“The guerrillas are the fish, and the people are the water,” wrote Mao Zedong, perhaps the greatest guerrilla fighter of the 20th century. This week the U.S. military speared two of the largest fish in Iraq — Odai and Qusai Hussein — and expressed hope that the “water” that had sustained them will dry up. But history suggests that, at least until U.S. forces land that biggest of fish, Saddam Hussein, a hard core of loyalists will carry on fighting.
The lessons the U.S. military war colleges teach their officers these days about guerrilla warfare were learned the hard way during the 1960s and 1970s, when Viet Cong fighters frustrated and shredded the U.S. battlefield doctrine of the day. Since then, U.S. officers are quick to recognize the signs of guerrilla warfare — and just as quick to identify them as such, even if that means contradicting the opinion of civilian defense officials. Guerrilla wars, the Viet Cong taught, are not to be taken lightly.
Gen. John Abizaid, the new head of U.S. Central Command, did just that last week, just a day after his boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, refused to use the “G” word in testimony before Congress.
In this senior schism can be seen another lesson of Vietnam at work — the determination of the senior U.S. officer corps not to let the grim realities of day-to-day war be glossed over for political reasons back in Washington.
Rumsfeld and Abizaid, officials say, agree on just about everything with regard to the Iraq war — troop numbers, tactics and the dangers involved to U.S. interests in trading overall control of the occupation for international peacekeepers. But military men tend to be far less circumspect in describing the causes of almost daily deaths among their troops than the civilians whose careers involve a good deal more politics.
So, guerrilla war it is in Iraq, and as such, certain classical features apply. “Cells” rather than chains of command run the show. Uniforms give way to civilian clothing. Women, even children, become potential combatants. Guerrilla casualties theoretically provide fuel for the fires of resistance, while each occupier killed saps the enemy’s will to fight - a particularly effective formula when the enemy is a liberal democracy. Air superiority, firepower and other elements of military brute force become less useful and sometimes an encumbrance, as these are precisely the advantages guerrillas seek to neutralize by adopting “hit and run” tactics.
Most important of all for would-be guerrillas to have, with the control that Iraq’s regime exercised over the country broken, is reliable support among the population to help conceal their identities, hide their ammunition and shelter them at night. And it is here, experts say, where the true effects of the deaths of Saddam’s demonic duo, Odai and Qusai, will truly tell.
U.S. military officials believe support for the Baathist regime is thin among the population at large, though the number of Baathist loyalists - “dead-enders,” Rumsfeld has dubbed them - is certainly in the thousands.
In keeping with this thinking, blows to the Baathist edifice, i.e., Saddam and his family, not only demoralize this group, but diminish their ability to hold the larger populace captive to the threat that there will be some post-American day of reckoning for those dubbed disloyal.
“The best weapon the Baathists have is keeping the population intimidated,” says Bernard Trainor, a former Marine general who served in Vietnam and now writes on military affairs. “That’s a classic resistance technique. The French used it during the German occupation — killing collaborators. We saw that from our Vietnamese foes during Vietnam, where villagers were terrified of what the Viet Cong would do to sympathizers at night when the Americans pulled back to bases.”
Even among those who concede that the Baathist loyalists may be deflated by the deaths of Odai and Qusai, or by the eventual death of Saddam himself, there is a feeling the United States may be repeating a terrible error by failing to see that some of the resistance is rooted in Iraqi nationalism, not in any desire to see Saddam back.
Alberto Coll, who held a senior post on special operations forces and low intensity conflict in the first Bush administration, says the U.S. may currently be overestimating the importance of the deaths of Saddam’s sons.
“The reasons for the attacks on our troops go well beyond Saddam’s sons or Saddam himself,” says Coll, now a senior lecturer at the U.S. Naval War College. “You have people that are very resentful of the fact that we’re there, and they are going to try to capitalize on that and raise the cost until we decide to get out.”
Among the groups who fit in this category, he says, are Sunnis concerned they will lose their traditional hold on power in the country, and the Shiite majority, which has high expectations after years of repression under Saddam.
THE SHIITE FACTOR
“The Shia are a ticking time bomb,” says Coll. “They expect a more theocratic state to emerge, one where they have a lot more say in how things are governed. They don’t want to take us on at this point, but if down the road they get the sense that the outcome we’re pushing and the only one we’ll tolerate is a secular, very pro-American Iraq, you’re going to see a very strong Shia reaction.”
Col. Andy Gembara, a retired U.S. Army special operations forces officer, agrees.
“We better pay attention to the Shiites,” he says, “And we better not screw the Kurds for a fourth time.”
Gembara, a veteran of guerrilla warfare in Vietnam, Central America and the Middle East, says that it is far too easy for a single incident to alienate a whole swath of a society as complex as Iraq’s — whether the incident was caused by U.S. forces or not. This was a technique used to great effect by Chechen guerrillas against the Russian army during the first war in the war-torn province of Chechnya in the early 1990s.
“You have to have what we call ‘pacification,’” he says. “An angry population is a population ready to believe the worst.”
Additionally, according to a Pentagon analyst, elements of an al-Qaida-associated group that had carved out an enclave in Kurdish-held northern Iraq before the war, Ansar al-Islam, also may be operating inside the country.
“As long as Saddam is alive, there is a rallying point for the Baathists,” the analyst says. “When we get him — and we will — that’s still not the end of the story. Some people are fighting for things that have nothing to do with Saddam.”