We Cannot Win the War in Iraq

In Iraq today we are experiencing the reassertion of an ancient military axiom that was confirmed in Vietnam: any nation invaded by a more powerful nation will always move to guerrilla warfare, since it can hide its soldiers among the people, whereas an invading state cannot hide its soldiers, who then become vulnerable to debilitating surprise attacks.

So long as guerrillas have strong leadership and the backing of at least a significant portion of the nation’s population, they cannot be beaten. As Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon’s secretary of state, said during the Vietnam War, “The conventional army loses if it does not win. The guerrilla wins if he does not lose.”

Guerrilla or partisan warfare is the only way an enemy can neutralize America’s vast technical supremacy to some degree. Partisans can do this by striking only at isolated American or allied elements---roadside bombs, rocket or machine-gun attacks, mortar rounds quickly dropped on a target---then disappearing into the population. This tactic becomes all the more inescapable when zealots are willing to sacrifice their own lives in order to hurt us.

We failed to anticipate and plan for this entirely predictable development when we went into Iraq in 2003. This was the most damaging error on the part of the American intelligence community and the military, and is in large part the cause of the immense difficulties we’re encountering in that country today.

Many people are comparing the situation in Iraq to what we faced in Vietnam. Yes, there is that parallel, but the lesson goes all the way back to ancient times. In 217 B.C., the Roman dictator Quintus Fabius Maximus stopped the vastly superior Carthaginian army under Hannibal by using this method---thereby giving rise to the term Fabian strategy, used by politicians and generals ever since to gain time and weaken stronger opponents. In 1808, the Spanish commenced a “guerrilla” or small war against Napoleon, and were largely responsible for driving his armies out of Spain by 1814. In South Africa, the Boers won ultimate independence, retention of their Dutch dialect, and control of South Africa’s blacks in 1902, after the British were unable to suppress the Boer guerrilla tactics. The list of such successful partisan victories goes on and on.

The strategic lesson we should take from all this is to stop thinking we can ever “win” the guerrilla war in Iraq, any more than we could have won the war in Vietnam. An enemy who refuses to confront us openly, and who hides among his own people is unstoppable.

Most of the insurgents in Iraq today are minority Sunni Arabs who want to reestablish the control over the country that Saddam Hussein had provided them. We are facing a naked contest for power between the Sunnis on one side and the majority Kurds and Shiites on the other.

The war in Iraq has ceased to be primarily a terrorist war waged against the West. What is happening is the beginning stages of a civil war. The terrorists under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are trying to foment a war between the main ethnic groups in Iraq in hopes of creating chaos and allowing the Islamic fundamentalists to seize power and establish a repressive theocratic dictatorship. But they are not calling the shots. Sunni militants are in charge of the insurrection, and the terrorists are being forced to act as their allies, since a Sunni revolt is the only way that chaos might be created, and the only way that the existing government being led by Shiites and Kurds might be toppled.

A number of Western commentators dispute this. Iraq, they say, is not in a civil war because the Shiites have not declared open opposition to the Sunnis, and only a minority of the Sunnis are rebelling against the existing government. Yet the Sunni leadership is trying to overthrow the government, and Sunnis are killing Shiites at every turn. That is the very definition of a civil war.

With all of the best intentions in the world, we have fallen into a tragic error. We have taken sides in a civil war, just as we did in Vietnam. We should get out as quickly as we can. Some observers and politicians are calling for us to set a deadline for departure. That is a mistake. President Bush is correct when he says that a deadline would encourage the insurgents to wait it out till we go, then strike at a still weak and unstable government.

But at the same time we cannot indefinitely support one side in a civil conflict. This would mark us as partisans and set up our troops for attacks. Insurgents can always strike and then hide in the population, whereas our troops cannot hide. They are always visible and are always targets. The situation is untenable.

The only answer is to speed up the creation of reasonably competent Iraqi army and police forces. Once these minimum conditions are met, the United States should get out. We can assist the elected Iraqi government in foiling particularly dangerous future insurgent attacks by the use of air power or Special Forces operating from bases outside the country. But we should not uphold any government that must depend on our military power for an indeterminate period to survive.  

The broader strategic lesson we should learn is never to try anything like this again. We should not use military force in an attempt to transform governments into democracies. Our experiences in Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan and in Somalia (1992-93), show that ideologies imposed from the outside do not work.

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