This week’s tragic shooting down of an Army Chinook helicopter near Fallujah, with the loss of 16 soldiers, may or may not point to a significant new development in the Iraq war. Helicopters proved highly vulnerable in Vietnam and in the Soviet war in Afghanistan as well, and there is no shortage of SA-7 missiles in Iraq, as U.S. forces there have long known. Moreover, there is a fairly simple technique helicopters can use to minimize their vulnerability to the SA-7 and similar shoulder-fired missiles: fly high. In Afghanistan, Soviet infantry referred to their helicopter pilots as “the Cosmonauts” because of their desire for altitude. Of course, altitude also works against us in that it prevents the people in helicopters from seeing what is happening on the ground. But when your aircraft is a big piñata, high is the way to fly.
Three events last week may actually provide more in the way of indicators as to where the Iraq war is headed. The first two were successful attacks on American M-1 Abrams tanks by Iraqi resistance forces. In the first attack, the M-1 was taken out by what appears to have been a tandem-warhead light anti-tank weapon, which no one knew the resistance possessed. Fortunately, in that attack no Americans were seriously hurt, though the tank was disabled. The second attack resulted in the complete destruction of an M-1, with the turret blown off the chassis of the tank by a large improvised mine. Sadly, two American tank crewmen were killed and one badly wounded. The technique is the same as that used by the Palestinians to destroy several Israeli Merkava tanks, so it should not have come as a surprise to us.
More significant than the destruction of two American tanks is the fact that Iraqi guerrillas are attacking tanks. This is an indicator that the guerilla war is developing significantly more rapidly than reports in Washington suggest. With the second stage of the Iraq war just six months old, one would expect the guerillas to be attacking only weak, vulnerable targets, such as supply columns. The fact that they are going after the most difficult of all ground targets, heavy tanks, is surprising. It means they lack neither confidence nor skill.
A third indicator comes from a widely-reported incident where an American battalion commander threatened an Iraqi under interrogation with his pistol and now faces criminal assault charges for doing so. The charges themselves are absurd, since the Iraqi was not injured and the information he provided prevented American soldiers from being ambushed. Here, the indicator comes from the identity of the Iraqi. Who was he? An Iraqi policeman.
The Bush administration’s strategy for the war in Iraq, to the degree floundering can be called a strategy, is “Iraqification:” developing Iraqi armed security forces such as police, border guards, civil defense guards and a “New Iraqi Army,” and dumping the insurgency in their laps. Last week’s incident shows the major flaw in that strategy: it assumes that the Iraqis in those forces will really be working for us.
Guerillas and, even more, Fourth Generation elements deal with state security forces primarily by taking them from within. They will also attack members of the state forces and their families, as part of punishing collaborators. But taking them from within is even more effective, because when we think the members of the state forces we create are working for us, we let them in positions where they can do real damage. Only too late do we discover where their real loyalty lies.
Naively, we seem to believe that if we are paying someone, they will give us their honest best. Some will. But especially in old, cynical societies such as that in Mesopotamia, people see nothing wrong with serving two or more masters, and getting a paycheck from each. They have no real loyalty beyond their family and, perhaps, their clan or tribe. Everyone else is trying to use them, and they are trying to use everyone else. That is just how the place works.
As we create more and more Iraqi armed units, and try desperately to hand the war over to them, don’t be surprised if they refuse to play our game. They will tell us what we want to hear to get paid, and then do what benefits them. Often, that will just be seeing and hearing nothing as the resistance forces go about their business. Sometimes, it will be shooting Americans in the back. It doesn’t take many such shootings before we have to treat the Iraqi forces we have ourselves created with distrust, pushing even those who want to work with us into our enemies’ arms.
One other indicator: a friend recently noted to me that the rapidly improving techniques we see from the Iraqi guerrillas bear a striking resemblance to those used by the Chechen guerrillas against the Russians. Might it be that we are not the only ones to have a coalition in Iraq?