Thursday, November 13, 2003

Shooting In the Dark

The latest word from Iraq is that we're going on the offensive to destroy the resistance. We seem to have some remarkably thick skulls in Washington. We apparently haven't come up with a single new strategy for dealing with guerrilla attacks since Vietnam. We thought in that case that if we applied enough excessive force the enemy would have to cave eventually. However, we couldn't effectively separate the enemy from the populace, and the amount of 'collateral damage' we inflicted on them turned the war decisively in favor of the enemy. Our experience in Somalia was not terribly different either. We responded to a few guerrilla attacks with invasive offensive operations, but had a hard time targeting the right people, killed a bunch of the wrong people by mistake, and were then sent out the back door with a boot print on our ass. Now it looks like we intend to step in it again. Clearly, if we had good intelligence we would have nailed the bad guys before this. So if we're going on the attack it can easily be deduced that we are going to be striking out based on bad intelligence and we will most certainly make mistakes and kill innocents, possibly as many as we kill bad guys.

The deal is, given modern political realities (ie. genocide is a definite no-no), guerrilla wars are phenomenally difficult to win. Your opponents can effectively conceal themselves at all times except when they attack, while you are separated and visible, and at all times vulnerable to attack. Your enemy gets to choose the time and location for every battle, which gives them a decisive tactical advantage. In the old days this would be countered by wholesale destruction. The superior army would rape, pillage, and slaughter their way through the enemy populace until they submitted or were destroyed. This is not generally considered acceptable these days. The only effective counter then, appears to be to build up enough public support that the locals isolate the militants from themselves and leave them exposed to you. However, this means that you cannot strike out blindly and must patiently accept casualties while continuing to be engaged and friendly with the local population in order to build goodwill. Given the realities of morale and the human limits of your troops on the ground who don't like to be engaged and friendly while they're being shot at and killed, this is not often possible. No matter your military superiority, it is not always possible to defeat a determined guerrilla campaign. I can't think of a single case where a modern military has done so.

So the first rule to winning a guerrilla war is not to get into one. It cannot be stressed often or strongly enough, that we could very likely have avoided this if we had built a broad UN-based coalition the same way Bush Sr had for the first Gulf War. If anything good comes out of this, hopefully it will be the realization that the politics of the situation are at least as important as the military aspects of it. Winning on the battlefield is of no benefit if you don't also win in the living room. This may be the biggest flaw in the neo-con political theory. The value of military might ain't what it used to be. This is the dirty secret hidden behind the Powell Doctrine and the Rumsfeld Doctrine, and all of the other post-Vietnam military theories. Any pissant little country can send us home with our tail between our legs if they're stubborn enough.

The bad guys are starting to think they can win, and it's not hard to see why. They're building up momentum and we're standing there like a deer in head-lights wishing we could figure a way out. Unless we can think of some creative solution, and quickly, it may not be long before Iraq passes the point of no return.

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