The last few weeks have seen a spate of press reports suggesting that Iraq’s insurgency is on the ropes. A combination of the Iraqi elections and relentless U.S. military pressure has brought the resistance to the point of ineffectiveness if not disintegration. Larry Kudlow, writing in the New Republic, summed it up:
Depending on which official you ask, insurgent attacks have dropped by either a third or nearly half. The number of Americans killed in action has declined. Civilians have begun killing terrorists. Over the last week alone, U.S. forces have killed scores of insurgents in lopsided battles — in the latest, Iraqi forces spearheaded the offensive.
Is this actually what is happening in Iraq? From this remove, it is impossible to tell. Could it happen? Certainly. Wars do not move in straight lines, most of them anyway. The fortunes of war shift back and forth, favoring one party today, another tomorrow. Just as we have blundered, so have the insurgents. Just as we face vast obstacles, so do they. As I have said from the outset of this strategically disastrous war (America’s Syracuse Expedition), I think it will end with an American failure if not outright defeat. But the path to that end is likely to have ups as well as downs, for all parties.
More importantly, I think Fourth Generation theory enables us to gain a better perspective on the current situation than we obtain from arguing who is ahead on points. From a Fourth Generation perspective, we need to remind ourselves that the terms we all use, myself included, such as "the insurgency" or "the resistance," are an inherently misleading shorthand. In Malaya or Algeria or Vietnam, one could speak of the opponent as a something. In Fourth Generation situations such as Iraq, one cannot. There is no single opponent. Rather, what we face is a vast array of armed elements operating outside the control of the state. They range from true insurgents, such as the Baathists, through kidnappers, gangs of robbers, hostile tribes, foreign mujaheddin seeking martyrdom and party or faction militias to men out to avenge their family’s honor. The essence of the problem is not that they are fighting the American occupation — some are, some aren’t — but that they are armed elements not controlled by the state. Their very existence undermines the state to the point where it becomes a fiction.
Looking at the other side of the coin, we see that the American challenge is not merely defeating an insurgency but re-creating an Iraqi state. Attaining that goal can be very far away even if "the insurgents" lose. If "the insurgency" were defeated tomorrow, remaining obstacles would still include a general breakdown of order in Iraqi society, mutual hatreds among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds (one possible turn of events is that the Shiites and the Sunni "insurgents" might unite against the Kurds over Kirkuk), basic services such as power and water that don’t work, a dead economy that leaves most Iraqis un- or under-employed and an unworkable political system imposed by foreigners (how did Bremer & Co. forget that in our political system, we require two-thirds majorities when we want to make any action almost impossible?). Looming over everything is the question of legitimacy: how can a state be legitimate when its government is a foreign creation propped up by foreign troops?
For America to win in Iraq, it has to leave behind a real state. Further, that state must not be an enemy to America. The chance of meeting just the second requirement is small, given the Iraqi people’s resentment toward the occupation and the strongly Islamic character of any likely new regime. It is improbable that we will meet the first requirement either. We may leave behind us the form of a state — a capital, a parliament, a government, etc. — but in most of the country, the real power will remain where it is now, in the hands of armed elements operating outside the state. That is true whether we defeat "the insurgency" or not.
Contrary to what a number of writers on 4GW have said, Fourth Generation war is not merely a new name for insurgency or guerilla warfare. What is at stake in 4GW is not who rules the state, but the fate of the state itself.