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
"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.
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. …