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.

This interpretation 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.

The optimum 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 war.

Insurrection 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.

The advent 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.

T.E. Lawrence 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.

Then came 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.

People’s 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.

The concept 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.

Mao viewed 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:

The Rules:

all actions are subject to command; don’t steal from the people; be neither selfish nor unjust.

The Points:

replace 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.

Strictly 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.

Events in 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.

People’s 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 volume 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.)

Actual application 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.

In Peru, 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 that sad little opera.

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.

Which leads to the question: hasn’t Zarqawi heard of people’s war, or doesn’t he care?

Little or 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.

When bin 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.

Zarqawi has been a faithful student.

The problem 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.)

The same 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 easily shocked.

Zarqawi’s 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.

All transparent 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 of terrorism.

What Zarqawi 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.

Zarqawi’s 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.

Support among 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.

Zarqawi’s 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.

It’s 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.

It’s 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.

But even 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.

J. R. Dunn

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