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The Insurgency: Neighborhood Watch

The Pentagon won't own up to the fact that it takes a village to run an insurgency.
 
 
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"Gen. George Casey, the U.S. commander of the multinational coalition in Iraq, told reporters on [June 27] that the worst-case estimate of the size of the Iraqi insurgency is less than one-10th of 1 percent of the country's population -- that is, a top end of 26,000 people supporting the insurgency." -- The Guardian

If you've been following guerrilla wars as long as I have, you have to laugh when you hear Army PR guys say that the Iraqi insurgents are just a teeny-tiny bad apple in a big barrel of shiny Red Delicious Iraqis. One bad apple -- that little beady-eyed Al Qaeda operative Zarqawi -- is supposedly responsible for the whole mess. Sorry, folks, but insurgencies just don't work that way.

Of course, you can't blame US Army guys for doing their job -- lying to the press. But you sure can blame the press for buying it. I can't believe how pig-ignorant reporters are about the basics of guerrilla warfare. This planet has been bursting with guerrilla wars for the past century, but the perky, smiley guys 'n' gals reporting from Iraq still know more about hair spray and "Dating Do's & Don'ts" than they do about urban warfare.

I'm just the opposite. Ever since I flunked puberty, I've dedicated my life to studying war. While the kids who grew up to be TV correspondents were fixing their hair, I was in the library memorizing Jane's Armored Vehicles and reading every issue of Armed Forces Journal and Aviation Week . And the more I read, the more I realized war these days isn't about hi-tech hardware, it's about urban guerrilla tactics. That's my specialty.

So for me, Iraq has been like a bad re-run. I knew it was going to be a disaster, and said so way back in 2002. And sure enough, the situation has gone to Hell strictly by the book, right on schedule.

Guerrilla war depends on two "obvious" facts -- so "obvious" nobody in the press even mentions them:

1. The people who live in a place care more about it than the foreign occupiers, and so they'll outlast them in a long guerrilla war.
2. So the only way to defeat the guerrillas is to wipe out or displace the population.

It's been done. The Brits did it in the Boer War a century ago. They were stuck in a losing war against an insurgency by the Boers, so they dragged the Boers' women and kids into the concentration camps to die of every horrible disease in Africa. It worked. A quarter of the civilian population was wiped out, and the Boers lost heart and surrendered, giving the Brits access to the gold and diamond mines. Even now the Boers still burn with hatred over what the Brits did to them, and you can't blame the poor bastards.

Stalin combined displacement and extermination when he decided the Chechens were troublemakers. He shipped them all to camps in Central Asia on 15 minutes notice. A third of the Chechen population died in the locked cattle cars before they even reached Kazakhstan. It must have been a terrible way to die, passing out from thirst as the trains rumbled across the Steppes to the GULAG.

But times have changed. America isn't as blunt about killing anybody in the way of our Empire as the Brits were. We can't wipe out the Sunni Iraqis; we can't even admit that they're "the enemy."

So to account for the fact that our Iraqi friends keep trying to blow up our convoys, the Pentagon's tame press tells us there's some kind of Mister Big seducing the Iraqis into evil, insurgent ways.

Saddam was the original nominee. As long as he was still on the loose, Bush's PR guys were swearing that the insurgency was nothing but "deadenders" from Saddam's regime. Once we grabbed him, Iraq would be more peaceful than South Dakota. Then we got him in December 2003, and the attacks on our troops went up. In April 2004, four months after we yanked Saddam out of his backyard spider hole, we had our worst month yet, with 140 GIs killed.

It was obvious that Saddam had never been in charge of the insurgency. I knew that as soon as I saw where he'd been hiding: a pathetic hole in somebody's backyard, with a concrete plug over it and no way to communicate with the outside world. You can't run an insurgency from a place like that. You have to be on the street non-stop, checking things out. You need to know who's doing what, who can be trusted, who's going soft, whose cousin just got arrested -- you have to know everything.

And you have to have the civilian population behind you. Saddam never did. People obeyed him because they were afraid of him. Once he was out of power, he had no following at all.

Nobody in Iraq was going to risk their lives just for Saddam. Guerrilla warfare is terrifying for the guerrilla as well as the occupier. The occupying army has all the tanks, heavy weapons, aircraft, communications, media control and funding. Air power is what would scare me the most. It's almost impossible to hide from a helicopter equipped with infrared sensors. If you've watched those reality cop-chase shows, where they track suspects fleeing in total darkness, you have an idea of what the urban guerrilla is up against.

The Iraqis are fighting for one simple reason: because we invaded and occupy their cities. It's that simple: In the first Gulf War we were smart enough to stay out of Iraqi cities. This time around we tried to occupy them.

Occupations always go bad, even when they start with cheering and kisses for the "liberators." The Catholics in Ulster cheered when the British Army occupied their neighborhoods in 1969, but soon they were demonstrating against the British Army. On January 30, 1972, the 1st Paras killed 13 Catholic demonstrators. That one volley led to 30 years of urban guerrilla war between the IRA and the Brits, because dead demonstrators have brothers and cousins who will do anything to avenge their dead kin. An American officer in Iraq summed it up nicely: "With every one [insurgent] I kill, I make three."

Fallujah became the center of the Iraq insurgency in the classic way: In April 2003, the 82nd Airborne overreacted to a demonstration and killed 13 dead locals -- exactly the same number the Brits killed in Ulster. The whole town swore everlasting revenge.

And they had their chance -- because once invaders turn occupiers, they're much more vulnerable. Take a couple of GIs just standing at a sandbagged checkpoint, or driving by in Humvees -- if you saw Blackhawk Down, you know what a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) can do to a Humvee.

And Iraqis have easy access to all the guns and RPGs they can use. Saddam's regime had a special license from the Russians to manufacture RPGs in Iraq. They produced hundreds of thousands of them. When Saddam fell, Iraqis buried them in the backyard. And since the RPG and AK-47 are classic Soviet designs, they can be buried for years and still ready to fire. Those RPGs have already killed nearly 1000 GIs and wounded several thousand more.

Naturally, it pisses off our GIs, seeing their buddies maimed and the locals celebrating. So they start kicking in doors, beating up anybody who looks suspicious. And that suits the insurgents right down to the ground. The more brutal and reckless the occupiers get, the better recruiters they are for the insurgency.

And they can't help but be reckless and brutal, because they don't have a clue who's responsible; they don't speak the language; they can't read people like you can in your own country. So they beat up the wrong people and the real attackers sit home laughing.

Pretty soon, the insurgents have everybody, and I mean everybody, in town on their side. And they need to, because it's not easy setting up one of these IED ambushes. You know the saying, "It takes a village to raise a child"? Well, my version is, "It takes a neighborhood to set up an ambush."

Guerrillas start from scratch. They need to collect the materials for a bomb, put it in place, and set it off without attracting attention. Imagine doing that in a crowded, noisy Baghdad street and you'll see that it wouldn't be possible without the cooperation of everybody in the neighborhood, from the Radio Shack guy who donates the trigger to the granny on the corner, timing the US patrols as she waves sweetly at the GIs.

And they've been doing these ambushes every single day for two years now -- two years! -- hitting us hard, killing GIs, without getting caught. That means that they've got great snitches, and we have none at all. And snitches are the only weapon that matters in urban guerrilla war.

That's why the notion that it's all "foreign agitators" attacking us in Iraq is such crap. The whole idea of urban guerrilla warfare is to blend in with the crowd. Foreigners are the WORST candidates for urban guerrillas, because -- duh! -- they stand out in the crowd. You can pick'em out a mile away.

Our GIs may not be able to tell the difference between an Iraqi and a Saudi or Chechen, but the pro-American Iraqi cops sure can. So the only job these foreign jihadis are really fit for is suicide car-bomb drivers. The insurgents keep the foreign jihadis under wraps until the target convoy comes into view. Then you just put him in the driver's seat and point him at the target.

The poster boy for the "foreign agitator" theory these days is Zarqawi. I admit, he's a better candidate than Saddam was. He's a real guerrilla operator, with a solid mujahedeen resume: Born in Jordan, probably to Palestinian refugee parents, grew up in the town of Zarqa (his alias means "The Guy from Zarqa"), went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets and got radicalized.

But there's no sign he's anything more than a small-time recruiter for suicide-bomber volunteers. Zarqawi's face has been all over the Net for years now, and there's a $25 million bounty on him. Like they say in spy movies, his cover is blown. No way he can be really useful as a guerrilla leader. That job puts you out on the street all day, moving through checkpoints, changing your identity non-stop.

The reason that both sides in the war -- the Pentagon PR corps and these Jihadi websites -- keep making such a big fuss about Zarqawi's every move is that he's good PR for both of them. The Al Qaeda fundraisers need a Mr. Big for their propaganda as much as we do. Except their version is a hero, Zarqawi as Robin Hood in a greasy skullcap, always outsmarting the big, dumb American crusaders. He's a great gimmick, a cross-eyed poster boy, for Al Q.

The Pentagon wants to put an outside agitator's face on the insurgency. America will do anything to avoid having to face the most obvious fact about Iraq: They hate our guts, all of them. Pasting Zarqawi's face all over the Net also hides the fact that our so-called intelligence units still don't know a damn thing about the insurgency. It makes it seem as if we're hot on the trail of the one demon responsible for the whole mess.

Which suits the real insurgents just fine. They must get down on their knees every night and thank Allah for the Z-man, because he keeps the heat off them.

So who are the real leaders of the insurgency? Based on what I know about other insurgencies, I can give you a profile. First of all, none of them are Mister Big. There is no Mr Big in this insurgency. They're more like a few thousand Mr. Middles, a whole crowd of ex-Army officers and local clan leaders in every Sunni town or village who have some kind of loose control over some of the insurgents. Nobody controls the whole insurgency. There are hundreds of insurgent groups fighting, and they don't answer to Al Qaeda or anybody else. They started the fight for local reasons, like the demonstrators killed in Fallujah, and they stay in it out of local loyalty, to their clan or the Sunnis or some patriotic idea of Iraq, or Islam.

The most effective leaders will turn out to be the type who rises to the top in any insurgency: solid, intelligent, young-ish men. Guerrilla war is a young man's game. The leaders are usually in their 20s, early 30s. They're the cream of the neighborhood, the guys who always got respect -- homegrown Alpha-males with real standing in the clan and tribal networks that really run things in Iraq.

They'll turn out to be downright shy by Arab standards, coolheaded types. Guerrilla war kills off the glory-seekers pretty quickly. The leaders who last will be anonymous until the new regime gives them their medals when we finally give up on this mess.

Contrary to what the dumb-ass press keeps saying, the leaders don't need to "fuel" the insurrection. It's got all the fuel it needs. The Iraqis, not just the Sunnis either, are so pissed-off by now that the real leaders' job is mostly persuading the hotheads to take it slow, plan their attacks.

And behind is the real insurgency: the Iraqis. All of them, in the Sunni zones, and a damn big slice of the Shi'ite population as well. Yeah, the Shi'ites are cooperating with us now because their 62 percent slice of the Iraqi population guarantees they'll win any election, but if we cross them again we'll face the same insurgency profile we face now in the Sunni Triangle. Which is, to put it bluntly, everybody. Every-damn-body in the place.

Gary Brecher writes a War Nerd column for the Moscow alt-weekly paper, The eXile .