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  • Interview: Bard O'Neill on Insurgency and Terrorism and the Iraq War


    Bard O'Neill on Insurgency, Terrorism and the Iraq War

    Continued | Back to part 1

    Q: You say that urban warfare is not likely to succeed in overthrowing the power that they're trying to overthrow.


    Bard E. O'Neill, a former Air Force officer and now a professor at the National Defense University, teaches future military leaders about insurgencies and is the author of "Insurgency & Terrorism: Inside Modern Revolutionary Warfare," a new edition of which will be published in 2005. The book is a meticulous analysis of the types of insurgencies, their goals and strategies, and why they succeed or fail. We talked with Professor O'Neil two days after the 2004 election to find out what the history of insurgencies tells us about the American dilemma in Iraq.

    Related links: Bard O'Neill bio
    State of the Nation

    Interviews about the state of our country from the election to the inauguration.

    • George McGovern on Vietnam, Iraq and the election of 1972
    •  Thomas Keck on judicial activism and the conservative Supreme Court
    • Bard O'Neill on Insurgency, Terrorism and the Iraq War
    • Maurice Isserman on "America Divided"
    • Eric Foner on freedom
    Available from

    Insurgency & Terrorism: Inside Modern Revolutionary Warfare


    The Deadly Embrace: The Impact of Israeli and Palestinian Rejectionism on the Peace Process

    BARD E. O'NEILL: Yeah, and I think a key distinction here is, the difference between strategic success and midterm success is very important here. There are those who got swept up, say around the 1980s or '90s, with the idea of barefoot guys with Kalashnikovs being the kinds of Lilliputians that are going to tie giants up in knots, because it's asymmetrical warfare and we don't know how to deal with these kinds of people and they have all of these root causes motivating them. The whole picture was of this inexorable force that's going to spread around the globe, and wherever these guys are, governments are going to be engaged in futile efforts to overcome them.

    I never bought that. If what you're really trying to say is, they can inflict a lot of pain, maybe for 20 or 30 years, I'm right with you on that. But how many of these groups have achieved strategic success, which means the accomplishment of their ultimate goal? Not intermediate and short-term goals. By and large, groups can be contained and — I hate to use Kerry's term because it's political, but well, it doesn't count now — reduced to a nuisance. Managed. And there are a lot of groups that were pushed onto the margins and you might say: Well, they're still there today, there may be a band of 10 or 20 or 100, but they don't count for anything. They've been just marginalized. And I think that's an important distinction.

    How many of these groups have achieved strategic success? By and large, groups can be contained and — I hate to use Kerry's term because it's political, but well, it doesn't count now — reduced to a nuisance. Managed.  

    So what happens is, when you have the urban-warfare groups, we don't have any really good examples in recent times of the achievement of strategic goals. But the other four strategies, you did. I mean Lenin, the way he depicts his strategy, seizes power and it's historic. Mao seizes power, it's historic. Che Guevara and Fidel seize power, and that's historic. So they have these crowning successes that they then can put before the world, in front of the wanna-be insurgents, that people can emulate.

    We just don't have a resounding success like that in recent times, but we do live with people who fight in the urban areas and feel that's where the struggle should go on. But that can go on for over 20 years. I mean, the Irish Republican Army, probably never, at its peak, was more than 2,000, and it was then whittled down to probably around 200 or 300. And yet, they fought for 22 years — until the late 1990s when they reached a truce and entered into negotiations. So urban insurgents can inflict pain, drain government resources and become a major security problem that governments have to deal with, but they have not so far achieved strategic success.

    Q: It looks to me as if, in Iraq, urban warfare is almost all there is because there's no cover in the country.

    BARD E. O'NEILL: No! No! It's a combination. If you look at the topography of Iraq — especially around, we'll call it the water systems, the Euphrates in particular, and the Tigris as it fans out — first of all, you've got a big area. It's a big country. Hard to cover all your bases there, leaving the topography out of it. But then add in topography in some places that's favorable — again, along the rivers. Second place would be in the mountains to the north. So either good cover or mountains, and a big country, makes Iraq not that bad [for insurgents]. No, that's a little different from, say, western Sahara, which I mentioned a moment ago, which is a moonscape. It's just a rock-laden moonscape, that's flat. And, you know, it provides a little bit of cover for the insurgents if they know where the waters run, but nothing like a place like Iraq.

      Either good cover or mountains, and a big country, makes Iraq not that bad [for insurgents]. That's a little different from, say, western Sahara, which is a moonscape.
    Now, that doesn't mean Iraq is as good as, let's say, Vietnam. No, it's not. But it's a myth for people to describe it as just a flat country with sand — you know, it's one big desert. No no no, not at all. And so, what they then do is engage in two forms of warfare, both of which pose different problems for the coalition forces. One would be guerrilla warfare, very clearly directed against American and coalition forces and Iraqis. On the roads, in particular, using improvised explosive devices. Attacks just in the past couple days, and continuing attacks against our military posts and bases in Iraq — that's guerrilla warfare. And I can flash back like yesterday to my time in Vietnam — that's exactly what they did. And if you go back and look at "The New Face of War," "The Making of a Quagmire," etc. — the books that came out in the 1960s and a little bit thereafter — you could substitute the word "Iraqi insurgents" and you'd get the same thing. So this is age old stuff, very much in the business of guerrilla warfare.

    As a footnote here, Osama bin Laden, if you track the things he's said over time, he's very clear about forms of warfare. He knows the difference. And he talks about guerrilla warfare in his worldwide insurgency conducted in mutliple places, guerrilla warfare being a really important form of warfare. Terrorism [is] different. As we've suggested earlier, it's the attacks against noncombatants — thumbnail definition. That means everybody's fair game, potentially.

    Now think about the security implications here, if you're running the counterinsurgency. If you're facing guerrillas, you're dealing with small-unit operations backed up by mobile forces — that's the sum and substance of it. You're trying to, essentially, protect your police, military and governmental assets, and slowly expand their control if there are areas that are not under control. With terrorism, you have a much, much bigger dilemma. You've got to try to protect potentially everybody.

    You see both in Iraq. The terrorism that we see every day, the bombings of the suicide bombers, are directed at civilians now. Some of those are also used against military forces, so at a certain point they begin to look somewhat alike. That's not unusual. It's a calculated thing — am I going to attack noncombatant civilians deliberately in order to achieve a range of objectives, which we've talked about, or am I just going to limit my attacks to the military, broadly defined, and the security structure and the supporting infrastructure? Or am I going to do both?

    Continued: Previous | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | Next

    NOVEMBER 24, 2004

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