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[casi] Guerrilla War in Iraq


18 June 2003

by Dr. George Friedman

Guerrilla War in Iraq


The United States is now clearly involved in a guerrilla war in
the Sunni regions of Iraq. As a result, U.S. forces are engaging
in counterinsurgency operations, which historically have proven
most difficult and trying -- for both American forces and
American politics. Suppressing a guerrilla operation without
alienating the indigenous population represents an extreme
challenge to the United States that at this point does not appear
avoidable -- and the seriousness of which does not appear to be
broadly understood.


The United States currently is involved in an extended, low-
intensity conflict in Iraq. More precisely, it is involved in a
guerrilla war in the Sunni areas of the country, including much
of Baghdad proper as well an arc that runs from due west to the
north. The almost daily guerrilla attacks against U.S. forces
have resulted in nearly 50 deaths since U.S. President George W.
Bush declared the end of major military operations; they also
have tied down a substantial number of troops in
counterinsurgency operations, two of which (Operations Peninsula
Freedom and Desert Scorpion) have been launched already.

The war is not strategically insignificant, even though the level
of intensity is relatively low at this point. Guerrilla warfare
can have a disproportionate effect strategically, even when it
can be tactically and operationally managed.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that it violates the
principles of economy of force: The quantity of force required to
contain a guerrilla operation is inherently disproportionate
because the guerrilla force is dispersed over a large geographic
area, and its stealth and mobility requires a much larger force
to contain. Second, guerrilla war generates political realities
that affect the strategic level of war. Because of the nature of
counterinsurgency operations, guerrillas can generate a
simultaneous perception of weakness and brutality, regardless of
the intentions of the conventional forces. Since guerrillas
choose the time and place of their own attacks and use mobility
to evade counterattacks, the guerrilla appears to be outfighting
the regular forces. Even when they are merely holding their own
or even losing, their continued operation generates a sense of
power for the guerrillas and weakness for the counterguerrilla

The nature of counterinsurgency requires that guerrillas be
distinguished from the general population. This is
extraordinarily difficult, particularly when the troops trying to
make the distinction are foreign, untrained in the local language
and therefore culturally incapable of making the subtle
distinctions needed for surgical identification. The result is
the processing of large numbers of noncombatants in the search
for a handful of guerrillas. Another result is the massive
intrusion of force into a civilian community that may start out
as neutral or even friendly, but which over time becomes hostile
-- not only because of the constant intrusions, but also because
of the inevitable mistakes committed by troops who are trying to
make sense of what appears to them an incoherent situation.

There is another level on which the guerrilla war intersects
strategy. The United States invaded Iraq in order to be perceived
as a decisive military power and to set the stage for military
operations elsewhere. Guerrilla warfare inevitably undermines the
regional perception of U.S. power -- justly or not -- while
creating the impression that the United States is limited in what
it can do in the region militarily.

Thus, the United States is in a tough spot. It cannot withdraw
from Iraq and therefore must fight. But it must fight in such a
way that avoids four things:

1. It cannot fight a war that alienates the general Iraqi
populace sufficiently to generate recruits for the guerrillas and
undermine the occupation.

2. It cannot lose control of the countryside; this could
destabilize the entire occupation.

3. It cannot allow the guerrilla operation to undermine its
ability to project forces elsewhere.

4. It cannot be allowed to extend the length of the conflict to
such an extent that the U.S. public determines that the cost is
not worth the prize. The longer the war, the clearer the
definition of the prize must be.

Therefore, the task for U.S. forces is:

1. Identify the enemy.

2. Isolate the enemy from his supplies and from the population.

3. Destroy him.

The dos and don'ts of guerrilla warfare are easy to write about,
but much more difficult to put into practice.

The centerpiece of guerrilla warfare, even more than other types
of war, is intelligence. Knowing who the enemy is, where he is
and what he plans to do is the key to stopping him. In Vietnam,
the North Vietnamese had much better intelligence about these
three things than the United States. Over time, despite material
weakness, they were able to turn this and a large pool of
manpower into victory by forcing the United States to do the four
things it should never have done.

Since intelligence is the key, we must consider the fact that
this war began in an intelligence failure. The core assumption of
U.S. intelligence was that once the Baath regime lost Baghdad, it
would simply disappear. Stratfor had speculated that Saddam
Hussein had a postwar plan for a national redoubt in the north
and northeast, but our analysis rejected the idea of a guerrilla
war on the basis that Iraq's terrain would not support one.

Nevertheless, it is the strategy the Baathists apparently have
chosen to follow. In retrospect, the strange capitulation of
Baghdad -- where large Iraqi formations simply melted away --
appears to have been calculated to some degree. In Afghanistan,
the Taliban forces were not defeated in the cities. They declined
combat, withdrawing and dispersing, then reorganizing and
returning to guerrilla warfare. Hussein appears to have taken a
page from that strategy. Certainly, most of his forces did not
carry out a strategic retreat to return as guerrilla fighters;
most went home. However, a cadre of troops -- first encountered
as Mujahideen fighters in Basra, An Nasiriyah and Karbala -- seem
to have withdrawn to fight as guerrillas.

What is important is that they have retained cohesion. That does
not necessarily mean that they are all being controlled from a
central location, although the tempo of operations -- daily
attacks in different locations -- seems to imply an element of
planning by someone. It does mean that the basic infrastructure
needed to support the operation was in place prior to the war:

1. Weapons and reserve weapons caches placed in locations known
to some level of the command.

2. A communications system, whether simply messengers or
communications gear, linking components together by some means.

3. Intelligence and counterintelligence capabilities designed to
identify targets and limit enemy intelligence from penetrating
their capabilities.

The central question is how they do this. First, how many and
what kind of weapons are stored, and where are they? Not only in
terms of conventional weapons, but also of weapons of mass
destruction. This is a critical question. We continue to suspect
that Hussein had chemical and possibly biological weapons before
the U.S.-led war. Where are the weapons now? Are they stored in
some way? Are they available for use, for example, against U.S.
base camps at some point?

Second, what is the command and control system? Are these
autonomous units operating without central control, are they
centrally controlled or is it a mixed system? Suddenly, the
question of Hussein's whereabouts ceases to be irrelevant. Are
Hussein and his lieutenants operating the war from a bunker
somewhere? How do they communicate with whatever command
authority might exist?

How can U.S. intelligence penetrate and disrupt the guerrilla
movement? The United States is best at electronic and image
intelligence. If the guerrillas stay away from electronic
communications except in extreme cases, electronic intelligence
will not work. As for image intelligence, it might be used to
find arms caches, but it is generally not particularly helpful in
a guerrilla war at this level.

Vo Nguyen Giap, who commanded communist forces against both
France and the United States in Vietnam, divided guerrilla war
into three stages:

1. Stage one: very small unit, hit-and-run actions without any
attempt to hold territory.

2. Stage two: continuation of stage one attacks combined with
larger units, regimental and below, engaging in more intense
attacks and taking and holding remote terrain as needed.

3. Stage three: conventional warfare against a weakened enemy who
is engaged and defeated.

Giap argued that the transition between stages is the key to
successful guerrilla operations: Too late or too early are the
issues. In Iraq, the guerrillas have a separate problem -- the
terrain makes the concentration of forces too risky. It is one
thing to mass several companies of light infantry in the
Vietnamese jungle. It is another thing to do the same in the
Iraqi desert. The Iraqi Achilles heel is that the transition from
the current level of operations is very difficult to achieve.

This is the same problem facing the U.S. forces. If a guerrilla
war is to be won, the second stage is the point at which it can
be won. During the first stage, the ratio between operational
costs and damage to the enemy is prohibitive. Carrying out
battalion-sized operations to capture or kill three guerrillas is
not only exhausting, it also undermines popular support for
counterinsurgency measures. In a stage two operation, the ratios
are more acceptable. But the Iraqis can't move to stage two
without playing into the hands of the Americans.

That seems to argue that the Iraqis intend to remain at this
level of operations for an extended period of time. How long
depends as much on their resources as on their intentions. How
many fighters they have, how secure their command system is,
where their weapons are located and how many they have will
determine the length of the fight.

>From the U.S. point of view, fighting a retail guerrilla war is
the worst possible strategy. The key for the United States is the
destruction of the Iraqi guerrilla command and control system.
The North Vietnamese had a clearly defined command and control
system, but it was in the north and in Cambodia. There were
sanctuaries. At this moment, it would appear that the Iraqis have
no sanctuary. Therefore, the command centers are within political
reach of the United States. The question is where are they? Where
are Hussein, his sons and his other commanders? Gen. Abid Hamid
Mahmoud al-Tikriti, Hussein's No. 4 commander, was seized today,
which certainly represents a breakthrough for the United States.
What is not yet clear is whether this is the beginning of the
systematic collapse of the guerrilla command structure or whether
he was irrelevant to that.

Unless the United States is fortunate and this war comprises only
a handful of fighters who quickly will be used up, the only
strategy the United States has is to find and destroy the command
structure. Every army -- even a guerrilla army -- depends on
commanders, communications and supplies. Find and destroy the
commanders, and the army will not be able to resist a general
offensive. But first you have to find the commanders. Sweeping
after foot soldiers will only upset the population; going after
the generals is the key.

Therefore, the question of where Hussein, his sons and the rest
of the officials pictured on the deck of cards is not academic.
It has become the heart of the military equation.


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