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The War Nerd May 20, 2005
Iraq: Guerrilla Evolution
By Gary Brecher Browse author Email

Funny thing happened in Iraq: the war came back. Just when we were settling into the national pastime of premature high fives with purple-stained thumbs, the place blew up again. Car bombs, assassinations, and a big, Nam-style sweep by the Marines in Anbar province near the Syrian border, complete with body counts and PR officers claiming they'd "flushed out the insurgents" once and for all.

Every so-called expert in the media is trying to explain why the supposedly defeated insurgents showed up in force. They told us it's just a few foreign agitators, or it's the insurgency's last gasp, or the da Vinci Code.

These damn amateurs! They're way off base. The sudden return of the insurgency isn't a surprise. It's par for the course in guerrilla war. What we're seeing now is a stage every guerrilla war goes through: the leaner, meaner insurrection. It's all about learning: learning by seeing your buddies blown up.

Armies in peacetime never learn anything. They're the slowest, dumbest organisms since the Stegosaurus. Or maybe even the Democratic Party. Whereas armies in combat learn incredibly fast.

Americans should know that better than anybody, because what with being isolated on our own private continent and depending on citizen-soldiers, we usually start out even more unclear-on-the-concept than other armies. And we pay for that. The first battles fought by US armies aren't pretty to watch: First Bull Run, Kasserine Pass, Task Force Smith at Osan -- a long list of military bloopers. But just check out our armies a year or two on from those battles and you'll see the finest troops in the world: Gettysburg, D-Day, Inchon. That trend hit its glorious high point at the Battle of New Orleans, when we inflicted the worst defeat in history on the British Army two weeks after the peace treaty was signed. Oops, sorry ol' chaps.

The Iraqi insurgency has been at war for two years, and it's been learning, trying different strategies and adapting. They started slow. That's typical too.

Insurgencies don't start right away. For a while after the invading army grinds in, the locals are intimidated by all that firepower. And depressed at what a bad showing their conventional army made against it. We saw a clear case of this after the fall of Baghdad: it was months before the Iraqis' morale rose again, and it wasn't until November 2003, eight months later, that the attacks on our troops really spiked.

What happened in those eight months is that the invincible invaders turned into occupiers, and the locals started to see what dummies they were when it came to running the neighborhood. Going against the Brit generals' advice, Rumsfeld dissolved the Iraqi army, so we had no native allies to work with. That meant our GIs were running security without a clue. They couldn't speak the language or read faces, tell friends from enemies, or even get the power and water working.

Naturally the locals started to realize these foreign troops aren't invincible at all. The first attacks came over the summer of 2003, when people were at their most pissed-off sitting in the heat without AC. And when the Iraqis saw how easy it is to blow up a convoy, everybody wanted to help throw out the invaders. So you got a sort of "rainbow coalition" insurgency -- room for everybody! Climb on board the bandwagon!

There was huge range of tactics, from the high end by ex-officers in Saddam's army to pitiful pranks by neighborhood kids. Nobody was running it, least of all Saddam, hunkered down in his backyard kiddie fort.

It was potluck resistance, with everyone invited: "Hey, I've got a detonator! Anybody have a spare bomb?" So far, this was all strictly by-the-book, standard guerrilla warfare evolution. (And like the man said, we all evolved from guerrillas.)

Normally, the next stage would be penetration by the invaders' security forces and the collapse of the big, open insurgency. The problem with this first stage of insurgency is it's just so easy to penetrate. Everybody's sharing info, bragging to each other about how they helped set up the last ambush -- and any halfway decent intelligence service will be able to smash that kind of big-mouthed, trusting organization in a few months.

That didn't happen in Iraq, because -- and it shames me to admit it -- we never penetrated the insurgency at all.

It shouldn't have been that hard to do, when you could be dead certain that every man, woman, dog and cat in Sunni towns was in on the secret. All an invading army normally has to do is grab somebody off the street, bundle them into an APC and take them to HQ for a little torture. You take down all the names they give you while you're crushing their fingertips, then grab everybody they named and do the same to them, killing as you go, till you've got the whole network safely buried out in the desert, with any survivors on the run and terrified.

Well, we tortured lots of people -- and that blew up in our faces too, thanks to those idiots with their cellphone cams at Abu Ghraib -- but we never got the dope on the insurgents. That decision not to use Saddam's guys (who were totally ready to work for anybody who paid them) was coming back to haunt us.

And behind that, the real blame goes to Bush & co. for refusing to admit that we were invading, and that invaders are never popular. An invasion is a war, not a friendly visit. If you don't face that fact, you're going to have problems.

With no Iraqi allies, we were a blind giant stumbling around Iraq. And nothing's more fun than tripping up a blind man, especially one that just stomped into your neighborhood claiming to be the toughest guy around. What teenager could resist joining a fun game like that?

So naturally, the all-comers resistance just got bigger and bigger, until the Shia joined in with their Sunni enemies because it just looked so easy and fun to mess with the Americans. By April 2004 we were fighting a two-front open war in Iraq. We lost 140 men in one month. The low point came when we backed down on our threat to invade Fallujah in April-May 2004. Soon it was a "free" zone, under rebel control day and night. Now even that could've worked to our advantage if we were fighting smart. These "free zones" are a deadly trap for guerrilla armies. They concentrate all the most important people in the insurgency in one known spot where they can be subjected to superior firepower. We could've let all the top rebels drain into Fallujah like bacteria into a zit, then popped it hard and sudden with a massive surprise attack.

Naturally that didn't happen, because Bush and Rummy care more about politics than they do about winning the war or saving GIs' lives. They actually announced that we were going to retake Fallujah months in advance and even provided a countdown to the invasion, hour by hour! It was the stupidest political interference with a military operation since the Austro-Hungarian Empire went out of business. Any half-way intelligent insurgents would've melted away into the countryside, and left nothing but cannon fodder in Fallujah.

And that's where we may have gotten lucky with the "martyr" complex these Islamic guerrillas have. They love dying, even when guerrilla doctrine says they should vanish and fight when it's more to their advantage. So it looks like a lot of dumb Jihadis stuck around in Fallujah to gain a glorious death and all those afterlife virgins.

Dying is a powerful weapon of war, absolutely. Thermopylae, the Alamo... these kinds of suicide stands can be militarily effective, especially to buy time for the main army. But you have to be careful, because it's a one-shot weapon. You want to use it when it helps the cause.

Suicide bombers die smart; they blow themselves up and take a dozen of the enemy with them, and lots of times they penetrate the enemy's most secure areas (GI mess halls, the Green Zone), devastating enemy morale. But dying in a burnt-out house in Fallujah, firing an AK against an M-1 tank, is dying stupid. So we managed, after all, to do our job: we zapped a lot of those romantic suckers last November when we took Fallujah -- by leveling the city, Warsaw-style.

Now comes stage two of the insurgency: the flag-waving fools are gone, and it's the survivors in control -- guerrilla evolution, survival of the practical guys who want to win instead of dying gloriously. You see the same pattern with insurgencies in Algeria, Chechnya, Colombia: the martyrs get killed off, and the cold-blooded guerrilla operatives take over.

These guys know that there's only one way to win a guerrilla war: blinding the enemy by killing his spies, his native police force, anybody who cooperates with him. That's what's been happening in Iraq for months now, and nobody understands it. All they notice is that attacks on US troops are down.

Of course they are; they didn't work. Killing US troops was the insurgents' Plan A: "If we put enough bloody GIs' bodies on US TV, the cowardly Yankees will run away!" It was a reasonable idea, considering we pulled out of Somalia after losing only 18 men. But what the insurgents didn't realize was that Americans had toughened up after 9/11. Casualties didn't faze us like they used to. By election time the Iraqi insurgents had killed 1100 GIs, but Bush still won.

Time for Plan B. Plan B is classic guerrilla doctrine: "the long war," where you attack the invaders' local allies, not the foreign troops themselves. The idea is, if you wipe out Iraqi collaborators, the US is just a blind giant. He'll stick around for a while, stumble over the countryside wrecking stuff, but sooner or later he'll get sick of stubbing his toes and go home.

So the insurgents are ignoring the hunkered-down, heavily fortified American bases and hitting the key, soft targets: the Iraqi police. And damn, are they killing a lot of those boys! On one day, May 9, 80 Iraqi police were killed. On average, five cops a day are dying. It's safer selling Bibles door-to-door in Peshawar than strolling through Baghdad in an Iraqi cop suit.

The insurgents' other strategy is using foreign and Iraqi-Sunni suicide bombers against Shia and Kurdish civilians, hoping to set off a civil war. This doesn't seem to be working as well. It rarely does. Just look at Beslan: the Chechens killed all those kids hoping to draw the Ossetians into an all-out war, but all the raid did was ruin whatever was left of the Chechens' rep.

The Kurds and Shia aren't retaliating. Why should they? The whole US-funded military machine is doing that for them. Besides, their casualties in the bombings have been mighty small by Iraqi standards.

The Shia are sitting pretty, laughing at us while they wait for us to leave. Thanks to our obsession with the "democracy" thing, the Shia, who are 62% of the population, are guaranteed to win -- and in the meantime, we're footing the whole bill for their takeover! Sweeeet! Why should they shoot back and queer a great deal like that?

So with the civil-war strategy failing, everything comes down to a long, slow guerrilla war between our cops 'n' soldiers and their suicide bombers and assassination squads. It's going to be an Iraqi vs. Iraqi war from here on. US ops, like the Marines' big search-and-destroy sweep in Anbar, are just sideshows. Sure, they flushed a few foreign guerrillas who fought to the death, yelling about Allah like idiots. But in a guerrilla war, foreigners are hopeless. The game is about fitting in, avoiding detection, and foreigners just can't compete.

That goes for us too. We're never going to be able to pick out the bombers from the shoppers in Baghdad. It all depends on whether we can propagandize, or just bribe, enough Iraqis into doing that for us. And if we can't stop the insurgents from killing our allies as fast as they are now, it's going to take a non-stop flood of C-5B's full of motivational speakers to keep those cops from stripping off their uniforms and digging their own backyard forts to hide in, Saddam-style.

When we've raised the life expectancy of a rookie Iraqi cop from crane-fly level to lizard's level, then we can talk about gaining the upper hand. Til then...round up those motivational speakers, put 'em in uniform, teach 'em Arabic, and send 'em to Baghdad to see if they can persuade enough dummies to wear a uniform that might as well have "Shoot me, I'm expendable" in neon on the back.

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Gary Brecher
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Email Gary at, but, more importantly, buy his book.

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