Learning the Art of Occupation from Israel

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U.S. soldiers guard the site of a suicide attack outside a U.S. military base west of Mosul

The idea U.S. forces in Iraq may be taking lessons in occupation and counterinsurgency from the Israeli Defense Force may have only just begun to make the news in America, but it has been obvious to Iraqis for some time. For residents of the Sunni Triangle, who have spent years watching TV images of the residents of the West Bank and Gaza living under siege, surrounded by checkpoints and suffering periodic air strikes and military sweeps, the Palestinian experience offers a ready template for understanding the turn taken by their own lives over the past six months. Whole villages have been surrounded by razor wire, their residents forced to pass through checkpoints; U.S. aircraft and artillery have blasted buildings suspected of being used by insurgents; there have even been instances of family members of suspected insurgents being taken into custody when their wanted relatives can't be found. As one Iraqi waiting on line at a checkpoint last week told the New York Times, "I see no difference between us and the Palestinians." That's a worrying development for U.S. authorities, since in the eyes of much of the Arab world, the humiliation of occupation has served to justify terrorism against the Israelis.

It's not just the Iraqis of the Sunni Triangle that are seeing some connection between their experience and that of the Palestinians. A series of recent media reports suggests that U.S. forces have specifically sought advice, training and expertise from the Israeli Defense Force on how to deal with the Iraqi insurgency, although such contacts have remained discreet — "PR catastrophe" would be an understatement for the reaction in the Arab world, and in Iraq itself, if an army that likes to think of itself as Iraq's liberators turns out to be seeking coaching from Israel. The New York Times reported last weekend that U.S. officers had gone to Israel to study its experiences of urban warfare and counterinsurgency in the West Bank and Gaza before invading Iraq. The British Guardian quotes unnamed U.S. officials confirming that Israeli officers are helping to train U.S. Special Forces at Fort Bragg for counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, and also claims that Israeli officers have been in Iraq discreetly serving as consultants to U.S. operations there. The New Yorker quotes unnamed U.S. and Israeli officials to the same effect, stressing that the sensitivity of such contacts precludes their public acknowledgment.

A Crash Course in Occupation?

The U.S. military acknowledges studying the Israeli experience. Like the Israelis, the U.S. is facing an insurgency — at least in the Sunni Triangle — waged by a combination of secular nationalists (of the former Baathist regime) and militant Islamists, operating with a significant degree of support from the local population, willing to use a wide range of combat tactics and able to enlist a significant number of "shaheeds" (fighters willing to die in pursuit of martyrdom), although in Iraq some of these may be foreign jihadis. U.S. commanders don't have a clear picture of who is behind the insurgency. That fact alone is another potential reason for seeking Israeli help: Israel's massive intelligence-gathering operation in the West Bank and Gaza has allowed it to penetrate militant groups to the point of being able to target operational commanders for assassination by missile, even if the "collateral damage" in civilians is often substantial. If it is to destroy the Iraqi insurgency, the U.S. will have much to learn from the Israelis in the dark arts of intelligence-gathering in an occupied population. Israeli intelligence maintains a substantial cadre of highly experienced Arabic-speaking operatives, priding itself on its capability to gather human intelligence as far away as Iran. There were numerous reports before the outbreak of hostilities suggesting Israeli special forces units were operating in the deserts of western Iraq, aiming to neutralize any Iraqi missiles capable of striking Israel.

Accidental Occupiers

The U.S. military had never intended being an army of occupation in Iraq, and it arrived ill-prepared. Pentagon planners had imagined, more than a little naively, that they'd be able to hand the country over to Iraqi exiles and a population so grateful that most of the troops would be home by Christmas. Instead, the seventh month following President Bush's May 1 declaration of an end to major combat in Iraq has proved to be the bloodiest yet for U.S. forces — 82 American troops, and a further 35 from coalition allies, were killed in an average of 30 guerrilla attacks a day. The remnants of Saddam's regime that failed to fight for Baghdad had instead scattered and reorganized themselves, and they together with a wider group of Iraqi Islamists and nationalists and a smattering of foreign jihadis began an insurgency that appears to have taken root in many Sunni communities. The reach of its actions stretches from Mosul in the north to deep into the Shiite south, and it continues to launch repeated and increasingly brazen strikes in the capital.

The insurgency has not only imperiled reconstruction efforts; it has challenged the credibility of the occupation force. The likes of Osama bin Laden have always argued that if bloodied once or twice, the U.S. will retreat. Iraqi insurgents are now testing that theory, compelling the U.S. to hit back hard. In response to the insurgents Ramadaan offensive, U.S. forces have retaliated with everything from massive sweeps to air raids, artillery strikes and sieges. Of course, in many instances the target of these actions remained invisible; the object appears to have been to intimidate the local population by demonstrating that continued support for the insurgency would carry a heavy price. But U.S. officers are all too aware this tends to alienate Iraqis and turn more of them against the occupation — which is exactly what the insurgents are hoping to do.

A Long-Term Strategy

The adoption by the U.S. of tactics familiar from the West Bank and Gaza is hardly surprising given the escalation of the insurgency. The logic of force protection and maintaining the deterrent credibility of the 130,000-strong U.S. force in Iraq required an aggressive response. The Israelis have certainly shown that sustained military pressure can, at least on a temporary basis, put Palestinian militants on the defensive and significantly reduce the rate of attacks from a given area for a fixed period. But Israel's tactics are those that fit with a strategy of long-term occupation, in which the realistic goal of the Israeli Defense Force is to contain and manage the insurgency, knowing full well that it can't be extinguished through military means. Indeed, Israel's military and security chiefs are constantly warning that their counterinsurgency tactics actually alienate the Palestinian population and build support for radical groups, growing the pool of recruits available to the insurgency. They should know: They've been managing an uprising in the occupied West Bank and Gaza on and off for the past 16 years, and there are few signs of it ending any time soon. The U.S. is hoping to transform the situation next year by handing sovereign political control back to Iraqis. But if the logic of occupation and resistance continues to evolve in the Sunni Triangle and the problems of legitimacy continue to trouble the political transition process, Washington, may indeed find itself in a situation uncomfortably familiar to Israelis.