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Our Last Chance to Get it Right?
May 7, 2004
By W.V. Micko

G-U-E-R-R-I-L-L-A. The word comes from the Spanish word guerre, followed by the suffix -illa, meaning "little warriors." Its origin is from the hit-and-run tactics of the Peninsular Campaign in Spain, although the concept itself predates the Napoleonic wars by many centuries.

We ourselves won our independence through the use of guerrilla tactics, though the idea was already quite old when undisciplined, poorly-equipped Yankees used it to force Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga. It is the standard tactic used when a weak force faces a strong one.

The greatest strength of guerrilla warfare is that it simply does not take a great many violent die-hards to create an unstable, unwinnable chaos. In November, General Abizaid estimated Iraqi guerrilla strength at a mere 5000 men - yet those 5000 were enough to cause what was until last month the bloodiest month in the history of the Iraq war, a violence dangerous enough to induce the Administration to change their plans for Iraqification. The logic behind it is simple: while winning battles in the field is difficult, creating unpredictable, destabilizing violence is relatively easy.

As Mao Tse-Tung noted, "a guerrilla is a fish swimming in a sea of peasants." While a few thousands or even a few tens of thousands of guerrillas aren't many in comparison to a civil population of some 20 million, they need assistance. It's the general population who feeds them, hides them and gives them the information they need to operate. This is why the "hearts and minds" battle is so important. Reduce the incidence of non-fighting but violence-supporting radicals in the general population enough, the actual fighters remain a threat to individuals, but not the functioning of government as a whole.

Here again, it doesn't take many supporters to enable more dangerous, chaos-creating operations by guerrillas. For us to win over a mere majority who oppose the guerrillas is far from enough. We need to win over perhaps as much as ninety percent of the Iraqi civil population, at least to the point where they despise violent anarchy and terroristic guerrilla attacks more than they despise U.S. troops.

The number who "choose" us over the insurgents, as the lesser of two evils, at least, must go far beyond a majority or even a mandate. It has to be such an overwhelming majority that for the minority, the supporting of guerrillas is dangerous, that the chance of being turned in for supporting guerillas is far too great for most to risk, no matter where their sympathies lie.

We've all heard about how hard the Coalition is working to improve conditions for Iraqis, and how they are indeed worrying about the "hearts and minds" battle. Unfortunately, a new school in every village or neighborhood will not have the impact on "hearts and minds" as that of a single picture of a naked, hooded captive being forced to masturbate as a female soldier points grinning at his genitals with a cheery thumbs-up.

Hours and hours of American-financed happy-talk on the "official" CPA channels cannot undo the effects of a single interview on Al Jazeera with a victim of American torture. Nor will the beginnings of a spiffy new Iraqi police force offset the shock and horror Shiites must feel at the news that one of Saddam's Revolutionary Guard generals has been given command of the Iraqi operation at Fallujah (since rescinded, thankfully), or the news that we're recruiting from the very Sunni fighters we're supposed to be suppressing. Justifiably or not, Shiites will naturally wonder where the resulting sectarian-tribal force will operate after Fallujah.

It's always easier to get people to hate than to love, and easier still to make them hate us if they also have reason to fear those they would hate. It's quite possible that there is now no possible way to undercut the public support that insugency and terror requires destroy stability.

We may well have lost the war last week.

Unless, that is, we can prove to the Iraqi people that the United States is even more horrified by our own abuses than they are. We should be. I'm disgusted that men and women behaved this way while wearing the same uniform I once wore. They are not my comrades in arms. They're criminals, pure and simple, a stain on the honor of all military men and women, past and present. As are the officers who allowed and encouraged the tortures of Abu Ghraib Prison to happen.

Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, commanding general of the 800th Military Police Brigade should not be allowed to quietly mourn the death of her career. If, as the investigation of Major General Antonio Taguba suggests, she was negligent in her command responsibility to properly supervise her troops, she should be court-martialed and not quietly admonished and passed over for commands and promotions.

If, as General Karpinski claims, and Sergeant Javal Davis, Staff Sergeant Chip Frederick and other portions of the Taguba report corroborate, she was deliberately cut out of the loop by Intelligence in order to enable the gathering of intelligence through torture and abuse, then she should be a star witness in the investigation and trial of those higher commanders and officials who are responsible.

And in no case should the investigation stop with Abu Ghraib Prison or the 800th Military Police Brigade. Rooting out the source of this evil and knowing that we've rooted it out is both a moral and and a military imperative.

Finally, this argues more strongly than ever for a greater role for the U.N. and other international organizations. If the Red Cross or Red Cresent been allowed access, these abuses would never have happened. Nor would they have happened if the U.N.'s blue helmets been in Iraq, we'd have made sure that we had our flies zipped.

Make no mistake: we have lost whatever moral authority we once had in Iraq. The only way to recover a semblance of it is to demonstrate that since we cannot trust even ourselves, we'll open ourselves to international observation as a way to keep ourselves honest. They'll help us keep our attention on the two additional investigations going on in this matter.

After all, as Seymour Hersh said in an interview yesterday of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or the Secretary of Defense, all of whom claimed a lack of knowledge of this issue until CBS broke the story to the general public and we all became aware of it, "you could almost say the fact that they hadn't read it indicates how low down the totem pole these issues were for them until, of course, it hit the press."

This is what, the fourth or fifth major, mission-threatening screwup that occurred simply because our top people are disinterested in unpleasant, unglorious details?

Dehumanization, torture and terror in Saddam's favorite prison and a return of the Baathist thugs to their customary postitions behind a gun will almost certainly ensure that a significant portion of the Iraqi public will fear and despise us and our helpers far more than terroristic guerrillas no matter how well or how skillfully we perform our mission of democratization in the future. These people will support the guerrillas. Some will become guerrillas themselves. The only chance we have to prevent this - and with it the utter failure of our mission in Iraq - is to move agressively now... and this time, we need to move against the terrorists in our own ranks.

"We have met the enemy, and he is us."

W.V. Micko is a political writer and Democratic activist in Sacramento, California.

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