Jay Winik: Resistance in Iraq Will Continue

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jay Winik, writing in the NYT (Dec. 16, 2003):

[T]he stunning capture of Mr. Hussein, the symbolic leader of the resistance, is bound to be a serious blow to the guerrillas. But in spite of this remarkable turn of events, it would be a profound mistake for American leaders to believe the worst is over in Iraq....

At its essence, guerrilla warfare is how the weak make war against the strong. Insurrectionist, subversive and chaotic, its application is classic and surprisingly simple: concentrate strength against vulnerability. As most Americans know from the Vietnam experience, guerrilla warfare can work with frightening success.

But Vietnam is not the only template, and its "lessons" may be misleading. America is not the only nation that has been a victim of guerrilla conflict. An astounding number of other world powers, large and small, have been humbled by guerrilla war in the last century alone.

At the turn of the 20th century, the heavily outnumbered Boers in South Africa staved off the mightiest force in the globe, the British empire, for four long years. In the late 1950's and early 60's the Algerians used guerrilla tactics with devastating success against the far more powerful French. The Khmer Rouge employed them to come to power in Cambodia almost 30 years ago. And Palestinian forces have relied on these tactics for almost three decades against Israel.

Far from being simply a phenomenon of the most recent century, the pedigree of guerrilla warfare dates to the earliest days of human combat. Five hundred years before the coming of Jesus, the ceaseless harassment and lightening strikes of the nomadic Scythians blunted the best efforts by King Darius I of Persia to subdue them. In Spain in the second century B.C., the Romans suffered humiliating defeats and required several decades to surmount the tactics of the Lusitanians and Celtiberians. Later, in Wales, the conquering English endured some 200 years of acrimonious struggle before they prevailed. And Napoleon, of course, was forced to give up on the Iberian Peninsula only a few years after he occupied it.

In far too many guerrilla wars, the military balance becomes almost meaningless; more frightening than the actual casualties are the demoralization and exhaustion that regular armies feel, even against small numbers of terrorists and guerrillas. Deprived of the fruits of closure, of the legitimacy of victory, at what point does the occupier deem that the cruelties of a guerrilla war are no longer worth it? As a dispatch from North Africa to King Louis-Philippe of France in 1833 stated: "We have surpassed in barbarity the barbarians we came to civilize."

It is this grim specter, more than any other, that haunts the American experience in Iraq....

The best that American forces can now do — and it is no small task — is to provide breathing space for a viable Iraqi political process to take hold. Success in quelling this guerrilla war will depend less on the military than on politics and diplomacy. Success will come when the Iraqi people themselves, with American assistance, unite behind a new representative government and political pluralism. If they can, then over time the guerrillas will ultimately be reduced to rogue bandits.

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