View Full Version : Seeing Baghdad, Thinking Saigon

03-11-2006, 01:34 PM
From the March / April issue of Foreign Affairs - Seeing Baghdad, Thinking Saigon (http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20060301faessay85201/stephen-biddle/seeing-baghdad-thinking-saigon.html) by Stephen Biddle.

Contentious as the current debate over Iraq is, all sides seem to make the crucial assumption that to succeed there the United States must fight the Vietnam War again -- but this time the right way. The Bush administration is relying on an updated playbook from the Nixon administration. Pro-war commentators argue that Washington should switch to a defensive approach to counterinsurgency, which they feel might have worked wonders a generation ago. According to the antiwar movement, the struggle is already over, because, as it did in Vietnam, Washington has lost hearts and minds in Iraq, and so the United States should withdraw.

But if the debate in Washington is Vietnam redux, the war in Iraq is not. The current struggle is not a Maoist "people's war" of national liberation; it is a communal civil war with very different dynamics. Although it is being fought at low intensity for now, it could easily escalate if Americans and Iraqis make the wrong choices.

Unfortunately, many of the policies dominating the debate are ill adapted to the war being fought. Turning over the responsibility for fighting the insurgents to local forces, in particular, is likely to make matters worse. Such a policy might have made sense in Vietnam, but in Iraq it threatens to exacerbate the communal tensions that underlie the conflict and undermine the power-sharing negotiations needed to end it. Washington must stop shifting the responsibility for the country's security to others and instead threaten to manipulate the military balance of power among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds in order to force them to come to a durable compromise. Only once an agreement is reached should Washington consider devolving significant military power and authority to local forces...

Of course, the counterinsurgency was about more than winning hearts and minds; it was also about fighting. At first, following Congress' decision in 1965 to commit large-scale U.S. ground forces, Americans did much of South Vietnam's defensive work. But in 1969, the Nixon administration changed course and decided to transfer responsibility for ground combat to the South Vietnamese. "We have adopted a plan which we have worked out in cooperation with the South Vietnamese for the complete withdrawal of all U.S. combat ground forces and their replacement by South Vietnamese forces on an orderly scheduled timetable," Richard Nixon declared. "This withdrawal will be made from strength and not from weakness. As South Vietnamese forces become stronger, the rate of American withdrawal can become greater." The strategy, which became known as "Vietnamization," led to the complete withdrawal of U.S. ground forces from Vietnam by 1973. After that, South Vietnamese troops who had been trained and equipped by the Americans conducted all ground operations.

U.S. strategy in Iraq today is remarkably similar. To win the war, President George W. Bush has advocated following three parallel tracks -- one for politics, one for economics, and one for security. The first two involve using democratic reform and economic reconstruction to persuade Iraqis to side with the new government in Baghdad and oppose the insurgents. The goal of the Bush administration's third track is the creation of an Iraqi national military and an Iraqi police force that can shoulder the burden of counterinsurgency on their own -- a project many call "Iraqization," after its counterpart from Vietnam. The details of how to implement today's policy may differ from those for the policy in the 1960s, but the two plans' intents are effectively indistinguishable. Even the rhetoric surrounding the two plans is strikingly similar. Bush's claim that "as the Iraqi security forces stand up, coalition forces can stand down" parallels Nixon's hope that "as South Vietnamese forces become stronger, the rate of American withdrawal can become greater."

Meanwhile, commentators such as Andrew Krepinevich argue essentially that Washington is not refighting Vietnam properly ("How to Win in Iraq," September/October 2005). Krepinevich sees the current U.S. strategy as a repeat of the failed search-and-destroy missions of early Vietnam and wants Washington to adopt instead the approach of territorial defense used in late Vietnam. Former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird argues that Vietnamization was working fine until Congress pulled the plug on support for South Vietnam in 1975, and so he advocates recycling the strategy and following through with it ("Iraq: Learning the Lessons of Vietnam," November/December 2005). Journalists scorn U.S. officers who insist on overusing firepower -- a mistake made in Vietnam -- and lionize those who try to bring good governance to Iraq by holding local council elections, fixing sewers, and getting the trash picked up -- the good lessons of Vietnam. Advocates of outright withdrawal think the United States has already lost the hearts and minds of Iraqis and should therefore cut its losses now, earlier than it did last time around...

Unfortunately, the parallel does not hold. A Maoist people's war is, at bottom, a struggle for good governance between a class-based insurgency claiming to represent the interests of the oppressed public and a ruling regime portrayed by the insurgents as defending entrenched privilege. Using a mix of coercion and inducements, the insurgents and the regime compete for the allegiance of a common pool of citizens, who could, in principle, take either side. A key requirement for the insurgents' success, arguably, is an ideological program -- people's wars are wars of ideas as much as they are killing competitions -- and nationalism is often at the heart of this program. Insurgents frame their resistance as an expression of the people's sovereign will to overthrow an illegitimate regime that represents only narrow class interests or is backed by a foreign government...

What, then, is to be done? Some elements of the current U.S. strategy are worth keeping. The efforts of the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, to broker a constitutional deal between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, for example, are crucial for success; his interventionist approach is a major improvement over the strategy of quiet behind-the-scenes encouragement favored by L. Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority from May 2003 to June 2004. Economic assistance is a moral imperative; it should be continued and reinforced whatever its marginal strategic value.

But critical departures from the current strategy are also necessary. First, Washington must slow down the expansion of the Iraqi national military and police...

Second, the United States must bring more pressure to bear on the parties in the constitutional negotiations...

Much more - whether you agree or disagree with Biddle's analysis and recommendations this article is well worth the read...

Merv Benson
03-12-2006, 01:02 AM
Biddle seems to ignore the evidence of the value of an expanded Iraqi army. If he reviewed the weekly press briefings in Baghdad, he would learn among other things that the tip line from Iraqi citizens has gone up significantly in the last year, but the biggest increase in tips are the walkin who contact Iraqi units patroling in their area. Actionable intelligence from these tips is running at about 98 percent. It has led to the killing or capture of several enemy terrorist and the destruction of about 1,500 weapons caches in the last year according to Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch. These units have also gotten good reviews from senior commanders for their performance after the mosque attack.

There are obvious still some problems in Iraq. I think police corruption is still a problem. However, it is al Qaeda in Iraq that is having the biggest problem right now as its forces are targeted by just about everyone in the country. It is a force on the run at the moment.

I do agree that the US representatives in Iraq were too passive for awhile. As the writer suggest that is no longer the case.

03-12-2006, 08:42 AM
12 March Washington Post - Vietnam and Iraq: Looking Back and Looking Ahead (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/03/11/AR2006031101101.html). Articles covers details on a 10 - 11 March conference on Vietnam.

03-12-2006, 11:34 AM
12 March Associated Press - Haig: Vietnam Mistakes Repeated in Iraq (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/03/11/AR2006031101024.html).

Former Nixon adviser Alexander Haig said Saturday military leaders in Iraq are repeating a mistake made in Vietnam by not applying the full force of the military to win the war.

"Every asset of the nation must be applied to the conflict to bring about a quick and successful outcome, or don't do it," Haig said. "We're in the midst of another struggle where it appears to me we haven't learned very much."

The comments by Haig, Nixon's chief of staff and also a secretary of state under President Reagan, came at a conference at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum examining the Vietnam War and the American Presidency.

The conference brought together advisers from the Nixon, Johnson and Kennedy administrations, and talk turned to Iraq where the panelists saw parallels with Vietnam...

03-12-2006, 12:20 PM
I was watching a History channel program on the Tet offensive this morning. There are some disturbing parallels. At the end of 1966 and early 1967 the talk in Iraq was positive - all the numbers seemed to indicate we were on the road to success and there was talk of bringing the troops home. Then came Tet. The fact was, we had been lulled into a false sense of security only to have our authority challenged once again. Nobody could believe it was happening.

Some say it was media coverage of Tet that caused a loss of support in the states. That may be true but I think a greater impact was that Tet gave the south Vietnamese the impression that the US forces were unable to protect them and so we lost the support of more friends there. Tet was a tactical loss for the north and a gross miscalculation on their part but strategically it paid huge dividends. It was similar in Fallujah at one point - the thought that we were winning only to be confronted by a sudden uprising and then the people of Fallujah began to have doubts about our ability to protect them.... I think Fallujah may be just the tip of a bigger iceberg. The numbers may be encouraging and I am glad to hear them but I think it would be disastrous to read too much into those numbers.

03-12-2006, 09:58 PM
It can be hard to judge a war by numbers or briefings. As these things move up they tend to be distorted by the point of view of whoever is passing them on. Also you have the problem of not always knowing what is important until you can see it in hindsight; by all of the standards of the day the US was doing quite well in Vietnam.

Merv Benson
03-13-2006, 03:22 AM
Tet was a disaster for the communist everywhere but in the media. After Tet the insurgency was essentially defeated, and while the communist made a few feable attempts at a general uprising after Tet, they were defeated in much the same manner as Tet. Gaip actully opposed the offensive because he knew they would lose and he only got roped into planning it anyway after the leader of communist forces in the south was killed in a bombing raid. He knew they would lose militarily and had no idea that the media would turn it into a strategic victory for his side.

Too many still cling to the idea that the insurgency defeated the forces in the south. In fact Gaip switched from an insurgency or raiding strategy to a combat persisting strategy and his first attack onder the new strategy was also defeated with the help of US aircraft. His second attempt at a conventional victory was successful after Democrats in Congress reneged on a pledge to the South Vietnamese and withdrew funding of their defense operations and refused to let the US military use its air assets to help them.

I was referring to the objective data in the briefings. You should check it out. MNFI will also supply you with a copy of the powerpoints slides if you request it.

But most analogies to Vietnam are way off the wall anyway. In Vietnam we were fighting division size units. In fact the first significant combat involved a battalion going up against a communist division. At Khe Sanh there were several NVA divisions getting hammered as they beseiged the combat base. In Iraq by contrast, the enemy is incapable of massing much more than a platoon and every time he has tried it has been defeated with terrible losses.

Unlike the communist in Vietnam, the enemy in Iraq is incapable of attacking a defended position much less holding one. That is one reason why you seldom see reports of attacks on US positions in Iraq. At this point the enemy is primarily relying on booby trap attacks on convoys, when he attacks US troops at all. His primary focus as in the attacks today, are against non combatants, or in some cases recruits signing up for jobs with the Iraqi army or police. These attacks have failed to deter the Iraqis from signing up for these jobs.

The main similarity to the war in Iraq is the anti war left still wants to lose, and the media is doing its best to help them achieve that objective. In a word the reporting, with a new notable exceptions, has been as bad as it was during the Tet offensive. Please read Big Story for an excellent analysis of the faulty reporting during Tet. Most of the exceptions to the poor reporting, are done by reporters who are embedded with the troops and see a more accurate picture of the war than they can from behind the curtain in their Baghdad hotel room.

Bill Moore
03-13-2006, 06:48 AM
Unlike the communist in Vietnam, the enemy in Iraq is incapable of attacking a defended position much less holding one. That is one reason why you seldom see reports of attacks on US positions in Iraq. At this point the enemy is primarily relying on booby trap attacks on convoys, when he attacks US troops at all. His primary focus as in the attacks today, are against non combatants, or in some cases recruits signing up for jobs with the Iraqi army or police. These attacks have failed to deter the Iraqis from signing up for these jobs.

Merv, whether you like it or not, you just made the authorís point, which is Iraq isn't Vietnam, so donít make the assumption that the same touchy feely counterinsurgency doctrine will have similar effects. The author argues his paper very well. You state that the Iraqi Army is working because locals are turning over Al Qaeda members to them. First, that isnít a measure of effect in itself if the locals are Shiía. Furthermore even the Sunni have been turning over AQI members to us for some time. That isnít a result of Iraqification, but piss poor AQI tactics and a message that doesnít resound in Iraq. AQI is only one protagonist, and probably the lesser one when it comes to political stability.
You then stated that the enemy doesnít hold territory, but that isnít correct. The ACF own neighborhoods in Baghdad, and they own towns and cities that we donít, just as they owned Fallujah and Tal Afar for awhile. They canít hold it when we decide to take it, but then they simply move somewhere else and set up shop. They won't maneuver on us, they simply flow all around us to get to their primary targets the new Iraqi government and the citizens of Iraq. The underlying point is that the enemy still needs to be defeated, which means we need more troops and need to be more aggressive in the fight. That doesnít mean leveling cities, but aggressively providing security throughout all of Iraq, denying safe havens. You canít provide safe havens with an Iraqi Army composed of Shiía units and Kurdish units (with the exception of few units) which have severe ethic biases (the authorís point). The bottom line is we are overly focused on attempting to win the hearts and minds through civil affairs projects, when what the people really want is basic security. Our CA work will be for naught, if we donít get back into the fight. The decisions being made today arenít based on sound strategy, but rather expedient politics.

Merv Benson
03-13-2006, 04:17 PM
Bill, I do not disagree with your points about Iraq. My comments on Tet and Vietnam were in response to some of the comments posted and not to the original article. My disagreement with the original article was primarily focused on the authors position that increasing the size of the Iraqi Army ws a mistake. I think there is substantial evidence that increasing the size of the Iraqi army has helped us get a better force to space ratio and permitted more take and hold operations. It has also significantly increased our intelligence gathering ability. Reports also indicate that the Sunnis are signing up for the army now too, and much of its leadership is Sunni.

03-13-2006, 09:04 PM
Merv, I suspect you are referring to my post. But I think you missed something I said on which we agree - Tet was a failure for the communists in itself. But, ultimately, it proved to be the turning point in the war that led to defeat for the south. Tactical failures can and do often lead to strategic success. There is more to winning than the sum of the outcome of battles.

03-13-2006, 11:44 PM
"You cannot win against an insurgency that springs from the population," said Jack Valenti, former special assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson. "There's never been an insurgency that doesn't prevail against a mighty power."

...except for Greece, Kenya, Malaya, the Philippines, El Salvador, Guatemala, etc., etc.

by the way, what were the KKK, Weather Underground, Black Panthers for Self-Defense, etc.? Were these not insurgent groups?

...why do we continue to drag out of the closet folks that failed in their duties 25-40 years ago to save us from ourselves now?

Mike in Hilo
03-28-2006, 02:59 AM
Just reread Biddle. Some interesting thoughts on Iraqi communalism, but superficial to downright erroneous on the VN side of the analogy. On Biddle's "competing" for hearts and minds: We realized at some point that Thompson/Duncanson were right: that the Vietnamese peasant was not a free agent whose loyalties went to the highest bidder. (I'm reminded of a Fall paper in which he talks derisively about the US ag adviser who teaches improved hog farming competing with the VC who engages in calculated beheadings and disembowellings--Who wins the competition?). We all (those who were involved in this) knew all too many villages/hamlets oozing in agricultural prosperity whose security was just plain lousy (vci active, etc.), and all too many instances where increased prosperity simply meant that the VC tax rate increased commensurate with the ability to pay. So--The US came to the conclusion that, if stereotyped WHAM begs the question, the surest way to anyone's heart is to protect him and his family from violence and intimidation. Hence pacification's (and CORDS's) core, overwhelming emphasis on getting the territorial forces to do their job better. (Similarly, we well recognized the intimate connection between affording protection to the populace and getting rid of the vci, but the GVN remained "less seized" with this.) Since territorial security was envisioned as requiring continuing US military support, this worked as long as the locals were convinced that we would be around for the forseeable future. Once they realized (not rocket science) that we weren't, the dreaded "A" word again raised its ugly head--accommodation--and backsliding occurred.

Re Biddle on Vietnamization: One can only hope that Iraqization is not a conscious emulation of Vietnamization. The latter rapidly evolved into a political ploy to cover withdrawal not tied to the situation on the ground--and a means of maintaining a modicum of order while we scrambled for the exit. I recommend to readers an incisive paper on Vietnamization by Maj.Tull, USMC, which can be easily found in the swj Reference Library under VN War.