The Guerilla War: A Return to Iraq Finds American Soldiers Prevailing in a Tough and Momentous Fight

By Zinsmeister, Karl | The American Enterprise, April-May 2004 | Go to article overview

The Guerilla War: A Return to Iraq Finds American Soldiers Prevailing in a Tough and Momentous Fight


Zinsmeister, Karl, The American Enterprise


In January of 2004 I returned to Iraq to be re-embedded with American troops. This was my third month in the country out of the past 11, and I came to closely observe combat operations and reconstruction work during the guerilla phase of the Iraq war.

On my very first day in country, I was confronted with reminders of how disruptive even a small minority of fighters can be as this nation tries to mend. A medical helicopter attached to the 82nd Airborne, the division I would spend most of my time with, was shot down (despite being clearly emblazoned with large red crosses) near Fallujah. All nine people aboard--pilots, medics, and injured patients--were killed.

The pressing question faced by American soldiers trying to stabilize Iraq today is how to fight back against such vicious hit-and-run attacks by an obstructionist minority. The simplest answer is that our fighting forces have to both punish and reward. For winning a guerilla war, you see, requires an extremely cagey mix of hard and soft tactics.

From the onset of the battles in March 2003 right up to the present moment, U.S. military personnel in Iraq have always tried the humane approach first. In place after place, they have fought with uncommon care, going to staggering lengths and taking many risks upon themselves to avoid harming innocent civilians and neighborhoods. They've done this while killing or capturing thousands of enemy combatants who fought shamefully from hospitals, schools, and family homes.

In the pages of this magazine (June 2003) and in Boots on the Ground, I have described many extraordinary incidents of disciplined forbearance by American soldiers that I witnessed personally as an embedded reporter. My conclusion is that the fighting on the way to Baghdad last spring amounted to the gentlest war in history.

This temperate, ethical style of engagement has paid dividends. Ordinary Iraqis noticed the care with which U.S. soldiers fought. At the end of the summer just three out of ten Baghdadis said that American troops had behaved badly during the invasion of their country, while six out of ten thought they had behaved well (survey by Gallup). Nationwide research conducted by The American Enterprise found that far more Iraqis had a family member, neighbor, or friend killed by the security forces of Saddam Hussein than by the 2003 war.

Even during U.S. bombing and ground raids, I have often seen Iraqis continue to shop and travel the streets--because they know American attackers are not indiscriminate. If you aren't threatening, Iraqis recognize, you are safe around U.S. soldiers. The care with which American fighters have prosecuted their battles is a main reason ordinary Iraqis want nothing to do with the insurgency, and why seven out of ten told The American Enterprise and other surveyers in the fall that they hoped U.S. troops would stay at least another year.

Still, there are limits to the gentle approach.

CRACKDOWN

The minority of Iraqis who resent the ousting of Saddam Hussein are clustered in the so-called Sunni Triangle. In this area, certain villages, cities, and neighborhoods have slapped away the American olive branch. During the summer and fall, a few recalcitrant hot spots like Fallujah, Ramadi, Samarra, Balad, Tikrit, and parts of Baghdad flamed with guerilla activity. This resistance reached an ugly crescendo around Halloween, when 81 American soldiers and many Iraqi security personnel and innocent civilians were killed in one month by insurgents operating from these seething niches.

At that point, American commanders reached their limit, and all across Iraq the U.S. Army shifted gears. In the first days of November, Generals Charles Swannack (commander of the 82nd Airborne) and John Abizaid (who heads all U.S. military forces in the Middle East) met with sheiks around Fallujah to announce the end of their patience. They made it clear to the assembled Iraqis that after six months of fighting with one hand tied behind their backs, U. …

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