The Latest American Theory about the Iraqi Resistance
In early February, a Newsweek team led by Rod Nordland produced a detailed account of current theorizing among American and Iraqi officials about the structure of the Iraqi resistance.
Here, in brief, is what these officials told Newsweek: The initial American assault on Iraq was so successful that Saddam Hussein’s plan for systematic resistance fell apart almost immediately, leaving a dispersed, unruly guerrilla movement with little or no coherent leadership. In the two subsequent years, however, the Saddamists formed a wealthy and savvy leadership group in Syria. In the meantime Abu Massab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist with ties to Al Qaeda, asserted his domination over the on-the-ground resistance. Pressure from recent American offensives drove the two groupings into an increasingly comfortable alliance. Here is how Newsweek described developments since last summer, based on an interview with Barham Salih, the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister:
“According to Salih, ‘The Baathists regrouped and, in the last six or seven months, reorganized. Plus they had significant amounts of money, in Iraq and in Syria.’ Those contacts and networks that Saddam’s key cronies began developing months before the invasion now paid off. An understanding was found with the Islamic fanatics, and the well-funded Baathists appear to have made Syria a protected base of operations. ‘The Iraqi resistance is a monster with its head in Syria and its body in Iraq’ is the colorful description given by a top Iraqi police official…. Zarqawi’s people supply the bombers, the Baathists provide the money and strategy.”
The current situation was succinctly summarized for Newsweek by Brig. Gen. Hussein Ali Kamal, the Deputy Minister of the Interior: “Now between the Zarqawi group and the Baathists there is full cooperation and coordination.”
This portrait has been further fleshed out in other accounts, including a New York Times report in which U.S. Commanding General George W. Casey declared that the Baath Party in Syria was “providing direction and financing for the insurgency in Iraq.”
This new theory about the nature of the Iraqi resistance helps to illuminate the renewed saber-rattling against the Syrians, which began even before the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister. On January 25, for example, former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, writing together for the first time, made the connection explicit in a Washington Post op-ed. They asserted that the Bush administration must have a “strategy for eliminating the sanctuaries in Syria and Iran from which the enemy can be instructed, supplied, and given refuge in time to regroup.” The new theory may also help to explain why (according to such diverse sources as Newsweek and former U.S. weapons inspector Scott Ritter) the U.S. is considering using assassination squads to eliminate enemies. One whole category of targets for these squads (if formed) would certainly be the Syrian-based leadership of the resistance.
And then, at the end of February, came news of the first fruits of American operations based on this new insight, the capture in Syria of Sabawi Ibrahim Hassan, a half brother and political lieutenant of Saddam, and one of only 11 of the original “deck of cards” Saddamist leaders who still remained at large. The capture vindicated the saber-rattling as well, since high level Iraqi officials told reporters on February 28 that the “capture was a goodwill gesture by the Syrians to show that they are cooperating” with the new American campaign to decapitate the insurgency by removing its Syrian-based leadership.
The New Theory Is Probably Not Accurate
This new portrait of the Iraqi resistance may be an accurate description of one aspect of the ongoing war; and its key new element — a working alliance between Saddamist exiles and Zarqawi’s fighters inside Iraq — may be an important new development. But the foundation upon which these descriptions are built — that these forces now dominate the resistance, supply its leadership, or provide the bulk of its resources — is likely to prove profoundly inaccurate.
This is most easily seen by consulting — of all sources — the CIA, which issued a contrary report about the time the Newsweek article appeared. According to the CIA, the Zarqawi faction and his Saddamist allies were “lesser elements” in the resistance, which was increasingly dominated by “newly radicalized Sunni Iraqis, nationalists offended by the occupying force, and others disenchanted by the economic turmoil and destruction caused by the fighting.” There is, in fact, a vast body of publicly available evidence in support of the CIA’s perspective, including, for example, most first-hand accounts of the resistance in Falluja and other cities in the Sunni triangle.
In the short, dreary history of America’s Iraq war, our leaders have repeatedly acted on gross misconceptions about whom they were fighting — sometimes based on faulty intelligence, but sometimes in the face of perfectly accurate intelligence. This is, in all likelihood, another instance where they believe their own distortions, and it is worthwhile attempting to understand the underlying pattern that produces this almost predictable error.
One way to characterize this propensity to mis-analyze the resistance is to see that all the portraits thus far generated of the Iraqi resistance have been based on the assumption that it is organized into a familiar hierarchical form in which the leadership exercises strategic and day-to-day control over a pyramid shaped organization. Such a structure is described by both military strategists and organizational sociologists as a “Command and Control” structure. After the battle of Falluja, Air Force Lt. General Lance Smith even used this phrase to characterize Zarqawi’s operation: “Zarqawi… no doubt …is able to maintain some level of command and control over the disparate operations.”
This command-and-control image applies well to a large bureaucracy or a conventional army; but invariably provides a poor picture of a guerrilla army, which helps explain American military failures in Iraq. Whether or not Zarqawi maintains command and control over his forces (who are, as far as we can tell, not guerrillas) no one exercises such control over the forces that fought against the Americans in Falluja or Sadr City and those that are currently fighting a guerrilla war in Ramadi and other Sunni cities that boycotted the recent elections.
Guerrilla wars violate the command-and-control portrait in two important ways: local units must, by and large, supply themselves (since an occupation army would be likely to interdict any regular shipments of supplies); and they are likely to have substantial autonomy (since hit-and-melt tactics do not lend themselves well to central decision making).
This lack of command and control is a curse and a blessing. On the negative side, lack of central coordination means that guerrilla armies are normally doomed to small, disconnected actions — a severe limitation if the goal is to drive an enemy out of your country. On the positive side, they are less vulnerable to attacks on supply lines and to the targeting of commanding officers — two key strategies of conventional warfare.
The resistance in Iraq reflects this dialectic of guerrilla war. The mujaheddin in Falluja, for example, seem to have been notoriously decentralized; even local clerical leadership reportedly achieved only a tenuous discipline over the troops. This same lack of discipline, however, made it impossible for the U.S. to identify and eliminate key leaders. During the second battle for the city in November, their hit-and-run tactics allowed them to hold out for over a month against a force with overwhelming technological and numerical superiority.
The command and control portrait is not a useful tool when it comes to analyzing a large component of the Iraqi resistance, and it is of little use if it is applied to the movement as a whole.
The Drumbeat of Command and Control
Nevertheless, the U.S. military has assumed such a structure at every juncture in the war.
In the Fall of 2003, when the resistance first began to trouble the occupation, U.S. military strategy was based on the conviction that the resistance was led by Saddam Hussein and the “deck of cards” leadership. Here we see command-and-control logic applied for the first time.
By mid-December 2003, the occupation forces had arrested or killed the vast majority of the men on that deck of cards, while Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay Hussein had died in a spectacular gun battle, and Saddam himself had just been captured in a dirt dugout. Occupation authorities confidently predicted that the Baathist “bitter enders” were done for and the resistance would subside, since without its leaders, local fighters were expected to be rudderless and ineffective.
Instead the disparate parts of the resistance became stronger, and in April 2004 emerged with a victory in Falluja — after a siege of the city, the Marines pulled back without taking it — and a bloody standoff in Najaf. By then, American intelligence had discovered Abu Massab al Zarqawi and declared that he was actually the linchpin of the resistance.
Once again, a command-and-control portrait of the enemy remained dominant, and the second battle of Falluja was fought in good part on the basis of that theory: to disrupt or destroy the Zarqawi leadership group. But despite the expulsion of the guerrillas (and just about the entire population of Fallujans) from the city, the rebellion quickly spread to other cities and intensified, refuting the claim that the decapitation of the movement would be incapacitating.
The command-and-control theory has, in fact, turned out to be as resilient as the resistance itself. American commander Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, for instance, explained the post-Falluja battle of Mosul to the New York Times by saying that Zarqawi and/or his leadership team had moved to that city and fomented the uprising, ignoring the indigenous character of the mujaheddin who were fighting there. Later, it would be announced that Zarqawi had set up a new “nerve center” south of Baghdad and a major new search-and-destroy operation would be mounted there.
Even after these actions failed to quell the fighting, the occupation forces clung to command-and-control logic. General Kamal, for example, told Newsweek, “Even if Zarqawi continues to elude capture, nailing al-Kurdi [one of Zarqawi's lieutenants] was a critical score. It might — just might — -eventually help change the course of this war.” Similar statements were made a month later when Saddam’s half-brother, identified as a key leader and funder of the insurgency, was captured in Syria.
Evident in all of this is the faith that American military leaders have in a strategy of identifying and targeting the supposed leaders of the insurgency. Despite the direct evidence of an increasingly ferocious movement, the capture of a key leader, it has repeatedly been claimed, could “change the course of the war.”
Why the U.S. Military Can’t Abandon “Command and Control” Logic
So why does the U.S. military relentlessly build its anti-insurgency strategy around the idea of decapitating the leadership of the Iraqi resistance? The answer lies just beneath the surface of Donald Rumsfeld’s now infamous statement, “You go to war with the Army you have.”
This is a comment pregnant with meaning for organizational sociologists, because it illustrates a familiar pattern of organizational problem-solving. If a product is not selling well, for example, an engineering organization might conclude that better engineering of the product was in order; a manufacturing firm, that more efficient production technology was needed; and a marketing company, that better advertising would do the trick. This sort of organizational idÃ©e fixe has led to some truly horrendous failures in business — and military — history. For example, when a flood of automobile buyers began to demand fuel-efficient cars during the first oil crisis in the early 1970s, the American automobile industry did not have the capacity to produce such vehicles. Instead of investing vast resources in developing that capacity, it tried to use its superior marketing skills to win Americans back to luxurious gas guzzlers. That is, the Big Three “went to war with the army they had” and convinced themselves that they were facing a marketing problem. The results: a permanent crisis at General Motors (during which it lost world leadership in the industry), a fundamental restructuring of Ford, and the demise of Chrysler.
Or take the French in World War II. They knew about the new German tanks that had made World War I trench warfare obsolete, but the French army was only equipped to fight in the trenches. So they “went to war with the army they had,” devising a trench-war strategy that they managed to convince themselves would contain the German Panzer divisions. They lost the war in three weeks.
The American army is also fighting with the army it has. This army is the best equipped in the world for advanced conventional warfare — with tanks, artillery, air power, missile power, battlefield surveillance power, and satellite imaging to support highly mobile, well equipped, and superbly trained soldiers. No supply route is safe from its firepower, and no conventional army would be likely to hold its ground long against an American assault. But the most intractable part of the resistance in Iraq is fighting a guerrilla war: they do not have long supply lines and they rarely try to hold their ground.
Guerrilla armies hide by melting into the local population. (Everyone knows this, including, of course, American military men.) To defeat them, an occupying force must have the intelligence to identify guerrillas who can disappear into the civilian world; and it must station troops throughout resistance strongholds in order to pounce upon guerrillas when they emerge from hiding to mount an attack. American military strategists know this, too. But these lessons — painfully drawn from Vietnam — can’t be implemented by the army that Donald Rumsfeld sent to war.
The Americans, in fact, have neither of these resources. Anti-guerrilla intelligence, after all, requires the cooperation of the local population, which, at least in the Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq, the U.S. has definitively alienated, largely through its use of blunt-edged conventional army attacks on communities that harbor guerrillas. And it cannot station enough troops in key locations because too small an occupation force is spread far too thinly over contested parts of the country. Estimates for the size of an army needed to pacify Iraq range upward from General Eric Shinseki’s prewar call for “several hundred thousand” troops.
The American military simply lacks the tools it needs to fight the guerrillas, just as in the 1970s the Big Three automakers lacked the production system needed to produced fuel-efficient automobiles, and the French army lacked the technology it needed to defeat German tanks in 1940. In response, military leaders are doing exactly what their organizational forbears did: They continue to develop theories about how to win the war “with the army they have.” This backward logic leads inevitably to imagining an enemy that might be far more susceptible to defeat with the tools at hand; that is, an opponent with long supply lines (from Syria, for example) and a command-and-control leadership (Zarqawi and his Saddamist allies, for example) capable of being “decapitated.” This portrait of the enemy then justifies a military strategy that seeks, above all, to kill or capture the theorized leaders. Such tactics almost always fail (even when leaders are captured); and in the process of failing, only alienates further the Iraqi population, producing an ever larger, more resourceful enemy.
The newest portrait of the resistance as a Zarqawi-Saddamist led amalgam will sooner or later die a lonely death — in all likelihood to be replaced by yet another command-and-control portrait of the insurgency whose features are as yet unknown. As long as the U.S. continues to fight “with the army it has,” it will also continue to generate — and act on — distorted (sometimes ludicrous) descriptions of the nature of the rebellion it faces.
Michael Schwartz, Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has written extensively on popular protest and insurgency, and on American business and government dynamics. His work on Iraq has appeared on the internet at numerous sites including TomDispatch, Asia Times, MotherJones, and ZNet; and in print at Contexts and Z magazine. His books include Radical Politics and Social Structure, The Power Structure of American Business (with Beth Mintz), and Social Policy and the Conservative Agenda (edited, with Clarence Lo). His email address is [email protected].
Copyright 2005 Michael Schwartz
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]