The Pentagon has embarked on a new policy in Iraq. Taking inspiration and instruction from the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon, the U.S. has started to destroy buildings suspected of being used by Iraqi fighters; arrest family members of suspected Iraqi resistance leaders; and cordon off entire villages with razor-edged barbed wire. The idea is to pressure Iraqis into cooperating with American forces. "With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them," one American colonel told Dexter Filkins, a New York Times correspondent in Iraq.
The new get-tough tactics, first reported by Filkins on December 7, and, independently, by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh in the 12/15/2003 New Yorker, comes after consultation with Israeli commandos and intelligence experts. According to Hersh, the U.S. is also about to adopt the Israeli tactic of assassinating suspected guerrilla leaders despite the recognized risk of killing innocent people in the process.
There are two major flaws with this strategy.
1) In Israel, it has failed.
2) In Israel, it was designed to intimidate Palestinians, a perceived enemy. In Iraq, it is designed to intimidate Iraqis, the people we have supposedly liberated, who, we were told, were going to welcome us with open arms.
In Israel, Prime Minster Ariel Sharon came to power promising that tough military tactics would break Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation. The result? More terrorism. More anger and hatred directed at the Israelis.
Many Israelis understand this. In the past month, four retired heads of Shin Bet, Israel's security service, have spoken out against Sharon's tactics, as has Sharon's own Chief of Staff, Moshe Yallon. "We are heading downhill towards near-catastrophe. If nothing happens and we go on living by the sword, we will continue to wallow in the mud and destroy ourselves," Yaakov Peri, chief of Shin Bet from 1988 to 1995, told Yediot Ahronoth, an Israeli newspaper. Focusing on stopping "the next terrorist attack," said Peri's successor Karmi Gilon, "ignores the question of how we get out of the mess we find ourselves in today."
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In the jargon of modern military experts, there are symmetrical and asymmetrical wars. A symmetrical war is when two sides, accepting similar rules and conventions, slug it out. World War II was the classic symmetrical war. The recent war in Afghanistan, where the Taliban massed troops against the Northern Alliance and were decimated by American airpower, was possibly the last. The United States, which now spends more money on its military than every country in the world combined, cannot be defeated in a symmetrical battle.
Whether it was planned by Saddam Hussein or just evolved out of the one-sided situation, the Iraqi army chose to disappear rather than face annihilation by U.S. firepower. Now they are fighting a successful guerilla war that neutralizes American military muscle and puts the emphasis on human interaction -- winning the support of the Iraqi people.
It's probable that most Iraqis are glad to see Saddam Hussein gone (but wary that he and his henchmen may return to power). It's also probable that more and more Iraqis are becoming fed up with the American occupation, which should not surprise anyone. In the best of situations, people do not like to see their country occupied by armed troops who don't speak their language, share their religion, or understand their culture. Given the questionable motives behind the American occupation (our history of support for Saddam, the lies upon which the war was started, the importance of oil, and the unilateralism of the entire enterprise), Americans in Iraq are, at best, on short probation. Sure, some of the opposition to the occupation comes from Saddam's hard-core Baathist supporters. But some also comes from Iraqi patriots who simply want American troops out of their country.
We know from the Israeli experience that the new tactics are sure to alienate people, even if they result in capturing or killing Iraqi combatants. According to the Times' Filkins, the American military enclosed the Iraqi town of Abu Hishma (pop. 7000) with barbed wire and imposed a curfew within. To get in and out of their hometown, Iraqis have to pass through checkpoints and show identification cards printed in English. An understandable convenience for the American soldiers who don't speak Arabic; but humiliating for the Iraqis who can't come and go using their native language. Is this any way to build an Iraqi democracy? How long do you think you would tolerate a similar repressive measure?
The Bush administration has put the U.S. military in an untenable situation. The more troops and Humvees we send to Iraq, the more targets there are for irregular soldiers. The tougher our tactics and the more Iraqis we kill, the more we will be hated. American leaders regret the accidental deaths of innocent Iraqis in the shootouts that result from tracking guerrillas. But "collateral damage" to us are family and neighbors to them.
Asymmetrical warfare cannot be won with precision bombing or overwhelming firepower. Like Vietnam, like all guerrilla wars, it's about gaining the political support --winning the hearts and minds-- of the people.
The administration has been assiduous in winning the hearts and minds of Americans for its Iraqi adventure. It frightened the public with descriptions of weapons of mass destruction, portrayed Iraq as an imminent threat to our national security, and described Saddam Hussein as an ally of Al Qaeda -- all lies. The Iraqis measure the facts as they perceive them, and it is neither encouraging nor pretty. We are losing their hearts and minds and, in taking our tactics from Sharon's Israelis, creating a "near catastrophe." Ultimately, the Iraqi mess can only be resolved, and not easily at that, through military withdrawal and a political settlement that involves all the Iraqi factions and has the active backing of the international community.