Insurgent and soldier: two views on Iraq fight
The capture and killing of two key insurgent figures this week marks progress for US in the ongoing fighting in Iraq.
CAMP MANHATTAN, IRAQ — When a conventional army is forced to fight an antiguerrilla warfare campaign, it can be "messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife." So said T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, the British Army officer who led the Arab revolt against the Turks in World War I.
For Maj. John Nagl, never was a truer word spoken. He even adapted the quote as the subtitle for his doctoral thesis, "Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam," published two years ago.
The 37-year-old guerrilla warfare specialist serves with the 82nd Airborne Division in this former Iraqi Air Force base in the Sunni triangle. Since deploying to Iraq in September last year, Major Nagl has grappled with the challenges posed by the cells of insurgents operating in his area.
"It's a constant struggle of one-upmanship," he says. "We adapt, they adapt. It's a constant competition to gain the upper hand."
That view is shared by "Ahmad," a member of a local resistance cell.
In separate interviews, the two of them paint a picture of a classic guerrilla war in which semi-autonomous groups of lightly armed fighters fired up with religious and nationalist zeal compete against the world's most advanced military machine in a constantly evolving struggle.
The inspiration for the insurgency in Fallujah, neighboring Khaldiyeh, and other towns in the Sunni triangle came from the mosques immediately following Saddam Hussein's ouster. The clerics in Fallujah made oblique references to jihad and resistance in their sermons, messages that were understood by those listening.
The catalyst that transformed those ambiguous references into an outright call for resistance came in May after several demonstrators were shot dead in Fallujah by American troops.
"The clerics called for resistance and jihad against the Americans," Ahmad, a native of Fallujah, says. "We responded because we love our religion and we love our clerics and respect the history of Islam."
Nine months later, and Nagl estimates the number of cells in his area of operations around Khaldiyeh, which does not include neighboring Fallujah, at "more than five, less than 15" with between six and 15 militants in each group.
"We're still trying to figure out the motivation of those we're fighting," he says. "There's still some element of loyalty to the former regime, or at least they feel that Sunnis should return to a level of power in Iraq out of proportion to their numbers."
Others are driven by religious sentiment, "sheer antipathy" toward the US and "latent nationalism," he says.
Ahmad says the motivation underpinning his cell of insurgents is a blend of devout religious belief coupled with a strong sense of patriotism.
"What compliments nationalism, compliments religion," he says. "Islam is after all a nation in itself. I see myself as a proud Iraqi and a good Muslim."
Ahmad's cell, which eventually numbered several dozen - although he says he does not know everyone - was led by a Sunni cleric in his 50s who fought for several years with Islamic militants against Russian forces in Chechnya.
According to Ahmad, many Iraqi Islamists traveled to Afghanistan in the 1980s and Chechnya in the 1990s without the knowledge of the Baathist regime.
"If the regime had known about them, they would have been killed," he says. "The regime would not even allow us to pray for the people of Afghanistan and Chechnya."
Some cells are composed of ex-Baathists and former Iraqi soldiers, but Ahmad insists that they have shed their past ideology.
"They fight now as Muslims and Iraqis not as Baathists," he says.
The bulk of attacks in the early stages of the insurgency were hit-and-run raids against US patrols or mortar and rocket bombardments of military bases. By the time Nagl deployed to Khaldiyeh, the insurgency was well established. The roadside bomb proved to be its deadliest weapon.
"We have been most concerned about roadside bombs. From the beginning its been their most effective way of inflicting casualties upon us," Nagl says.
His 800-strong battalion has lost 12 soldiers in Iraq, 11 since deploying in September. A further 68 soldiers have been wounded. Of those 11 fatalities, 10 were from roadside bombs.
To appreciate the lethality of these bombs, consider that of the 61 US soldiers to have died in Iraq since the beginning of the year, 33 were killed by roadside bombs and six of those were in and around Khaldiyeh.
"They have gone from wire-command detonators to a variety of remote detonator devices - pagers and toy car remote controllers," Nagl says. "We were getting very good at spotting the wires. But the remote control bombs only have a small antenna attached and it's much harder to see them."
While roadside bombs continue to pose a serious threat, the number of shooting attacks and long-range bombardments has declined. "They are not spectacularly good shots nor spectacularly well-trained," says Nagl, adding that the militants usually fare badly in close encounters with American soldiers.
That appeared to bear true Tuesday when the US military announced that suspected bombmaker Abu Mohammed Hamza was killed by US troops who came under fire while distributing leaflets near Khaldiyeh.
Hamza was a suspected aide to leading militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian believed to have links to Al Qaeda.
Bombardments by mortars and rockets have also lessened, says Nagl. "The indirect fire attacks have dropped off considerably as we have demonstrated that firing mortars and rockets at us is dangerous to your health."
The US military is equipped with radar artillery locators than detect a shell in flight and calculate the source of fire, often before the round has landed. That means US gunners can respond to an artillery barrage by insurgents within seconds, giving the attackers little chance of escape.
The most "disturbing" development from the militants is the growing use of suicide car bombs, Nagl says. A suicide car bomb, driven by a Palestinian from Lebanon, blew up at the Khaldiyeh police station on Dec. 13, killing 23 Iraqi policemen and several civilians. Another car bomb in Khaldiyeh on Jan. 24 killed three American soldiers.
"Suicide bombers have been described as the nuclear weapons of the insurgency and they are worrisome. I think that's true theater-wide," he says.
However, Ahmad says his cell does not target Iraqi security forces and has no sympathy for suicide bomb attackers.
"These are not martyrdom operations. The Iraqi security forces are not guilty and should not be targeted," he says, blaming foreign fighters for the suicide attacks.
Still, Nagl knows that an insurgency cannot be defeated though military means alone. One of the lessons he learned from comparing the British counterinsurgency operation in Malaya in the 1950s with the US experience in Vietnam is that winning hearts and minds is essential.
"We are working very hard to win the hearts and minds of the people here," Nagl says.
The battalion has spent $500,000 in coalition funds on improving schools and health clinics in Khaldiyeh, has helped equip Iraqi security forces, and tries to built bonds of trust with local leaders. Soldiers are taught basic Arabic phrases and told to wave and smile to local people.
Nonetheless, despite progress, he concedes that Khaldiyeh remains a dangerous place and does not expect to fully eradicate the insurgency.
"Malaya is regarded as the most successful counterinsurgency ever, but it still took the British 12 years," Nagl says. "I don't expect to defeat the insurgency. I expect to render it ineffective through increased local support, an increase in our own abilities, and the abilities of the Iraqi security forces."
Winning over the insurgents is unlikely, he says. "We don't want to win their minds. We want to win over the locals so that they can tell us who they are. That's the key, I think. And every sweet and soccer ball we hand out is a bullet in that fight."
Ahmad admits that the US counterinsurgency measures are having an effect on the resistance, but he remains undaunted.
"This is a war," he says. "The better both sides become, the more difficult the war will be for both sides."