When Che Guevara crossed into Bolivia in 1966, his intent was to create a rural foco insurgency. A foco insurgency is one that forgoes the methodical political indoctrination of the population in favor of small bands of fast moving guerrillas that gain victories against state forces. In Che's model, the victories of these guerrillas would ignite an organic revolution that would overthrow the government. His hope was that it would avoid the innevitable corruption he saw in communist revolutionary parties. Foco insurgencies didn't work for a variety of factors related to the time, to wit: Che died in 1967, hunted by government forces. The urban guerrilla/terrorists (who felt that urban environments provided better protection than the rural terrain that Che favored) that followed him, suffered the same fate.
Che's theory lives on
Iraq's insurgency is a variant of Che's foco insurgency in that it operates without a need popular support. However, the environment today differs in many important ways that provide it with the opportunity of success. Here's why Iraq's insurgency has gained traction:
- Multiplexed loyalties. Iraq is riven by ethinic, tribal, political, and religious loyalties. This provides numerous fault lines for guerrillas to exploit.
- An occupation. The US occupation serves as a focal point for guerrilla activity. The elimination of the Baathist military sufficiently weakened the state in ways that made it easy for a foco insurgency to gain momentum.
- Modern networks. Iraq has a modern (although dilapidated) infrastructure that is ripe for attack. This infrastructure is critical for its economic recovery and is in stark contrast to the sparse networks of developing nations ~40 years ago. Additionally, a diverse set of global media networks allow guerrillas to circumvent state controls on information to amplify fault lines.
The Bazaar vs. the Foco
A series of tactical innovations allows global guerrillas to both survive and thrive in Iraq. These innovations (cumulatively called the bazaar) allow it to survive state counter-pressure, learn/advance, and deplete the ruling government of funds/authority/legitimacy. In contrast, the foco was unable to accomplish this. Also, unlike the foco, the end point of the bazaar isn't a new state but the destruction of the state. Here's how global guerrillas have improved on the model:
- A diverse set of small groups with different motivations. These groups don't have a center of mass (hierarchy) that can be targeted. Their small size provides them excellent OPSEC and the collapse any subset of groups doesn't disrupt the whole. Strength through diversity.
- A bazaar of violence. This bazaar provides a clearinghouse of money, information, and other resources necessary for rapid group learning and improvement. This complex system enables small groups to exceed the rate of improvement of centralized organizations.
- Leverage from markets and networks. These networks provide Iraq's guerrillas rates of return far in excess of those expected for groups of their size.
What this means
A vibrant bazaar insurgency in Iraq will set the stage for the following events:
- Iraq's bazaar will outlast the US occupation. The choice for the US will be to either continue to write a blank check for Iraq and run up deficits or withdraw. It is only a matter of time before the decision to withdraw is made.
- Organic Islamic order. The goal of this insurgency is very much in line with Che's vision (an organic order that arises out of state weakness). However, in Iraq, the complete disruption of state power isn't replaced with another state but rather organic Islamic order -- the Fallujah and Taliban model.
- How this will spread. Given the factors that power Iraq's bazaar, it will be difficult but not impossible to export this insurgency to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan without one of the following events (here's what to look for): Intervention by the US military in Saudi Arabia to prevent collapse, a coup or open conflict between factions in Pakistan's military (triggered through assassination of Musharref and other key people), and a civil war in Iraq that draws in adjacent states.
NOTE: More on Zarqawi and Foco insurgency