| The road from Salgon
While the preparation for the American invasion of Iraq was going on, there was a tendency to dismiss those few voices who warned against getting bogged down in a quagmire. The swift conclusion of the “shock and awe” campaign, fortified by symbolic events like the fall of Saddam Hussein’s statues in Baghdad, seemed to leave skeptics of an early and complete military victory tarred as irredeemably false prophets.
However, two months after the official “end” of the Iraq war, with the loss of nearly 180 coalition troops and a large number of wounded men, these once discounted prophets of gloom now suddenly seem far more sage in their predictions than they were made to appear when they first annunciated their cautionary warnings. Talk of guerrilla warfare, body counts, and escalations of troop force has now replaced gloating about the success of our initial invasion and the wonders of precision-guided munitions. By all accounts it now seems that Iraq may be witnessing the beginning of a people’s war that is hauntingly reminiscent of the genre perfected by Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh during the middle of the last century.
Here, I must declare a certain self-interest. On March 31, as troops were moving towards Baghdad, I wrote a column in the San Francisco Chronicle saying that the US could well become entrapped in a guerrilla war whose hallmark was sand and cities rather than mud and villages. I was roundly condemned at the time by quite a few readers as overly-negative and misguided, not to say unpatriotic. Several respondents wondered what possible relevance the theory and practice of guerrilla war, as formulated and practised in such places as China and Indochina might now have for Iraq. The abyss between quagmire and sand, it seemed, strained their credulity.
What seemed to have been overlooked at the time was the fact that guerrilla warfare has been the only way weaker forces have ever managed to confront more powerful forces. Yet, despite numerous warnings by Iraqi officials at the time, few in the Bush administration took them seriously.
“People say to me, ‘You are not the Vietnamese. You have no jungles and swamps,” Iraq’s deputy prime minister told a British researcher six months before the war began. “I reply, ‘Let our cities be our swamps and our buildings be our jungles.’”
How did the sands of the Iraqi desert turn so unexpectedly into a quagmire' The idea of guerrilla war first made a beachhead in the theory of modern warfare when Napoleon invaded Spain in 1807 and met fierce resistance from Spanish irregulars in what the French called la petite guerre. The Spanish invented a new word when they dubbed their struggle against the French occupiers as a “guerrilla”.
As the participants in the nascent Chinese Communist movement fought for their lives against Chiang Kai-shek in the Twenties, Mao Zedong took up on this tradition in an Asian setting. Mao’s answer to conventional pitched battles was a form of both “mobile” and “protracted” warfare that won through harassment rather than outright victories. And, although far weaker and less well-equipped, the Red Army did ultimately outlast both the invading Japanese army and the Nationalist government.
The ingredients of this new kind of “asymmetrical warfare” were: stealth, decentralization, surprise, mobility, and deception. Above all, counselled Mao, weaker forces should avoid major engagements and settle instead with a victory of attrition by means of repeated, small-scale raids.
Elaborating on the teachings of the classical Chinese strategist, Sun Zi, Mao wrote: “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.”
Mao’s triumph in China helped proliferate an almost mythic legacy of “people’s war,” one that Americans confronted in an agonizing way in Indochina as we fought a convert to Maoist strategy, General Vo Nguyen Giap, who led the Vietnamese communist forces.
Such a strategy is precisely what anti-American forces and Saddam’s supporters have begun to use in Iraq. But what may prove to be even more disruptive of coalition plans are Baath Party supporters intent on engaging in urban guerrilla warfare — even suicide bombing — as US and British troops find themselves bogged down in cities trying “to build a peace”.
In late March, Saddam himself issued a statement to Iraqi tribesmen telling them to attack coalition troops “in small groups”, to “hit their frontlines and their rear units so the whole advance will stop. And when it stops, attack them.”
Few members of either the press or the Bush administration took these words seriously. If over the last few days of the official “invasion”, the United States of America’s military planners came to view “irregular forces” like the Fedayeen Saddam and the Special Republican Guard commandos as “a major annoyance,” the US is now beginning to get a clearer sense of the kind of problems such insurgents can create during the process of “nation building.” Indeed, US efforts to restore basic utility services and to get ministries and local governments functioning again have been delayed far beyond original expectations.
One of the most important ingredients in Mao’s conception of guerrilla warfare was nationalism, a sentiment that is almost always excited by foreign incursion. As in the case of the Fedayeen Saddam (“Saddam’s men of sacrifice”) and whomever else it is that is now attacking US soldiers in Iraq, Mao realized that the Chinese could be induced to make “heroic sacrifices” when goaded by the indignity of an occupation, which in China’s case involved the Japanese.
Few countries have ever welcomed foreign airstrikes, invasion and occupation, and history is replete with occasions when nationalism trumped even a people’s loathing of dictatorship to challenge interlopers. No greater examples exist than Napoleon’s and Hitler’s failed invasions of Russia.
We know that Saddam Hussein is a student of Stalin, but it now looks as if he and Tariq Aziz had also been reading a little Mao on the side. And it is a stunning lapse that as US leaders planned to topple him by military means, the Bush administration did not understand that Saddam, his supporters, and anti-American Muslims throughout the Islamic world would inevitably turn to guerrilla warfare to defend Arab dignity, if not Saddam’s benighted regime.
What we may now see is an internationalization of the Iraqi conflict. Iraq may increasingly become a magnet not only for angry Iraqi nationalists who find anyone more acceptable than American occupiers, but also for a whole host of politically extreme groups — Islamic fundamentalist sects like the Hezbollah, the Wahabi militants, and even remnants of the taliban, ever looking for the easiest and most high-visibility way to damage the US.
One suspects that we will be hearing much more about counter-insurgency, body counts, the need for troop escalations, and winning the hearts and minds of the people in the months to come. This is, of course, the almost forgotten language of Vietnam, not to say of Spain in the early 19th century or of Asia in the 20th century. More and more what seems to be developing in Iraq is the progeny of a whole history and tradition of guerrilla warfare.
However, unlike the protracted insurgency in Vietnam, where there was always some official entity with whom to negotiate, in Iraq there is no discernible organized force with whom to talk. We are confronted with a disaggregated phantom, a hybrid of terrorism and guerrilla warfare which may well prove even harder to extirpate than the guerrilla armies we confronted in Indochina.