How the U.S. Just Got Schooled by a 'Rag-Tag' Neighborhood Army in Iraq
How the U.S. Just Got Schooled by a 'Rag-Tag' Neighborhood Army in Iraq
By Gary Brecher,
The eXile. Posted April 4, 2008.
A week ago, Bush called the offensive in Basra a "defining moment" for Iraq.
Suddenly he's gotten very quiet.
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, the Iraqi Army, 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 humiliated 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 2.5-million-strong Shia slum, Sadr
City. And in every poor Shia neighborhood in cities and towns all over Iraq,
local units of the Mahdi Army were 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? It makes a ton of sense,
but you have to stop thinking of formal battles like 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." 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"?
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 -- local guys 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 criminals, 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.
And that's not going to happen any time soon for the 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 way Petreaus and Maliki saw it, they've dealt with the Sunni insurgency
and now it was time to send the Iraqi Army south to take sides in the
militia battles around Basra and do a little shock-and-awe on Sadr.
The Shia are divided into lots of factions; for example, Bush's guy Maliki
leads the Dawa Party, a small group, small enough that he got to be leader
because he didn't threaten either of the two really big, serious Shia
groups: the Sadrists and the supposedly more moderate SIIC. Both those
groups have the classic urban guerrilla division into political party and
armed wing. The SIIC's armed wing used to be called the Badr Brigade, and
still fights under that name down in Basra. But the core of the Badr forces
now go by a fancier name: 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 the U.S. 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 Shia militia, loyal to the SIIC, 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 SIIC'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/SIIC militia had the weaponry on their side, and they still 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.
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. His people aren't
saints; they have their own kidnapping/murder squads, a lot of them
connected with the Health Ministry, which is a Sadr stronghold. But the
Sadrists have consistently stuck with the urban poor, tried to form
alliances with the Sunni (didn't work) and played a cool, calm, long-term
game -- just like Hezbollah in Lebanon. In fact, the quickest way to
understand Sadr is to think of Hezbollah's leader, Nasrullah. Hezbollah
built its power by providing social services to the poorest Lebanese
Shi'ites, and the Mahdi Army works the same way. Of course you could argue
that they both got the idea from the old master, Mao himself, who
consistently downplayed the macho combat stuff and insisted that the
guerrillas 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 the SIIC's military wing -- the core
of the current Iraqi Army -- that has an embarrassing history of fighting
for the Iranians against their own country, Iraq. But that doesn't mean
they're 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 in SIIC/Badr Brigades are using us;
the Sadrists are using Iran; but they're both out for their own communities.
Sadr would probably have been willing to cooperate with the U.S., 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 good reason.
And that brings us back to today's story problem in "How to Think Like A
Guerrilla." The question was, "If Moqtada S. is kicking ass all over Iraq,
why does he call off his militia before they can win total 'Western-style'
If you've learned your lesson here, you should be able to answer that
question now. Sadr called off his boys because:
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. Mao said it best: "Lose men to take land, land and
men both lost; lose land and keep men, land can be retaken." In other words,
play for the long term and remember that your troops are your biggest asset.
Never go for broke.
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.