Saddam Hussein has been captured and may furnish crucial details on an insurgency that has so far been hard to identify while continuing its attacks on coalition forces and their Iraqi allies. Americans have been stepping up their own attacks with harsher tactics that may weaken the insurgency but at the cost perhaps of alienating Iraqis caught up in the violence – a dilemma of occupation. VOA’s Ed Warner asked three top military analysts for their views of the intensifying conflict in Iraq.
In November, 81 U.S. soldiers were killed by insurgents in Iraq, the deadliest month since the end of the conventional war. In response, Americans have adopted tougher tactics, such as targeting guerrilla leaders for capture or assassination, bombing buildings where insurgents have operated and cordoning off villages they have used. A sign on a fence encircling the town of Abu Hishma reads: “This fence is here for your protection. Do not approach or try to cross or you will be shot.”
An irritated villager complained to The New York Times: “I don’t see any difference between us and the Palestinians.” Indeed the tactics are similar because Americans have been seeking guidance from Israelis, including Martin van Creveld, the esteemed military historian at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Israelis in turn have come to the United States to help in training and are said to be operating alongside U.S. troops in Iraq.
These tactics have stirred some controversy, as indeed they have in Israel. Given Israel’s reputation in the Arab world, analysts say its involvement could further alienate Iraqis and perhaps drive more of them to aid or join the insurgency.
There is the additional question: how well do the tactics work against the Palestinian insurgents?
Well enough, says Andrew Bacevich, a former U.S. Army Colonel and professor of international relations at Boston University. “Certainly at the political level and at the strategic level, they have not succeeded,” he says. “They have not solved their security problems, and there is a huge argument about why that is the case. But at the tactical level, they have tended to do pretty well. Pretty well is not measured by perfect success at anticipating terrorist attacks. But they have limited those attacks. So I think it is fair to say that Israelis at least have some things they can teach Americans that can be relevant to the situation in Iraq.”
Professor Bacevich says the U.S. military has a great deal of respect for Israelis’ competence and imagination. They are adept at innovation and applying technology to military matters.
“Therefore, the U.S. military views the Israeli military as a reservoir of potentially useful lessons,” he says. “It is also a country with which we have friendly relations. So there is probably a pretty well established exchange of information. There is willingness to exchange information.”
You have to understand the frustration over American casualties, says Professor Bacevich. U.S. commanders are determined to take the fight to the enemy with whatever works, Israeli or not.
“It is certainly true that U.S. losses in comparison to other wars – the world wars, Korea, Vietnam - are trivial,” Mr. Bacevich says. “On the other hand, they are losses. They are happening almost every day. And they are viewed as unacceptable by the commanders who are responsible. They are very painful for the people who are sustaining them.”
War is a matter of improvisation, says Ralph Peters, a former U.S. army intelligence officer and author of 17 well received books, fiction and non-fiction, concerning war and insurgency. He says we have to try different things to see what works.
“In a complex situation like this,” he says, “a tactic that works in one part of the country would not work in another part. Even in the Sunni Arab triangle northwest of Baghdad, what works in one village may not work in another village. So you experiment. There has been a great deal of self-promoting nonsense about how we are learning from the Israelis. The U.S. army - and any intelligent military - studies everybody: the experiences of your friends, the experiences of your enemies and everything in between.”
Mr. Peters says these various tactics are working far better than media reports would indicate. Americans are dying, and that is regrettable but a far greater number of enemy are being killed, while several thousand are in prison.
“And one of the most hopeful signs of all is that Iraqis – Shias, Kurds and Sunnis – are coming to us with in ever-larger numbers with tips,” he says. “The reason we are able to arrest more and more mid and high level Baathists is that we have people coming into our bases and police stations routinely now, saying, ‘Hey, this guy is here. You need to get him out of our neighborhood. We don’t want trouble.’”
During World War Two, we closely studied German tactics, says Mr. Peters. During the Cold War, it was Russian. Any system, good or bad, yields useful information. So there is no reason to reject Israeli experience.
But tactics must serve a larger purpose, insists General William Odum, former director of the U.S. National Security Agency. They only succeed, he says, if the overall objective is achieved. And just what is our objective in Iraq, he asks. It seems to keep changing. How are tactics going to keep up?
“The issue is not the kind of tactics we have over there,” he says. “The issue is what the purpose of the war is and what you want it to look like when it is over. Once you clarify that, you have a much better idea of what you need to do. It might involve Israeli kind of tactics. It might involve other things. Now I think the objective of what we want to achieve over there is very foggy.”
Remaining in Iraq until a reliable democracy is established would require one kind of tactics, says General Odum. Handing power over to Iraqis more rapidly would call for a different one.
And what is the impact of these tactics on the Iraqi people.
“If you look at the behavior of the Palestinians under these kinds of tactics,” he says, “and you realize that (Israeli) General (Moshe) Yalon has just spoken out and said that those tactics are making the Palestinians hate Israelis even more, and you have four former directors of Shin Bet agreeing with him and saying that it is no way at all to proceed, that you cannot get there from here by applying those tactics. That would seem to me to raise very serious doubt about what such tactics will necessarily produce for us in Iraq.”
Tactics also depend on the nature of the enemy, says Professor Bacevich. So far, the insurgents have eluded us and are hard to figure out. How much do they cooperate and who, if anybody, seems to be in charge?
“At this stage, the really urgent question is not how many troops you have on the ground,” he says. “The really urgent issue is how can we fix the lack of intelligence that we have. That is the major shortcoming, it seems to me, in the American effort to root out the insurgents. We don’t know who they are. We don’t know what they are fighting for in particular. We don’t know where they are. We don’t know what they are going to do next.”
That leaves the tactical initiative with the insurgency, says Professor Bacevich. We cannot win until we gain the initiative. That means cultivating the Iraqis who can acquire the intelligence that is needed. And that means not alienating them with other tactics that are too narrowly focused on combat.