Note: Newsweek has established that this article does not meet editorial standards. It borrows extensively from "Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Iraq" by Bruce Hoffman without proper attribution. Newsweek acknowledges the error.
If you are looking for good news out of Iraq, there are glimmers. Last week U.S. troops accompanied by Iraqi forces regained control of Samarra in a relatively quick and clean operation. A city that was run by anti-American insurgents is now in the hands of the Iraqi government. American officials hope that this will be the beginning of the stabilization of the Sunni Triangle. But for this latest campaign to work, what will matter most are postwar operations. U.S. troops will have to work with Iraqi forces to create a stable, law-abiding environment in Samarra (and other cities) and jump-start economic reconstruction. Recall that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was relatively quick and clean, only to be undone by disastrous postwar operations.
Paul Bremer has now admitted what has been obvious to many since the week Baghdad fell. "We never had enough troops," he said at a conference, adding that he should have insisted that more were needed. Senior officials who worked with Bremer at the time have told me the Pentagon's civilian leadership staunchly opposed adding more troops and would not allow existing troops to do police work. That explains why American forces did not stop widespread looting and failed to secure ammunition dumps and other critical sites. (Similarly, American troops were not permitted to stop the burgeoning drug trade in Afghanistan.)
Bremer did not mention the second major mistake of the occupation. The United States failed to recognize strong nationalist feelings in Iraq that quickly turned into anti-American sentiment. As a result, it did not see the insurgency coming, and when it came, Washington did not recognize the rebels' strength and appeal: "A few dead-enders," Donald Rumsfeld repeatedly called them. Convinced that Iraqis would see the United States only as liberators, the administration insisted there was no insurgency, that foreign fighters were the main culprits and that the guerrillas were all "terrorists." This misreading of reality--to fit an ideological template--persists. Only two weeks ago, President Bush described Iraq as a country on the road to democracy being thwarted by a "handful of terrorists." The fact is that foreign nationals comprise only 300 of the 5,000 insurgents being held in Iraqi prisons. Gen. John Abizaid, the head of Central Command, has said that "it's not correct to say that there are floods of foreign fighters coming in."
Washington's plan for postwar Iraq, such as it was, was modeled on the occupation of Germany after World War II. But Germany and Japan were highly unusual cases. They had launched aggressive wars against all their neighbors, were totally defeated and had lost all legitimacy in the eyes of the world. At the same time as those occupations, the dominant trend around the world was the rise of nationalism--forcing Britain, France and other colonial powers to abandon their empires. This anti-imperial feeling was particularly strong in the Middle East. Iraqi resentment of, and resistance to, a naked American occupation was predictable.
In 1991 the RAND Corporation produced a study on the lessons of Britain's many counterinsurgency operations. One of its central conclusions was that recognizing an insurgency late is very costly. It gives insurgents time to mobilize and entrench themselves within the civilian population. It also gives them time to sow insecurity and instability which makes civilians lose faith in the standing Army and police force.
General Abizaid now calls the current conflict in Iraq a "classic guerrilla-type campaign." But as Bruce Hoffman points out in a RAND study, that's not correct. Unlike classic insurgencies, there is no center of gravity, no headquarters to the operation. Hoffman terms Iraq the first example of "netwar," a war waged by "small groups who communicate, coordinate, and conduct their campaigns in an internetted manner, without a precise central command" (as originally defined by John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt). The Iraqi insurgency comprises disparate groups--Baathists, Islamists, nationalists--that work loosely together, united by a common anti-Americanism.
In such a war, even more than in most insurgencies, military victory plays an important but small part. The primary struggle is political: to win the support of the local population, defang the ideology that fuels the insurgency, win over militants to the government's side and slowly drain the rebel movement of its strength. It will take a political and military strategy to win a netwar.