Learning From Hezbollah

By Brian E. Humphreys
Saturday, August 12, 2006

From my first day in Iraq as a young infantry officer, I was struck by the huge perceptual gulf that separated us from the Iraqis. My first mission was to escort a civil affairs team assigned to supervise the rebuilding of a local school. After tea, smiles and handshakes, we departed and were promptly struck by a roadside bomb. Our modest efforts to close the perceptual gulf, exemplified in our smile-and-wave tactics and civil affairs missions, seemed to my mind well-intentioned but inadequate.

At a deeper level, the motives of the local populace remained largely invisible to us, as people smiled one minute and attempted to blow us up the next. We knew little or nothing about their grievances and aspirations, or where the political fault lines ran in the cluster of small cities in the Sunni Triangle we were tasked with pacifying.

We experienced many periodic spasms of violence that seemed to come out of nowhere before disappearing again. Of course they came from somewhere, but it was a somewhere we didn't understand. In a battalion of more than 800 men, we had one four-man team assigned to interact directly with the local population, and even this team was frequently sidetracked to deal with routine translation duties or interrogations.

Perhaps understandably for a conventional military force trained to focus on the enemy, our primary intelligence focus was on the insurgents. Much less attention was paid to the larger part of the population. Although we were a visible and sometimes forceful presence, I'm not sure we were a truly influential one.

Now, watching the latest news dispatches from Lebanon, I find myself comparing our efforts to introduce a new order in Iraq with Hezbollah's success as an effective practitioner of the art of militarized grass-roots politics. Frankly, it's not a favorable comparison -- for us. Hezbollah's organizational resilience in the face of an all-out conventional assault shows the degree to which it has seamlessly combined the strategic objectives of its sponsors with a localized political and military program.

Using the grass-roots approach, Hezbollah has been able to convert the ignored and dispossessed Shiite underclass of southern Lebanon into a powerful lever in regional politics. It understands that the basic need in any human conflict, whether or not it involves physical violence, is to take care of one's political base before striking out at the opponent.

As many informed observers have pointed out, Hezbollah has engrafted itself to the aims and aspirations of the Lebanese Shiite community so completely that Israel cannot destroy it without also destroying the community, with all the attendant political and moral costs. It is the willingness of women, children and old men to support Hezbollah and its political program at the risk of their lives that gives the organization power far beyond its military means.

Whatever the objective truth of Hezbollah's motives, its many supporters in southern Lebanon believe fervently that it is their organization, not an Iranian surrogate. Few if any American units in Iraq have achieved anything close to this level of success in winning the support of the local population. (Of more concern is the fact that few Iraqi security units or political leaders appear to have done so, either.) Commanders have come and gone, elections have been held, Iraqi soldiers trained, all manner of strategies for dealing with the insurgency attempted -- but with only limited and localized successes. Hezbollah's success among civilians in Lebanon, which is only reinforced by a ruthless pummeling from a reviled enemy, contrasts sharply with the continued fragility of the much more modest U.S. gains in Iraq, achieved at a much higher price.

The lessons should be clear. To engage in insurgency or counterinsurgency -- fancy terms for grass-roots politics by other means -- one must be willing and, most of all, able to work in the underbelly of local politics, as Hezbollah has done in Lebanon. It is the politics of getting people jobs, picking up trash and getting relatives out of jail. Engaging in this politics has the potential to do much more than merely ingratiate an armed force with a local population. It gives that force a mental map of local pressure points and the knowledge of how to press them -- benignly or otherwise -- to get desired results.

Some may say that this is just standard insurgency-counterinsurgency doctrine. True, but one has to ask why Hezbollah has been able to pull it off in Lebanon, while young Americans continue to endure a host of nasty surprises in Iraq.

The writer served in Iraq as a Marine infantry officer in 2004.

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