Like all American soldiers in Iraq, the men and women of the Third Squad, First Platoon, B Company, 1/124 Infantry of the Florida National Guard were elated over the capture of Saddam Hussein. "It felt like complete victory," wrote one squaddie, Sgt. Richard Schevis, to his friends and family back home. "It felt like a connection with our grandfathers arriving in Berlin after fighting the Germans and finally the Reich falling." Schevis and his mates were especially happy when the city of Ar Ramadi, a Baathist stronghold, erupted in what sounded like celebratory gunfire.
But then Schevis learned that the Iraqis were not firing their AK-47s skyward to celebrate Saddam's seizure. Rather, the men of Ar Ramadi had gone mad with joy over a report, aired on the Arabic television station Al-Jazeera, that the Americans had seized the wrong man, that Saddam was still free. Schevis felt crestfallen. "I was devastated and filled with rage towards the Iraqis," he wrote home.
Other American GIs coped with bleak humor. On Dec. 15, in Tikrit, Saddam's hometown, about 700 people demonstrated against the strongman's capture, chanting, "Saddam is in our hearts, Saddam is in our blood." American soldiers and Iraqi policemen shouted back, "Saddam is in our jail." But the clever taunts could not erase a basic truth of counterinsurgency warfare: it is possible to win all the battles and still lose the war.
Without question, finally snatching Saddam was a big victory. Tracking down the Butcher of Baghdad as he hid in an emptied septic tank on a farm outside Tikrit after a nine-month manhunt was, at last, a triumph of intelligence, for too long a weak spot in the American effort in Iraq. Documents found in Saddam's possession led to the arrests of three Iraqi generals and cast new light on the web of finances and tribal loyalties connecting the insurgents. At the same time, the documents seemed to confirm what U.S. officials have long suspected, that Saddam was more of an inspiration to the insurgents than a real commander. The Americans are believed to be closing in on Saddam's No. 2, Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, who is said to exercise more operational control, but even his capture will not end a bloody insurrection of nationalists, criminals and foreign jihadists.
Pentagon officials like to say that the military will, in time, defeat the insurgents. But a more thoughtful warrior, Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne (Air Assault), told NEWSWEEK, "At the end of the day you don't defeat an insurgency solely with military forces. You've got to capture or kill the bad guys, but you win by getting the people to believe they have a stake in the success of the New Iraq." Spreading around cash as a reward for good behavior, Petraeus has not ended the fighting in the territory controlled by the 101st Airborne in northern Iraq, but his troops have done a better job than most at restoring Iraqi pride through self-rule.
As the military is slowly and painfully learning to fight a counterinsurgency war, some skilled leaders like Petraeus have stepped forward. Another is Maj. Gen. James Mattis, commander of the First Marine Division that fought its way to Baghdad last spring. When his troops switched over from combat to occupation duty, he got them out of their tanks and armored personnel carriers and put them on the streets. He ordered them to wave at the locals, to lower their weapons and take off their sunglasses. When soldiers enter a city, Mattis explained in an interview in September on the "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," "the first thing people are going to look at is all that gear and the weapons hanging off them. Generally the second place people look is into people's eyes, to see if they can trust them."
Mattis and Petraeus are the kind of officers America will need to fight the dirty wars of the future. But the military establishment, especially the Army brass and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have been reluctant to take on the messy jobs of nation-building and peacekeeping that go with stamping out guerrilla movements. In truth, defeating insurgencies is very hard. The preferred method down through the ages has been extermination--genocide and the elimination of whole villages and tribes. Such brutal tactics are not an option for a democratic superpower being closely watched by TV cameras. American armed forces must be ruthless at times but also sensitive to local feelings and the wounded pride of the conquered. As they walk Iraqi streets, says General Mattis, U.S. Marines should take the approach "No better friend, no worse enemy."
The American military as a whole is only now beginning to adjust to the demands of a guerrilla war. It took months for the top brass to even admit that America faced a true insurgency in Iraq. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of U.S. forces, initially described the bombings and rocket attacks as "pinpricks." Proconsul Paul Bremer likened them to gnat bites on the hide of an elephant. Repeatedly, Rumsfeld and CENTCOM commander Gen. John Abizaid dismissed the uprising as "of no strategic importance." A more accurate measure of reality in Iraq is the color-coded road system. Roads and highways in Iraq are classified by the U.S. military as green (safe), yellow (dangerous; no travel at night) and red (closed to military traffic). There are no green routes left except in the far north; all other routes are usually yellow and occasionally red. Route 1, the road north out of Baghdad, is routinely red. (Latest joke: What does the front desk ask you when you check into the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad? Which side of the hotel do you want: the bullet side or the rocket side?)
No one is safe. American officials belatedly admitted last week that a convoy carrying Ambassador Bremer had been attacked on Dec. 6 by a roadside explosive and small-arms fire. The attack was said to be random and no one was hurt, but American officials are worried that the insurgents are getting tip-offs on the movement of American officials. NEWSWEEK has learned that gunfire raked a convoy escorting arms inspector David Kay (who, frustrated in his search for WMD, has served notice that he is quitting next month).
The army was ill prepared to fight back against guerrillas planting roadside bombs and shooting from the shadows. A scathing study published in September by Conrad Crane, a former West Point professor now at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., laid out the Army's sustained effort to explain away Vietnam. The defeat of conventional forces by a largely guerrilla army in Vietnam made the Army swear "Never again." But rather than learn from defeat, the top brass swore never to fight another counterinsurgency war. Conventional war--real war--was the thing. Over a generation, the Army created an awesome fighting machine for the swift, knock-down-the-door invasion of Iraq. But then the Army, perhaps unreasonably, expected to turn over occupation duty to international peacekeepers and go home.
During the '90s, Light Infantry, Paratroopers and Special Forces did train for what the Army calls "Military Operations Other Than War," learning how to cope with riots and crowd control at Fort Polk, La. But at the Army's staff colleges, counterinsurgency, apart from a few hours of once-over-lightly doctrine, remained an elective on the curriculum. And heavy mechanized forces like the First Armored and Third and Fourth Infantry Divisions, which have handled most of the hard duty in the Sunni Triangle, had essentially no training in counterinsurgency. These warriors practiced battles in the desert at Fort Irwin, Calif., smashing Soviet-style armored units. Forced into the unfamiliar role of patrolling the streets of Iraqi cities, they, too, often ended up screaming at the locals, "Don't you understand English, you f---ing idiot!"
By October, with attacks mounting to 30 or 40 a day and the death toll rising, Bremer went to Washington--twice--to meet with military and civilian leaders in order to "refocus our security efforts," as one senior administration official put it--to get serious about counterinsurgency. A joint Defense Department-CIA team had already gone to Baghdad in August to try to improve the weak intelligence-gathering operation. An Army study group had begun picking the brains of counterinsurgency experts in Britain, Israel and Russia, countries with long (and often bitter) experience putting down guerrilla wars. Military sources say that in November, General Abizaid and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers traveled to London for an off-the-record and no-holds-barred critique of American tactics, which the Brits deemed ham-fisted.
U.S. forces around Baghdad and north toward Tikrit used a very heavy hand in November. In operations with code names like Iron Hammer, bulldozers crashed through groves and F-16s bombed farmhouses identified as insurgent strongholds. A few mortar rounds launched by guerrillas would be answered by an artillery barrage. It was not always apparent that they struck the right targets. The heavy doses of firepower seemed to echo the sweep-and-destroy tactics used with notable lack of success in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, the Army pulled back into an armored shell. At bases like Camp Warhorse at Baqubah, an old military airstrip now surrounded by earthen berms and barbed wire, soldiers wear their body armor and helmets from dusk to dawn. American bases are growing ever more elaborate, with Pizza Huts and Burger Kings, and so large that one, called Anaconda, has nine bus routes to move the troops around inside the wire. It might be called the Da Nanging of Iraq, though the military prefers to speak of "the maturing of the battlefield."
When the soldiers do venture out, they move at speeds of more than 60mph, usually right down the middle of the road, forcing away oncoming traffic. Bulldozers have increasingly swept the roadsides clear of any trees or plants that might disguise a bomb. The road to Baghdad airport, once prettily lined with palm and date trees, is now a barren racetrack. Still, soldiers climbing aboard Army transports flip coins to see who sits on the curb-side seats.
The precautions and Iron Hammer have combined to reduce casualties, from about four dead GIs a day in November to roughly one a day in December. At the same time, however, the soldiers are not exactly out there winning hearts and minds. "The Americans just care about protecting themselves" has become a common Iraqi complaint. The number of U.S. patrols has dropped from 1,500 a day in November to about 500 a day in December. The Army has taken to using local street sweepers to look for roadside bombs. (And the insurgents use local shepherds to plant them.)
Some Army units have taken a different approach, riskier but more likely to succeed in the long run. In the north, General Petraeus of the 101st Airborne has at times acted more like a big-city mayor than a Light Infantry commander. A West Point grad (class of '74, too late for Vietnam) with a Ph.D. from Princeton, Petraeus is a warrior intellectual (his dissertation was on the limits of U.S. force as a tool of foreign policy post-Vietnam). Petraeus has bought the co-operation of local tribal and religious leaders with money to build schools and fix roads and bridges. On each barracks, he ordered big signs posted asking what have you done to win Iraqi hearts and minds today?
Not enough, judging from the bloody month of November, when the 101st Airborne lost some 30 soldiers to ambushes, bombs and helicopter attacks. At the time, Petraeus lamented to NEWSWEEK that he had run out of funds from his Commander's Emergency Relief Program, his stash of what American urban politicians might call "walking-around money." Lawmakers have heard his lament. He has just received an infusion of $10 million. "Money is ammunition," he told NEWSWEEK, "and we just got reloaded."
The U.S. Marines have always taken a greater interest in guerrilla fighting than the Army. The Marine Corps' 1940 Small Wars Manual, drawing on the Marines' experiences in the Philippine and Caribbean "banana wars" of the early 20th century, is still the classic American counterinsurgency text. In the 1990s, the then Marine Corps commandant, Gen. Charles C. Krulak, did some modernizing and refining. Krulak invented a term, "the strategic corporal," to get at the critical role played by noncommissioned officers walking down restive streets in far-off cities. "If the young Marine chooses [to do] the wrong thing in front of a camera, that can have strategic consequences," Krulak explained to NEWSWEEK.
Young Marines are trained how to set up roadblocks and search houses, to know when to be friendly and when to be fierce. When they patrol dangerous streets, they are less likely than an untrained Army Cavalryman to panic and scream at the civilians. It was also Krulak who coined the phrase "the three-block war"--meaning that on one block of a city, the Marines can be running a humanitarian operation, while on the second block they can be keeping peace between rival factions; on a third block they can be fighting guerrillas or insurgents. "A Marine has to be trained and prepared to transition seamlessly from one to the other and back again." Says Lt. Gen. James Conway, commander of the Marines' First Expeditionary Force in Iraq: "Our Marines have to be able to be aggressive and hostile one moment and the next moment be able to play soccer with the kids" on the street.
In a New York Times interview earlier in December, Conway, the overall Marine commander in Iraq, was astonishingly blunt in distinguishing the Marine way from the mailed fist used by the Army's armored divisions. The Marines, Conway was clear, "do not plan to surround villages with barbed wire, demolish buildings used by insurgents or detain relatives of suspected guerrillas. The Marines do not plan to fire artillery at suspected guerrilla mortar positions, an Army tactic that risks harming civilians. Nor do the Marines want to risk civilian casualties by calling in bombing strikes on the insurgents..."
After marching on Baghdad and Tikrit in the spring and pacifying south-central Iraq in the summer, the Marines' First Division was sent home to Camp Pendleton in California. In March, the Marines will come back to take over the roughest turf, the western half of the Sunni Triangle and its hot spots like Fallujah and Ramadi. The First Division's leader, General Mattis, is a legendary figure in the Corps, only 5 feet 8 and 150 pounds, but possessed of "a sort of calm exuberance," according to one of his junior commanders in the invasion of Iraq. Mattis also disdains massive sweeps to pick up suspects. "If you do a cordon around somebody's village, you are creating an adversarial relationship... But if you go in on a medical-assistance visit one day and someone takes you aside and says, 'There's somebody in town who has RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades],' then we get precise intelligence and we go in there and take that one person down," says Mattis. The key is building up trust. "An Iraqi who trusts you will tell you where the bad guys are."
But how to create trust, beyond playing soccer with teenagers? All the smart thinkers on counterinsurgency, Army or Marine, agree that the solution is ultimately political, not military. Insurgencies fight for an idea--Islam, Marxism, freedom, nationalism. To fight back, "you need a better idea," says General Krulak. "Bullets help sanitize an operational area," he says, a bit coldly. "They don't win a war."
In Iraq, the insurgents' idea is clear enough, says Krulak: "Get rid of the foreign invaders. We need to confront that with a better idea." Getting rid of Saddam is not enough. Indeed, Saddam's capture allows the insurgents to go on fighting as nationalists and patriots and not as stooges of the old regime. Last week a member of the resistance told NEWSWEEK that many of his fellow insurgents had resented Saddam and were glad to be free of his taint. "The Americans say there are 23 resistance groups," said the resistance spokesman, identified only as Abdullah, operating in the Fallujah region. "Only one of them is made up of Saddam's supporters. I have not met a single member of the resistance who received money from Saddam. We get our money from wealthy Iraqis and our weapons from the former Iraqi Army."
Democracy and the rule of law remain remote concepts to many Iraqis; they are not words to fight and die for. Pride is a far more powerful motivator. Right now the Iraqis feel humiliated. They need some reason to feel they can rebuild their own country. Writing home from Ramadi in late December, Sergeant Schevis got over his bitterness and disgust at the Iraqis for wildly celebrating the bogus report that Saddam was still free. "I realize that as different as these people are, with all the peculiarities of the Arabic culture, they are in so many ways very similar to us. I realized that the elation I felt over the capture of Saddam was felt as a final defeat by the Iraqi people... I don't believe the citizens of Ar Ramadi 'love' Saddam, but if he evaded U.S. capture, that was a moment of pride for them... I can only hope that the major players in Washington realize this and somehow find a way to incorporate into the rebuilding of Iraq not just food and materials and a trained police force, but a sense of pride, because right now these people need something to have pride in." From a young soldier, wise words.