Classic Guerrilla War Forming In Iraq

Classic Guerrilla War Forming In Iraq (Brad Knickerbocker, CSM)

War is never by the books. Adversaries learn and adapt. The political climate shifts on both sides. Loyalties and alliances couple and decouple. The civilian populace – caught in the crossfire – often remains passive just to survive. To many experts, the conflict in Iraq has entered a new phase that resembles a classic guerrilla war with US forces now involved in counterinsurgency. And despite the lack of ideological cohesion among insurgent groups, history suggests that it could take as long as a decade to defeat them. “Guerrilla warfare is the most underrated and the most successful form of warfare in human history,” says Ivan Eland, a specialist on national security at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. “It is a defensive type of war against a foreign invader. If the guerrillas don’t lose, they win. The objective is to wait out your opponent until he goes home.”

From the Filipino insurrection during the Spanish-American War to Vietnam to El Salvador, American troops have had plenty of experience in fighting home-grown enemies that look nothing like a conventional army. As have France in Algeria, Britain in Malaysia and Northern Ireland, Israel in the occupied territories. Though “counterinsurgency” calls up memories of Vietnam, there may be as many differences as similarities. Iraqi insurgents have no means of deploying battalion-size forces, as North Vietnam and the Viet Cong did with help from the former Soviet Union. Iraq won’t become a proxy conflict between superpowers, as the Vietnam War was. There is a heavy criminal dimension to the violence in Iraq, just as there has been in Algeria, Colombia, and Chechnya. And there is unlikely to be a negotiated resolution as long as Iraq is seen as part of the broader war on terrorism.

Still, Iraqi insurgents have the advantage of terrain – not jungles but an urban setting. They appear to have at least the passive support of many Iraqis. It’s often difficult to tell the fighters from innocent civilians. And they try to force American forces to overreact, causing civilian casualties and consequent outrage. “No two insurgencies are alike,” says retired Army Col. Dan Smith of the Friends Committee on National Legislation. “Except that they are violent affairs in which noncombatants tend to suffer most and national infrastructure tends to be destroyed.”

Since early April, when the health ministry in Baghdad began keeping figures, some 3,200 civilians (not including Iraqi police or insurgents) have been killed – some in terrorist attacks, some by the US-led coalition. On average, insurgents now are attacking US forces 87 times a day. More than 100 foreigners have been kidnapped, and some 30 of those killed. Attacks on oil pipelines are occurring nearly every day now.

In fact, Iraq at the moment has four simultaneous insurgencies: Sunni tribalists, former Saddam regime loyalists, fighters loyal to anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and foreign jihadists. “Most importantly, the insurgents haven’t made much effort to develop a coherent political program or identify a leadership,” says Professor Steven Metz of the US Army War College. “I see this as their most serious weakness.” Still, they do have a common enemy: those they see as foreign occupiers, not liberators.

As luck would have it, we have a story on that as well:

Iraqis Want the U.S. to Leave — but Not Just Yet (Patrick J. McDonnell, LAT)

Retired police officer Abaas Ramah is scornful of the U.S. presence in Iraq. “Where is the freedom they promised?” he asks. “All the bloodshed, the sabotage, the killings. Who is paying the price? We, the Iraqi civilians.” But asked whether U.S. forces should pull out immediately, he responds: Absolutely not. “There will be genocide here if they leave right now,” Ramah answers. “They destroyed this country, and it is their responsibility to make it stand again…. Iraq is like a sick old woman who needs America to treat her right now.”

Iraq is struggling with a guerrilla war, a stagnant economy and widespread despair. Many of its people are ambivalent about the continuing U.S. presence. Among the great majority of Iraqis who applauded the downfall of Saddam Hussein, there is deep resentment of what they view as Washington’s myriad missteps. Chief among them is disbanding the military and police forces, a step they blame for today’s rampant lack of security. Iraqis consistently identify lawlessness and violence as their country’s gravest problems.

Polls show increasing anti-U.S. sentiment and a growing sense that American forces should get out and leave things to the Iraqis. Despite such complaints, many Iraqis hesitate to endorse an immediate U.S. pullout, before some semblance of an effective Iraqi national security apparatus is in place. Some of those angriest about perceived U.S. missteps are the ones most adamant that U.S. forces stick around and try and patch things up, or at least assist in elections scheduled for early next year. “We hope for the occupation forces to leave Iraq … but they must first fix what they broke here,” said Sabah Wissam, 29, a Baghdad barber. “If they leave now, the strong will eat the weak…. I don’t know how the Americans wanted to bring democracy to us overnight. It’s just another one of their mistakes.”

The contradictory desire for U.S. forces to leave as soon as possible — but also to remain at the ready as a guarantor of some stability — has caused considerable soul-searching among Iraqis.
“Emotionally, so many of us feel we want the Americans out of Iraq,” said Hassan Bazzaz, a U.S.-educated political scientist who runs an independent institute analyzing opinion and culture. “But when it comes down to it, we feel that we could get into more trouble without having the Americans here…. There’s a lot of mixed feelings out there. I don’t quite know how we keep both ideas working together.” Rasha Amin Saleh, a college student in the northern city of Mosul, articulated this ambivalence. “The Americans liberated us when we were unable to liberate ourselves,” Saleh said. “But now they are occupiers, it is true. Yet their departure could lead to civil war. It could make things worse.”

Some Iraqis, however, have no mixed feelings. Those directly involved in the armed insurgency clearly want an immediate U.S. withdrawal. At the other end of the spectrum are many Kurds and other pro-Western Iraqis. They say they wouldn’t mind if a U.S. military contingent remained indefinitely as a safeguard against a return to tyranny or incursions by neighboring states. “I’ve never considered the American troops as occupiers,” said Isaa Ahmed Abbasi, 31, a physician in the northern city of Irbil in the north. “The people who want them out are seeking to benefit, like Saddam. They will start to kill people for the sake of the president’s chair.” But the Kurds’ enthusiasm for the U.S. presence does not reflect sentiment elsewhere in the country, where disillusionment appears to be on the rise.

William Shawcross thinks these views too pessimistic, a position he outlines in his London Sunday Times piece Iraq: It’s Not As Bad As It Looks [$].

It is often hard to be optimistic about Iraq. Security is worse than when I was last there in March. The snatching of hostages and their all too frequent murders are horrific. It is often difficult to see how anything good can come of it now. But behind the headlines Iraq is not just a horror show. Inside the International Zone in Baghdad I went to the American headquarters, a jumble of partitioned offices spread through the vast halls of one of Saddam Hussein’s grossly extravagant and vulgar palaces. Cables, screens, noticeboards, guards and metal detectors are everywhere. People are rushing back and forth beneath the garish marble and gilt, typing, shredding, meeting, talking. General David Petraeus, the American in charge of training Iraqi forces, said: “Iraq is more manageable on the inside than it seems in the media on the outside.” Petraeus also said, wryly, that working in Iraq is like being on a roller coaster. Now, despite appearances, he thinks that it is on the way up as more and more Iraqi police, National Guard and soldiers are being trained to take over from the coalition.

Will they be good enough, soon enough? That is the key question, but his cautious optimism is shared by General Sir Mike Jackson, Britain’s chief of general staff, whom I accompanied to Iraq. At the end of his trip to Basra and Baghdad he said media claims that the war is being lost are “blatant hyperbole. Baghdad is not in flames. The insurgents do not represent the vast majority of Iraqis. They can be defeated. But it will be hard pounding”.


Conversely, American soldiers of all ranks seem utterly committed. Many of them see this as an existential war. General Thomas Metz has on his wall in Saddam’s palace a collage of pictures of 9/11. In his soft Texan twang he says: “The insurgents know that Iraq has a great future — it has water, oil and a hard-working, educated population.” General Jackson agrees. But he knows the time lines are tight. As well as producing good Iraqi security forces fast, he says, “we must accelerate the economic progress so that people see they have a real stake in the future”. Only employment and improvement can really end the attraction of the militias to the young Shi’ites.
Jackson, Metz, Petraeus and Robison all understand that the victory of the car bombers and other nihilistic murderers is too terrible to contemplate — for Iraq, the region and the world.

One hopes that they are right. Soldiers and, especially, military leaders, are a surprisingly optimistic lot. Still, much of their confidence seems to amount to Argumentum ad Consequentiam. No real evidence is proferred that the insurgency will be overcome and demoncracy established. They simply believe it must happen because the opposite outcome is unacceptable.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Iraq War, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.