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Counterinsurgency Run Amok
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“The people who are doing the beheadings are extremists … the people slaughtering Iraqis – torturing in prisons and shooting wounded prisoners – are ‘American heroes’. Congratulations, you must be so proud of yourselves today.”
– Iraqi girl blogger Riverbend

Whom are you going to trust: Fallujah civilians who risked their lives to escape, witnesses such as Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein, hospital doctors, Amnesty International, top United Nations human-rights official Louise Arbour, the International Committee of the Red Cross; or the Pentagon and US-installed Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi?

On the humanitarian front, Fallujah is a tragedy. The city has virtually been reduced to rubble. Remaining residents, the Red Cross confirms, are eating roots and burying the dead in their gardens. There’s no medicine in the hospitals to help anybody. The wounded are left to die in the streets – their remains to be consumed by packs of stray dogs. As, a Europe-wide collective, puts it, “World governments, international organizations, nobody raises a finger to stop the killing.” The global reaction is apathy.

Civilians? What civilians?

Asia Times Online sources in Baghdad confirm the anger across the Sunni heartland – even among moderates – against the occupation and Allawi has reached incendiary proportions. His credibility – already low before the Fallujah massacre – is now completely gone.

Allawi insists on the record that not a single civilian has died in Fallujah. Obviously nobody in his cabinet told him what Baghdad is talking about – the hundreds of rotting corpses in the streets, the thousands of civilians still trapped inside their homes, starving, many of them wounded, with no water and no medical aid. And nobody has told him of dozens of children now in Baghdad’s Naaman hospital who lost their limbs, victims of US air strikes and artillery shells.

A top Red Cross official in Baghdad now estimates that at least 800 civilians have been killed so far – and this is a “low” figure, based on accounts by Red Crescent aid workers barred by the Americans from entering the city, residents still inside Fallujah, and refugees now huddling in camps in the desert near Fallujah. The refugees tell horror stories – including confirmation, already reported by Asia Times Online, of the Americans using cluster bombs and spraying white phosphorus, a banned chemical weapon.

The talk in the streets of Baghdad, always referring to accounts by families and friends in and around Fallujah, confirms that there have been hundreds of civilian deaths. Moreover, according to the Red Cross official, since September Allawi’s Ministry of Health has not provided any medical supplies to hospitals and clinics in Fallujah: “The hospitals do not even have aspirin,” he said, confirming many accounts in these past few days from despairing Fallujah doctors. The official spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of US military reprisal.

Even submitted to media blackout – an al-Arabiya reporter, for instance, was arrested by the Americans because he was trying to enter Fallujah – the Arab press is slowly waking up to the full extent of the tragedy, not only on networks such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, but also in newspapers like the pro-American Saudi daily Asharq a-Awsat. Our sources say that most of Baghdad and the whole Sunni triangle is already convinced that the Americans “captured” Fallujah general hospital, bombed at least two clinics and are preventing the Red Crescent from delivering urgent help because as many bodies as possible must be removed before any independent observers have a chance to evaluate the real extent of the carnage.

Al-Jazeera continues to apologize for not offering more in-depth coverage, always reminding its viewers that its Baghdad bureau was shut down indefinitely by Allawi in August. But many in the Arab world saw its interview with Dr Asma Khamis al-Muhannadi of Fallujah’s general hospital, invaded and “captured” by the marines. She confirmed that “we were tied up and beaten despite being unarmed and having only our medical instruments”; and that the hospital was targeted by bombs and rockets during the initial siege of Fallujah. When the marines came she “was with a woman in labor. The umbilical cord had not yet been cut. At that time, a US soldier shouted at one of the [Iraqi] National Guards to arrest me and tie my hands while I was helping the mother to deliver. I will never forget this incident in my life.”

Crucially, Dr al-Muhannadi also confirmed that American snipers killed more than 17 Iraqi doctors who had mobilized to answer an appeal from Fallujah’s doctors broadcast on al-Jazeera: information on the massacre has been circulating in Baghdad for days. Amnesty International, based on the account of a doctor at the scene, says that 20 Fallujah medical staff and dozens of civilians were killed when an American missile destroyed a clinic on November 9.

The failure of ‘Iraqification’

On the military front, roughly 3,000 urban guerrillas with mortars, Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades have resisted more than 12,000 marines supported by F-16s, AC-130 gunships, Cobra and Apache helicopters, an array of missiles, 500-pound and 2,000-pound bombs, tanks and Bradleys. Sources in Baghdad close to the resistance tell Asia Times Online that at least 200 marines are dead, and more than 800 wounded. The Pentagon – exercising total media blackout – will only admit to about 50 dead and 350 wounded. Allawi and his cabinet are spinning more than 1,600 “insurgents” dead; the resistance so far only admits to a little more than 100.

The resistance says that dozens of marine snipers have taken six or seven positions along Tharthar Street, the main street leading to Ramadi, and a few buildings overlooking the Euphrates in western Fallujah. But residents seem to be free to move in the narrow alleyways: the Americans only control the main roads. According to resistance reports, the mujahideen are constantly changing their positions, moving apparently undetected inside the areas they still control and reinforcing different neighborhoods with more cells of five to 20 fighters each.


“Iraqification” – the Mesopotamian counterpart of Vietnamization – is floundering. After 19 months of occupation, the Pentagon still has not been able to put an Iraqi army in place. Baghdad sources confirm the backup plan has been to give US troops a counterinsurgency field manual. (The exhaustive 182-page document will be discussed in a separate article.)

During the Vietnam War, counterinsurgency was conducted by Special Forces. In Vietnam, the US simply did not understand that the force of the resistance was its complex clandestine infrastructure. By killing indiscriminately in covert operations like Operation Phoenix, the Americans totally alienated the average Vietnamese.

In Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (Penguin Press, New York, 2004), Tony Negri and Michael Hardt, discussing counterinsurgencies, point out how “guerrilla forces cannot survive without the support of the population and a superior knowledge of the social and physical terrain”. They could be describing the guerrillas in the Sunni triangle. “Guerrillas force the dominant military power to live in a state of perpetual paranoia.” In asymmetrical wars like Vietnam and Iraq, US counterinsurgency tactics must not only lead to a military victory but to control of the enemy with “social, political, ideological and psychological weapons”. There’s ample evidence these tactics are failing in Iraq.

Like a fish out of water

Negri and Hardt argue that in counterinsurgency “success does not require attacking the enemy directly but destroying the environment, physical and social, that supports it. Take away the water and the fish will die. This strategy of destroying the support environment led, for example, to indiscriminate bombings in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, to widespread killing, torture and harassment of peasants in Central and South America.” This – “take away the water and the fish will die” – is exactly what’s happening in Fallujah. And it won’t work, because “the many noncombatants who suffer cannot be called collateral damage because they are in fact the direct targets, even if their destruction is really a means to attack the primary enemy”. Fallujah’s population has been the direct target this time – the “water” that was essential to the resistance “fish”.

But the “fish” are always able to turn the tables “as the rebellious groups develop more complex, distributed network structures. As the enemy becomes increasingly dispersed, unlocalizable, and unknowable, the support environment becomes increasingly large and indiscriminate.” This is exactly the post-Fallujah scenario – see The real fury of Fallujah, November 10.

The political infrastructure in Iraq controlled by the Ba’ath Party for many decades has integrated most of the Islamic resistance groups under its command with great efficiency. It has also managed to infiltrate and smash the Iraqi counterinsurgency force that the Americans were trying to assemble. The new counterinsurgency field manual means that unlike Vietnam, counterinsurgency is now being conducted by marines and GIs. Intuitively, the totally alienated population of the Sunni triangle (the “water”) has already identified the threat.

Iraqification mimics Vietnamization in at least one aspect: the logic of collective punishment (once again “take away the water and the fish will die”). The Fallujah assault proved that for the Pentagon every Sunni Iraqi is the enemy.

The Pentagon maintains there are no civilians in Fallujah. The horror faced by these “invisible” civilians has not even begun to emerge, even though precision-strike democracy is being denounced by those who risked their lives to escape. The “water” is represented by the “invisible” civilian population in Fallujah.

In yet another echo of Vietnam, for the Pentagon any dead Iraqi in Fallujah is a dead guerrilla fighter – and just like in Vietnam this figure includes “noncombatants”, women and children. In Fallujah, the Pentagon declared, after fully encircling the city, that women, children and the elderly might leave, but not men and boys from ages 15 to 55. This implies that most of the 50,000 to 100,000 civilians trapped in the city may be these men and boys – many with no taste for war – along with the unlucky elderly, women and children who were too poor to leave. But under Pentagon logic the problem is solved: everyone inside the city is a fighter. Thus no need for relief from the Iraqi Red Crescent or anyone else.

Counterinsurgency meets ‘invisible’ civilians

In a press conference in Baghdad, Allawi’s Interior Minister Faleh Hassan al-Naqib finally was forced to admit what Asia Times Online and an array of independent media have been reporting since the spring of 2003: that the resistance spans the whole Sunni heartland, not only Fallujah and the Sunni triangle (a lot of “water” for a few thousand “fish”); that the resistance is unified under some form of central command and control, and is not a bunch of uncoordinated groups; that the majority, at least 95%, are Iraqis, and not “foreign fighters” (thus ridiculing the Pentagon’s designation of the resistance as “anti-Iraqi forces”); that former Ba’ath Party officials and former Iraqi army officers are essential protagonists; and that they have prepared for urban guerrilla warfare long before the US invasion.

With Fallujah, the guerrilla strategy has changed. No more occupying a territory that could be organized as a safe haven (the city of Fallujah, for instance). The guerrillas are now network-centered. Negri and Hardt: “The network tends to transform every boundary into a threshold. Networks are in this sense essentially elusive, ephemeral, perpetually in flight … And, even more frighteningly, the network can appear anywhere at any time.” Think of the new Iraqi resistance as small, mobile armies striking in Baqubah, Samarra and Mosul, running away and melting into the local population, which fully supports them. This is pure Vietminh tactics – Saddam Hussein’s officers were all keen students of the Vietnam War.

The Americans in Iraq are now confronting a network enemy. Negri and Hardt say that “confronting a network enemy can certainly throw an old form of power into a state of universal paranoia”. Thus the fiction of “invisible” civilians in Fallujah. Thus the “capture” of Fallujah general hospital. Thus destroying Fallujah in order to “save it”. Thus the marine executing a wounded man, on camera, inside a mosque. Thus the Vietnam nightmare all over again.

(Republished from Asia Times by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Fallujah, Iraq, Iraq War 
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