Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts
Volume 3, Number 20 June 22 - 28, 2003 Quezon City, Philippines
War in Iraq
Dr. George Friedman
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.
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.
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.
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 force.
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.
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.
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:
It cannot fight a war that alienates the general Iraqi populace sufficiently to
generate recruits for the guerrillas and undermine the occupation.
It cannot lose control of the countryside; this could destabilize the entire
It cannot allow the guerrilla operation to undermine its ability to project
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.
the task for U.S. forces is:
Identify the enemy.
Isolate the enemy from his supplies and from the population.
dos and don'ts of guerrilla warfare are easy to write about, but much more
difficult to put into practice.
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
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.
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.
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:
Weapons and reserve weapons caches placed in locations known to some level of
A communications system, whether simply messengers or communications gear,
linking components together by some means.
Intelligence and counterintelligence capabilities designed to identify targets
and limit enemy intelligence from penetrating their capabilities.
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?
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?
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.
Nguyen Giap, who commanded communist forces against both France and the United
States in Vietnam, divided guerrilla war into three stages:
Stage one: very small unit, hit-and-run actions without any attempt to hold
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.
Stage three: conventional warfare against a weakened enemy who is engaged and
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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