FRESNO, CA — OK, we’ve just gone through a really exciting time in world military moves, so let’s test your strategic IQ. What’s the relation between these three recent developments:
1. On May 9, Hezbollah took over West Beirut against feeble resistance.
The Iraqi Army, such as it is, is now moving into Mosul in a major anti-al Qaeda operation.
3. At the end of March, the Iraqi Army attacked Sadr strongholds in Basra and East Baghdad, and got its ass kicked.
If you want some clues, you can read my account of event #3 in detail from my April 2nd column:
The other clue that might help is that Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Iraq is totally based on Nasrallah’s Lebanese Hezbollah, so—to kinda give it away a little—in just over a month’s time, you’ve got two Shia militias stomping the better-armed and -funded old-style powers in Arab countries a thousand miles apart. Kind of a trend.
Item #2, the move on Mosul, is the trick question here, because there are no Shia to speak of up there; the Iraqi Army is moving against Al Qaeda in Iraq up there. What’s the connection?
As you chew on that food fer thought, let’s fill in the details on what happened and why in this week’s sudden Shia-ization of what the media always call "fashionable West Beirut." "Fashionable"—I love imagining these Shia puritans with Kalashnikovs and RPGs stalking through rubble filled with confused airhead supermodels: "Like…hel-LO? What are you…I mean…doing here anyway? In that ugly Kevlar vest which doesn’t match your beard at all, I mean YUCK, and that so-eighties gun accessory…don’t you realize I’ve got a SHOOT today?" The Hezzies don’t get her babble, but they hear the word "shoot" and it all goes to pieces very fast. That’s one of the first thing a supermodel’s got to learn: don’t say "shoot" around a nervous militiaman who thinks women should wear black hefty bags, head to foot, even when showering. Or "if" showering; for these boys, Sharia tops hygiene every time.
South Beirut or Sadr City: Can You Tell The Difference?
Hezbollah took their beach trip on May 9, but it wasn’t announced to anybody in the media. The Lebanese elite was stunned. This was not supposed to happen. It would be like West LA being overrun by Baptist gangs from Bakersfield. And there was nothing the cool Lebanese could do about it but sneer and whine and blog. Boy, did they blog. In the blog-o-sphere battle, the West Beirut coolsters won hands down. Out on the streets, though, it was all Hezbollah. They came, they saw, they burned down a TV station that had been broadcasting anti-Hezbollah stories…and a couple of days later, they left. It wasn’t like your classical military maneuver; these are commuter troops, and what they did was pack their weapons—mostly rifles and RPGs, some of the rifles looking surprisingly new and expensive—in the trunks of their little fuel-efficient sedans, and head back to the slums of South Beirut. No word on whether traffic was snarled by the sudden withdrawal: "KBRT’s traffic helicopter, Beirut’s only traffic reporter with look-down-shoot-down capability, brings you this update: avoid the Shia-town expressway, which is jammed with weekend Hezbollah visitors evacuating the capital…."
Like I said, this wasn’t supposed to happen. It’s part of a pattern that isn’t supposed to be happening all across the Middle East: the Shia militias are kicking serious ass. In the past few weeks we’ve seen weirdly identical moves by weak central governments in Iraq and Lebanon to push back against Shia militias: in Iraq, al-Maliki’s government, acting as a front for al-Hakimi and the Badr Brigades, tried to "assert itself" against Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Basra and in Sadr City; and now the weak interfaith committee trying to run Lebanon moved against Hezbollah, firing their security chief at the airport and cracking down on Hezbollah’s private communication network, which apparently has 100,000 private telephone lines running.
Nasrallah, the mullah who runs Hezbollah, called that crackdown a "declaration of war" against his boys and sent them out onto the streets of West Beirut, where the rich Sunni Muslims live.
Militarily, it was over pretty fast. There’s no armed Sunni group in Lebanon that can stand against Hezbollah. The BBC is now calling Hezbollah "by far the strongest force in Lebanon," which may seem pretty obvious now but is a huge surprise to all the so-called experts. You see, the Shia aren’t supposed to count at all in Lebanon. The Lebanese constitution lays down that the President has to be a Maronite Christian, because they were the big players in 1943 when the thing was written. The Prime Minister has to be a Sunni Muslim, because they were next. Nobody else counted for much, except maybe the Druze. But the Shia weren’t consulted at all, because they were nothing—a bunch of hicks down in the southern and eastern boonies.
Since then a lot of those hicks have moved into Beirut, and the ones who stayed home made a name for themselves by having a lot of babies who grew up to be the best guerrilla fighters in the country. They forced Israel out of Southern Lebanon in 2000 and took on the Israeli armed forces one-on-one in 2006, and came out of it looking like heroes.
Since then, the Hezbollah leader, Nasrallah, who’s pretty obviously a smart dude, has parlayed his victory into national popularity. He didn’t let his people gloat too openly--instead of the yellow Hezbollah flag, he told them to wave the Lebanese red-white-and-green (the one with the tree, even though there ain’t hardly any of those trees left in the place any more, just like the California Grizzly on our flag).
What really pisses off the "government" in both Iraq and Lebanon is that the Shia leaders—Nasrallah in Lebanon and Sadr in Iraq—are starting to break into the crossover market: after Hezbollah scored the first respectable showing against Israel by any Arab guerrilla army, you’d see Druze and Sunni and even a few Maronite kids saying "Go Hezzies!"—usually in a safe quiet voice, where nobody’d hear, but they were saying it. And that spelled death for the old godfathers who run these places, especially Lebanon. Lebanon is like NYC without the money: it’s all sleazy politicos and gangs profiting from ethnic grandstanding politics. They call the system "zuama," godfather-ism. And the key there is, you’ve got to be able to control your ethnic group, your gang. So guys like Walid Jumblatt, the chieftan of the Druze, go psycho when they see rival Druze politicos deserting to Hezbollah. Jumblatt’s business is using his people as a bargaining chip; if they’re going to start shopping around for better deals, he’s as doomed as a smalltown hardware store watching the new WalMart go up.
Don’t start thinking these godfathers are the good guys. You can think of Hezbollah as the bad guys if you want, even though I admire the hell out of them, but just don’t think those old-school godfathers are the good guys here. Jumblatt, for example, is on record saying he cheers when US troops are killed in Iraq and it can’t happen often enough for him. He backed the Syrians when they occupied Lebanon, then broke with them over his cut; he massacred thousands of Christian villagers in Central Lebanon in the 1980s. When he comes into a room you can hear blood sloshing around his ankles, and that goes for every big player in Lebanon.
They’re a lot like the old Italian mafia, in fact: they’ve still got the big government connections, but they don’t have control over the streets any more. But Hezbollah does, for two familiar reasons, the same ones traditional military types don’t like to mention: demographics and civilian aid.
Demographics first: like I’ve said before, the Shia suddenly found themselves as the only ghetto boyz in a rich, spoiled neighborhood. While all the other "Cedar Revolution" (aka "Crock of Shit") Lebanese were partying on the "fashionable" beach, the Shia were living in slums, pumping out lots of kids, hearing about martyrdom and finding out up close and personal what it feels like to get shelled, bombed and sniped. They raised a whole lot of kids who were natural soldier material, with your classic Shia martyr complex and a don’t-give-a-fuck slum attitude that was straight outta Karbala. All they needed was a movement they could actually believe in, and they’d slice through the rich-boy gangs like a scimitar through hummus.
Hezbollah provided the Shia with the cause they were looking for. You can say what you want about the Hezzies, but unlike most other Lebanese movements, including Amal, the other big Shia party, Hezbollah is NOT in it just for the money. They actually believe the stuff they say, and they prove it by getting their hands dirty rebuilding blasted slum neighborhoods, handing out food to the hungry, and trying to bring water and electricity to Shia dumps that never had them before. That kind of actual concern for the poor is just about unheard-of in these places, and i
t inspires fanatical loyalty when people see it happening for the first time in their lives. Sadr’s people are the only ones who manage to get food, water and electricity to the huge stinking Shia slums in Iraq, and Hezbollah has an even longer record of putting in the money and time, like Mao said a guerrilla army should, on civilian projects. So for example, after the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah campaign, there was a lot of grumbling, even among Shiites in Lebanon, that Hezbollah’s glorious fight against the Israelis had left a lot of ordinary Lebanese with bombed-out houses as souvenirs of that divine victory. Instead of dealing with these subversive complainers the usual Arab way—making a gross, gory example of the loudest naysayers and continuing to pocket all that Iranian aid money—Hezbollah actually went out and rented the heavy equipment, cleared the rubble, and put up new apartments.
An Amal Shia militiaman poses alone with a mask: No match for the Hezzies!
So it’s not that much of an oversimplification to say that Hezbollah built a movement and an army from the bottom up, and then took it into battle last week against a bunch of traditional top-down gangs whose "gunmen" were in it only for the money. You don’t have to ask who won a fight like that. Just imagine Valmy, where French troops who really believed in the republican revolution went into battle against old-style degenerate European troops. A wipeout. The hired guns who were supposed to protect West Beirut just fled, while the Hezzies popped up all over that expensive beachfront like Bugs Bunny’s instant Martians popping up out of every manhole.
And where was the Lebanese Army that we’re funding, you ask? Keeping very, very quiet. Maybe waving a nervous "Hi!" to the Hezbollah fighters as they got out of their cars and started walking toward the Mediterranean. The Hezzies had no armored vehicles, but they had RPGs which they actually know how to use, and against the Lebanese Army’s Thrift-Store mix of light armored vehicles, RPGs work all too well.
It’s kind of an exciting time, militarily, when a bunch of weekend soldiers can carry a weapon in the trunks of their cars, weapons that will actually intimidate troops in APCs. Morale trumps light armor every time. (Air power and MBTs are another story.)
The Army only intervened when it was time to give Hezbollah everything it wanted: the right to a separate comm network, and the rehiring of their Airport Security dude. As for the latter demand, I’m not saying smuggling was involved or anything but somebody’s got to get those West-Beirut party kids their E and coke, and having your man in charge of airport security sure would make it easier to bring in da stuff, whether it’s Semtex or pure Bolivian. If the guy was worth going to war for, he must be doing something pretty darned important.
Once their demands were met, Hezbollah packed the weapons in the trunks and headed home for supper. That was another very smart move. One thing you can sort of figure out without being Einstein is that this is not a good era for military occupations of other tribes’ territory. What you want is to impose your will militarily, then get out before you become the occupier. That’s exactly what the Hezzies did—wish we could learn a thing or two from them.
So Lebanon right now has a simple box score: Hezzies everything, Old Bosses nothing. Now, let’s zip to the other side of the Middle East and see how the Iraqi game is going. About the same, actually. Weirdly the same. What just happened in Lebanon happened six weeks ago in Iraq: weak central government tries to "assert itself" against rising Shia militia, gets smacked down, then after the smackdown, the Shia militia hands back territory. In the case of Iraq, it was a Shia government, so this was all Shia-on-Shia violence, Maliki’s army vs. Sadr’s militia.
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There’s still a lot of argument about whether the US pushed Maliki’s government into this or tried to stop them from attacking. I hear from sources in Iraq that US officers advising Maliki warned him that his "army" (basically Badr Brigade vets wearing Iraqi National uniform) weren’t good enough to take on Sadr’s militia on their home ground, but woke up to find the armored columns already moving south to Basra and east into Sadr City. They should have stayed in bed, as the saying goes, because if they’d had another nap—say an hour or so—they’d have seen the same columns breaking all speed limits coming back to base, stomped to within an inch of their lives.
And now for the odd item out: what’s Mosul got to do with it? There are two things going on. At a tactical level, it’s simple: Mosul and Al Qaeda in Iraq is a target that the Iraqi Army might actually be able to handle. They need a morale-building fight against a softer opponent after getting their asses kicked in Basra and Sadr City, and the Sunni jihadi nutcases are an easy target. There aren’t many of them, they’re foreign imports with no neighborhood base (they’ve alienated just about every Sunni Iraqi alive), and they’re more interested in dying than fighting. A counter-insurgency officer’s dream opponent.
There was a story last week that showed why the Iraqi Army would rather fight Al Q than keep battering its head against the Sadrists in East Baghdad. This Iraqi officer was whining, "The Shia in this neighborhood PROMISED us that they’d let us patrol in our vehicles and tell us where the IEDs were buried, they PROMISED, and then within ten meters of leaving our base three IEDs went off under us! It’s not fair!"
That’s what happens when you fight people who have the neighborhood behind them, and that’s why it’s way, way easier to go to Mosul to track down some nerd-gang of Saudi dweebs who took up Jihad 1A because they flunked Engineering or they’re scared of girls or something. Dying solves a lot of problems for people like that.
But if you really consider the Mosul operation on another level, that’s where it gets a little more interesting. It’s part of a pattern of what Cheney, that strategic genius ("Shit, Iran is RIGHT NEXT to Iraq? Why didn’t you tell me? No wonder we’re having all these problems!") expected to happen: he figured that the Shiite’s military energy would wear itself out in a civil war against Al Qaeda Sunnis, both in Lebanon and in Iraq, rather than making problems for their pro-American governments and us. That was the Cheney Plan, except it didn’t happen. Al Qaeda just doesn’t have the support in the ‘hood to take on these neighborhood militias, either in Iraq or in Lebanon. But there was a funny little footnote: Al Q has officially declared war on Hezbollah in Lebanon and "ordered its operatives to defend the Sunni community in Lebanon" according to this story:
The trouble with being a James-Bond-y international conspiracy like Al Q is that there’s no way on earth you can compete militarily with local, broad-based militias like Hezbollah. Commuting from the Shia slums to West Beirut is one thing, but the notion that Al Q’s International Brigade can all fly into Lebanon undetected and assemble to march on the Hezzies is too far-fetched and idiotic even for a Bond flick. The notion they’d beat Hezbollah if they could manage to mobilize a force against it is even more ridiculous. The Hezzies even scare the IDF, and the IDF has wet dreams about facing Al Q. The rankings are pretty clear, and getting clearer, and they add up to something simple: in Iraq and in Lebanon, two countries the Western powers have operated on like they were diabetics with Medicaid, the net result of all the slicing and cutting is victory, hands down, for Shiite militias that didn’t even figure in the big plans. They just weren’t supposed to be part of the equation, and now they’re on top.
And that’s assuming it’s all being decided by Washington. Suppose we entertain, as they say, another idea: suppose it’s true that the Lebanese Hezzies are just "puppets" of Iran the way Cheney keeps saying they are. Well, if that’s true, then…lessee here: Cheney woofs on and on about attacking Iran and just coincidentally these Iranian puppets just casually take over Lebanon, one of the few supposedly pro-Western Arab states. And they do it without even breaking a sweat. Like saying, "Hello Meester Cheney, joost a leetle reminder, we know zee game about a t’ousand times better dan yoooo, sir!"
There are two possibilities: Cheney is an Iranian mole, and he’s laughing his head off chewing pistachios, kicking back on his prayer mat in front of the flatscreen, something I’ve been arguing for awhile now—or he’s the stupidest human being ever to step out of his league—which would be Wyoming, Little League. Girls’ Softball to be exact.
Gary Brecher's book The War Nerd has just been published by Soft Skull Press.