Classic Guerrilla War Forming in Iraq ; Recent Upsurge in Attacks against Authorities and US Forces Has Parallels, and Differences, with Past Insurgencies

By Brad Knickerbocker writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 2, 2004 | Go to article overview

Classic Guerrilla War Forming in Iraq ; Recent Upsurge in Attacks against Authorities and US Forces Has Parallels, and Differences, with Past Insurgencies


Brad Knickerbocker writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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.

Different from Vietnam

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.

Four insurgencies

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.

Within the US military, much of the debate over how to deal with insurgencies revolves around one assertion: "No more Vietnams."

Army Lt. Col. Robert Cassidy, who has served in Iraq and is now stationed in Germany, notes that the US military "has had a host of successful experiences in counterguerrilla war, including some distinct successes with certain aspects of the Vietnam War."

But, he writes in a recent issue of the Army journal Parameters, "Because the experience was perceived as anathema to the mainstream American military, hard lessons learned there about fighting guerrillas were neither embedded nor preserved in the US Army's institutional memory. …

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