The Guerrilla Advantage in Iraq

As recently as two weeks ago, Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, called the guerrilla attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq “strategically and operationally insignificant.”

Insignificant? Actually, it is difficult to identify any military or political objectives that the guerrillas are not making real progress toward achieving.

The insurgents have successfully struck a blow at coalition military forces. According to an extensive survey by Stars and Stripes, 49% of troops reported that their unit’s morale was low or very low.

Friendly governments, like Japan’s, have either delayed their troop commitments or, like the Italians, are debating their current commitments.


And there are indications that the ranks of the insurgents are swelling with every successful strike against U.S. forces and other targets.

The guerrillas have successfully delayed the reconstruction and economic recovery of Iraq and substantially raised the costs of these efforts. Recurring attacks on miles of unguarded Iraqi pipelines have continued to impair the coalition’s ability to improve the vital flow of oil out of the country.

Also, as a result of direct attacks on their offices and personnel as well as the absence of security generally, the 15 largest aid agencies, including the Red Cross, have been driven out of Iraq.

Finally, the insurgents have achieved political success by properly appreciating that the “center of gravity” is the will of the adversary.


Last week, the widely reported results of a top-secret CIA study indicated that Iraqis are losing faith in the U.S.-led occupation forces, resulting in increasing support for the resistance.

Also last week, after calling back to Washington the civilian administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, the Bush administration announced that it would transfer power to a provisional Iraqi government by June 2004.

Following on the heels of a string of guerrilla attacks and the disturbing results of the CIA study, it is a move that appears to be taken out of desperation. It took Afghan guerrillas almost 10 years to force the withdrawal of Soviet troops. The Iraqi guerrillas could plausibly achieve the same result against the United States before the end of next year.

Sanchez’s dismissive remark regarding the guerrillas reveals the contempt that conventional forces typically feel for guerrillas.


For example, when American commanders characterize the guerrillas as “cowardly,” it only betrays the coalition’s frustration in dealing with the guerrillas’ hit-and-run tactics.

The belief that guerrilla warfare is unsophisticated or inferior is as wrong as it is widespread. As Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Samuel B. Griffith II noted, “This generalization is dangerously misleading and true only in the technological sense. If one considers the picture as a whole, a paradox is immediately apparent, and the primitive form is understood to be in fact more sophisticated than nuclear war or atomic war or war as it was waged by conventional armies, navies and air forces.”

Gen. John Abizaid, the head of U.S. Central Command, has stated that the number of insurgents “does not exceed 5,000.” The U.S. has about 130,000 troops in Iraq. Yet during World War I, Lawrence of Arabia was able to tie down 200,000 Turkish troops with only 3,000 guerrillas. The Americans’ numerical advantage is also exaggerated because the number of American combat-trained troops in Iraq is only 56,000; the remainder represent a support-and-logistics infrastructure.

The final outcome of the guerrilla war in Iraq has yet to be written, but the verdict of history is not encouraging.


Throughout the ages, able leaders have demonstrated the ability of guerrilla tactics to humble a conventional force that is both physically and technologically superior.

The Roman commander Fabius the Cunctator fought a successful delaying action against Carthage. William Wallace harassed English King Edward Longshanks. T.E. Lawrence led a successful Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire. The Viet Cong inflicted a long, torturous war on the United States.

Experience strongly suggests that there is very little hope of destroying a revolutionary guerrilla movement after it has acquired the sympathetic support of a significant segment of the population, ranging from 15% to 25%. This support does not need to be actively sympathetic; it merely needs to not betray the insurgents. The intensely tribal nature of the Iraqi populace, where almost half of all marriages are between first cousins, buttresses this solidarity.

Lt. Gen. Sanchez’s comment that the guerrilla attacks are “insignificant” is evocative of an exchange between an American officer and a North Vietnamese colonel just before the fall of Saigon.


“You know you never defeated us on the battlefield,” the American said.

The North Vietnamese colonel pondered this remark a moment.

“That may be so,” he replied, “but it is also irrelevant.”

Michael Keane is the author of the “Dictionary of Strategy & Tactics,” to be published in 2004 by the Naval Institute Press. He also is a lecturer on strategy at USC’s Marshall School of Business.