Politics & Policy

Insurgency Has Its Limits

Enemy victory is far from assured.

General Abizaid began his tour as Central Command commander in July, 2003, by admitting that the resistance to American troops was “a classic guerrilla-type campaign.” The latest U.S. intelligence estimates the number of active Iraqi guerrillas at 5,000 and sympathizers at around 50,000. The insurgents are well equipped with assault rifles, explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades, and a number of shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles. Funding for the insurgency appears sufficient to pay young men as much as $5,000 to risk an attack against American forces. But despite mounting U.S. casualties, the insurgents face considerable obstacles to a military victory.

An insurgency requires several elements to succeed. Chief among those requirements are popular support, then money, weapons, and finally a safe haven to hide and train, and to plan the insurgent campaign. In all areas except arms, the Baathist insurgency is either weak or possesses limited resources.

Mao Zedong, one of the most successful insurgent leaders in history, said, “The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” Mao meant that insurgents need popular support for recruits, logistics, intelligence, and security. The CIA’s estimated 50,000 guerrilla sympathizers is a daunting number, but among a population of almost 25 million Iraqis they are too few to represent a popular uprising. In fact, a recent study by Baghdad University shows that 71.5 percent of Iraqis believe a temporary occupation is necessary.

The Pentagon has identified the overwhelming majority of insurgents as former Baath-party officials and other Saddam loyalists. Most of these people come from the Sunni Arab minority (about 20 percent of Iraq’s population). During Saddam’s regime, the Sunni Arabs oppressed the majority Shia Arabs in the south (65 percent) and Kurds in the north (15 percent). As a consequence, guerrilla activity in the north and south is almost nonexistent, and cooperation with the occupation forces is high. Even in Baghdad and the Baathist/Sunni triangle, American generals frequently state that their best intelligence source is tip-offs from Iraqis.

Furthermore, the Baathists lack a credible ideology to inspire new recruits. Returning Saddam to power doesn’t generate enthusiasm anywhere in Iraq. The insurgents have not articulated a political ideology or inspired religious fervor; they rely almost solely on Iraqi opposition to foreign occupation. What’s more, the ongoing efforts to transition to an elected Iraqi government will only reduce interest among potential recruits to the insurgent cause. There is a healthy contingent of foreign jihadists, but they also lack popular support and do not appear to represent a significant force.

Lastly, the guerrillas’ strategies indicate their lack of support. They use some tactics common in the first phase of an urban guerrilla campaign, like sniping, attacking vehicles or buildings with rockets or mortars, and planting explosive devices. But other tactical options are noticeably absent, such as provocative political activity, widespread demonstrations to disrupt government services, or massing crowds to lure occupation forces into traps. These tactics require popular participation, and apparently the Baathist guerrillas cannot generate a sympathetic crowd.

Financial support for the guerrillas is still a mystery. Best estimates of funding sources include the Saddam regime’s hidden wealth, private donations, and perhaps some backing from Syria and Iran. Corruption among Saddam’s cronies reached mythical proportions, and it is plausible that the remaining uncaptured former leaders are supplying funds to guerrillas. Both Tehran and Damascus support terrorist groups in other countries, so it is possible that some money comes from those anti-American repressive regimes. Nevertheless, there are firm policies in place to impede these funding sources. The international community’s efforts to choke off money laundering for terrorists, and to put diplomatic pressure on Syria and Iran, will restrict funds to Iraq’s guerrillas.

Weapons are one area in which the insurgents are admirably endowed. Before the war Iraq had tough gun-control laws; however, the laws did not apply to Saddam loyalists and they were well armed even in peacetime. Additionally, Saddam’s regime issued thousands of small arms to militias with the idea that the Iraqi people would mount a Somali-like resistance against the American invaders. Lastly, the occupation authority’s decision to disband the Iraqi army before it was properly disarmed, and its weapons dumps accounted for, can in retrospect be called a mistake. Many soldiers went home with their weapons, and explosives from unguarded ammunition dumps are being found among the equipment of captured insurgents. Coalition forces are mounting an extensive campaign to regain control of those weapons, but it will be a Herculean task that will probably have to be finished by the post-occupation Iraqi government.

Because insurgents cannot defeat conventional armies in open battle, safe havens are critical to guerrilla operations. From these locations guerrillas can treat the wounded, train and arm new recruits, and plan future campaigns without harassment. The Vietnamese used North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia as political safe havens from American forces. Guerrilla armies from China to Cuba used inaccessible terrain such as mountains or dense jungles to hide from road-bound government forces.

Baath insurgents have no safe havens. Although Iran and Syria may sympathize with anti-American forces, and might even offer financial support, there is no evidence that either country is allowing guerillas to operate from their territories. Anti-Baathist Kurds occupy Iraq’s mountains, and Iraq’s deserts are perfect terrain for maneuvering American units. The only remaining places in which Baath insurgents can hide from occupation forces are cities and urban centers, but these can serve as safe havens only if the guerrillas have popular support.

The Baath insurgency has benefited from a shaky transition, a plethora of available weaponry, and good intelligence to gain some early successes against coalition forces. Nevertheless, they lack the popular support, resources, and inaccessible geography to withstand a determined counterinsurgency effort. The key to American success in Iraq is maintaining broad support from Iraqi citizens and at home in America. As the American occupation gains experience and the Iraqi security forces become more involved in the battle, the manifest weaknesses of the guerrillas will defeat the insurgency.

Dana Dillon is a senior policy analyst in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.


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