Guerrilla wars of the last half century cast a sobering light on the US-led occupation of Iraq: Insurgents often win - and when they do not, quelling them can take years of hard effort.
After a spate of helicopter downings and other attacks that signify an intensifying Iraqi insurgency, military strategists say a long-term US presence is all the more vital to bolstering fledgling Iraqi security forces and bringing hope of a viable representative government.
In nondescript offices inside the Pentagon, military planners are already projecting troop deployments to Iraq as far out as 10 years.
But a looming US election and public concern over casualties are pressuring President Bush to speed the transfer of power to Iraqis. The Pentagon has outlined a possible troop drawdown next year. Meanwhile, Iraq administrator Paul Bremer held urgent meetings here this week, amid intelligence reports that Iraqi support for the resistance may grow.
Military experts warn that a premature hand- -off to Iraqis could leave a power void, undermining Mr. Bush's stated goal of building a democratic, antiterrorist Iraq as an example for the entire Middle East.
"By staying, the United States will face a protracted insurgency," explains Steven Metz, director of research at the US Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute in Carlisle, Pa. "But by withdrawing forces before the new Iraq is able to stand on its own, the ultimate strategic objective - a unified, stable Iraq that does not threaten its neighbors and does not support international terrorism - will not be met."
"Iraqis will not be ready for several years to run a stable nation on their own," he predicts. Currently the US-led coalition includes about 130,000 US troops, 25,000 other foreign troops, and 130,000 Iraqi security forces, according to the Pentagon. But some US military officials question whether the number of Iraqis is that high, and say they lack adequate training (see related story).
Lessons from past counter-insurgency campaigns - from the 1950s Malayan Emergency to Vietnam - suggest that success will require a broad civil-military strategy that emphasizes political and economic development and patient police work as much as infantry kicking in doors and hunting down guerrillas.
Past guerrilla wars also underscore a common mistake that experts say was repeated in Iraq: the failure of governing authorities to grasp the complexity and scope of the challenge early on.
"The insurgency in Iraq that is killing American soldiers daily has been incorrectly and simplistically characterized by US President George Bush's administration," wrote Ahmed Hashim, a professor of strategic studies at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I., in July.
That's not to say Iraq is Vietnam redux. Most Iraqis are glad Saddam Hussein's regime is over, for example, and the rate of US casaulties is far lower.
But the danger of misreading the situation is real nonetheless.
US officials initially depicted attacks on American forces as the work of a handful of "bitter-ender" supporters of the Saddam Hussein regime. Viewing the Iraqi opposition as a monolith reflected "pervasive cultural ignorance and arrogance" by the administration, wrote Mr. Hashim.
A dozen or more groups are fighting the US-led coalition in Iraq, according to Hashim and other experts. These include regime loyalists, nationalists, and Islamist forces - all with their own motivations, levels of organization, and skills. Some fight to regain lost power, others for revenge. Some Iraqis heed the radical call of jihad, as do small groups of fighters flowing in from Syria and Lebanon. Others voice a visceral objection to foreign occupation familiar to Arabs and evidenced by the history of wars in Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, and Iraq.
"The insurgency is like a multi-headed snake, unable to decide on a single course but difficult to kill," according to Metz.
Too weak to hold territory or create an alternative government, insurgents in Iraq are emphasizing terrorist-style strikes aimed at inflicting a steady stream of casualties and dealing a psychological blow to the US-led coalition and its Iraqi allies.
Using hit-and-run tactics that make them less vulnerable to overwhelming US firepower, they are launching ever bolder, more sophisticated attacks with low-tech weapons. Guerrillas in Iraq recently set off a roadside explosive device that disabled an Abrams tank, killing two soldiers inside. They are suspected of using a rocket-propelled grenade to shoot down a Black Hawk helicopter. Using modern communications, insurgents show signs of nationwide reach and networked control, US officials say.
Meanwhile, the US military has lost some of the high-tech edge it enjoyed in combat against conventional Iraqi forces, military experts say. For example, the pilotless drones that tracked Iraqi forces during the invasion are "far less capable" in covering "small enemy forces over large geographic areas," according to an Army report released last month. "Daily mortar and rocket attacks on bases and convoys became virtually undetectable to the UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles]," it said.
Guerrilla attacks also aim to provoke a harsh US military response that could further alienate Iraqi civilians. In recent days, US forces have dropped bombs and lobbed mortars in a show of force to intimidate Hussein loyalists and those who abet them. But this "get-tough" stance could also inflame anti-US sentiment.
"The population is always caught between the government and the guerrillas, and until they can perceive who will win, they will not help," says Jack Cann, associate professor of National Security Studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College in Quantico, Va.
Lessons from past wars suggest that overcoming popular fear and resentment is vital to gaining the intelligence to uproot guerrilla activity. Combined with political and economic incentives, this requires manpower to mingle with and protect the population.
"Counterinsurgency doesn't require tanks. It's a matter of communication. You need a knowledgeable soldier in the street. He's got to be trained in the local culture, able to intimidate but not necessarily threatening," says Professor Cann. He advocates an expansion of the military's civil affairs personnel.
Such training is not a new idea. In the 1950s, the British military created a jungle training center in Johore to prepare its troops to fight ethnic Chinese guerrillas in Malaya - a 13-year campaign that is now upheld as one model of successful counterinsurgency.
In Vietnam, in contrast, the US military never took in-theater indoctrination seriously - part of a larger failure to adapt basic Army methods for insurgency warfare, Cann says. One exception was the Marine Corps' Combined Action Program (CAP), in which Marine rifle squads joined with South Vietnamese platoons to live in and protect villages, with some success. Still, US troops lack their counterparts' language skills and familiarity with Iraq's neighborhoods - which makes a competent Iraqi security force that respects civil rights essential.
"That's one lesson from history, from Malaya, from Peru against the Shining Path.... To deal effectively with any insurgency, you've got to have a capable and large police or paramilitary force that can work with the local population," says Bill Rosenau, a conflict expert at RAND.
In the Bush administration's push to rapidly transfer responsibility for Iraq's security to Iraqis, some are raising the question: Where are all the Iraqi security troops coming from?
Indeed, the ballooning of Iraqi forces, as counted by the Pentagon, is striking.
In a media roundtable on Sept. 5 at Camp Victory, Iraq, Ambassador Paul Bremer, the top American civilian in Iraq told reporters that "it's realistic to think that in a year we could have 90,000 to 100,000 Iraqis involved in their defense." Later, he added, "I would guess by Sept. 1 next year, we should be somewhere in the 90,000 to 100,000 [range]."
On Tuesday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Richard Myers announced during a television interview that the number of Iraqi forces had just reached 131,000, surpassing the number of US troops. That is up from the Pentagon's estimate of 55,000 Iraqis in early September.
"Today, there are more Iraqis in the coalition, if you will, than any other force. They exceed the US forces in Iraq today by about several thousand. There are 131,000 Iraqis in the various police forces and facilities protection service, civil defense corps, border guards, and so forth. They're the largest part, if you will, of the coalition. And we just achieved that here today."
How has the number expanded so dramatically, just two months after Mr. Bremer offered a far slower growth in Iraqi forces? One US military source had this blunt response: "The administration is padding numbers."
Even if the numbers are accurate, US military officers and experts say the Iraqi recruits are receiving only rudimentary training and equipment and are often ineffective as a result.
During the September press conference, US Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who commands coalition ground forces in Iraq, said the Iraqi recruits would not replace US troops. "That will be additive for the coalition," he said.
More recently, however, Pentagon officials have suggested that the growth in Iraqi security forces could allow for a draw-down of American troops in Iraq.