What happened in Iraq this week was a beautiful lesson in the weird laws of guerrilla warfare. Unfortunately, it was the Americans who got schooled. Even now, people at my office are saying, “We won, right? Sadr told his men to give up, right?”
Wrong. Sadr won big. Iran won even bigger. Maliki, Petraeus and Cheney lost.
For people raised on stories of conventional war, where both sides fight all-out until one side loses and gives up, what happened in Iraq this past week makes no sense at all. Sadr’s Mahdi Army was humiliating the Iraq Army on all fronts. In Basra, the Army’s grand offensive, code-named “The Charge of the Knights,” got turned into “The Total Humiliation of the Knights,” like something out of an old Monty Python skit.
Thousands of police who were supposed to be backing up the Iraqi Army either refused to fight or defected to Sadr’s Mahdi Army. In Basra, the Iraqi Army was stopped dead and clearly in danger of being crushed or forced to retreat from the city. In Baghdad, Sadr’s militia was rocketing the Green Zone non-stop—not a good look for the “Surge is working” PR drive—and driving the Iraqi Army clean out of the 2-million-man Shia slum, Sadr City. And in every poor Shia neighborhood in cities and towns all over Iraq, new branches of the Mahdi Army were forming up and attacking the government forces.
Then, after four days of uninterruptedly kicking Iraqi Army ass, Sadr graciously announces that he’s telling his men to end their “armed appearances” on the streets. Makes no sense, right? Nah, it makes a ton of sense, but you have to stop thinking of Gettysburg and Stalingrad and think long and slow, like a guerrilla.
If you want to know how NOT to think about Iraq, just start with anything ever said or imagined by Cheney or Bush. Our Commander in Chief declared a week ago, when the Iraqi Army first marched into Basra, “I would say this is a defining moment in the history of a free Iraq.” But when the Iraqi Army fled a few days later, he suddenly got very quiet. But anybody could see how deluded the poor fucker is just by all the nonsense he managed to cram into that 15-word sentence. I mean, “the history of a free Iraq”? That’s like that Mad Magazine joke about the “World’s Shortest Books.” But that’s nothing compared to Bush’s fundamentally wrong notion that there’s even such a thing as a “defining moment” in an urban guerrilla war. Guerrilla wars are slow, crock-pot wars. To win this kind of war, the long war, takes patience. Trying to force a “defining moment” by military action is not just ignorant and idiotic, but risks further demoralizing your side when that moment doesn’t happen, as it inevitably won’t. What happens when you launch premature strikes on a neighborhood-based group like the Mahdi Army is that you just end up convincing their neighborhoods that the occupiers are the enemy, and the Mahdi boys—all local kids you’ve known all your life—are heroes, defending your glorious slum from the foreigners and their lackeys.
By the time a homegrown group like Sadr’s is ready to “announce itself” on the streets, it’s put in years of serious grassroots work winning over the locals block by block. The Mahdi Army runs its own little world in the neighborhoods it controls. It distributes food to the poor, deals out rough justice to the local crims, and runs the checkpoints that keep Sunni suicide bombers off the block. It’s the home team, the Oakland Raiders times one million, for people in places like Sadr City. You can’t eradicate it without eradicating the whole neighborhood—or making it so rich that people don’t need a gang. That’s probably the only sure way to end guerrilla wars: make the locals so rich they’re not interested in gang life any more, turning them into Sean John Combs-alikes. And that’s not going to happen any time soon for the two or three million people crammed into places like Sadr City. Until then, the Mahdi Army is their team and they’re sticking by it.
By attacking Sadr’s neighborhoods this week, Maliki’s troops pushed the Shia masses closer to Sadr; and by losing, they made the slum people prouder than ever of their home team. That’s what you get when you go for a “defining moment” in guerrilla war.
To understand what happened this week, you need to zoom out to the big picture, see what Petraeus and Maliki thought would happen, and then forward it to what actually did happen. Iraq right now has four real zones of influence: Kurdistan, which is withdrawing and fortifying itself as fast as it can; the Sunni Triangle, bloodied by four years of fighting the US and ready to be bribed for a while; Baghdad, which is turning into a Shia-dominated city fast; and Basra, solidly Shia. The major action now is Shia vs. Shia.
The Shia are divided into two major factions: Maliki is our guy, but his real loyalty is to a middle-class Shia group that has military and political wings. The political wing is the Dawa Party; the military group used to be called the Badr Brigade, but these days it calls itself the Iraqi Army.
The Badr Brigade has an interesting history. During the Iran-Iraq War, it fought for the Iranians against Saddam, as a big (50,000-man) auxiliary unit. When we disbanded Saddam’s army and the Sunni went insurgent, the Badr Brigade stepped smoothly into the power vacuum and became the core of the new Iraqi Army. So don’t think of this as a real Western-style national army, drawn from all of Iraq’s various groups or any of that crap. The current Iraqi Army is a particular Shia militia that just happens to be willing to wear the uniforms we bought them. They’re not really in it for “the nation,” much less their American paymasters. They’re there to use their new fancy weapons and big money to push the Dawa Party’s agenda down everybody else’s throats.
And like I have to keep saying over and over, the purely military hardware aspect of this sort of war is the least important factor of all. The Iraqi Army had the weaponry on their side, and they got their asses kicked by the Sadrists, because the Sadrists were defending their home neighborhoods, those stinking slums that mean the whole world to people who live there. Victory in insurgency is a matter of morale, and you build it slowly, the way Mao said, by helping the locals in their dull little civvie lives. Then, when the army comes to try to take you down, they don’t have a chance, because you’ve prepped the neighborhood well, the locals are your eyes and ears, and it just plain doesn’t mean as much to the government troops as it does to your cadre who were raised there. That’s why Hezbollah’s part-time amateurs were able to beat the Israeli professionals in 2006, and that’s why Sadr was ahead of the game when he called the fight off this week. It’s like what Suvorov said: train hard, fight easy.
Truth is, if any group comes out of this looking good, militarily or morally, it’s the Mahdi Army and their leader, the fat man himself, “Mookie” as they call him on Free Republic: Moqtada al-Sadr. He’s the Dawa Party’s big target in this failed crackdown. The quickest way to understand Sadr’s group is to think of Hezbollah in Lebanon and their leader, Nasrullah. (They even look alike—that sedentary mullah lifestyle, I guess.) Hezbollah built its power by providing social services to the poorest slum Shia communities, and the Mahdi Army works the same way, following the old Maoist line that a guerrilla army should work with the civilians, doing the dull peacetime stuff like public health, building projects, food distribution.
Like Hezbollah, the Sadrists cooperate with Iran, but no way in the world are they Iranian puppets. In fact, it’s “our” Shia group, the Badr Brigades—the core of the Iraqi Army—that has an embarrassing history of fighting for the Iranians against their own country, Iraq. But that doesn’t mean they’re Iraqi puppets either.
When Iraqi Shi’ites want to insult each other, they accuse each other of being pro-Iranian, and it is an accusation. They buy the idea of an “Iraqi nation,” as long as it’s their gang running it. One thing you can absolutely count on in the Middle East is that every clan, every sect, is going to look out for itself. The middle-class Shia are using us; Sadr’s using Iran; but they’re both out for themselves. Sadr would probably have been willing to cooperate with us, if Bremer hadn’t pushed him into rebellion in 2004. So it’s a mistake to think of any of these groups as having permanent alliances. They’re practical people.
So are the Iranians. They really know how to play this kind of long, slow war. They can control exactly the level of chaos inside Iraq by feeding weapons and money in when they want to heat the place up, then withholding supplies when they want to cool it down. They’re embedded with every militia, even the Sunni groups, and they use them like control rods in a nuke reactor. The way the ceasefire this week was arranged says it all: a bunch of big Shia politicians flew to Qom, Khomeini’s hometown in Iran, and begged the Iranians to stop the shooting. They talked to Sadr, and Sadr agreed—for his own reasons, not just because the Iranians told him to.
And that brings us back to today’s story problem in “How to Think Like A Guerrilla.” The question, kiddies, was, “If Moqtada S. is kicking ass all over Iraq, why does he call off his militia before they can win total ‘Western-style’ victory?”
If you’ve learned your lesson here, you should be able to answer that question now. Sadr called off his boys for lots of good reasons:
1. The first job of a guerrilla army is to stay alive. That’s much more important than winning a Western-style victory. The Mahdi Army is intact, ready for the next round.
2. The next most important job of a guerrilla army is to maintain and grow its support in the neighborhood. Sadr has his own constituency—and I mean that literally, since all the Shia groups are positioning themselves for elections this Fall. By calling off the fight, he spares his people further gore and destruction and comes off as the compassionate defender of the poor. Just in time for campaign season.
3. A guerrilla army facing occupiers with a monopoly on air power is committing suicide by going for total victory on the ground, seizing an entire city or district. Just ask the Sunni, who bunkered up in Fallujah and got slaughtered. By melting back into the civilian population, the Sadrists are now invulnerable to air attack.
4. After four straight days of failure by the Badr Brigade/Iraqi Army, the US was frustrated enough to start committing American ground troops to the assault on Sadr. That would have meant serious casualties for the Mahdi Army, as it did when they took on US forces in 2004. Not that they’re afraid to die for their neighborhood—Shias? You kidding me?—but because it would be stupid to die fighting the Americans when everyone in Iraq knows the US just doesn’t figure much in the long term.
Sadr’s not afraid of us, he and his commanders just see us as a dangerous nuisance, like a chained pit bull they have to step around. Ten years from now, every player in the current game will still be playing this slow, shady game, except one: the Americans.
PICTURE: Eco-friendly Sadr terrorists carpool their way to victory
Click to view image: '172678-LLimage.jpg'
|Liveleak on Facebook|