During the Central American wars, perhaps because of the nearness to the Vietnam experience, there as a broad understanding that, to neutralize a highly-motivated enemy it was vital to have the population in the enemy’s theater of operation at worst neutral and at best cooperative.
Civilian populations caught in conflict zones often make their calculations of who to support based on who they think can inflict the most pain if they do not cooperate. This is true up to a point, but when repression becomes unbearable, civilians will also join the side they believe will help eliminate the oppressor.
This lesson seems to be lost in much of what is going on in Iraq, looking at Anbar province, and Afghanistan, with the rioting in Kabul. The Washington Post has interesting articles quoting the Sunni leaders of Anbar province on their reality:
“We hope to get rid of al-Qaeda, which is a huge burden on the city. Unfortunately, Zarqawi’s fist is stronger than the Americans’,” said one Sunni sheik, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of insurgent retaliation. He was referring to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, an umbrella group for many of the foreign and local resistance fighters in Iraq. Local Sunni leaders often insist that the most violent insurgent attacks are by foreign fighters, not Iraqi Sunnis.
In Ramadi, “Zarqawi is the one who is in control,” the sheik said, speaking to a Washington Post special correspondent in Ramadi. “He kills anyone who goes in and out of the U.S. base. We have stopped meetings with the Americans, because, frankly speaking, we have lost confidence in the U.S. side, as they can’t protect us.”
The balance of power tipped toward U.S.-backed forces in El Salvador when people who were caught in the middle felt the military would be there to protect them, and, at the same time, would not abuse them. As human rights improved and the army became more disciplined, people returned to their homes, even under army control, because they were able to.
This was a key element in keeping the FMLN from successfully broadening their areas of control after the mid-1980s. I spent countless nights with peasants on both sides of the conflict who were trying to figure out how to survive, and their loyalty was to anyone who could provide them safety. Of course there are committed cadres on both sides, as there are here. But they cannot survive without the broad ability to at least count on the neutrality of the bulk of the population.
If people perceive their options as supporting Zarqawi or being killed, they will support Zarqawi for survival. Such support is not deep, but it can be broad. The only way to confront it is to offer civilians security first. With security will come more cooperation, especially if the enemy is a brutal as Zarqawi has shown himself to be.
But if the areas are not secured to the degree that people feel they can talk to someone without it being 1) reporeted and 2) avenged, then you face a hostile, scared population that will give you nothing but blank stares, bad information and intense hatred for disrupting their chances of survival.