commentary

(San Francisco Chronicle)

January 4, 2004

Mao as Guide to Fight in Iraq

by Ralph Masi

“The invader's strategy must be one of lightning war. If we can hold out for three or more years, it will be most difficult for them to bear up under the strain.”

This sounds like it could be a midgame pep talk by Saddam Hussein to his followers. But the words are not Hussein's before his capture. They are Mao Zedong's in 1937, discussing the Japanese invasion of China.

And strange as it may seem, a look at the thoughts of Chairman Mao on battling an occupying army from 66 years ago may help us make some educated guesses about the challenges facing the United States and the next government of Iraq.

Mao's concepts of guerrilla warfare were later translated (in the 1961 book “On Guerrilla Warfare,” by S. B. Griffith) into three phases of insurgency.

The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong refined the phases into a well-practiced and deadly military science. They succeeded in overthrowing the government of South Vietnam after the United States tired of a seemingly endless war and ultimately withdrew its armed forces.

According to Mao, the first phase of insurgency is a “survival” phase. The start of the insurgency in Iraq coincided with the end of major combat operations in May and the removal of the Hussein regime.

Mao said that during the first phase of insurgency, the infrastructure of guerrilla warfare is developed: a recruiting campaign, repositioning of weapons and munitions, and a new ideology of resistance and a propaganda apparatus to spread the ideology. All this happened in Iraq.

Next comes a small-scale offensive designed more to shake the determination of the invading forces and their countrymen than to have a serious military impact.

In Iraq, this consisted of roadside bombings, rocket-propelled grenade assaults and sniper attacks. Such an offensive also serves to rally support for the insurgents at home and abroad, and helps raise funds and recruits.

A successful first phase of insurgency can ignite a second phase of larger-scale offensive activity — and this is what U.S. forces confront in Iraq today.

In this phase, the insurgency progresses from sporadic, relatively small- scale activities to carefully planned, coordinated, calamitous attacks.

These attacks strike highly symbolic targets — as happened with the attacks on the United Nations' and Red Cross headquarters and the Jordanian Embassy in Iraq.

Such attacks also attempt to strike important human targets — Iraqis allied with the United States, high-ranking U.S. officials like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz on his recent visit, and U.S. and coalition troops traveling in helicopters and manning military checkpoints.

In the second phase, the insurgency's intelligence-gathering capability grows, and that enables progressively more sophisticated, frequent and deadly activity. A synergy comes to exist between the insurgency's intelligence-collection capability and increased hostile action.

This explains why more American soldiers have been killed after major combat operations were declared terminated by President Bush on May 1 than during the invasion and battles that toppled the Hussein regime.

The insurgency also grows decentralized in the second phase, making the killing or capture or key individuals, such as Hussein, less significant than in conventional militaries.

“Command cannot be highly centralized,” Mao wrote, in words that could describe today's Iraqi resistance. “If it were, guerrilla action would be too limited in scope.”

Mao said the third phase of insurgency is the decisive stage.

At this point, an insurgency has grown large enough to have a real chance of victory with a combination of conventional and unconventional warfare. This phase has not arrived in Iraq, and if the United States is successful, it never will.

Iraq's insurgents can't defeat U.S. forces on the battlefield, and the insurgents know it. Unable to advance to a third phase of insurgency, a realistic goal of the insurgents is to stay deadlocked in a second phase until they can drive out the U.S.-led coalition.

This is what happened in Lebanon after the U.S. Marine barracks bombing in October 1983, and again in Somalia in October 1993 during attempts to take down the government of Mohammed Farah Aidid.

The job of U.S. military forces is at minimum to contain the second phase of insurgency and reduce it to the level of the first phase as rapidly as possible.

Offensive operations of the sort begun in Iraq in November will have to continue and emphasize tactical interdiction — finding and destroying enemy capability before it can be used against American and allied coalition forces. These operations have been fruitful and led directly to locating and capturing Hussein.

The long-term goal must be to shut down the Iraqi insurgency entirely. But we must acknowledge that this could still take years of sacrifice in lives and treasure, and not be an easy task.


Ralph Masi, a retired career Army officer, is a senior analyst at the RAND Corporation, a research organization based in Santa Monica.

This commentary originally appeared in San Francisco Chronicle on January 4, 2004. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.