Maybe When the Fedayeen Have a Gun to Your Baby's Head

— The first rule of counterguerrilla warfare is never set a pattern. This is so because the guerrillas are always watching for a weak point to hit. You can go anyplace and do anything two days in a row. But on the third day, you better go someplace else or do something else.

If you saw the film We Were Soldiers you'll remember that it opens with a scene of a French convoy being wiped out. I once asked an American missionary who had been in the Vietnam central highlands at the time how it happened.

"Well," he said, "it was the regular Thursday convoy..."

American convoys are harassed constantly in Iraq. That supply line is a pattern, so much so that one stretch of the road has been nicknamed RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) Alley. Things are moving fast. For now, all we can do is beef up security. But later when we settle in, we're going to have to be a lot slicker.

(Reading that over, I can see a GI in Iraq reading this column after his mom sends it to him thinking, "Whattaya mean 'we,' old man? It's 130 degrees, and I've got sand in my crotch. You're drinking margaritas in California." That's true, my boy, but my empathy is great. Now, pay attention. The Army doesn't teach this stuff anymore, and it will save your life.)

The best weapon the guerrillas have is our military habit of establishing "standard operating procedures." An SOP is a pattern. A pattern is a target.

The sine qua non of guerrilla warfare is intelligence. Not just timely intelligence, but immediate intelligence. Not the kind where you send it up the line and the big brains at the top of the chain of command mull it over and make a plan and send you out to go get 'em. With that method, the bad guys are long gone when you come for them. To succeed against a guerrilla campaign, the guy who gets the intel acts on it...right now.

On my first mission to Vietnam in 1963-64 I was second-in-command of a Special Forces A team. It was a six-month mission, and we spent the first four months wandering the woods, waiting to get shot at, charging the ambush, killing a few and running the rest off. We got the best of these little skirmishes, but it was a stupid and wasteful way to fight.

Then I had an epiphany and said to my best Montagnard friend and interpreter, Philippe "Cowboy" Drouin, "Hey, Phil, go hire some spies." Once he had done that, we quit getting ambushed and started ambushing. I'd go out with him and a small, handpicked Montagnard reaction force. We'd go into a village. Cowboy would make a deal to meet his agent, usually a friend of his who risked his life to help us in the woods later. Then we'd find out what trails the VC were using regularly, set up, and ambush them -- usually, but not always, in the dark of night.

It wouldn't work exactly like that in Iraq. Factors of culture and terrain would be different, but the principles are the same.

We ambushed a North Vietnamese colonel and his staff that way, killed seven of ten of them, and got a trove of high-level intelligence.

Another time, one of my agent handlers was out on his own. He got some great info and convinced a Vietnamese lieutenant to loan him a platoon. He captured the VC civil administrator over a five-province area, his bodyguard, and a strongbox of useful documents. Special Forces didn't even go along. The guy was captured before we knew about it. But we sure hired the right guy.

Of course, it didn't always go perfectly. In May of 1964 Cowboy took a vacation because the South Vietnamese were looking for him. They feared he was involved in a plot against them -- he was; the politics are always complicated -- and I used information from a friend of his to make an area ambush.

Three squads of about 12 men each set up on three paths in a little trail network near a district headquarters. I sat there all night long, trying to crush mosquitoes between my thumb and forefinger, because the noise of swatting might give our position away. So did one of my other squads. But the third, led by John Watson, our 19-year-old weapons man, sat there all night while a 350-man column of enemy troops walked by his position, about eight feet away. He didn't dare even crush a mosquito.

A model for what I'm talking about was described by my friend Rick Rescorla, who served in both the British and American armies. When he died, Rick was senior vice president for corporate security of Morgan Stanley in the World Trade Center. He was killed on 9/11 but is given credit for personally saving the lives of all but seven Morgan Stanley employees (two of whom were Rick and his deputy), 2700 people, almost as many as those who died.

In the late '50s Rick was a corporal in a British airborne intelligence unit on Cyprus. When they'd pick up a terrorist, they'd encourage him to discuss his associates and their whereabouts. Then they'd visit his friends about 0300 the next morning. One-stop shopping with no messy coordination with the chain of command.

Nobody really planned for guerrilla warfare in Iraq. About the only people left in the Army who were in Vietnam are generals, and they should understand guerrilla warfare. The reason they didn't expect it is that conditions for a successful guerrilla campaign don't exist in Iraq. There is no jungle to hide in. There is not, at least now, much outside aid for the guerrillas. A successful guerrilla campaign requires the active support of at least 15 percent of the population and the indifference of most of the rest. We were pretty sure that 85 percent hated Saddam. But it's hard to maintain your distance when the Fedayeen have a gun to your baby's head.

We are infidels, we are rich, we have invaded their country. Under these circumstances, winning hearts and minds requires skill and discretion. No hearts and minds, no intel. No intel, you die.

Iraqi guerrillas cannot prevail against us, but it is doubtful that we can eliminate them altogether. There will be sabotage, car bombs, and random assassinations for the duration of our occupation. The war will go on at some level. Our troops will not be safer than a matron in an Israeli shopping mall.

The weak points in the current Iraqi guerrilla campaign are two. The first is that they are attempting to maintain their support base by intimidation. But that means they have to intimidate everybody, all the time. They will probably continue to have that 15 percent support. But their intimidation will alienate the 85 percent that must be neutral for them to succeed. And once alienated, those people will sell them out at their first opportunity.

The other is that they don't have secure bases. The only real places to hide in Iraq are the warrens of the cities. Those can be surrounded and either isolated or cleared, slowly and carefully.

In the near term they don't really need outside support. They still have enough stuff to fight for a while. But they have no supply lines. They cannot prevail without supplies coming from some outside source. I strongly doubt that we will allow them sanctuary in or resupply from Iran or Syria, as we did the North Vietnamese in Laos and Cambodia. If we do, we might as well come home now.

We have moral justification for this war. We stood down in '91 with the agreement that certain things be done. For 12 years they were not done. In the last year the Iraqis tried to at least give the appearance of compliance, but that was only under direct threat of an armed invasion, a threat we could not maintain forever.

Can anyone doubt that if our army had withdrawn, Saddam would have resumed development of weapons of mass destruction?

That given, it is logical to conclude that war was inevitable at some point. If this is true, then the time to move was now, rather than later when he's stronger.

But, oh, the law of unintended consequences.

The fact of moral justification raises the question of whether the invasion was a good idea. One could just as well argue that it was worth the gamble to keep the sanctions on and hope to avoid war altogether. I believe that we wanted Iraq as a secure base from which to fight terrorism. If the counterguerrilla campaign doesn't work, it will be a base in which to fight terrorism.

The best model for our counterguerrilla campaign is not Vietnam but the French war in Algeria. They didn't do what they set out to do, which was to keep their colony. But they did do what we claim is our objective in Iraq. They pacified the country and left behind a relatively democratic regime that did not evaporate like the dew in the desert.

Remember the movie The Battle of Algiers? The French paras would find a terrorist in the warrens of Algiers and hotwire him. Then when he spilled his guts, they'd roll up his network before the word got out. They did this over and over again.

The French didn't leave Algiers because they couldn't control it. They left because they couldn't afford it. Neither can we, for long.

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


Log in to comment

Skip Ad

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader