David Frum October 28th, 2006 at 12:00 am
As the Iraqi insurgency accelerated in 2003, a brilliant staff officer with the Multinational Forces Command in Baghdad compiled a research study of counter-insurgency campaigns in the 20th century.
The officer, Kalev I. Sepp, argued that guerrilla warfare is not an invincible weapon. Indeed, in about half the conflicts he studied, the counter-insurgents prevailed.
Among the notable successes: the communist insurgency in Greece in 1947-49; the communist “Huk” insurgency in the Philippines in 1946-54; the British campaigns in Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus in the 1950s; the campaigns against Cuban-backed insurgents in South America in the 1960s; and the Central American civil wars of the 1980s.
Based on these successes–and the equally notable failures, like the French campaign in Algeria and the United States in Vietnam–Sepp assembled a list of “best practices” to follow and worst mistakes to avoid. Among his list of essentials: “Insurgent sanctuaries denied.” And on his list of errors: “Open borders, airspace, coastlines.”
Since April, 2003, Iraq’s borders have stood dangerously open.
A friend who has spent much time in Iraq described to me his month-long stay in a cheap hotel in Najaf shortly after the overthrow of Iraq. The hotel, at first deserted, quickly filled up with Iranians. At first, most of them were elderly, apparently on pilgrimage to the long-closed Shiite holy sites of southern Iraq. But fairly soon they began to be replaced by muscular younger men, their heads shorn in military style above their civilian clothes.
Bob Woodward’s new book, State of Denial, details the consequence of this Iranian influx. “It was no longer just the lethality of the weapons that was important,” Woodward writes, “but the significance that the weapons were coming from Iran. Some evidence indicated that the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah was training insurgents to build and use the shaped IEDs, at the urging of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. That kind of action was probably an act of war by Iran against the United States. If we start putting out everything we know about these things, [State Department Counsellor Philip] Zelikow felt, the administration might well start a fire that it couldn’t put out.”
The Syrian border was left open, too. Millions of dollars in cash and gold were trucked northwest across the border into Syria; terrorist volunteers infiltrated back from Saudi Arabia, from Algeria, from Muslim communities in Europe.
How do you win a guerrilla war under these conditions? Kalev Sepp’s long answer can be shortened to two words: You can’t.
The next step toward a more successful campaign in Iraq requires U.S. and Iraqi military action to seal the borders, especially the border with Iran–the source of the deadliest weapons and most effective training deployed against the coalition in Iraq.
Border control has helped preserve the security of Iraqi Kurdistan. The roads approaching Kurdistan are controlled by checkpoints monitored by Kurds themselves, and terrorist incidents inside Iraqi Kurdistan occur with extreme rarity.
But physical methods alone will not unfortunately suffice to protect Arab Iraq. No fence will bar Hezbollah trainers; no satellite surveillance can detect which trucks are carrying weapons. So diplomatic and military pressure must also be brought to bear on Iraq’s insurgent-supporting neighbours.
There is much talk now of “engaging” Syria and Iran. That talk assumes that Syria and Iran wish to see peace and stability prevail in Iraq–the same Iraq where they have been encouraging disorder and violence since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Instead, those countries need to be made to understand that they are vulnerable to the same destabilization that they inflict on their neighbour. Militarily weak Syria knows its vulnerabilities–and has always hastened in the past to appease the United States whenever it faced a serious threat of American reprisal.
Iran is a tougher case, but it is home to many restive minorities. Its electrical generators and water plants are every bit as vulnerable to sabotage as are Iraq’s. It has economic troubles and depends heavily on foreign financial institutions–not least because its leaders have stored billions of dollars of wealth abroad.
Responding to Iran and Syria will be difficult and in some ways risky. But doing nothing will certainly lead to defeat.
In war, defeat is always a possibility. I wonder, though, how many of those who call for a quick end to the coalition presence in Iraq have quite absorbed how grave the consequences of a defeat in Iraq will be.
For Iraqis, the failure of their national government will open the way to a Rwandan-scale bloodbath.
For the larger Arab world, it will seal the doom of hopes for democracy and economic progress.
And for the Western world, it will mean a wider, more violent and more protracted conflict with globalized radical Islam.