What happened in Iraq this week was a beautiful lesson in the weird laws of guerrilla warfare. Unfortunately, it was the Americans who got schooled. Even now, people at my office are saying, “We won, right? Sadr told his men to give up, right?”
Wrong. Sadr won big. Iran won even bigger. Maliki, Petraeus and Cheney lost.
For people raised on stories of conventional war, where both sides fight all-out until one side loses and gives up, what happened in Iraq this past week makes no sense at all. Sadr’s Mahdi Army was humiliating the Iraq Army on all fronts. In Basra, the Army’s grand offensive, code-named “The Charge of the Knights,” got turned into “The Total Humiliation of the Knights,” like something out of an old Monty Python skit.
Thousands of police who were supposed to be backing up the Iraqi Army either refused to fight or defected to Sadr’s Mahdi Army. In Basra, the Iraqi Army was stopped dead and clearly in danger of being crushed or forced to retreat from the city. In Baghdad, Sadr’s militia was rocketing the Green Zone non-stop—not a good look for the “Surge is working” PR drive—and driving the Iraqi Army clean out of the 2-million-man Shia slum, Sadr City. And in every poor Shia neighborhood in cities and towns all over Iraq, new branches of the Mahdi Army were forming up and attacking the government forces.
Then, after four days of uninterruptedly kicking Iraqi Army ass, Sadr graciously announces that he’s telling his men to end their “armed appearances” on the streets. Makes no sense, right? Nah, it makes a ton of sense, but you have to stop thinking of Gettysburg and Stalingrad and think long and slow, like a guerrilla.
If you want to know how NOT to think about Iraq, just start with anything ever said or imagined by Cheney or Bush. Our Commander in Chief declared a week ago, when the Iraqi Army first marched into Basra, “I would say this is a defining moment in the history of a free Iraq.” But when the Iraqi Army fled a few days later, he suddenly got very quiet. But anybody could see how deluded the poor fucker is just by all the nonsense he managed to cram into that 15-word sentence. I mean, “the history of a free Iraq”? That’s like that Mad Magazine joke about the “World’s Shortest Books.” But that’s nothing compared to Bush’s fundamentally wrong notion that there’s even such a thing as a “defining moment” in an urban guerrilla war. Guerrilla wars are slow, crock-pot wars. To win this kind of war, the long war, takes patience. Trying to force a “defining moment” by military action is not just ignorant and idiotic, but risks further demoralizing your side when that moment doesn’t happen, as it inevitably won’t. What happens when you launch premature strikes on a neighborhood-based group like the Mahdi Army is that you just end up convincing their neighborhoods that the occupiers are the enemy, and the Mahdi boys—all local kids you’ve known all your life—are heroes, defending your glorious slum from the foreigners and their lackeys.
By the time a homegrown group like Sadr’s is ready to “announce itself” on the streets, it’s put in years of serious grassroots work winning over the locals block by block. The Mahdi Army runs its own little world in the neighborhoods it controls. It distributes food to the poor, deals out rough justice to the local crims, and runs the checkpoints that keep Sunni suicide bombers off the block. It’s the home team, the Oakland Raiders times one million, for people in places like Sadr City. You can’t eradicate it without eradicating the whole neighborhood—or making it so rich that people don’t need a gang. That’s probably the only sure way to end guerrilla wars: make the locals so rich they’re not interested in gang life any more, turning them into Sean John Combs-alikes. And that’s not going to happen any time soon for the two or three million people crammed into places like Sadr City. Until then, the Mahdi Army is their team and they’re sticking by it.