Sun Tzu, the great Chinese philosopher of war, once wrote, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” The absence of such knowledge invites trouble, often disaster. This certainly applies to the ongoing conflict in Iraq, where understanding the insurgents is both crucial and difficult.
To some degree, the Iraq insurgency reflects its historic predecessors. The conflict is “armed theater,” in which the antagonists are simultaneously locked in struggle with each other and sending messages to wider audiences, particularly the Iraqi people. Like all insurgencies, public support – or the lack of it – will determine the outcome.
Moreover, it is likely to be a protracted performance. History suggests that once an insurgency reaches “critical mass,” it takes a decade or more to eradicate it. And, like past insurgencies, the Iraq conflict is one in which the insurgents use horrific acts to intimidate the public, expose the shortcomings of the government, and goad the regime into overreactions that might turn the public against it.
But the Iraq insurgency deviates from its forebears in vital ways. Its cultural context differs from twentieth-century insurgencies, particularly the use of a radical ideology derived from religion. By contrast, twentieth-century insurgencies were usually secular, based on economic class, sectarian differences, or other deep political cleavages. The intermingling of religious passion and political radicalism makes the Iraqi insurgency particularly dangerous and difficult to quell.