Tuesday, March 07, 2006

# Posted 8:03 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

INSURGENCY: A GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE. I recently had the good fortune to stumble upon a book by Bard O'Neill entitled Insurgency & Terrorism: Inside Modern Revolutionary Warfare (Brassey's, 1990).

O'Neill is a retired Air Force officer with a Ph.D. in international relations who now teaches at the National War College. Although he recently put out an updated edition of his book, I'm glad to have opted for the older version, since it provides a perspective on insurgency and guerrilla warfare untainted by the politics of the current war in Iraq.

Of course, Iraq was never far from my mind while reading the book. I would like to think, however, that the book helped me to approach the current war from a new perspective. Although OxBlog periodically rails against simplistic analogies between Iraq and Vietnam, I won't pretend to have made any serious effort to analyze Iraq from a true comparative perspective that incorporates the lessons of the scores of insurgencies that raged throughout the 20th century.

So, given all my praise, is there a quick lesson to be taken away from O'Neill's book that could change all of our of perspectives about Iraq? I don't think so, but there is one factor O'Neill focuses on a lot that has received almost no attention from either the government, the media or the blogosphere. That factor is the physical environment in which insurgency takes place.

Now, even if you've watched a handful of American-made movies about Vietnam, you'll know that the jungle itself was one of the Viet Cong's best allies. More generally, insurgents need rough terrain in order to establish secure bases and compensate for goverment forces' superior mobility and firepower.

But what about Iraq? The openness of desert terrain plays into the hands of US and Iraqi government forces. But how much fighting has been in the desert and how much has been in urban areas? I'm not really sure. The best-known battles, such as Fallujah One and Fallujah Two were obviously in cities, but the Sunni Triangle and Anbar province have vast deserts as well.

O'Neill observes that in some respects, the complexity of urban terrain can provide insurgents with the same sort of protection as mountains or jungle. Yet he also observes that urban insurgents have a very poor record of achieving their broader objectives.

Broadening the issue a bit, I feel that I and others have not just ignored the role that the environment has on guerrilla and counter-guerrilla operations, but really that we haven't made much effort at all to think systematically about the strictly military aspects of the war in Iraq.

(Presumably, a lot of milbloggers do approach the issue from this perspective and so it's my fault for not paying closer attention. Anyhow, my comments still apply to both politicians and the media.)

In the final analysis, O'Neill endorses the popular notion that insurgencies are ultimately political wars and that they must be won with political weapons and not on the battlefield. Yet perhaps we have taken this lesson too far in recent years. Then again, I can't really make that case persuasively, since I don't know what I might have learned if I'd been engaging in systematic analysis of the military situation in Iraq.

And by systematic, I don't just mean how many troops are on the ground, how many Iraqis have been trained and whether there's enough body armor to go around. I mean developing a serious knowledge of the different tactics US and Iraqis forces have employed and to what degree they have been effective.

So for the moment, no hard conclusions. Just a little more resolve to get new kinds of information about Iraq that may broaden my perspective.
(2) opinions -- Add your opinion

I reccomend re-reading Claire Sterling's "The Terror Network." She had a lot to say about the genesis of modern insurgency. Urban insurgency didn't work for either Mao or Che. Mao figured it out. Che died.
The logistics of city fights favor governments fighting insurgents; insurgents can be surrounded, and government forces can concentrate and move from one pinned concentration of rebels to another. Cities may be destroyed, but the rebels will be killed. Insurgents in cities lose room for retreat, and they can't identify,isolate and terrorize all the people who have an incentive to rat them out to the government--even if only to make fighting go away.
As Sterling points out, Carlos Mariguela, the auther of the Urban Guerilla's Mini-manual,died trying to put it into practice. When anyone claims rules are different in the midddle east, remember what Hafaz Assad did to Hamma and the Islamic Brotherhood in Syria.
Wars like this end when the government builds up enough force that it can simultaneously garrison all the urban areas and sweep the countryside. The people turn on the insurgents and help kill them when the people have reason to believe insurgents won't be back for retribution. The insurgents only win if the finances of the government are pulled before the army/militias grow large enough to nail the whole country down simultaneously.
The template for American policy in Iraq is actually the Greek war of '44-'49,a communist insurgency of ten to twenty thousand starting out with control--but not wide popular support--in 99% of Greece. Govt. forces were 3000 monarchist troops plus 1 1/2 British divisions. The Brits initially held downtown Athens, Pireas, and not much else while ELAS killed at will elsewhere. The UK and US trained and supplied a Greek army which gradually took back territory as it grew from 3k to 250k (including militias). When the Greek army got big enough to cover the whole country, the rebels ended up surrendering, fleeing abroad, or dying on the border with Albania at their last mountain base.
The US and UK could have committed more forces and ended the war much earlier, but they minimized their own deployment because they didn't want to remobilize after just drawing down post-world war 2, and because they didn't wnt to overcommit the forces they had while other pots might boil over. Given the way Korea popped up, this looks to have been prudent--and similar to the present.
Iraq's Army is already approaching the tipping size for this war. It's occupying and receiving residents' help in progressively more urban areas. When it reaches the size necessary, the war will end very quickly. Until then, nothing can end the war other than America defunding it.
The Size necessary will be somewhat smaller than Saddam's army needed. The insurgent's base is smaller than the periodic revolts Saddam faced, and a popularly based government can tolerate more competant forces than Saddam could ever feel safe training. My guess is that when the Iraq Army/gendarme/militia reach 350k trained men, this will be over. That will be late this year or spring of next year.
james felter cheney WA
I have little to add to J felter's informative comment about Iraq. But I would like to point out that you are retailing a long discredited myth about Vietnam being lost to insurgency.

The Viet Cong were anihilated by the US counterattack in response to the Tet offensive in 1968. The remainder of the war, 1968-75, was conducted by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). South Vietnam did not fall to an insurgency but to a conventional invasion of regular forces in 1975.

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