What are the Iraqi insurgents thinking right now? Are they despondent over Saddam Hussein's capture? Stunned? In retreat or disarray? Maybe, but don't count on it. A smart fighter crawls inside his enemy's head. America's enemies in Iraq are warped, but rational. Perhaps their thinking goes like this:
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So, they got Saddam. The Americans are smug and swaggering and full of new hope. They desperately needed a victory, and now they savor one. Perhaps, they think, this is the turning point they yearn for. They make so bold as to call upon us to end our "bitter opposition."
Well, let them smile and patronize. We are not beaten, and so we will not surrender. Soon enough, their smiles will turn to tears. The next six months will tell.
For us, Saddam's capture changes the equation, but it creates more opportunity than cost. If we now sustain and redouble our attacks, we can reverse the psychology of the war. We can attain a hitherto elusive legitimacy. We can break the Americans' will to fight. And then the American interregnum will end, and we will rule Iraq.
Oh, the Americans have firepower. But they do not know where to aim their firepower, and Saddam cannot tell them. He was too busy running and hiding to lead or plan. No, the Americans still do not know the names and faces of their enemies. We still have the sanctuary of the crowds, the shadows, the night. The more primitive the technology we use, the better we make our point: Even with limited means, we can fight effectively and indefinitely.
In Vietnam, in Algeria, perhaps now in Chechnya and eventually even in Afghanistan, overpowering strength becomes a weakness when it fails to prevail. In asymmetrical combat, we do not need to win. We merely need to prove that the Americans cannot win.
They won a spectacular psychological victory with Saddam's capture, but it was not a military victory, because Saddam was militarily insignificant. Psychology, the Americans forget, is a two-edged sword. "Just wait until we get Saddam," they kept telling themselves. When their triumph turns to disappointment, their optimism will turn into a sense of futility.
Already their conservatives have raised false hopes. "An important obstacle to Iraqi self-rule has been removed," said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. "His capture doesn't mean the insurgency has ended, but it's the beginning of the end."
Beginning of the end, is it? During Vietnam, the American public was forever told of a light at the end of the tunnel, but the Vietcong lengthened the tunnel, and so will we. By attacking remorselessly in the wake of Saddam's capture, we can discredit the hawks and turn their psychological victory against them. The Americans will choke on their disappointment. "If not even Saddam's capture could turn the tide," they will wail, "what hope is there of victory? The hawks have been kidding themselves and us. President Bush has no idea how to win this war."
As for the American doves, they never wanted to be here in the first place. They look for a fig leaf behind which to retreat. In a strange echo of the Right, the Left also sees Saddam's capture as the beginning of the end—though for the Left, the struggle ends in disengagement rather than in military victory.
According to Reuters, Howard Dean, campaigning in Florida for the Democratic presidential nomination, reacted to Saddam's capture by saying it should "set a new course" for internationalizing Iraqi reconstruction, allowing the United States to bring soldiers home. On CNN, Al Sharpton, another Democratic candidate, said, "We have Hussein now. I think that we need to use this moment to withdraw and end the occupation." With Saddam off the scene, isn't the threat gone? Why stay in Iraq to be pummeled? So the doves will say.
To make anything of Saddam's capture, the Americans need to parlay their temporary psychological advantage into a permanent military one. They must develop new capabilities to strike and disable us. They believe they can do this by converting Saddam's capture into a flood of new intelligence. They hope that Iraqis, now liberated from the fear of Saddam's return, will come forward with new information and cooperation.
This is a great vulnerability for us. Yet we are not cornered. All along, our bombs and bullets have borne a message that Americans chose to ignore but that Iraqis heard loud and clear: "In a little while, the Americans will be gone, but we will still be here. If they cannot protect you now, how can they possibly protect you later? Cooperating with them carries a death sentence. Only the date of execution is in doubt."
Saddam's capture changes none of that. To the contrary, by fighting on without him we can demonstrate that, Saddam or no Saddam, we are a force to reckon with. To redouble our attacks now is to show Iraqis they cannot escape us and must fear us all the more.
They know what we want. We want power. We want to drive out the Americans, topple any puppet government they leave behind, and then run the country. The stakes for us are high. If we lose, our Sunni families and tribes will be stripped of our traditional privileges by a majority Shia government. But if we win? Ah, then Iraq's fantastic oil wealth will be ours. What a prospect!
Saddam's capture makes this prize more tantalizing, not less. We feared him too much ever to unseat him. With him out of the way, the path to power is open. Whoever emerges as victorious against the Americans and their puppet regime can hope to be Saddam and Nasser and Khomeini all rolled into one: absolute ruler, hero of Arab nationalism, restorer of Islamic pride. Thank you, America. Now we can be the next Saddam.
Again and again, our fighters and sympathizers have told the Western media that they fight for their country, not for Saddam. As long as Saddam was at large, such claims rang hollow. Now, merely by continuing the struggle, we can position ourselves unambiguously as a movement for national liberation. We can mobilize idealistic young Iraqis who dislike the Americans but would not fight for Saddam. The romantic anti-imperialists of Europe and America will call us freedom fighters. Scholars will wag their fingers and say, "History proves that no occupier can withstand the power of a determined nationalist resistance." The Americans will lose heart.
Our course, then, is clear. Fight harder than ever. Show the Iraqi people that we can kill them at will. Show Iraqi collaborators, especially the police, that they have enlisted in a long and dirty war against opponents who will stop at nothing. Show the Americans that Saddam's capture, on which they staked so much, changes nothing.
Six months from now, with the bodies piling up and no end in sight, the Americans will be in despair. Bush will change his policy, looking for a rapid retreat, or the voters will change their president. The Americans will skedaddle, leaving behind a weak or corrupt Iraqi government, which we will attack relentlessly and ruthlessly in a campaign of terror that makes the current one seem tame.
For it is not the Americans we must ultimately defeat; it is their dream of a stable democracy in Iraq, which would marginalize us for good. Without missing a beat, our insurgency against the foreign occupation will become an insurgency against Iraqi democracy. Once the Americans are gone or greatly diminished in force, Iraq's people will be cowed and its government feeble. With help from Syria and Al Qaeda, and perhaps from Iran and Saudi Arabia and Hezbollah—all of whom have their own reasons to dread secular democracy in Iraq—we will bring down Baghdad's Weimar Republic.
Bush deserves some credit. He understands his situation. When he announced that Saddam was in American custody, he said: "The capture of Saddam Hussein does not mean the end of violence in Iraq. We still face terrorists who would rather go on killing the innocent than accept the rise of liberty in the heart of the Middle East. Such men are a direct threat to the American people, and they will be defeated."
The word we attended to most closely was the last. Bush understands that the only way he can prevail in Iraq is to defeat us militarily. He must arrest, incapacitate, and kill us. If he makes conspicuous progress toward our defeat in the next six months, before the new Iraqi transitional government takes office, he will convince his people and ours that we cannot win. Then we are beaten. If, in that same period, we show that we are more deadly and ruthless than ever, we will convince his people and ours that they cannot win.
Americans call our ambitions deluded. We will see who is deluded. They got Saddam? So what. Let the decisive battle begin.