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Iraq and Vietnam: history rhymes
Posted by: Jon Henke on Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Military historian Martin Van Creveld — whose credibility Justin Logan establishes quite convincingly — wrote an interesting article in late '04 on why Vietnam and Iraq — dissimilar as they are in many ways — have similarities that will be important...
First...the most important operational problem the US Forces were facing [in Vietnam] was intelligence, in other words the inability to distinguish the enemy from either the physical surroundings or the civilian population. Had intelligence been available then their enormous superiority in every kind of military hardware would have enabled them to win the War easily enough.
Second...the campaign for hearts and minds did not work. Many of the figures being published about the progress it was making turned out to be bogus, designed to set the minds of the folks at home at rest. In other cases any progress laboriously made over a period of months was undone in a matter of minutes as the Viet Cong attacked, destroying property and killing “collaborators.” Above all, the idea that the Vietnamese people wanted to become Americanized was an illusion. All the vast majority really wanted was to be left alone and get on with their lives.
The third and most important reason why I think Vietnam is relevant to the situation in Iraq is because the Americans found themselves in the unfortunate position where they were beating down on the weak.

We do not have, and never have had, difficulty defeating the insurgents in direct combat. But, since the insurgency needs to hold no ground, mount no united defense and achieve nothing more than mere existence, direct combat is the last thing they either want or need. So, we cannot beat the insurgency militarily.

But, as has often been remarked, we're not trying to beat them militarily; we're trying to beat them politically, by establishing an Iraqi government that the people can support and building its security forces to the point that it can sustain itself. Henry Kissinger wrote on this topic in a Washington Post article...
American strategy, including a withdrawal process, will stand or fall not on whether it maintains the existing security situation but on whether the capacity to improve it is enhanced. Victory over the insurgency is the only meaningful exit strategy.
So, can we say that the Iraqi security situation has improved? That we're closer to achieving "victory over the insurgency"? That Iraq is becoming more peaceful and united? It's hard to find a metric to support that conclusion.

The insurgency exists for a wide variety of reasons — shiites, sunnis and foreigners are all wreaking havoc for their own purposes — but the functional impact of those disparate intentions is the exacerbation of existing cultural conflicts and sectarian strife.

So, here we are, trying (and failing) to provide security without good intelligence data or clear metrics for progress, and doing so in the midst of a populace that deeply resents our presence. And if Dale Franks is correct to say that success in Iraqi is "going to be decided by the people of Iraq" and we "are going to have abide by the decisions the Iraqi people make, even if we don't like them much" — and I think he is — then supporters of the war had better be prepared to accept the possibility that, much like Vietnam, our Iraq Adventure may once again end with with US troops once again, as Van Creveld thinks inevitable, "fleeing the country while hanging on to their helicopters’ skids."

After all, if (1) we cannot defeat the insurgency, (2) an ongoing insurgency will increase sectarian division, (3) sectarian strife will (as it tends to do in the Middle East)lead to the election of harder-line politicians, and (4) those politicians will seek sectarian advantage, rather than national unity....

...then, as Kissinger warned, "building security forces" will just be "the prelude to a civil war". Revanchist shiites will pay the Sunnis back in spades, while disinterested Kurds will look at seccession. All of which will leave the United States with two options. We can either...
  • France to Iraq's Algeria, trying to hold together a patchwork, dysfunctional society.

  • ...take the last helicopter from the US Embassy in Baghdad and let Iraq work it out for themselves.

At this point, it seems to me that the only strategy left to us is to move straight to the Vietnam Option, but without making the central mistake we made in the aftermath of the Vietnam war.

Remember, as Kissinger pointed out, the Vietnamization effort was "from the security viewpoint, successful on the whole". Had the US continued to support South Vietnam with supplies, airpower and security guarantees, Saigon may never have fallen.

Similarly, an Iraq strategy that moves US troops "over the horizon" — i.e. out of sight, providing only emergency support as guarantor of last resort — could force Iraqis to negotiate their own survival while posing minimal risk to US troops and minimal strain on what remaining domestic support the Iraq project still has.
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Previous Comments to this Post 

The problem with the "Vietnamization" solution is that there is no government in Iraq; there are merely armed factions. See this link to Riverbend describing Baghdad television running an announcement from the Ministry of Defense not to trust any Iraqi police or military unless accompanied by coalition forces. Until the last month or so, we have been in the position of fighting only one side of the Iraqi triangle, the Sunnis. We are now in the unsustainable position of trying to fight two sides of the triangle while keeping those two sides from slaughtering one another.

A quote from the article you cite probably sums up the situation in Iraq as well as anything:
All the vast majority really wanted was to be left alone and get on with their lives.
Whichever faction can deliver on that will be the one that prevails. If that means partition, then so be it.
Written By: Steven Donegal
URL: http://
Jon: We are being pulled into a civil war in which it is perceived that we are taking sides. What. A. Mess. Angry shiites believing we stand against them in their disputes with Sunnis and others.

I had supported this war, but it has long been clear to me that the planning for the aftermath — and it was predicted by many that sectarian/tribal hatreds were simmering and ready to boil over once Saddam was gone — either did not occur, or was grossly deficient. It is not unreasonable, and certainly not unpatriotic, to ask whether we are exposing our troops to death and maiming in a situation that for political reasons — not military, we rock — they cannot win.
Written By: Mona
URL: http://
There is another option. Back a Shia / Kurd government against the Sunni. In the same way that the El Salvadorian "spanish" government was backed against the "indian" FMLN.
Written By: Unaha-closp
URL: http://
describing Baghdad television running an announcement from the Ministry of Defense not to trust any Iraqi police or military unless accompanied by coalition forces.
And that is because the insurgent/terrorists are dressing up in Iraqi police or military uniforms and killing people.

Thank God there wasn’t an internet, bloggers, or mass media going 24/7, when our government was formed. We’d have never made it past the bitter disputes between Federalists and anti-Federalists, never mind the smaller factions.

Let the Iraqis form their government instead of pronouncing their efforts still-born...
Written By: Keith, Indy
URL: http://
The most important column in the papers this morning by far is Amir Taheri’s Wall Street Journal column: "The last helicopter." Taheri writes:

To hear Mr. Abbasi tell it the entire recent history of the U.S. could be narrated with the help of the image of "the last helicopter." It was that image in Saigon that concluded the Vietnam War under Gerald Ford. Jimmy Carter had five helicopters fleeing from the Iranian desert, leaving behind the charred corpses of eight American soldiers. Under Ronald Reagan the helicopters carried the corpses of 241 Marines murdered in their sleep in a Hezbollah suicide attack. Under the first President Bush, the helicopter flew from Safwan, in southern Iraq, with Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf aboard, leaving behind Saddam Hussein’s generals, who could not believe why they had been allowed live to fight their domestic foes, and America, another day. Bill Clinton’s helicopter was a Black Hawk, downed in Mogadishu and delivering 16 American soldiers into the hands of a murderous crowd.

According to this theory, President George W. Bush is an "aberration," a leader out of sync with his nation’s character and no more than a brief nightmare for those who oppose the creation of an "American Middle East." Messrs. Abbasi and Ahmadinejad have concluded that there will be no helicopter as long as George W. Bush is in the White House. But they believe that whoever succeeds him, Democrat or Republican, will revive the helicopter image to extricate the U.S. from a complex situation that few Americans appear to understand.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s defiant rhetoric is based on a strategy known in Middle Eastern capitals as "waiting Bush out." "We are sure the U.S. will return to saner policies," says Manuchehr Motakki, Iran’s new Foreign Minister.

Mr. Ahmadinejad believes that the world is heading for a clash of civilizations with the Middle East as the main battlefield. In that clash Iran will lead the Muslim world against the "Crusader-Zionist camp" led by America. Mr. Bush might have led the U.S. into "a brief moment of triumph." But the U.S. is a "sunset" (ofuli) power while Iran is a sunrise (tolu’ee) one and, once Mr. Bush is gone, a future president would admit defeat and order a retreat as all of Mr. Bush’s predecessors have done since Jimmy Carter.

Mr. Ahmadinejad also notes that Iran has just "reached the Mediterranean" thanks to its strong presence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. He used that message to convince Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to adopt a defiant position vis-à-vis the U.N. investigation of the murder of Rafiq Hariri, a former prime minister of Lebanon. His argument was that once Mr. Bush is gone, the U.N., too, will revert to its traditional lethargy. "They can pass resolutions until they are blue in the face," Mr. Ahmadinejad told a gathering of Hezbollah, Hamas and other radical Arab leaders in Tehran last month.


It is not only in Tehran and Damascus that the game of "waiting Bush out" is played with determination. In recent visits to several regional capitals, this writer was struck by the popularity of this new game from Islamabad to Rabat. The general assumption is that Mr. Bush’s plan to help democratize the heartland of Islam is fading under an avalanche of partisan attacks inside the U.S. The effect of this assumption can be witnessed everywhere.
Written By: Nuclear
URL: http://
And if Dale Franks is correct to say that success in Iraqi is "going to be decided by the people of Iraq" and we "are going to have abide by the decisions the Iraqi people make, even if we don’t like them much" ....
Somebody better tell Bush.

From today’s NYT:
Senior Shiite politicians said Monday that the American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, had weighed in over the weekend, telling the leader of the Shiite bloc that President Bush did not want Mr. Jaafari as prime minister. That was the first time the Americans had openly expressed a preference for the post, the politicians said, and it showed the Bush administration’s acute impatience over the stagnant political process.
Could Bush be even more incompetent? Could he be even more politically tone deaf? The Iraqis voted. As a result, Jaafari is prime minister. No one is arguing that the process was flawed. So how can Bush turn around and now say that he wants a different guy? What about democracy and all that crap?

And more practically speaking, what kind of legitimacy would Jaafari’s replacement have? Are the Iraqis not going to notice he would be Bush’s boy?

Bush is now actively trying to lose. There is no other explanation.
Written By: mkultra
URL: http://

You don’t get it do you. Bush is getting the Iraqis to want Jaafari by saying he wants someone else. I do this with my 2 year old all the time to "influence" her to eat her vegetables. Many foreigners get stupid when "Bush" and "America" are mentioned together. These foreigners are very unreasonable. So Bush plays them so he doesn’t get played.
Written By: Nuclear
URL: http://
There’s some excellent analysis here, including an email from Bill Roggio who is in Iraq himself and witnessing this firsthand.
Written By: Chris
URL: http://
Ah another expert on Vietnam.Do we really know what transpired in the Vietnam War? The turning point of the Vietnam War was the Tet Offensive. A military blunder by the VC/NVA but a political windfall. The VC/NV general Giap falsely thought that the SV people will uprise against the SV government so he made a widespread suprise attack during the Tet holiday in ’68. Initially the reports back home were of impending doom with the enemy on the offensive. However in 3 month the Offensive was soudly defeated with no territory gains by communists, the insurgent VC became a non viable force for the remainder of the war suffering horrific loses(3/4 of their forces), the NV also suffering horrific lose retreated back to neighboring sanctuaries and the SV people did not side with the communists at all.
But back home it was a different story. The American public became discouraged and Johnson decided to call for serious peace negotiations and we started the Vietnamization ( coined by Nixon’s SD Laird but started under Johnson)phase of the war.Your description of what transpired under Vietnamization is correct. It failed because of the American public , echoed by their represerntatives saying, bye bye.
So basically the Vietnam War was not about incorrectly fighting an insurgency( the VC were never a viable force after ’68 due to Giap’s miscalculation) but about how the American public will not support a protracted war when it thinks it is not in iminent danger, still relying on ocean separation and some exoctic james bond scheme to counter a "disturbence".We do not have patience because life is good at home- the economy is booming,no terrorist attacks since 9/11 and hey March Madness is here.
Written By: Moose
URL: http://

Are you suggesting that Bush might say one thing and really mean another? Surely not. I must look out for this in the future.

Anyway, Bush really doesn’t Jafaari. He’s supported by Al Sadr and is too independent to need/want the US’s help.

This was a hugely clumsy piece of, well, not even diplomacy, but heavy-handed meddling on the part of Khalilzad/Bush.
Written By: symptomless
URL: http://
Moose’s conclusion about the American publics apetite for long foreign wars is correct. However the loss in Vietnam was due to American leadership incorrectly fighting the invasion by North Vietnam, not any eventual wearying of the American people. The American people gave their leaders ample time and provided ample sacrafice to defeat North Vietnam, but their leaders were unable to do so.
Written By: Unaha-closp
URL: http://
Maybe I’m wrong, but Ibrahim al-Jaafari is currently the Prime Minister, and is the candidate for the next Prime Minister. To actually BE the next PM, he would have to receive some majority vote of the Iraqi Parliment(??)

So, it is not a fore-gone conclusion that he will be the next PM.

Currently one of the stumbling blocks for forming a "unity" government is the choice of Jaafari as the candidate for PM.

To me, it sounds like the "normal" wrangling that goes on after any election of Parliments. Different factions jockeying for power. Creating coallitions in order to effect a majority vote.

How long does it take the British, Germany or Canada (or others) to pick their PM??
People here are still urging politicians to get done with the negotiations and form a government and although they have given up the high hopes they had once of a government that can get all things right, they still hope that forming the permanent government can at least stop the deterioration in some critical aspects of life and prepare for putting things back on the right track again after the last few months that have been the roughest for Iraqis since Saddam was toppled.

Most of the debate in Baghdad today was about the alleged message from Bush to al-Hakeem telling him to replace Jafari with another candidate. The simple people I meet at work have made a simplified version o their own of this story that goes like this "Bush told the government that if they don’t agree on a president, I will appoint that I choose"!
This is followed by a "whatever, maybe this can put an end for this mess" which reminds me that we still believe in firm and direct orders from a boss thinking that one shout or frown from him would be enough to solve the dispute while negotiations seem boring and taking forever, something not unexpected with all the stress and frustration Iraqis have to deal with.

On the other hand the local media was more interested in yesterday’s negotiations that were resumed after being suspended for one day after the raid on Sadr’s militia. Anyway, the latest sessions seem to coincide with a call from Sistani to the leaders of the UIA to go back to the table and accelerate the process.
It’s clear that yesterday’s meetings were no different from earlier meetings and was unsurprisingly followed by contradicting statements from who were just sitting at the same table moments ago.
The focus this time was the idea of increasing the number of the PM deputies from two to five or at least three with the new deputy being exclusively in charge of the security file and this suggestion is backed by the Kurds, Sunnis and Allawi who is a candidate for this position if an agreement is to be reached, while the UIA and especially the Sdarists are totally against this suggestion "we are against increasing the number of deputies but we can accept appointing an assisting for the PM" said one Sadrist parliamentarian and this is mostly because the Sadrists’ greatest fear is to see Allawi in charge of any part of the security file.

So far the only post that has been semi-officially awarded to a politician by name is the president’s which is going to go to Talabani as there are no other candidates and no one opposed his nomination as of now. Meanwhile the chairmanship of the parliament is most likely to go either to Tariq al-Hashimi or Ayad al-Samerrai, both from the Accord Front.

The premiership remains the toughest variable in this equation and there’s no foreseeable solution for this issue in the horizon and today the newspapers were quoting statements from the Accord and Dialogue Fronts threatening to boycott the negotiations if the UIA did not present someone other than Jafari who seems to keep losing support to his fellow UIA member and rival Aadil AbdulMahdi who has become the new star of the media here.
AbdulMahdi is attracting increased attention from the media and there’s high demand on him for interviews especially on the papers. Today I read his latest where he called for forming the government as soon as possible, enforce the laws and activate the constitution to put an end to the current state of chaos and put militias under control as well as dealing with the phenomenon of having Iraqi forces taking orders from neither of the security ministries. He also asked politicians-Iraqi and foreign-to be careful with their statements and study their words before saying anything that can "pour oil on fire".

Mr. AbdulMahdi through his latest remarks looks like trying to prove that he represents the moderate voice inside the UIA and that he stands as a balancing choice that can approximate the position of the extremes of the political/sectarian spectrum.
Actually it looks clearer now that the SCIRI still looks forward to replace Jafari with a candidate from their own. And this is also obvious from a statement al-Hakeem gave to the CNN (found it on the SCIRI’s paper al-Adala) when he answered a question about Jafari by saying that "the UIA is till studying the matter and things will clearer in the next few day…we need more time to have this subject studied from all sides…".

Time is passing by and this is not in the interest of the politicians or the people who are getting tired of the way politicians are performing that many of them would tell you they’ve stopped following the news. One friend told me yesterday that he used to follow the political news every single day but "not anymore, these negotiations have much in common with those thousand-episode Mexican series, you can skip ten episodes and then come back and you will find things exactly where you left them!".
Written By: Keith, Indy
URL: http://
So, apparently the only way to achieve Kosovo/Bosnia and perhaps Afghanistan results in intervention is to allow the civil war to boil away for several years and THEN intervene.

I think we should have split Iraq up.

Written By: Harun
URL: http://
So truly, if you want peace, you just have to kill everybody.
Written By: John
URL: http://
Silly Stupid Article and Silly Stupid commentary.
-Algerians fought the French, cuz they hated the French
-Vietnam failed because we pulled out and cut off the money to the South
-Iraq is so unique that the attempt to use analogy, provides only tactical learning nt strategic direction.
Lastly, we all get this wrong when we let the anti-war crowd convince us that Iraq is a small thing and a tactical blunder. It is a BIG thing, Strategic in the big over arching war on terror and overall change in the middle-east. An analogy that works would be to consider how the allies invaded North Africa and then Itally in WW2. We sought victory where we could win and where it would stretch Germany’s resources away from the Eastern and Western fronts. When we went in to Itally did anyone think that was the road to Berlin...nope....everybody always knew that we were going to land somewhere in France, someday. The Middle-east America took on Afganistan and sent the terrorist scrambling, Then took out Iraq..terrorist helper, provided pressure relief valve for our guys in Afganistan ( think why Afganistan works for us vs. the Russian experience). But the real prize...the and always has been ......IRAN.
Since 1979 we have been pussyfooting around the middle-east cuz of these punks. They are the heart of terror and evil and they must/will be dealt with, but all of the peace-first, UN loving, status quo needing, corrupt, ’useful idiots might succeed in delaying our action such that Iran goes Nuclear or a politiacl change causes the U.S. to lose it’s nerve (i.e. U.S. abandonment of the S. Vietnamese in 1973-75..shame on us)
Sometimes trying to be the smartest guy in the room makes you compromise, when bold, direct, rough and tough action and long-term commitement is needed. Waht is the #1 knock on GWB...stubborn, won’t change, can’t be wrong....wonder what the weakknees thought of Churchill as they listened to German bomber over London????
Written By: greg
URL: http://
In my opinion, the only real similarity between Vietnam and Iraq is that the same type of people (and even the same individuals) are pushing at home for us to cut and run. This is my view of the "comparisons":

- In Vietnam, a succession of SVN governments were either hand-picked by the US (Diem) or came to power as the result of coups d’etat with tacit (if not overt) US approval (Khahn, Mihn). In Iraq, the Iraqis have held open elections to form their government. People complain that they are having trouble doing so or "taking too long". Reminder: it took the United States from 1783 to 1787 to write the Constitution, then another several years to ratify it, and we STILL had a civil war a few decades later. I note that we are still here...

- In Vietnam, the problem was a unified insurgency organized and directed increasingly from Hanoi. By 1965, it was overtly supported by NVN regular troops. After Tet, it was almost completely a Hanoi operation (the VC having been slaughtered by us). In Iraq, the "insurgency" is a hodge-podge of former Baathists, Iranian-backed Shiites, and al Queda whose only common interest is driving out the Americans. Indeed, there are occasional stories that indicate that there is fighting between the native Iraqi terrorists and the foreign al Quaeda terrorists.

- In Vietnam, the enemy was capable of deploying organized units in division and corps strength that could meet and defeat SVN forces in open battle. In Iraq, the enemy has been reduced to IEDs and random ambushes.

- In Vietnam, our strategy from 1965 - 1968 was one of attrition. There was no serious effort to "win the hearts and minds" of the South Vietnamese, nor was any serious effort made to build up the SVN military to take over the fight. Westmoreland believed that he could use military force to try to defeat the VC / NVA outside the villages, never realizing that it was the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) that was doing the most damage to the Saigon government’s ability to control the country. This changed after 1968 when Westmoreland was replaced by Abrams, who along with Ambassador Bunker and Bill Colby of the CIA understood that the fight was not going to be won in the hinterlands, but in the villages. Among other programs, Colby instituted ICEX, which became infamous as the Phoenix Program. People whine that it was an assassination program and offer all sorts of lurid tales about CIA malfeasance connected with it (such as drug running), but the program worked: by denying the VCI access to the people of SVN, it cut off the VC / NVA from its primary source of food and recruits, requiring them to transport it over the Ho Chi Minh trail where it could be interdicted by US air power.

The result of Phoenix and other programs / policies instituted by Bunker, Abrams and Colby was that areas of SVN that were too dangerous for Americans to travel except in heavily armed convoys in 1967 became routinely accessible by one or two men in a jeep by 1970. NVA units were actually falling apart from starvation as no rice was coming to them from the villages.

In Iraq, I think we are following the Abrams mindset. It’s hard to tell, of course, since relying on the media to give helpful information about the situation in Iraq is about as realistic as relying on my ten year old niece to explain the technical details of brain surgery.
It’s hard to find a metric...
EXACTLY, and hence my derogatory statement about our media. I don’t know what metrics the military uses in Iraq. In Vietnam, MACV eventually developed the Hamlet Evaluation System (HES), which used data such as tax collection rates, attack and bombing incidences, completed civic action projects, etc. to assign a "grade" that would indicate how "pacified" an area of SVN was. The system, while imperfect, allowed US and SVN officials to target areas that were either under de facto communist control or tending towards it. Hopefully, the military has a similar system in Iraq. But I think that there ARE some back-handed metrics that we CAN use:

- Are Iraqis volunteering for service in their army and police forces, or does the government have to draft them?

- Are Iraqi children going to school?

- Are low-level government officials such as mayors, teachers, etc. subject to widespread assassination?

- Are bombings and other attacks spread across the country, or are they isolated to certain areas? Note that the lack of attacks in an area can indicate either a high degree of pacification OR a high degree of terrorist control.

- Is Iraq engaging in international trade (i.e. are they exporting oil)?

- How much of Iraq has regular access to utilities such as electricity and water?

- Are elections held on schedule?

- Are roads routinely blocked by mines or other obstacles?

- Is there evidence that the terrorists have established a "shadow" government - or even open rule - in areas of the country?

- Are terrorist "big fish" being arrested as the result of tips received from Iraqi people?

- To what extent has the Iraqi army and police taken over security in various areas of the country? Are there districts where they have primary responsibility?

- Are the terrorists attacking "their own" people? If so, then it indicates that they haven’t won the battle for hearts and minds, but instead are trying to frighten the people into not cooperating with us and the Iraqi government.

The answers to these questions are far more indicative of how well (or poorly) we’re doing than simple body counts.

I’m not trying to say that everything is coming up roses in Iraq. We’ve got a lot of tough row yet to hoe. However, I think it’s WAAAAYYYY to early to start talking about catching the last helicopter out of Baghdad.
Written By: docjim505
URL: http://
Chris, thanks for the link. Much food for thought (and I hope somebody in our military is paying attention).
Written By: docjim505
URL: http://

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