The Insurgent's Log
politics, insurgency and violence in the contemporary world

Monday, March 31, 2003  

Hardware talk
Regarding my discussion of how the Republican Guard has evolved tactics to counter the fearsome AH-64 Apache helicopter, it seems that Iraqi irregulars have also managed to destroy two M1A1 Abrams tanks in combat -- the first time this has ever happened -- likely firing Russian Kornet-E missiles mounted on "technicals" at the tanks' vulnerable rear (kindly ignore militerotic overtones). These particular M1A1s belonged to the 3rd Squadron of the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the US Army, and this Army Times article describes the engagement in some detail. Syria is the only export customer for this missile, which partly explains the current spat between the US and Syria. You can view pictures of the destroyed tanks taken from Iraqi TV at the Airforces Monthly discussion forum. If the missiles were not, in fact, Kornet-Es, the US should be even more worried: This would mean that the average Abdul is now able to destroy American tanks.

posted by The Insurgent | 9:11 PM |

Iran's foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi referred yesterday at a news conference to British and American troops as "the aggressor forces", observing that -- as in Palestine (not a peep about Lebanon, the real laboratory for these tactics) -- they were being welcomed with suicide attacks, and an occupation of Iraq would never leave them secure. Suggesting that the aggressor forces would face more difficult days ahead, he recommended that they quickly extricate themselves from this quagmire (yes, the Q-word!). He added that Iran had foreseen Iraqi resistance to a foreign invader.

posted by The Insurgent | 1:12 PM |

A Different Enemy
The quote of the week (and perhaps of the entire Iraq campaign) is undoubtedly US ground commander General William S. Wallace's comment that: "The enemy we're fighting is different from the one we had wargamed against." In this context, see Fred Kaplan's astounding Slate expose (once again via Casus Belli), of how US wargamers disregarded evidence last year that guerrilla activity could potentially devastate US strategy.

This past weekend's Financial Times also carries a perceptive analysis of Saddam's paramilitary strategy written by Peter Spiegel. Unsurprisingly, Iraq's military leaders appear to have learned and implemented several lessons from the 1990s. As the eminently sensible Michael O'Hanlon observes, "the Iraqis have read the American defense literature over the last 12 years". So what are these lessons and where were they learned?

(1) Do not engage US forces with set piece battles in the open desert. This came from Iraq's own experience in 1991. Spiegel writes that:

Instead of meeting US forces on the open battlefield, most of the engagements have seen the use of guerrilla tactics, with Iraqis switching into civilian clothes and driving pick-up trucks and sport utility vehicles into ambushes; hiding guns at pre-positioned points so they can pick them up and start firing; mounting hit and run raids on more vulnerable forces behind the main US and British lines; and sniping at patrols near cities from rooftops and windows.

Note that this comprises classic guerrilla warfare. The Somali modification of the doctrine is the use of pick-up trucks and SUVs, which US forces in Iraq have started referring to as "technicals", the very term that was used in Somalia.

(2) Hide your military equipment so as to prevent allied sensors from easily locating and destroying it. The Serbian army in the Kosovo conflict (1999) hid its equipment under vegetation and amidst housing, rather than leaving it out in the open (as the Iraqis did in 1991), which made it much harder to carry out what become known as "tank plinking". The effectiveness of these tactics led the Pentagon to revise its estimates of Serbian tanks, armored vehicles and artillery destroyed down from 974 to just 194. Republican Guard vehicles are now ensconsed in trees and farming communities along the Euphrates River, making it equally hard to hit them.

(3) Use small arms fire and shoulder-launched rockets to hit the otherwise well-armored AH-64 Apache helicopter which, along with M1 Abrams tanks, Bradley armoured fighting vehicles and, more recently, A-10 Warthogs, comprises the tip of the American spear. Somali militias perfected the art of hitting helicopters with small arms fire, and the 2nd Armored Brigade of the Republican Guard's Medina Division applied this lesson with precision when it rebuffed a 32-helicopter attack by the US 11th Attack Helicopter Regiment, shooting down one. Subsequent US attacks appear to have proved more successful, although the number of Iraqis tanks and armored vehicles destroyed appears to be lower than expected.

But there is one tactic that Spiegel pays insufficient attention to: Suicide attacks (possibly because he wrote his article before the first such attack north of Najaf on March 29). It is worth noting that this attack -- which killed four soldiers of the US 3rd Infantry Division -- was apparently carried out by Ali Jaafar Nuamani, a non-commissioned officer in the Republican Guard. Iraq's vice-president Taha Yassin Ramadan awarded Nuamani two posthumous medals and warned that such attacks would become routine. This detailed description of a battle between the Republican Guard and the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division details how even near-suicide tactics have become customary among the Iraqis:

U.S. tanks and troop carriers started to move across the bridge from the west side shortly after dawn today but halted their advance when infantry from the Nebuchadneezer Division of the Republican Guards reinforced the Iraqi positions on the other side of the river. Soldiers in the Iraqi regular army then blocked the east side of the bridge by driving cars straight at U.S. tanks that were still on the structure. After a weekend suicide car bombing that killed four U.S. soldiers near Najaf, further to the south, U.S. troops say they are no longer hesitating when Iraqi civilian vehicles approach them rapidly. The efforts of the Iraqi soldiers in these cars were, in effect, suicide missions. The U.S. Abrams tanks continued to fire at each approaching car until the hulks of about a dozen vehicles created a grisly roadblock on the east side of the bridge.

The mark of a professional military force is its ability to learn, and we can expect US and British forces to adapt to changing circumstances. Spiegel suggests, for instance, that British have used tactics developed in Northern Ireland to seize Ba'ath Party leaders in Basra and to thus weaken the perceived center of gravity of the city's surprisingly tenacious resistance. There is now a delicate dance underway between Iraqi strategy and allied responses but, absent a catastrophic collapse of the Iraqi leadership, there are almost certainly bloodier days ahead.

posted by The Insurgent | 12:15 PM |

Friday, March 28, 2003  

Tensions with the Shi'a
Donald Rumsfeld has publicly warned Syria and Iran not to assist Iraq militarily and has directly attacked the presence of Shi'a military forces in Iraq! As this Reuters story in the Washington Post says:

Rumsfeld also had sharp words for Iran, charging the presence inside Iraq of "hundreds" of armed Iraqi Shi'ite Muslim forces opposed to Saddam and armed by Tehran and who also have warned against any foreign dominance of Iraq. Rumsfeld said U.S. forces would consider these members of the Badr Brigade as "combatants," although he said they have "not yet" been hostile toward the U.S.-led invasion force. There was no immediate comment from Iranian officials.

I urge people to read this story. SCIRI leader Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir Hakim has already warned US troops not to stay in Iraq any longer than absolutely required to overthrow Saddam's regime, saying that they will face armed resistance if they persist in an occupation. Now we have Rummy once again making threatening noises. Could we be drifting towards a repeat of Israel's (and America's) disastrous experience in Lebanon during the 1980s?

Remember that the Iran-backed Hizballah is the only force that can claim to have defeated Israel on the battlefield. There is no reason to think that Iran's allies in Iraq will shy away from a confrontation if things go bad. I still believe that there is some convergence between American and Iranian goals in Iraq, but the Bush administration's earlier bellicosity (I refer to the "axis of evil" speech, of course) may yet prove costly. Given how the allies have lost momentum for the moment, I think it imprudent for the US to so publicly berate the Shi'a forces. But, then, this administration clearly believes that threats are more productive that promises. Just ask Turkey and Mexico!

posted by The Insurgent | 3:04 PM |

Wednesday, March 26, 2003  

Komala Update
Paul McEnroe of the Minneapolis Star Tribune writes that Komala leaders have signed an agreement with the PUK to give up territory in northern Halabja so as to clear the way for a US-PUK ground assault on Ansar forces. The PUK allegedly paid Komala leaders US$600,000 to accept the deal and to evacuate 1,300 fighters with their guns away from the area. Komala members have been told that they will be allowed back around five months after the end of the US campaign. I'm not holding my breath.

Concerning the theory that this attack was intended to send a message to Iran, I was reminded today (thanks to Casus Belli) that SCIRI's al Badr brigade deployed a small force in eastern Kurdistan in mid-February. The PUK were none too pleased by this unilateral move.

posted by The Insurgent | 8:03 PM |

The Komala Puzzle
The United States opened its campaign in northern Iraq on Saturday, March 22nd, with a cruise missile assault on positions of the radical Islamist Ansar-ul Islam group that has been associated with al Qaeda. But surprisingly, several of the upto fifty missiles hit offices of the moderate Islamist Komala Islami Kurdistan (Kurdistan Islamic Group), killing 43 members and injuring 30. Only six Ansar members were killed. The Komala group is located in the town of Khormal, which Colin Powell alleged contained a poison gas factory for Ansar-ul Islam.

Both the Komala and members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have previously said that Powell's allegation is incorrect, and that the mainstream Komala has fraternal ties with both the radical Ansar and the secular PUK. As this Guardian article shows, members of Komala have been enraged by the attacks and by the absence of an American apology. A blanket "with us or against us" policy threatens moderate Islamists who might otherwise prove useful allies in the "war on terror". So why did the US attack this group? There are three possibilities, as I see it:

(1) The US has falled victim to internal Kurdish politics. The PUK wishes to establish itself as the undisputed leader of the Kurds of eastern Iraq and sees the invasion as an opportunity to weaken or eliminate any rivals. Since the PUK evidently helped US forces select their targets, it decided to teach the Komala a lesson in power. This, at least, is the view of other fearful Islamist leaders, according to AFP. This reading is supported by pronouncements made by some PUK leaders, as this revealing ABC news item demonstrates.

(2) The PUK and the US were exasperated with Komala equivocation over operations against Ansar radicals. According to the Guardian report cited above:

PUK's regional prime minister, Barham Salih, claimed that the Islamic group that bore the brunt of the weekend bombing had failed to distinguish itself clearly enough from Ansar al-Islam and had paid the price. "Obviously civilian casualties are a major concern to us," he said. "But we have told these guys to stay away from Ansar. They have nobody to blame but themselves." Ansar guerrillas had been moving freely across Komala's territory, he added.

(3) The attacks are a signal to Iran, the elephant in the room that no one talks about. Even though Iran no doubt relishes the imminent end of Saddam's regime, its leaders are well aware that they are #3 on the "Axis of Evil" target set. Ideally, for Iran, the US will pay such a high price to eliminate Saddam's regime that it will then become unwilling to risk an even bloodier confrontation with Iran. The most Machiavellian possibility is that Iran is supporting the Iraqi fedayeen, but Iran can rely upon more traditional allies to influence political outcomes in Iraq. Apart from obvious partners such as the Shi'a Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and its al Badr brigades, Iran's Revolutionary Guard has for some time been in contact with Islamist Kurds, and has also been accused by the PUK of providing logistical help to the Ansar (although this assistance was apparently ended late last year). The attack on the Komala could plausibly be read as a message to Iran to keep off eastern Kurdistan.

Depending, of course, on how the war in Iraq progresses, I would recommend keeping a close eye on Iran-US relations. If the US continues along its unilateralist course, watch for the first round in the Iran-US war to be fought in Iraq, by Iraqis. After all, that's what happened in the 'eighties in Lebanon.

posted by The Insurgent | 1:27 PM |

I originally planned to use this weblog to discuss the current Palestinian intifada, the insurgency in Kashmir and the surprising rebirth of Maoist movements in Asia, but the developing war in Iraq has convinced me to abandon these issues for the moment. The emergence of an Iraqi guerrilla resistance along the allies' axes of advance, and the role of Shi'a and Kurdish militias in the war on Iraq are suddenly more alluring topics.

posted by The Insurgent | 1:09 PM |