Policy Review
Fall 1989

Maj. F. Andy Messing Jr. and Allen B. Hazelwood


A Farewell to Alms

The Contras Can Win If They Break Their Culture of Dependency

The Central American agreement to demobilize Contra bases in Honduras could be the final nail in the coffin of Nicaragua's democratic insurgency. Or it could be a big opportunity for the Contras to free themselves from their unhealthy dependence on foreign bases, foreign aid, and foreign advisors--a dependence that has limited their effectiveness in guerrilla warfare.

The 15,000 Contra fighters in the region still have sufficient strength to mount a successful insurgency against the Managua regime. Their rank and file have demonstrated extraordinary courage and perseverance, and, with better leadership, would be highly effective fighters. Meanwhile, popular support for the Sandanistas is at an all-time low; their attempts to impose Marxism on the Nicaraguan economy have left it on the brink of collapse, with even the most basic necessities in short supply. Perhaps even more important, the Sandanistas have lost control over the population; anti-government graffiti is to be found everywhere in the cities, and the totalitarian block-by-block apparatus of Sandanista Defense Committees is in disarray.

The Contras could therefore be in a good position to bring democracy to Nicaragua, should the elections scheduled for February prove to be the expected sham. To succeed in overthrowing the Sandanistas, however, the Contras need to make major revisions in their strategy, tactics, and organization. In particular, they mush begin to wage a classic guerrilla war instead of the hit-and-run commando operations from foreign bases that they have conducted up to the present.

The Contras have been severely hurt over the last eight years by the vacillating and contradictory policies of the US Congress and by the refusal of Latin American governments to support them. They also were confused and demoralized by the Reagan administration statements that the objective of supporting their effort was to secure concessions at the negotiating table rather than democracy in Nicaragua. More important, though, have been several serious mistakes by the Contras and their CIA advisers that have prevented them from attaining the victory within their reach.

The Contras first weakness was that they started fighting too early, before they had prepared the political, social, and economic infrastructure for a successful insurgency. Actual military combat constitutes only about 5 percent of a classic guerrilla warfare strategy. The other 95 percent involves winning popular support in the countryside and setting up a parallel government there, organizing underground movements in the cities, and developing a self-supporting system of food, clothing, and munitions. Military operations, no matter how extensive, cannot prevail when conducted in a vacuum that lacks these elements. This basic truth, however, has yet to be fully appreciated by the Contras.

Addiction to Outside Support

The development of a self-sustaining supply of and materiel has been crucial for every successful insurgency in modern history. The Vietminh and later the Vietcong in South Vietnam, the guerrillas in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, and the contemporary FMLN insurgents in El Salvador have all been able to obtain the bulk of their day-to-day supplies within the country where they were operating. Battlefield acquisition from the forces of the opposing government should provide much of the needed military materiel--though, of course, sophisticated equipment such as Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and code cipher books for radio communications can come only from a country as the United States. If the guerrillas have genuine support, the local populace will supply most of the rest of their requirements.

When successful guerrilla movements become better established, they even set up light manufacturing plants for munitions, explosive devices, and clothing. This occurred in Vietnam, Rhodesia, and El Salvador. The Contras instead became addicted to support from outside Nicaragua, leaving them vulnerable to the whims of a US Congress that never demonstrated anything more than lukewarm enthusiasm at best.

Closely related to the need to create a domestic supply infrastructure is the need to place strong emphasis on nation-building. The guerrillas must establish a parallel system of government along with a presence in as many villages as possible. Only by maintaining this continuing presence, and living and working alongside the people on a daily basis, can they conceivably claim to represent them. The guerrillas' presence in the villages and towns throughout the country also gives them the capability to recruit new members for the movement. The Contras, relying on advice from the CIA and others, were not organized into semi-autonomous cells that would permit them to do this.

There are about 1,000 Contras in southern Nicaragua who have been living among the people and inflicting substantial damage on the Sandanista military; and it is significant that they have been operating outside the regular Contra command structure. This war in the south has received virtually no media attention. It is a rudimentary model for the rest of the Contra movement, which has tended to return the bulk of its forces to safe areas on the Honduran border after conducting operations within Nicaragua, thus artificially limiting its opportunities to build local support.

Celling Out

Underlying all successful guerrilla movements is the concept of cellular expansion. Guerrilla units are sent into the countryside to establish permanent cells. The cadres of each cell recruit and train new members, and establish networks for an intelligence and supply infrastructure. With a cell structure, a small number of guerrillas can give the impression of widespread activity and strength--a key psychological component of guerrilla warfare. Each cell operates semi-autonomously, but has the capability to join with others in combat operations against larger government units.

From the outset of the movement, the cells seek to win and sustain popular support, and help create a parallel government. They begin by providing services such as medical treatment and help with harvests. Later, the services become more elaborate--for instance, road-building and the administration of justice. In all cases, the purpose is to demonstrate the guerrillas' concern for the needs of the people. Within urban areas, the cells also help organize political activities, engage in economic warfare such as strikes and sabotage of key industries, and seek to penetrate important government and political organizations.

The failure of the Contras to establish an effective urban underground has made it impossible for them to engage in such economic and political warfare, and has made it highly difficult to obtain the intelligence necessary to conduct operations. Without a strong urban presence, especially in the capital, it is difficult if not impossible to mount attacks against the military targets that are normally located there.

Inadequate security has been a major reason for failure in the cities. Typically, recruits from urban areas have been taken to the Contras' bases in Honduras for training and mixed with the general insurgent population. However, these barriers are so thoroughly penetrated by Sandanista agents that their identities soon become known to Managua. Upon returning to Nicaragua, the Contra supporters have been readily apprehended or, worse, allowed to operate under close surveillance to expose other members of their networks just before arrest.

Commandos, Not Guerrillas

A second crucial mistake of the Contra leaders has been an overreliance on hit-and-run commando operations rather than guerrilla tactics. Commandos are uniformed semi-conventional forces that operate in small integrated units from fixed bases. They generally are used in operations against important targets in support of larger conventional forces, or in "surgical strikes." The Israelis employ such tactics, for example, against PLO strongholds in southern Lebanon.

By contrast, guerrillas are highly mobile unconventional units, and are generally not uniformed. They do not operate from fixed bases, but rather establish themselves in the countryside, and live and work among the people. In many instances, guerrilla fighters maintain the appearance of leading normal lives during the day, venturing out at night to attack the government's forces.


Perhaps most damaging for the Contras' mystique has been the perception that they haven't planned to win themselves, but instead have been hoping for a US Grenada-style invasion.


The Contras' CIA advisers, however, have been unenthusiastic about genuine guerrilla tactics. The Agency evidently did not feel that genuine guerrilla warfare would afford it sufficient control over operations. Even if the CIA had been inclined to organize guerrilla operations, President Carter's massive cutbacks of paramilitary agents had stripped the Agency of the necessary experience and expertise.

Instead, the CIA convinced the Contras to adopt a model essentially based on the commando-style raids that had been used in earlier CIA-led operations in Laos in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Laos commando raids were designed to support conventional operations in South Vietnam, and they were highly effective in blocking the North Vietnamese divisions that otherwise would have entered the South. The commando model is wholly inappropriate, however, for the war in Nicaragua, where nation-building should be the paramount objective.

Avoiding Civilian Casualties

Commandos are trained to strike hard and fast, leaving the maximum amount of devastation in their wake. Guerrillas, by contrast, must be far more careful in the selection of their targets, and take pains to avoid collateral damage, especially civilian causalities. While culminating the image of fierce opposition to the government's troops, insurgents must at the same time nurture their reputation as a friend to the people. As a result, guerrillas will stage attacks on the government's command, control, communication, and intelligence facilities, but pass up targets of lesser importance. Here, again, the Contras have failed to follow the genuine guerrilla model, with unfortunate results.

Many Contra commando units have been sent into Nicaragua without a well-thought-out plan of action--something that would have been easier to develop if they lived among the people and had adequate intelligence. The result is that, all too often, the Contras have struck at any target they have encountered.--anything from passing patrols of local militia to civilian guards at coffee plantations. Such random attacks have led to unintended civilian losses and needlessly high Contra casualties, as they alerted the Sandanistas to their location.

The importance of avoiding military operations that result in civilian casualties underscores a fundamental difference between democratic insurgents and their Communist counterparts. Democratic insurgents must proceed with a high regard for human rights. Instilling this attitude must be on of the principal goals of the leadership. Every member of a democratic insurgency must accept a code of conduct that unconditionally refuses to resort to death squads, repressive actions, theft of property from civilians, abuse of women and children, and the mistreatment of prisoners of war.

Democratic insurgents must reject the tactics of Communists such as the NPA in the Philippines and the FMLN in El Salvador, which routinely engage in bank robberies, kidnappings, and the narcotics trade to finance their activities. Similarly, democratic insurgents must reject the use of assassinations of civilians, terror, torture, and the extortion of taxes.

Althought the Contra directorate did not condone or encourage violations of human rights, it failed at the outset to provide the affirmative leadership that insists on proper conduct. As a result, a number of incidents occurred in the field, which damaged the Contras' reputation both in Nicaragua and abroad. Under the guidance of Lt. Col. Oliver North, the Contras' human rights performance did improve in the mid-1980s, one area where US influence was beneficial. Insistence on respect for human rights is not just essential from a moral standpoint. It carries a practical rationale as well: Developing and sustaining the support of the populace is simply impossible if the guerrillas routinely abuse them. Proper conduct breeds loyalty and dedication. Terrorism only breeds fear.

The Good Life In Miami

The organizational structure of the Contra effort has also suffered from serious deficiencies. The national leadership and logisticians have been located away from the front, primarily in Miami and the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. Many leaders of the insurgency even brought their families. This practice implied a lack of commitment, which generated distrust and hard feelings among field combatants. Seeking to appease congressional critics, Washington planners insisted that the Contra directorate include Nicaraguan business and political leaders who had no military experience or any inclination to lead guerrillas in the field. This approach may have backfired, however, by undermining the revolutionary authenticity of the Contra movement.


The guerrillas must establish a parallel system of government along with a presence in as many villages as possible.


Moveover, the failure to monitor closely the support system in Miami and Honduras has opened the door to corruption and the misuse of funds. This lack of monitoring has been further complicated by the numerous avenues through which funds have flowed to the Contras. At one point, money was being provided to one Contra group by several US agencies, several foreign governments, large private contributors, fund-raising dinners, and direct-mail solicitations of small donors. Contributions from each source went into different bank accounts, with no central disbursement authority, and no means of auditing the overall flow of funds, or, more important, setting priorities for expenditures. The potential for abuse in such a complex system is all too obvious. While most Contra leaders have resisted the temptation to line their own pockets, a few took full advantage of the situation and thereby sullied the reputations of all.

The most serious organizational flaw of the Contra directorate, however, has arisen from the CIA's insistence on a conventional "top down" command structure. While this may have permitted greater control, and is consistent with the CIA's conventional view of unity of command, it has hindered the development of a "divisible" force structure that can break down into smaller semi-autonomous components or cells. It has also deprived the insurgency of some extremely talented combat leaders who have found it difficult to follow orders from armchair generals in Miami.

Divisibility assures that the defeat or even annihilation of any one element of the insurgent force structure does not result in defeat of the overall movement. Like the many-headed Hydra of mythology, when one head is lopped off, another emerges in its place. Since each cell can generate additional cells through recruitment and training, the movement can recover from defeat as long as one cell survives.


About 1,000 Contras in southern Nicaragua have been living among the people and inflicting substantial damage on the Sandanista military; it is significant that they have been operating outside the regular Contra command structure.


Had the United States insisted that the Afghan mujahideen unify their command before we gave them Stingers, the Soviets would still be in Afghanistan today. Similarly, in Nicaragua there was no reason why the FDN (Democratic Nicaraguan Force) had to have a political monopoly over fighting factions. US support for two or more competing military/political movements would probably have been more effective. The conventional military principle of unity of command does not rigidly apply to unconventional warfare, particularly in countries where there isn't a fully developed national leadership. Indeed, competition on the battlefield between rival guerrilla leaders can weed out the defective organizations and leaders.

Under a competitive model, active participation in combat is a prerequisite for elevation to leadership. By its very nature, competition favors leaders who choose to fight, live, and work at the cutting edge of danger with their troops. The overfed guerrilla leader exhorting his troops to greater sacrifice from the steps of an air-conditioned trailer would not survive.

Lack of Intelligence

Another element missing from the Contra effort has been the ability to conduct operations in secret. Secrecy is essential to virtually every aspect of the insurgency, ranging from the creation of mystique to the success of assaults on targets and the protection of the insurgency's underground.

The absence of a working intelligence network and counter-intelligence system within the Contra structure has been one of its more serious deficiencies. For an insurgency movement, effective intelligence is often the difference between life and death. The development of a full-fledged intelligence network should have been one of the Contra's priorities at the outset. It is easiest to infiltrate the government's infrastructure, and to place agents in institutions capable of influencing the general public, before the regime pays much attention to the insurgency. Once the insurgency grows, the task of placing agents and building a network becomes immeasurably more difficult.


The most serious organizational flaw of the Contra directorate has arisen from the CIA's insistence on a conventional "top down" command structure.


Still, this deficiency could be corrected if the Contras were to begin following a traditional guerrilla warfare approach. This would require that they shift the location of training for their urban underground away from the camps along the Honduras border to other remote and highly secure areas. They must make sure that anyone assigned to the task of training new members of the underground is thoroughly vetted--to help weed out the Sandanista agents that currently riddle their organization. They must jealously guard the identities of the members of the underground from the very onset of training. Finally, they must exercise great care in recruitment--the Sandanistas have a highly effective counter-intelligence program, and have found it all too easy to place agents inside the Contra organization.

The Guerrilla Mystique

Above all, the Contras have failed to cultivate that key ingredient in a successful insurgency, mystique: the reputation for being everywhere and nowhere, all-powerful, always on the march, never at rest, and, most important, at one with the people. Every successful insurgency leader from George Washington to Fidel Castro has carefully developed a revolutionary mystique.

The Contras' reliance on base camps in adjacent countries, their inactivity in Managua and other Nicaraguan cities, their commando tactics, and their failure to address to political, economic, and social aspects of the insurgency have all contributed to the poor reputation of the Contras in the international community and in Nicaragua. Perhaps most damaging for the Contras' mystique has been the perception that they really haven't planned to win themselves, but instead have been hoping that the US would eventually mount a Grenada-style operation and produce a quick victory.

Strategy for Victory

Despite the flaws in organization, planning, tactics, and structure, the Contras still retain the capability to win. As individuals, the Contras are brave and, when properly led and directed, effective fighters. They passionately want to see their homeland free. Many insurgents have demonstrated a willingness to endure hardship that some of their leaders would do well to emulate. The Central American agreement of August now gives them the opportunity to pursue tactics that will win.

Here is some of what they must do:

  • first, and foremost, develop an insurgent mentality--in particular, they must give higher priority to the social, political, and economic infrastructure for guerrilla war;
  • change their structure from a monolithic command structure to a multi-insurgent movement with an emphasis on decentralized, independent action;
  • develop the all important element of mystique;
  • change the location of their safe areas in Honduras to ones within Nicaragua, and maintain strict security concerning the new locations (possibly developing tunnel networks similar to those of the North Vietnamese and the Salvadoran FMLN);
  • set up an effective intelligence and counter-intelligence system;
  • establish an urban underground and carry the war to the capital;
  • root out and eliminate corruption where it exists, and implement safeguards to prevent its return;
  • develop a self-supporting supply system for food, clothing, and other war materials, and come to understand that their principal military supporters are not US taxpayers but ambushed enemy troops;
  • maintain the level of insurgents at a number that can be supported by existing aid and logistical provisions, even if it requires reducing their numbers; and,
  • avoid the field use of sophisticated communications equipment, computer banks, and other technology too cumbersome for guerrilla war. There is no need, for example, for the Contras to have six 20-megabyte computers at their field headquarters; a guerrilla army that cannot break camp with all its gear in minutes is following the wrong strategy.

    A sample of what the United States can do to help the Contras take advantage of its new opportunities would be:

  • put strong diplomatic pressure on the Soviets to end or reduce their military and economic support to the Sandanista regime;
  • clarify the organizational support responsibilities in Washington. The Central Intelligence Agency, the Agency for International Development, the State Department, and the Pentagon have all had various, and often conflicting, responsibilities for the Contras, with no one below the president fully accountable. Someone of high authority (and who knows unconventional warfare) must be in charge; and,
  • end congressional micromanagement. A small team of unconventional warfare experts can be highly effective, if they are left in place for the duration, and given the latitude--within sound legal and moral guidelines--to get the job done.

    Failing this, Nicaragua and its neighbors will be doomed to a long-term cycle of violence from an entrenched Communist government.



    F. Andy Messing Jr., a retired major in the Army Special Forces Reserve and a veteran of Vietnam, is executive director of the National Defense Council Foundation. Allen B. Hazelwood, a retired master sergeant from Special Forces and an original member of Delta Force, is a veteran of Vietnam, Laos, and El Salvador. He currently coordinates the State Department's drug eradication and interdiction program in Peru's Upper Huallaga Valley. Their article is adapted from a larger paper, "US Policy in Support of Democratic Insurgencies."