Die and Win

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One of the more intriguing questions Clio poses is the degree to which great military victories were the fruit of smart plans as opposed to dumb luck. Did the North Vietnamese expect the Tet Offensive to be a tactical defeat but an operational victory? They now claim they did, but we will not know until their archives are opened.

The war in Iraq poses a similar question: to what degree was the Sunni insurgency part of Saddam’s plan, as opposed to a reaction generated largely by bad American decisions after his government fell? The January 26, 2008 Washington Post ran an article about Saddam Hussein’s main American debriefer, George Piro, which may shed some light on that question. According to the Post,

Hussein’s strategy upon facing the U.S. invasion was to tell his generals to try to hold back the U.S. forces for two weeks, "and at that point, it would go into what he called the secret war," Piro said, referring to the Iraqi insurgency.

This "straight from the horse’s mouth" statement would seem to settle the issue. It doesn’t, because it was given after the fact. Just as we now claim the "surge" led to the improved security situation in parts of Iraq, so Saddam, in American captivity, might have sought to bolster his place in history by claiming the insurgency had been his idea all along. The widespread caching of weapons and explosives lends credence to his claim, but until we find documentary evidence dating back before the campaign opened, we cannot be sure.

Why is the question important? Because if Saddam did plan to defeat America by going to guerilla warfare after losing the conventional campaign, we can be reasonably certain anyone else we threaten with invasion will adopt the same plan.

Saddam was neither a wildly popular nor a particularly secure dictator. Few Iraqis saw him as the father of their country, the way many Chinese saw Mao or many Cubans look on Castro. The Kurds hated him, the Shiites hated him, and he had to hide behind elaborate security measures even among Iraqi Sunnis. If Saddam can take the risks associated with preparing for guerrilla warfare, including spreading arms thickly all over the country and devolving much power of command downward, so can almost anyone.

That in turn creates a not insubstantial roadblock in front of neo-con or neo-lib plans to "liberate" other countries. Even if the American military triumphs in another "race to Baghdad" campaign, do the American people or Congress have the stomach (or wallet) to face another guerrilla war that drags on for years? Like any good defense plan, a plan for guerrilla war against a conventionally superior invader has deterrence value. No one in his right mind wants to get into the briar patch with the tar baby.

After his capture, Saddam played for a place in history, and he played that role well. If the Sunni insurgency was part of his plan for defeating the American invasion, he will have earned some credit as a military leader, despite his gross blunders in other wars. If, as I think inevitable, other countries faced with an American threat adopt the same plan, Saddam will have lodged a barb in his assailant whose poison will work for years. He died, but perhaps he also won. In the Arab world, at least, that is a respected combination.

William Lind is an analyst based in Washington, DC.

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