Falluja and Gaza: Why Counter-Terrorism fails when the Problem is Political

By Juan Cole

There are such things as small terrorist groups that do a lot of harm and lack any significant social or political support. It may well be that such groups can be defeated by counter-terrorism operations.

Other so-called terrorist groups are more organic, growing out of the profound suffering and grievances of a whole population. Such groups may deploy terror (attacks by non-state actors on non-combatants), but they aren’t actually just terrorist groups. They are insurgencies. Only about 20% of insurgencies end by the decisive military defeat of the insurgents on the part of the government. Most are ended through a negotiated settlement.

In spring of 2004, some Blackwater mercenaries were hotrodding it through the Sunni Arab city of Falluja just west of Baghdad. They were attacked by an angry crowd, killed, and their bodies desecrated. Three of the four were Americans.

Newsweek reported at the time that George W. Bush took the attack as an affront to the US and said “heads must roll.” He set in motion a siege and invasion of Falluja. But in April 2004 the US lost control of southern Iraq because of the Mahdi Army uprising, and Bush was trying to transition to a civilian Iraq government instead of the failed American viceroy, Paul “Jerry” Bremer. Several members of the Iraqi governing council that was advising Bremer on the transition threatened to resign if Falluja were invaded. So Bush backed off.

But after Bush won reelection against John Kerry, he immediately returned to the plan to invade Falluja. The administration charged that Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, was based in Falluja and that large numbers of the car bombings in Baghdad were planned and carried out from there. In November of 2004, the US surrounded and then invaded Falluja. The US military destroyed the city, leaving many buildings in rubble. The population either ran away to refugee camps or stayed to risk death. The death toll will never be known.

All the Sunni Arabs in Iraq were furious about the US invasion and razing of Falluja. They announced that they would not participate in the January, 2005, elections. And that began the alienation of the Sunni Arabs from the new Iraqi government, which came to be dominated by fundamentalist Shiites and separatist Kurds.

After Falluja was invaded and partially destroyed, the car bombings went on just as before. It was not in fact indispensable to the resistance to US occupation. Indeed, Zarqawi was killed in late spring of 2006, a year and a half later, and that made no difference to the rate of violence, either.

The US misunderstood the Sunni resistance as narrow, as consisting of a few small terrorist groups. Washington thought it knew where they were based (Falluja) and was convinced that invading that city would allow them to inflict substantial attrition on the military and organizational capacity of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. US security analysts wrote me at the time saying that killing leaders was crucial, because leadership skills are rare and leaders are hard to replace.

In January of 2014, early this year, Falluja fell to the successor of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq. The Sunni Arab population of the city had been done out by a all those years of American occupation and then the high-handed Shiite dominance of PM Nouri al-Maliki. So the 2004 invasion of Falluja not only did not root out “terrorism,” it paved the way very possibly for Iraq to lose Falluja and other major Iraq Sunni Arab population centers.

Likewise, the Israeli military profoundly misunderstands Hamas. It is ridiculous to dismiss it as a terrorist organization. it is broadly based and has an important political wing.

For this reason, the Israel ground invasion of northern Gaza will be no more successful than the US invasion of Falluja. The Israelis cannot actually destroy Hamas or its capabilities as long as significant numbers of Palestinians in Gaza support it. That support is political, having to do with the organization’s role in at least trying to stand up to Israeli oppression, occupation and blockade.

Just as the enemies of the US ultimately prevailed in Falluja, so the enemies of Israel will prevail in Gaza.

Oppression and occupation produce resistance. Until the oppression and the occupation are addressed, the mere inflicting of attrition on the military capabilities of the resistance will not snuff it out. Other leaders will take the place of those killed.

If Israel really wanted peace or relief from Hamas rockets, its leaders would pursue peace negotiations in good faith with Hamas (which has on more than one occasion reliably honored truces). Otherwise, invading Gaza will have all the same effects, good and bad (but mostly bad) that the US invasion of Falluja had on Iraq.


Related video:

Falluja via RT from last March

21 Responses

  1. Israeli leaders are proving that THEY are the ones who never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Their unending commitment to confrontation makes these leaders Israel’s most dangerous enemy.

      • Hi, JWalters.

        The link you provide makes for some fascinating reading. I’ve spent the last couple of hours looking around and following links from the first third or so of it, I’ve learned a reasonable amount about some of the key figures in political Zionism near the turn of the 20th century.

        However, further down the page comes a distinct problem with selectivity, and links to questionable sources such as “Behind the Balfour Declaration” by Robert John, published by the Institute for Historical Review; an organisation derided as publishing non-academic work:

        “We all abhor, on both moral and scholarly grounds, the substantive arguments of the Institute for Historical Review. We reject their claims to be taken seriously as historians.”
        ~Journal of American Historians

        “[T]here is a strong presumption against censoring any advertisement, especially if we disagree with its politics. This case, however, is different. Their arguments are ‘patently fraudulent.'”
        ~The Nation magazine, on refusing advertising from IHR

        In searching for a key quote attributed to Chaim Weizmann, Google returns a mere 99 verbatim results, almost exclusively on anti-Semitic or Holocaust revisionist sites such as Barnes Review and Stormfront.

        Restricting the results to academic sites, (adding “site:.edu” to the search) returns zero results.

        Many of the more substantial arguments are taken from ‘The Controversy of Zionism’ the author of which, Doulgas Reed, during WWII wrote a book were summarised by Orwell as:

        “the dominant notes being back to the land, more emigration, down with the Reds and—above all—down with the Jews.”

        Getting back to the substance Juan Cole’s great article, I’d say that the problems with counter-terrorism and of terrorism are exclusively dependent on the absolutely divisive poison of identity politics.

        • You raise some fair points. I’d offer two suggestions. First, there are bigots on all sides of these conflicts, and they will use facts that suit them. So there will indeed be anti-Semites who will use some facts about Jewish history to make their case. But that does not invalidate those facts. Second, Israel’s defenders have long accused any criticism of being anti-Semitic, and have managed to have many intelligent voices effectively sidelined (e.g. Noam Chomsky). I suggest people read these sources and think for themselves. The fact that such fundamental facts as these are entirely missing from America’s mainstream discussion of a major life and death issue speaks volumes about the power of the campaign to bury these facts.

  2. This sounds familiar. The French and Americans learned this in Vietnam……….oh….what’s that? I stand corrected. Only the French…..

    • The French didn’t learn anything — they just got their butts kicked outa there. Even with a lot of help from good ol’ “US,” their colonialists just could not manage to keep down a bunch of dudes with a nationalist inspiration, popular support, real skin in the game, and AK-47s and some modern artillery.

      Not that Vietnamese have done such a great job of making life decent for the ordinary people who generate all the real wealth, do all the real labor, and still face stinko lives under the inevitable corrupt rulers that us colonialists always manage to leave behind or fertilize the field for… The French officers and colonial “administrators” and “plantation owners” just went comfortably home, to nice retirements of mornings at the cafe’, days at the Club, nights of pleasure… Just like our own upper class “leaders” and “officers” and “rulers:”
      “Generals live like kings,” link to outsidethebeltway.com,
      and as to competence, “Todays’s Generals are well trained [at corruption sex shenanigans and bureaucracy and career management], but ill-prepared for battle,” link to pbs.org Can’t even “win” even when they cheat: link to overcomingbias.com

      More context, anyone?

      “Transparency International: corruption up in Vietnam, Laos and China,” link to asianews.it

      “Corruption played a signficant role in thwarting American objectives in Vietnam by contributing to the South Vietnam government’s lack of legitimacy. The heavy handed and corrupt government of South Vietnam actually made the countryside fertile for the insurgency of the Viet Cong and the communist [sic:nationalist] (victory).” link to globalsecurity.org

      “This blog is all about the corruption in Vietnam,” the blogger’s home country — link to tunguyen08.wordpress.com

      As to Nobody’s next question, what might be done on this one element of the unfunded puny efforts to
      “impose decency and comity,” there’s this from the Vietnamese experience: “VIETNAM: CITIZENS AGAINST CORRUPTION,” link to transparency.org

      And in case we disremember, corruption is rife in Israel, link to jpost.com, and of course in our own country — poignant references available on request, if anyone out there is too lazy to google “corruption united states america.”

      Of course, all of this involves huge transfers of wealth, with lots of “leakage” and “siphoning off,” and all the other stuff that happens in what’s excused as “necessity” and “the fog of war…” in case anyone wonders why it goes on and on and on and on…

    • “This sounds familiar. The French and Americans learned this in Vietnam……….oh….what’s that? I stand corrected. Only the French…..”

      You might consider “correcting” yourself by reading a bit of history. If the French “learned” anything from their Vietnam experience, they sure didn’t apply it to the Algerian War. They got kicked out of Vietnam in 1954, and waged war in Algeria from 1954 until they gave that up in 1962. So much for lessons “learned” by the French.

      • Oops…..I stand corrected. The French needed a short refresher course. Thanks for expounding, JT and William.

  3. In short, the US government and many if not most of its military leaders don’t know what the hell they’re doing most of the time.

    The intelligence that the President get is not really intelligence, just ignorant opinions from individuals that don’t know what they’re talking about. Why isn’t the US government and military consulting with Juan Cole and others like him that have lived in the various Middle East countries, that speak and read the native languages and that really understand what’s going on? Because the US government and military are run by the corrupt billionaires and their puppet millionaires that get richer and more powerful with the useless and/or illegal wars.

    Obama is either stupid or just another evil corrupt millionaire.

    When is America going to wake up and start voting in intelligent, honest individual that will eliminate all the secrecy and corruption?
    America cannot wake up until the corrupt major news medias are replaced with honest and real news medias. Enough of the crap, lies and propaganda that the billionaires approve.

    A majority of Congress should be replaced.

    I’m tired of the continuing polite, intellectual discussion on this site without specific suggestions and actions on how to get rid of the billionaires controlling the news media and the US government.

    • It’s perhaps not so much that they don’t know what they are doing, rather that they lack perspective so they are dealing largely with symptoms, rarely with causes. It is a confrontational, one might say medieval, attitude of mind where one side wins and the other side loses. Most senior members of the administration studied law, and US law, as opposed to the Napoleonic variety, is quintessentially confrontational, almost gladiatorial. The idea that the function of courts is painstakingly to investigate circumstances in pursuit of truth is alien, which is why many Americans get so hot under the collar about investigations like that in Italy relating Amanda Knox. Considering these ‘leaders’ were probably pretty good at their law studies, it is hardly surprising they carry that approach into their later lives. Those with classical or philosophical backgrounds acquire more perspective, and that colours their view of events and their response to them but they are rarely attracted to political life and not much welcomed when they are.

  4. Don’t have the energy to speak to this totally, but there are a lot of smart, well-informed people in government, giving well-thought through advice on foreign policy and any number of other things. When they get in a corner they call on specialist in academia to round out their thinking, Prof Cole being a case in point post 911. The problem is the politics you have to endure in a democracy and the inherent nature of organizations when it comes to policy decisions.

    On relatively mundane things it is possible, notwithstanding the idiosyncrasies of one agency and its middle managers, for a good position to be developed and by and large implemented. However, once it becomes more important, it gets kicked upstairs to people without the background to use the specialists correctly as they (necessarily) have to adapt advice for the inevitable politics and how it fits into the larger policy picture. When it becomes really important, how much time do you think a guy like Obama really has to get acquainted with the pros and cons of an issue and the alternatives being presented to him?

    When you think about it, it’s a pretty pessimistic picture. And that assumes you’ve got a President who has the wisdom to know how to use people properly, can recognize the biases of their perspectives (and use them to his advantage), and has the strength to tell his underlings what is acceptable in terms of what they bring him. Think of the how (this is anecdotal, I think) Obama got boxed in by the generals when it came to his alternatives in Afghanistan.

    Throw in a bunch of neocons that have never really been discredited (to the extent they still ARE influencing policy), the politics needs of a gerrymandered congress, the ramifications of the Citizens United case, and one is led to start looking for a personal alternative off the grid, or perhaps someplace like Ecuador.

    • Speaking of policy, one of my fave books is “First In: An Insider’s Account of How The CIA Spearheaded The War On Terror in Afghanistan.” If one is past the cheerleading stage, “Lookie how we kicked Soviet and Taliban butt!”, and looks with jaundiced eye, one can see so many examples of how “policy preferences” drive and control really dangerous stuff, and move things in idiotic directions. All wrapped up in glorious self-congratulatory prose, complete with deniability and excuses pre-positioned.

      But if one studies this little snapshot of the frame in which the Game is played, and the innate, inherent, ineffable, inexhaustible, inevitable corruption of thought and wealth and institutions, and is aware of other colorful bits of history like near-launches of all the Superpowers’ nuclear weapons, link to theguardian.com, and the “policy”-driven research into nanoweapons and autonomous killing machines and how far out in front of our overall culture the “NSA” thing is, one has to be a little skeptical that ANY kind of fix is possible for what looks to me like a giant death wish. Albeit one that will give a very few of us a real huge rush, before their “policies” kill us off.

      And I would underscore the substance of my cynicism by adding that I worked as an enforcement attorney and assistant regional counsel for the US EPA for 13 years, and watched and participated in how statutes get drafted and written, how regulations get drafted and “policies” that control their actual enforcement come magically into being after regulators meet behind closed doors with “the regulated,” all that kind of corruption… All that effort by the relatively few who might (given the realities of spoils-system staffing) still think in terms of what’s good for the general welfare, versus the welfare of the generals, generally brought to naught by good old follow-the-money. I don’t see anything even close to a Guiding Light that even remotely directs “policy” in all its parts in any kind of a sustainable, survival-of-the-species channel — just greed and graft and careerists looking for advantage and advancement in “the system.” And predators and parasites, always looking for an opening. Much like what I read about the latter days of other empires, and what appears to obtain “in every clime and place” across the planet.

      Ecuador? Good luck with that — link to axisoflogic.com And if you try to go off the grid, watch out for the Jivaro with the blowgun or 6-foot arrow, behind that dying tree… link to ecuador.com

      “Good positions” getting implemented? Maybe if the “position” is to place one’s head between one’s legs and kiss one’s dear good patoot goodbye…

  5. From what I’ve read the hard-line Israelis in power don’t desire peace, a ceasefire, independence, etc. They’re well aware their actions produce resistance. They view Palestinians as inferior to the Jewish people and, if they can’t kill or evict them, they will try to break their will to resist in perpetuity. Especially cruel is that when engaged in war the Israelis view men, women, and children of the enemy as fair targets; they kill them all.

    • Getting back to the topic, I think this is the real bottom line, whatever fine-points we may want to put on it. It’s a pretty fundamental attitude you can hear the Israelis in power say in as many words, that if “you (meaning the Palestinians, or you, Don NC), aren’t for them, you’re against them.”

      Now, connect that dot with their influence (arguably control) over the US congress and government more generally, not to mention unfettered access to the NSA databases: link to techdirt.com

      Then, throw in a arsenal of at least 200 thermonuclear weapons (not just air base or armored column busters, but city vaporizers), plus the missiles to deliver them far beyond their own neighborhood. At this point, State Department vapidness in the face of egregious Israel behavior perhaps, at many different levels, becomes more understandable.

      Have a nice day.

  6. ‘If Israel really wanted peace or relief from Hamas rockets, its leaders would pursue peace negotiations in good faith with Hamas …’

    It is becoming a cliche to say it, but Israel does not want peace (yet), it wants the land and it wants the Palestinians to leave.

    • All true. Another point is that the U.S. is not ready for a resolution yet either. Haaretz, the newspaper, reports that Obama has given full support to Israel’s operations, including the ground game.
      Kerry’s peace initiative was met with repeated announcements for more Israeli settlements in the West Bank. This is beyond bad faith. Of course, Israeli leaders speak of the West Bank as “Samaria and Judea.” They intend to give up Samaria and Judea?” Wanna buy my swampland?
      Don’t forget that the U.S. Democratic party in 2012 formally adopted Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel.
      This whole mess is bought and paid for, as a joint project of Israel and the U.S.A.
      Americans should be ashamed.

  7. “For this reason, the Israel ground invasion of northern Gaza will be no more successful than the US invasion of Falluja.”
    I disagree, Professsor Cole.
    Two things that are the same: The U.S. supported the ground invasion in both Falluja and Gaza.
    One thing different: The U.S. is not prepared to occupy and control Falluja (or other “conquests”) forever. The U.S. is prepared to forever support Israel which is prepared to forever occupy and control Samaria, Judea, Gaza, Golan Hts, Shebaa Farms, etc.

  8. ” US security analysts wrote me at the time saying that killing leaders was crucial, because leadership skills are rare and leaders are hard to replace.”

    That’s the crucial error that most people, particularly people who are associated with government, the military and academics make. Leaders are NOT “difficult to replace” — but a key aspect of being a successful leader is to create that illusion.

    In fact, almost every major war and political event can be primarily analyzed in terms of strategic elements. WWII involved the obvious candidates — there was no “Ethopia makes a run for it” or “The Chilean offensive”. Thus, it’s trivial to show that if you have the right community with the right tools, the right leader can be invented.

    But the incorrect belief is a huge problem, leading to strategic mistakes. Instead of minimizing the damage from objectively emerging communities, the damage is maximized by focusing on the “leadership” rather than on the community that is creating them.

    But it’s hopeless to convince people that they aren’t the end-all and be-all — hell, the communists kept on falling into this illusion, against their ideological commitments. Even the religious will think about their prophets rather than their gods…

    • There is also the fact of how much ego our putative leadership has tied up in their own exceptionalism. The think they are the masters of their particular domain and are constantly stroked by supplicants to think that way. It’s only natural, as well, that being ambitious people, they are constantly eyeing their immediate organizational competition and alliances within their particular milieu. This is how life works, and once on the international stage, ALL these people by nature are going to look at events almost exclusively in terms of personality match-ups. And it only follows that if you can knock off a fraction of those in that notorious deck of Iraqi playing cards, the problem will be largely solved, as the post alluded.

      The thing also is that “leaders” in relatively developed organizations are really managers, whose skill is navigating their system. Real leadership is a creative out-in-front deal, and the distinction is enormously critical. When the israelis and the US knock off managers they create the chaos and clear the way when genuinely powerful and creative leaders to rise-up from obscurity, who will be far, far from manageable.

  9. Cole’s article is well researched. He took the time to study history. He was never interrupted by anyone firing rockets at his house.

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