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From Sands to Quagmire
Published on Monday, March 31, 2003 by the San Francisco Chronicle
From Sands to Quagmire
by Orville Schell
 

"People say to me, 'You are not the Vietnamese. You have no jungles and swamps,' " Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz is quoted as telling a University of Warwick researcher six months ago. "I reply, 'Let our cities be our swamps and our buildings our jungles.'''

How did the sands of the Iraqi desert turn so suddenly into a quagmire? How did an Iraqi military that we pictured in fixed positions on Kuwaiti border or arrayed along "highways of death" (as in 1991) awaiting incineration by Apache helicopters and F-16s suddenly morph into an incipient guerrilla force?

As the nascent Chinese Communist movement fought for their lives against Chiang Kai-shek in 1928, Mao Zedong wrote "The Struggle in the Qinggang Mountains." By doing so, he bequeathed to the modern world the mother-of-all handbooks on how weaker military forces can paralyze, if not defeat, far superior ones. Mao's answer to conventional pitched battles was a "mobile" and "protracted" form of warfare that won through harassment. And, although far weaker and less well-equipped, the Red Army did ultimately outlast both the invading Japanese army and the Nationalist government.

The ingredients of this new kind of "asymmetrical warfare" were: decentralization, surprise, agility and deception. Above all, counseled Mao, weaker forces should avoid major engagements and settle instead with a victory of attrition by means of repeated, small-scale raids.

Mao was inspired by the classical Chinese strategist Sun Zi, whose ancient classic, "The Art of War," first codified the basic tenets of guerrilla war more than two millennia ago.

Counseling against direct confrontation, Mao reminded his followers that a weaker army should "strike only when positively certain that the enemy's situation, the terrain, and popular support are all in our favor and not in his."

Mao's triumph in China helped proliferate an almost mythic legacy of "people's war," one that Americans confronted in an agonizing way in Indochina as we fought against a convert Maoist strategy, General Vo Nguyen Giap, who led the Vietnam People's Army (NVA) and the National Liberation Front (NLF).

Such a strategy is precisely what Iraqi supporters of Saddam Hussein have begun to use. But what may prove to be even more disruptive of coalition plans are Iraqi intentions to engage in urban guerrilla warfare -- even suicide bombing -- as U.S. and U.K. troops finally enter their cities and start trying "to build a peace." An indiscriminate urban counterinsurgency effort could prove as compromising to America's image as the campaigns to "win the hearts and minds of the people" in rural Vietnam did decades ago. As Sun Zi warned: "The worst policy is to besiege cities."

Body counts, B-52 strikes, wounded GIs in medi-vac choppers, downed helicopter gunships surrounded by AK-47 toting peasants, "Five O'clock Follies- like" Centcom briefings, anti-war demonstrations, troop escalations, and a repetition of official expressions that the war is still "on track," all have a haunting ring.

If over the last few days, U.S. military planners have come to view "irregular forces" like the Fedayeen Saddam and the Special Republican Guard commandos as "a major annoyance" -- the "equivalent of the black pajama Viet Cong," as one senior U.S. intelligence official put it -- we can only wonder what kind of an annoyance such insurgents will be to the process of "nation building."

Few countries have ever welcomed foreign air strikes or invasion and history is replete with occasions when nationalism trumped a people's loathing of dictatorship. No greater example exists than Hitler's invasion of Russia. Despite Stalin's tyrannical rule, Russians fought heroically to repel the German advance.

We know that Saddam Hussein is student of Stalin, but it now looks as if he and Tariq Aziz have been reading a little Mao on the side. And it is a stunning lapse that as it planned to topple him by military means, the Bush administration did not understand that Saddam would inevitably turn to guerrilla warfare fired by nationalism to save his Arab dignity, if not his country and himself. As the Washington Post has reported, intelligence-agency warnings of a possible guerrilla war in Iraq fell on deaf ears in the White House.

Did Bush strategists view Aziz as such a propagandist that his words should be utterly discounted? It is difficult to believe, especially since short of instant occupation or abject surrender - options that few thought the Iraqi government would accept -- Saddam Hussein had no other realistic options other than to borrow a leaf from Chairman Mao and engage in urban guerrilla warfare.

Orville Schell is the author of numerous books on China, covered the war in Indochina and is now dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

2003 San Francisco Chronicle

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