Methods That Work in Iraq
The United States is now employing our former enemies to fight Al-Qaeda. This new approach, especially noticeable in the provinces of Anbar and Diyala, is paying off. We shouldn’t be surprised. History has ample precedent.
A number of former enemies – Sunni and Shi’a groups – of the American presence in Iraq have already signed on and are guided by three simple rules: they must promise to stop fighting American forces; agree to attack Al-Qaeda forces; and finally, begin a gradual rapprochement and cooperation with Iraqi military and police forces.
Bringing former insurgents into the fold is a mark not only of progress but of sound, practical thinking, a good grasp of historical precedent, and a much better understanding of local politics. Pols everywhere agree: all politics is local.
U.S. commanders have in fact realized that the best weapon against a guerrilla is frequently a former guerrilla. Except to the political naifs who get their history lessons from Showtime this is not a new concept, but one which has been used by the U.S. Army — indeed by a number of armies — in the past, and frequently with remarkable success.
When the fascist government in Italy finally collapsed, some of the fiercest fighters on the Allied side were Italian soldiers who but weeks before had fought alongside their German counterparts. The Italians, however, had come to fear and loathe their Nazi allies. It hadn’t taken too long for them to realize who their real enemies were. Eager to come to blows with their former oppressors they sought to fight alongside Allied forces. Allied leadership was practical enough to recognize the potential contributions of Italian fighters. Rather than disarm these former enemies or shift them to the sidelines, we took strategic and tactical advantage of our new allies’ hard won experience, their intimate knowledge of Wehrmacht operations, and their enthusiasm to pay back their Nazi overlords.
Payback is by no means a new concept. When Hernando Cortez conquered what is now Mexico he never had more than 500 Spanish soldiers under his command. Certainly the horses, steel swords and primitive muskets gave the Spaniards a limited advantage, but even these would have been fairly useless in confronting an enemy numbering literally in the tens of thousands. Instead, Cortez quickly realized that while the Aztecs were the big dog on the block, they had not made any friends in the region. Arrogant to a fault, rapacious and brutal to neighboring tribes, the Aztec Empire looted and murdered its neighbors without compunction. They herded thousands of captured subjects back to Tenotchtitlan for the sole purpose of butchering them to appease bloodthirsty gods. (Does the behavioral pattern sound familiar?) When the Spaniards arrived they were delighted to welcome the thousands upon thousands of local tribesmen who flocked to their banners in the hope of getting back at their Aztec overlords. This approach worked to a fault. In record time the vaunted and vicious Aztec Empire ceased to exist.
American soldiers in the field were quick to recognize the potential of the disenchanted and yet fierce members of Native American warrior sects. The majority of scouts for the US Army during the extensive Sioux Wars of the 1870’s through 1890’s for example were not, as Hollywood might have us believe, United States soldiers. Instead they were largely Arikara, Shoshone, Pawnee, Winnebago, and Crow scouts. All of these indigenous people knew and hated the Sioux. The Sioux were fellow Indians to be sure, but not well loved by those who by necessity or tradition lived near them. It was a group of Shoshone and Crow scouts who in June of 1876 first discovered and then blunted a massive assault by Crazy Horse’s warriors on Brigadier General George Crook’s encampment along the Rosebud. A week later, George Custer would use Crow and Arikara scouts to discover a large encampment of Sioux led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Unfortunately for him and many of his men Custer would dismiss the Crow’s declaration that the camp contained “…more warriors than you have bullets.” A cavalier disregard of his scouts’ advice proved disastrous in this event.
The following year the Sioux themselves would actually volunteer to track and fight the Nez Perces. And in later years General George Crook would be faced with the task of bringing to bay Geronimo’s fierce marauding Apaches. No pushovers, Crook described the Apaches as “the tigers of the human species.” Knowing the difficulties facing him Crook quickly enlisted the aid of other Apache warriors as scouts. It was the Apache scouts who finally located and brought Geronimo to bay. They knew the enemy and the terrain intimately. Apaches would continue to serve as scouts for the Army as a separate unit until as late as 1942. In almost every significant case, throughout the Indian wars it was the Indian Scouts who led American forces to the enemy in question.
We should keep this in mind when congressmen and news commentators begin to question a military use of former guerrillas against Al-Qaeda or the Mahdi Army. Perhaps it has taken us some time to relearn the lessons of history but this may just be the approach that our commitment to Iraq requires. Our newly acquired allies have learned their lessons the hard way. They have come to realize that the true enemies of Iraq and the Iraqi people are not American GIs — instead they are fanatical Saudis, Syrians, Egyptians, Chechens, Palestinians and Iranians who have come to feed their blood thirsty gods with the bodies of Iraqis. Or they are criminals and murderers who thrive on the chaos of war at the expense of those who would work and live in peace rather than raise their children in a climate of fear and death.
What we must now strive to do is to not repeat our past grievous errors. Most Native American Indian scouts were woefully treated after they had served honorably and well. Disarmed, abused, returned to reservations, their treatment amounts to nothing less than a national disgrace. In our own history General Crook, in a rare display of integrity, resigned his commission when his promises to his Apache scouts were broken by a duplicitous government in Washington.
But I don’t worry about the generals, it’s the politicians who bear careful watching.
Frederick J. Chiaventone – retired Army officer and award-winning novelist and screenwriter taught counter-insurgency at the Army’s staff college.