Once again, “shock and awe” thundered across Iraq for two explosive weeks. Then the insurgents responded to our high-tech air and ground hammer with return fire from four donkey-drawn carts toting homemade rocket launchers that hit one of the most heavily defended zones in Baghdad.
Which says it all about the nature of modern guerrilla warfare. The Have-Nots – the guerrillas – use whatever they have at hand, the simplest weapons and tactics, to go up against the Have-It-Alls. In Iraq, it has become the donkey cart, the roadside mine, the suicide bomber, the small hit-and-run ambush vs. Terminators-R-Us.
At this point, the Iraqi guerrilla leadership knows it can’t seize and hold turf the way its Taliban guerrilla counterpart is successfully doing in Afghanistan. But for sure the leadership is counting on wearing our troops down – just as was done to almost 100,000 British soldiers after World War I.
So my bet is that the intent behind the donkey attacks was about grabbing headlines and broadcasting the fear message that all of the awesome stuff in our trillion-dollar arsenal won’t short-circuit the guerrilla objective to inflict pain and send us running.
That’s smart thinking, since America can win any conventional fight without breaking a sweat. But hard-core Islamists around the world have figured out that by hanging in and following the model that eventually brought down the Soviets in Afghanistan, they just might win the war.
Initially, Pentagon top civvy brass refused to even admit that our forces were engaged in a guerrilla campaign in Iraq. SecDef Donald Rumsfeld and a squad of his Mini-Mes stuck by their story that the troubles besetting our forces were the result of a few rabble-rousers and released criminals. Finally, the theater commander, Gen. John P. Abizaid – whom I have great respect for as a smart and solid commander – set the record straight when he said we were engaged in “a classical guerrilla-type campaign.”
Abizaid’s Pentagon bosses still haven’t publicly endorsed his position. It’s tough for know-it-alls to suck it up, admit they were wrong and confront the problems at hand. Not a particularly happy proposition, since guerrilla-fighting history isn’t on our side. And putting down an insurgent movement is a strategy fraught with high risk in which the counterinsurgent needs the support of the people. Bombs and shells slamming down on the wrong targets will quickly feed an already-hot fire, producing still more recruits for the cause.
All of which the British learned the hard way in 1917 when they marched into the former Mesopotamia and soon found themselves knee-deep in an ugly occupation. By 1920, casualties by the thousands had mounted on both sides, and the Brits – looking to cut their losses but keep the juicy oil profits pumping – took a pen to a map and created the new country of Iraq: Kurds in the north in Mosul, Sunnis in the center around Baghdad, and Shiites south in the vicinity of Basra. All three groups hated each other, but unfortunately for the Brits, they hated the occupiers and their appointed puppet rulers even more.
The desperate British military brass – who were being eaten alive over Iraq by a relentless press corps – kicked up the ante by launching a bombing campaign that blew Stone Age villages back to the Sand Age.
Bombing alone wasn’t turning the tide fast enough, so the British commander accelerated the killing by using World War I gas shells, with reported “excellent moral effect.” Meanwhile, Winston Churchill, the colonial secretary, urged the air force to drop mustard gas on rebel villages, apparently believing that to be a good way to win the hearts and minds of the resident insurgents. Only technical factors – not Brit humanitarian protesters – prevented the first use of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.
But after all the firepower and political machinations, the Brit-backed government fell in 1958, the British-trained forerunners of Saddam Hussein’s ruthless gang took over, and we’ve played our duplicitous part in the rest of the story.
History shouts that in guerrilla warfare, the stiletto is far more effective than the sledgehammer. Let’s hope Abizaid and his generals remember this lesson and that their “shock and awe” phase is just an attention-getter, not their version of a long-term military solution.