Politics & Policy

Not a Guerrilla War–Yet

President Bush will not be terrorized into retreat.

The November 12 truck bombing at the Italian military police headquarters in Nasiriyah, Iraq, has not changed the strategic situation in that country any more than the downing of two U.S. helicopters or any of the other harassing attacks on American, Coalition, Iraqi, or international targets. The level of violence in Iraq still does not cross the threshold between terrorism and guerrilla warfare, yet.

Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry has unveiled a television commercial featuring the famous images of a flight-suited President Bush on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln declaring an end to major combat in Iraq on May 1. The ad is meant to raise questions about the continuing violence in Iraq, but instead it should raise questions about Kerry. As a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War, Kerry should know the difference between the kind of major operations he took part in and the pinprick attacks now being made by Baathist remnants and Islamist terrorists. Instead, he would rather try to spark panic and then exploit it for personal gain, actions which should disqualify him from public office.

The current level of violence in Iraq must be kept in perspective. A total of 114 U.S. soldiers were killed in the major combat phase, which began March 20. As of this writing, 259 American servicemen and women have been killed (38 so far this month) since President Bush’s declaration, bringing the number of U.S. troops killed in the entire Iraq War to 398. By any rational standard, the Iraq campaign of liberation and reconstruction has been one of the greatest–and least bloody–military success stories in history. By way of comparison, almost as many people have been killed in Washington, D.C., and the surrounding metropolitan area this year.

In Vietnam, 58,000 Americans were killed in action in a war that was eventually lost. In Korea, 38,000 Americans were lost in a war that ended as a draw. Lack of victory left a legacy of tyranny and genocide in a Communist-dominated postwar Southeast Asia, while a despotic North Korea still threatens world peace with the specter of nuclear weapons. The liberation and reconstruction of Iraq offers a much better outcome at much lower cost.

Given the availability of weapons and explosives in Iraq, if there was a real popular uprising against Americans, the U.S. presence would prove quickly untenable, but this is not the case. Terrorism is the weapon of the weak and cannot defeat the superior military presence of the United States and its allies. President Bush will not be terrorized into retreating, though there is the danger that continuing casualties could be exploited politically by those Democrats who seem to welcome being terrorized.

According to the foremost theorist of guerrilla warfare, Mao Tse-tung, among the missions to be conducted when a movement is in the early stages of formation are “raiding and mining the enemy” and “cleaning up traitors and spies.” Ambushing American troops, destroying infrastructure, and assassinating Iraqi leaders all fit this stage of war. The path towards the expansion of “revolutionary” movements is well known and can be blocked.

Outside support is essential to a successful revolution. Money, weapons, and even “volunteer” troops are needed to give insurgents the means to fight. Foreign sanctuaries are important for training and protecting fighters, or at least their leaders. Diplomatic support is also important in weakening the position of the legitimate government, and perhaps reducing the aid it receives from abroad.

The flow of militant Islamic fighters from Syria and Iran must be stopped. More Coalition troops will be needed to seal the borders and provide a show of force to Damascus and Tehran. Outside the region, interference by powers hostile to the American position, especially through the United Nations, must be contained.

As Mao knew, victory comes only when guerrillas are strong enough to shift to “mobile warfare” and large-scale combat that can “annihilate” entire government units, not just pick off a passing soldier or two. War is about politics, and politics is about the control of people and territory. Only “boots on the ground” can assure a decisive victory on which a stable peace can be built.

The “shock and awe” of U.S. technology is weakened when it is shown that American soldiers are all too mortal in close combat. A recent CIA assessment of Iraq warns the security situation will worsen as more Sunni Iraqis are “flooding to the ranks of the guerrillas” in the belief they can “inflict bodily harm” on the Americans. That the media, for whatever reasons, is unable to report heavy casualties among those who are ambushing American units is giving the impression that militants can prove themselves heroic and “make their bones” with impunity. Sustained violence on these terms is an effective recruiting tool. To counter its appeal, the U.S. must make the point forcefully that any attack on American forces is a suicide mission that will fail in its objective.

Before Mao ordered Chinese troops to intervene in the Korean War, he advised his commanders that while the U.S. relied on air and naval forces for massive firepower, it was always short on infantry. Once American forces moved inland, they would be vulnerable. This belief that the United States cannot stomach ground combat has given enemies from Imperial Japan to al Qaeda the confidence to challenge American power. Chinese strategists still argue that America lost both the Korean and Vietnam wars because of this weakness, and the reaction of the Clinton administration to the “Blackhawk Down” incident in Somalia boosted anti-American morale worldwide. The September 11, 2001 terrorist assault on New York and Washington was predicated on the belief that a painful rap on the nose was all it would take to make the United States cut and run from the entire Middle East.

There is an immediate need to increase American, Coalition, and, most importantly, Iraqi security forces to crush the insurgency before it grows any further. The Bush administration has been struggling to fight a series of battles around the world using only the downsized military left by the Clinton administration. In 1990, when the first Gulf war was fought, the Army had 18 divisions. President George H. W. Bush reduced the Army to 14 divisions, what then-Defense secretary Dick Cheney called the “irreducible minimum” needed to protect American interests. President Clinton then cut the Army further to ten divisions. The last time the Army had only ten divisions was just before the Korean War when Mao noted how short America was in ground troops.

If there is criticism to be made about Bush administration strategy, it is that no steps were taken to reverse the force cuts made by Clinton as soon as the Pentagon changed hands. This is not a line of argument, however, that the Democrats can pursue. Relying on long-term service by reservists and National Guard troops is not a solution, as it has consequences to morale, retention, recruitment, and training that degrade performance and readiness.

This year, 24 of the Army’s 33 active brigades were deployed for at least some period of time overseas. The Pentagon needs to find a way to expand the Army by at least six brigades–though preferably twice that. The U.S. needs more troops to support the leadership position in world affairs it has assumed and to prove to future rivals that it is not afraid to fight for its interests.

William R. Hawkins is senior fellow for national-security studies at the U.S. Business and Industry Council Educational Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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