this sounds more offensive, Nasution believed that these measures were not a means to completely overthrow the enemy, rather, just means to weaken them over time. Hence, it was not offensive in nature.

Nasution’s tactics and overall strategy draws similar parallels to the Maoist approach to guerrilla warfare, where the early stages would consist of small-scale “cuts” while waiting for the guerrillas to consolidate their power. Once a conventional force was assembled, the final blow could be delivered.

On a side note, Nasution rejected the typical “brave soldier” stereotype (not retreating, fight until the last drop of blood, etc.) as it did not fit the ends of a guerrilla war. A guerrilla should retreat if needed, as the loss of a soldier is not easily replaced. Battlefield heroics had no place in a guerrilla war, as the end goal is to survive for as long as needed.

To summarise, Nasution provides the two overarching points of guerrilla warfare:

  1. Prevent being pursued and ultimately, being eliminated. Fight only when it is advantageous and retreat when circumstances don’t favour the guerrilla.
  2. Guerrillas must develop from weak to strong. Seize weapons from the enemy to decrease their strength, and add to yours. Before developing into a consolidated force, the guerrilla should fight with economy.

Nasution on the centre(s) of gravity in a guerrilla war

Apart from being a guerrilla, Nasution was also an anti-guerrilla. So, Nasution also had things to say about countering guerrilla forces. His anti-guerrilla thoughts would later prove to be useful in quelling the numerous separatist uprisings in the new Indonesia across the 1960s.

Nasution recognised two main centres of gravity (COGs) in a guerrilla war. The first was a physical COG, which was the people; and the second was a psychological COG, which was the ideology. This is reflected in this long passage:

A guerrilla war always precedes an ideological fight. The oppressed people, the colonised, the tyrannised people raise their fists threatening to eliminate the cruel oppressor, the tyrant and the coloniser. The suffering of a fight, however, great, is light when compared with the misery of cruel oppression, colonisation, and tyranny. The misery is usually widespread and the people are forced to suffer a long time. The aims of resistance are not only supported by a few agitators, but by many people. The resistance involves all the people.

The ideology of the spirit of freedom serves as the source of strength and willpower to initiate a war against a strong enemy with well-organised troops. Once this ideology has ignited the total people’s war … they make use of any and all available weapons to begin the struggle. – Nasution, p. 23

Drawing from experiences in the Japanese invasion in 1942, though the Dutch called for a people’s war against the Japanese, the Dutch did not succeed since the Indonesian people were unsympathetic towards the Dutch. This weakness was then used by the Japanese to promote their glorious Nippon propaganda to rally the Indonesians.

Here, we see that guerrillas draw power from the people in terms of resources and moral support. Thus, if we were to remove a guerrilla from the people, the guerrilla would lose its ability to fight. As such, Nasution puts “the people” on the first of his three principal requirements for a successful guerrilla war. Following that, the other two requirements include spacious geographic room (to manoeuvre around) and lots of time. (see p. 45)

Nasution then proceeds to elaborate about anti-guerrilla operations, where we can see more on the COG of guerrilla wars from his perspective. He starts with:

The most important thing is to please the people. This is the basic anti-guerrilla strategy. – Nasution, p. 57

Nasution consistently emphasises the need to win over the people, showing that in any guerrilla war, the people are the most vital subjects that need to be paid attention to. Further on, he wrote:

It is most important to win the hearts and thoughts of the guerrilla members themselves … by proving that the aim of the anti-guerrilla is higher … – Nasution, p. 59

This is related to the second COG, which is the ideology of the guerrilla movement. By presenting a counter-narrative that is “higher” than the guerrilla’s ideology, it is hoped that the people would have a change of heart and support the anti-guerrilla. Even better, the guerrilla could be convinced and switch sides.

However, it would seem that Nasution puts more importance on the people as being the primary COG, since it is the people that provide the guerrilla with a place to hide and manoeuvre, and with the resources needed to fight a guerrilla war. This is reflected in this statement:

The guerrilla must be separated from the people. The guerrilla must be fought with his own tactics. This is the essence of anti-guerrilla strategy. – Nasution, p. 64

As for anti-guerrilla operations, Nasution lays out some principles which draw some parallels with how the British handled the Malayan Emergency. In a nutshell, Nasution advocates beating guerrillas at their own game. Some of these principles include:

  • Decentralisation of command. The anti-guerrilla force should not be a large, conventional army; rather small, independent groups to allow more initiative.
  • Intelligence on guerrilla activity is imperative. This is to predict where the guerrillas will strike and to aid detainment.
  • Offensive, aggressive, and omnipresent. Attacks must be aimed at destroying the guerrillas. To maintain a defensive position (by means of stationary defences, such as forts and bases) would simply be passive and not address the root of the problem. Aggressive raids also narrow the ground where the guerrilla can manoeuvre, and works in the favour of the anti-guerrilla. Maintaining omnipresence also helps to suppress guerrillas and potentially capture them.

In essence, anti-guerrilla operations should envelop and encircle the guerrilla and eliminate them quickly.

Anti-guerrilla fighters need action and more action without stopping their pursuit of the enemy. – Nasution, p. 66

In a nutshell…

To summarise Nasution’s strategic thinking on guerrilla warfare, here are some pointers:

  • A guerrilla war is essentially a total people’s war, where all sources of power are mobilised to destroy the incoming threat.
  • In guerrilla and anti-guerrilla operations, the main COG is the people. Guerrillas draw power from the people, and as such, the anti-guerrilla should attempt to cut the guerrilla from the people.
  • Guerrilla warfare is only part of the solution. In the end, the guerrilla should consolidate into a more conventional force if they want to witness the destruction of the enemy.

Some closing remarks too.

The Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) basically started out as a guerrilla army in 1945. It can be said that most of Nasution’s strategic thought is reflected in the armed forces’ military doctrine, especially that of the land forces (TNI-AD). This then influenced most of Indonesia’s defence outlook, as reflected in subsequent Defence White Papers, where the doctrine of a Total People’s War (Sishankamrata, Universal Defence and Security System) is still upheld until today. So, Nasution might have more influence than I would have previously thought.

Anyway, it was interesting to read about an Indonesian strategic thinker for a change.

Header image credit: “Aceh War – Ambush”, copyright 2009, Peter Nuyten – NNM (Dutch Army Museum)

3 thoughts on “Le’ Notes #15: The Indonesian Way of Guerrilla Warfare

  1. Hello, my name is Peter Nuyten, historical illustrator and I am the artist of the image here above. However you are currently using this image called Aceh War – Ambush without official permission. I cannot see if you are selling material via this blog, but since it seems you are just provide an info channel only I will give hereby permission to continue to use the image but not without my credits. This image was originaly created for the Army Museum in The Netherlands and is part of a series educational project posters for use in primary schools.

    Please put this with the image:

    copyright 2009, Peter Nuyten – NNM (Dutch Army Museum)

    Please note, if you do not heed you will have to delete the image immediately.

    Best regards,

    Peter Nuyten


    1. Hello Peter Nuyten,
      First of all, please accept my apologies for using the image without permission. I tried to find the source of the image, and Google Images directed me to Pinterest, where a user had it posted on their board. The board then subsequently led me to this website: http://inaceh.com/ where the image was originally hosted. I did not know that it was a copyrighted image.

      To acknowledge your work, I have added the following disclaimer at the end of the blog post.

      Header image credit: “Aceh War – Ambush”, copyright 2009, Peter Nuyten – NNM (Dutch Army Museum)

      Once again, I apologise for using your image without credit.


      Liked by 1 person

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