December 8, 2005
Zarqawi and People’s War
By J. R. Dunn
The way the media plays it, you’d think Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
was the greatest Muslim strategist since Saladin. Every car bomb
is a Jacob’s
Ford, every massacre a Hattin
every move a masterstroke against the clumsy and inept Crusaders.
He makes no errors and suffers no setbacks, and his victory, when
it inevitably comes to pass, will be well-earned.
of events has become the conventional wisdom, so widespread and
ingrained as to excite no comment whatsoever (even some conservative
voices have joined this chorus), despite the fact that it’s
next to impossible to discern any strategy, method, or pattern
behind Zarqawi’s activities beyond the urge to kill as many
people as brutally as possible.
strategy for carrying out an insurrection against a superior force,
whether occupiers or legitimate authority, has been understood
for the better part of a century. The man to be thanked for that
is Mao Tse Tung, the only begetter of the doctrine of people’s
became a science only in the 20th century. In previous eras, insurrections
tended to be spontaneous affairs, a matter of grabbing the pitchfork
or fowling piece and setting out after the local baron or occupying
army. Lucky rebels had professional military guidance and in some
place an overall plan, as in peninsular war Spain or France in
1870. But most insurrections were exercises in futility which
collapsed at the first confrontation with a professional military
unit. Even the more successful attempts of the Hussites and Cathars
ended at last in defeat. As poachers on the territory of professionals,
irregulars were treated with contempt by soldiers and dismissed
by the various Hague and Geneva conventions as franc-tireurs,
fit only to be shot out of hand.
of the technological era, with its cheap weaponry and explosives,
easy transportation and communications, saw the irregular begin
to enjoy a much higher military value than previously. In Cuba
and the Philippines, guerilleros gave occupying forces
(Spain and the U.S., respectively) good hard runs before at last
being put down.
was the first officer to take advantage of the new state of affairs,
welding the Hejaz tribes into a force capable of operating with
regular units on some level of equality. The Seven Pillars
of Wisdom devoted a chapter of advice on managing an insurrection,
but Lawrence was no military intellectual and left most of the
tactical, strategic, and ideological aspects untouched.
Mao’s turn. Like most revolutionaries, Mao thought of himself
as a man of action. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
He was in essence a mandarin, no different from any previous mandarin
in Chinese history apart from possessing the good fortune to live
in an era where his particular theories could be tested on the
widest stage imaginable.
war is a warfighting doctrine by which a revolutionary army can
overcome extremely unequal odds through a protracted, step-by-step
campaign. Mao worked out the concept between 1926 and 1938, with
China and its people acting as a laboratory. The final results
were little less than spectacular. In 1935, Mao’s communist
forces had been virtually annihilated and were in the process
of being chased from one end of the country to the other. Ten
years later Mao controlled the bulk of northern China, taking
possession of the rest by 1949, in the process ejecting his old
adversary Chiang Kai-shek right off the Asian mainland. Pleased
as only a scholar whose theories have proven out can be, Mao went
so far as to declare (through
Lin Piao) that People’s War was a basic principle of
revolutionary action, open to application in any set of circumstances.
Plenty of would-be revos were willing to take his word for it.
of people’s war is easily expressed in three essential principles:
that a revolutionary army must operate from secure bases located
in remote, rural areas, that the major role of the army is political
rather than military, and that the revolution is a protracted
affair, lengthy and indeterminate, a matter of outlasting the
enemy until some “external force” tilts the situation
in the rebel’s favor.
people’s war as essentially political in nature. It was
the people themselves who held the power to defeat the enemy (in
the 50s Mao went so far as to claim that the people could overcome
nuclear weapons). The military served only to focus the raw energies
of the populace. That being the case, relations between army and
peasantry were all-important, as those of “a fish and water”,
in one of Mao’s more well-known dictums. The troop’s
behavior toward civilians was covered by the Three Main Rules
of Discipline and Eight Points for Attention. This set of regulations
is worth quoting in detail:
actions are subject to command; don’t steal from the people;
be neither selfish nor unjust.
the door when you leave the house; roll up the bedding on which
you’ve slept; always be courteous; be honest in your transactions;
return what you borrow; replace what you break; don’t
bathe or urinate in the presence of women; don’t search
the pocketbooks of those you arrest unless you have authority.
applied and combined with communist discipline, this set of directives
guaranteed excellent relations with the peasants, most of whom
had previously viewed soldiers much the way they did locusts.
Yunan progressed much as Mao had foreseen. His control over the
province was rendered complete by healthy doses of indoctrination
coupled with soldierly assistance with harvests. As the Japanese
withdrew, he extended his control to the villages and towns, stage
by stage, according to blueprint. He was in an excellent position
to act when at last the predicted external force (in this case
open and full support from Josef Stalin) turned the game in his
favor. In short order, Mao was blessed with the mandate of heaven.
war had a long and uneven career after the fall of China. Revolutionary
thinkers such as Tran van Giau, Truong Chinh, Franz Fanon, and
Che Guevara added various bells and whistles without altering
the basic theory in any profound sense. (There is also a recent
by Jonathan Schell, of The Nation magazine, claiming that people’s
war is based on the teachings of Christ, Gandhi, and Rev. King,
which we shall pass by with no further reference.)
had mixed results. The Algerian rebels fought a well-organized
rebellion against French colonists but were near defeat when De
Gaulle in1962 gave in to their demands. In Nicaragua, the Sandinistas
played relations with the peasants by the book until an external
force acting under the name of James Earl Carter swept them into
power in 1979. Almost immediately, they turned against the peasantry
(forgetting that even Mao had waited ten years before showing
the peasants his true face in the Great Leap Forward), opening
the field up for the Contras, who applied the strategy in reverse.
(Both sides were known to the campesinos by the same nickname:
‘Los Ninos’—the Boys.) After a near-decade
of patient application against almost global opposition and direct
interference by the U.S. Congress, the Contras forced an open
election which swept the Sandinistas back out again.
the Sendero Luminosa – as much a cult as a revolutionary
movement – completely neglected the political aspects of
people’s war. By all indications, their upland peasant utopias
were utterly hideous rural tyrannies. When their founder and guru
Abimael Guzman was arrested in 1993, the movement had no popular
support to fall back on and effectively collapsed. The current
Maoist insurrection in Nepal appears to be following the Maoist
blueprint in detail, but the curtain has not yet rung down on
It was in
Vietnam that the doctrine passed its acid test. Although Vo Nguyen
Giap tended to rush things – successfully against the French
in 1954, not so much against the U.S. in 1968—the Vietnamese
communists were careful to maintain a broad-based and solid alliance
with the peasants, something that neither the South Vietnamese,
the French, or the U.S. attempted to duplicate until far too late.
Although the Viet Minh, Vietcong, and People’s Army seldom
won a battle, they successfully outlasted all adversaries, demonstrating
that, despite failures elsewhere, people’s war remained
the sole effective means of carrying out a successful insurrection
against technically and numerically superior forces.
to the question: hasn’t Zarqawi heard of people’s
war, or doesn’t he care?
nothing has been written concerning the Al Qaida conception of
strategy. A few observers (e.g., Fareed Zachariah) attribute vast
strategic conceptions to Osama bin Laden and his commanders on
next to no grounds. Bin Laden himself appears to be what Napoleon
called “a picture painter” – someone who conjures
up a beneficial chain of events following a particular move and
then acts on that vision. Napoleon noted that when events don’t
follow the storyline, such types tend to be left utterly nonplused,
their forces easy prey for the Grande Armee.
Laden’s prediction of U.S. collapse into abject panic after
9/11 failed to materialize, he had no plan B, no alternative to
the near-instantaneous American campaign against his sanctuary
but to run off and hide. While some have painted this as if it
was a victory in and of itself (“Bin Laden is still at large!”),
it’s difficult to see it as evidence of anything other than
the result of a lack of a workable strategic concept, and perhaps
complete ignorance that such a thing exists. Bin Laden’s
idea of strategy seems to begin and end with terrorism.
been a faithful student.
with terror as a strategy is that it gains most of its effect
from shock. Not simply fear or horror, but the stunned surprise
generated by the car bomb on the familiar street, the airliner
flung into an iconic building, and the paranoid fear that even
worse may follow. This presents the terrorist with the problem
of diminishing returns. Once you’ve flattened one building,
what do you do for an encore? Flatten two buildings? Send two
planes into one building?
In the interwar
period, air power theorists such as Douhet, Trenchard, and Mitchell
predicted that urban populations would be transformed into howling
mobs by the first air raid. What actually occurred was the precise
opposite: after initial trepidation, the populations of Britain
and Germany buckled down and went back to work, driven by rage
and contempt for the enemy tormenting them from the air. In the
entire record of aerial bombing campaigns there is no case where
the will of the population cracked. (North Vietnam and Serbia
made purely political decisions – both could easily have
held out if necessary.)
appears true of terrorism. The first car bomb generates fear,
the second resignation, the third outrage and disgust at an enemy
that would stoop to such tactics. The Iraqi people as a whole
have long since passed into the third stage, and are no longer
appraisal of this factor is a matter of guesswork. What is apparent
is that he has tried every conceivable obscene gimmick to regain
the shock effect of early bombings: striking at hospitals, using
women as warheads, targeting reporters cowering in their hotel,
murdering children gathered to receive treats from Coalition troops,
blowing up a wedding party in Amman, the recent discovery of children’s
dolls stuffed with grenades.
attempts to regain that first impact, all of them failures. The
air power advocates were at last forced to admit that aerial bombing
was a weapon with limitations. The same has proven to be true
has not attempted—and may very well be beyond his capabilities—is
to integrate terror into a working strategy. Terrorism is not
incompatible with people’s war – the Vietcong made
an art of it, wiping out entire villages who cooperated with the
government, setting off bombs at will throughout Saigon and other
cities, assassinating government officials so frequently as to
make Al Qaida look stodgy by comparison, while never so much as
raising their voices in friendly villages. Such a mixture of positive
and negative reinforcement would be easily recognized by any behaviorist,
and it proved very effective in Vietnam.
problem is that, as a religious fanatic, he has no regard for
the political dimension. Anything existing outside of Islam can
be disregarded – all nonbelievers, or even Muslim sectarians,
are scarcely human, hardly worth the cost of the bullet used to
dispatch them. Mao’s three rules and eight points would
be incomprehensible to such a mindset. So his Jihadis move into
towns and immediately put them under the strictest conceivable
form of sharia. Courtesy and honesty simply don’t enter
into it, and it’s doubtful many doors are replaced. The
inevitable resistance sparks random executions, torture, and assassinations,
alienating and outraging Al-Qaida’s would-be allies.
the populace – the water in which the fish must swim –
begins to evaporate. In short order, Zarqawi’s deputies
are being turned in to the government, and yesterday’s rebellious
tribesman are today pointing out Al-Qaida targets for Marine gunners.
At the moment,
Zarqawi is caught in a strategic impasse. He can keep things at
a low simmer, setting off a car bomb here, assassinating an official
there, but no more than that. The pot is never going to come to
a boil. He can’t stop Coalition sweeps from cleaning out
his sanctuaries and cutting his links to extraterritorial supporters,
his efforts against Iraqi elections have had no visible effect,
and his command cadre is slowly and steadily being rolled up.
recent actions strongly imply that he understands the situation
and is trying to respond. But his efforts at breaking out of the
trap have uniformly misfired. Attempts to trigger a Sunni-Shi’ite
civil war through false-flag kidnapings and assassinations have
been clumsy, inconsistent, and unconvincing. His effort at broadening
the conflict through the Amman bombings was an unmitigated fiasco,
climaxing with his own tribe drumming him out and hundreds of
thousands of Jordanians hitting the streets to call for his head.
difficult to see what spectacular operation can possibly pull
things out for him at this point. Zarqawi has become the most
hated man in the Middle East, and somewhere down the line lies
the erstwhile ally who could use that 25 million-dollar reward,
or the Marine patrol that turns the corner at just the wrong moment,
or the Sunni sheik who has been insulted one too many times. Then
Zarqawi will join Ortega and Guzman among the ranks of revolutionaries
who failed to grasp their own strategy.
doubtful that anyone can pick up the pieces at this point, even
if Zarqawi were to disappear tomorrow. Every strategy has a window
of opportunity when it can be effective. Once that window closes,
there’s no jimmying it open again, and the window for people’s
war closed in Iraq long ago. Whatever gulfs exist between the
Iraqis and U.S. forces, the construction of schools, hospitals,
and community centers, along with the openhanded generosity of
Western troops, have created bonds that even the imbecility of
Abu Ghraib could not erode. While the Muslim-Christian gap very
likely forbids true friendship, feelings of cordiality and mutual
respect have been kindled that can’t be negated. Any future
Jihadi attempts to claim the mantle of friend of the people are
likely to be dismissed as too little and too late.
The end of
Zarqawi will not mean the end of Iraq’s troubles –
Baathists and bandits, interference by Iran and Syria, and ambitious
fools of the Motaqda al-Sadr variety will keep things hot for
many years to come. But an outright collapse of the new Iraqi
polity is not likely. Excepting a single possible case….
All too often
in insurgency warfare involving the United States (Vietnam and
Nicaragua being the chief examples), the Maoist “external
force” turned out to be some combination of the media and
the U.S. Congress. We are in danger of seeing that repeated. The
real enemy of Iraq may well turn out to be aiming not for a rebirth
of the caliphate, but a Pulitzer or an easy re-election campaign.
if that does occur, no credit will accrue to Zarqawi. To paraphrase
one expert on Iraqi military affairs, he is not a strategist,
he is not a tactician, he is not a general, he is not a student
of warfare, he is not a master of operations. He is, quite simply,
Ted Bundy with car bombs.
J.R. Dunn writes for The
American Thinker, and among many other things was the editor
of the International Military Encyclopedia for twelve years.