Iraq: More at Stake Than Vietnam

Friday, July 30, 2004

While the attention of Americans was riveted on the bloody standoffs in Fallujah and Najaf in late April, an event in nearby Jordan served to underline why the United States cannot accept the prospect of failure in Iraq. In what Jordan’s King Abdullah called “a major, major operation,” his military and intelligence forces thwarted an apparent effort by Al Qaeda to launch a chemical attack against the Jordanian Prime Minister’s office, the U.S. embassy, and Jordan’s national intelligence headquarters. The terrorists apparently intended to use trucks outfitted with 80,000 pounds of explosives as well as nerve and blister agents. The chief Jordanian participant in the scheme, Azni Jayyousi, said on national television that he had been following the orders of Abu Musab al-Zarquawi, operating from within Iraq. U.S. military and civilian officials in Iraq had earlier fingered al-Zarquawi as a principal figure in anti-Coalition terrorist operations and had identified him as a likely link with Al Qaeda. Jayyousi confirmed this, claiming that Al Qaeda was anxious to escalate its threat against the West by employing chemical weapons for the first time. A Jordanian scientist suggested that, under the right wind and weather conditions, the combined chemical and explosive attack could have killed as many as 80,000 people.

So the stakes in Iraq remain very much as President Bush and his administration defined them from the beginning: inflicting a critical defeat on international terrorists and neutralizing states that nurture and protect them before the combination is able to attack the targets of its choice with chemical or other weapons of mass destruction. The administration also insists that democracies are unlikely either to present a terrorist threat or tolerate terrorist activities on their soil—hence the effort to introduce democracy to Iraq and the hope that it will serve as a model for other states in the region.

Losing a war for these kind of stakes is unacceptable; losing one in the Middle East, unthinkable. Terrorists whose literature inflates the importance of U.S. impotence in responding to attacks in Lebanon, Mogadishu, and off the coast of Yemen would declare open season in the face of a U.S. defeat in Iraq. They would be emboldened to strike American assets at home and abroad and threaten to punish allies of the United States. In time they would create a parade of nations like Spain—former friends declining to participate in any risky endeavor so long as it bore an American trademark, perhaps going even further and expelling the United States from bases on their soil, defining security in terms of risk avoidance rather than deterrence. In time, not a single American defense partnership, with the possible exception of Israel, would be worth the price of the document bearing its signatures. An era of involuntary isolationism would be the lot of the United States.


Handcuffing the Military

The consequences of defeat were never so dire in Vietnam, a conflict somewhat glibly but widely likened to Iraq, given the mounting U.S. casualties, growing enemy ferocity, and opinion poll indications of declining support for the war. Vietnam was the site of an anti-colonial struggle in which the colonial power—France—had been defeated on the battlefield and at the negotiating table only to have the United States buy its cause at Geneva’s “going out of business” sale. Beyond Laos and Cambodia, Vietnam was no expansionary power, unlike Al Qaeda’s vision of an Islamic nation stretching from Europe to Indonesia and beyond. True, communism was revolutionary in ideology and global in pretension. But the fissure between the Soviet Union and China had rendered obsolete the notion of a Marxist monolith, and, by the early 1970s, the Nixon administration was going about the business of exploiting the Sino-Soviet split through normalization with one power and détente with the other. Both games could be played more skillfully with Vietnam out of the way. So Nixon engineered a disguised defeat in the form of Vietnamization and, with the guile of a practiced artist of statecraft, called it “Peace with Honor.” One can argue that the U.S. defeat in Vietnam emboldened the Russians and their friends to mischievous adventures in the Middle East, Angola, Mozambique, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan. More likely, much of this represented the death throes of an empire that was losing to the West in every meaningful venue of human competition.

Yet in one sense comparing the conduct of the war in Iraq to Vietnam may be apt. I speak of the political constraints placed on the military that deprive it of the chance to defeat the other side. In Vietnam the constraint was simple and explicit: no ground invasion of North Vietnam. Supply lines could be attacked from the air; harbors could on occasion be mined. But an attack that would have had Hanoi fighting for its life, rather than to erase the government in Saigon, was ruled out. The reason for this was the memory of American forces charging across the 38th parallel in Korea only to have their victory denied when great masses of Chinese troops poured across the Yalu River, engaging the Americans near the Chosin Reservoir and pushing them back close to the original battle lines. Of course, that Chinese move was successful because political constraints prevented the United States from attacking Chinese lines of communication on their side of the Yalu, a restriction that would undoubtedly have prevailed a decade later, even had the Chinese entered the war without the provocation of a U.S. land assault on North Vietnam. In fact, the injunction against “widening the war” was so deeply held that even Nixon had to go all out, warning that the United States could not become “a pitiful helpless giant,” in order to win public support for a modest thrust into Cambodia to hammer enemy supply lines and storage facilities, a move that still triggered bitter protest demonstrations in several parts of the country.

In Iraq the constraints are more vague but no less real. The mission began with a simple Bush administration construct: We are liberators, not occupiers; the Iraqis will treat us as such unless we inadvertently do something to offend them; we shall liberate the people of Iraq from the tyrant who ruled them, the party that oppressed them, and the strict code of Islam that could enslave them. Further, as liberators, we won’t need very many troops or many armored vehicles because Iraqis will gladly join us in defending their newly won freedoms. This political construct dovetailed nicely with the enhanced technological capability of U.S. forces, which provided an advantage on the battlefield calculated to “shock and awe” their opponents. Recall the words of Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith when he addressed the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington in December 2003: “Our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown the world how relatively small forces can have large strategic effects,” he declared. Goodbye to “old military thinking” about numbers; these notions have been overtaken by events.

Long before that, the chief civilian administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, writing in the Wall Street Journal, had not only termed the liberation of Iraq a fait accompli but had declared it “one of the remarkable events in the history of freedom. Never before in warfare have so many been freed with so few casualties, in so short a period of time, with so little damage done to the country and its people.” At the time—June 2003—Bremer was scampering off to Amman, Jordan, with Iraqi clients in tow, for a special meeting of the World Economic Forum to discuss the economic aspects of recovery.

With the benefit of hindsight we can now see terrible errors committed by Feith and his fellow Pentagon planners and by Bremer and his fellow administrators on the ground. Perhaps the biggest mistake was the anemic military force assigned to impose and maintain order, secure weapons, and disband private militias. I do not mean anemic in terms of combat firepower—Feith was correct about the huge advantages of American military technology—but the same force with the same weaponry loses much of its advantage when it must confront guerrilla forces across an urban battleground, planting roadside bombs, laying ambushes, or rolling car bombs into troop concentrations. Here the old ratios do apply; numerical superiority is key, and, if there is trouble, sufficient force must be employed to crush it rapidly to prevent its spread. As the nation saw, 110,000–135,000 U.S. troops (at least half of which play support roles) were insufficient to quell a rising rebellion.

No one can blame Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary Feith, or their colleagues for believing U.S. forces would be hailed as liberators from one end of Iraq to the other. This was surely a plausible scenario, the best case among many possibilities. But one can fault them profoundly for having no apparent plan for the worst-case scenario or even for a scenario falling between the best and worst cases. Similarly, one can criticize Bremer for disbanding the Iraqi army, ignoring midlevel former Ba’athists with administrative credentials, permitting local militias to flourish, and allowing Sadr City to fester in the heart of Baghdad. Military leaders on the ground can justly be criticized for yielding in virtual silence to a civilian-mandated force structure that was too light in both personnel and equipment.


Chaos on the Ground (with No End in Sight)

The result, from day one, has been a catastrophic failure of security. First, thugs and vandals pillaged the country and terrified its inhabitants. Then snipers and roadside bombers began to do their work. Next, guerrilla bands armed with top-of-the-line Iraqi weapons scored heavier hits, openly returning to the friendly confines of Fallujah (and similar places) to plot. Finally the lid on Fallujah blew off, and Iraqi security forces proved nearly worthless in supporting beleaguered U.S. forces. Meanwhile a lunatic Shiite cleric named Muqtada al-Sadr sent his militia out to attack U.S. troops, promptly taking refuge in the holy city of Najaf. U.S. military and civilian leaders both in the field and in Washington performed an elaborate series of threats, feigned assaults, unilateral cease-fires, and “defensive attacks,” while President Bush rather curiously assured reporters that life in most of Fallujah was back to normal. Finally the U.S. bluff was called. Iraqis in Fallujah surrendered few weapons of consequence, the marines were held back, and suddenly a deal was struck withdrawing U.S. forces from the city while placing security in the hands of a former general in Saddam Hussein’s prized Republican Guards, Jasim Muhammad Saleh, who promptly began recruiting his own band of loyalists from amid the rubble of this virulently anti-American city. In effect, confronted with its first major battle since the toppling of Saddam, the U.S. force withdrew without a fight.

The same sort of thinking indirectly produced the horrific conduct at Abu Ghraib prison. The military investigator, General Antonio Taguba, recognized early on that the problem was “systemic,” involving failures of leadership, discipline, and training. Small wonder when those assigned to the jail were not in any way qualified for the duty and when U.S. officials had to contend with more than 30,000 incarcerated Iraqis when Pentagon planners apparently expected local populations to be hurling flowers instead of grenades at the U.S. occupation forces. Again, this was not an unreasonable assumption, but sufficient capabilities had to be assigned to deal with less than best-case scenarios should they come to pass.

With the June 30 deadline for transfer of sovereignty approaching as of this writing, U.S. officials suggested that the transition could produce a metamorphosis of political sentiment on the ground as Iraqis came to realize they were battling for their own country rather than the American occupation, another best-case assumption. What is needed is the military muscle on the ground to deal with an insurgency likely to paint the new transitional leadership as U.S. lackeys and to intensify attacks against them.

The specter of Vietnam is starting to haunt us. The U.S. force is too small to provide security for itself, let alone for Iraqi police, military trainees, and others needing U.S. protection. Aggressive military steps that could reduce the threat are ruled out partly because the risk of civilian casualties would stir even more anti-American sentiment among Iraqis and others. One suspects the Bush administration has no stomach for the kind of protracted costly war it never thought it would have to fight. Instead of the terrorists being warned against placing innocent civilians, mosques, and other sensitive targets at risk, U.S. military planners pull in their horns and wait for the wave of hatred to pass, which is highly unlikely.

If the United States continues to vacillate in the face of open rebellion, it will lose the war in Iraq just as surely as it lost in Vietnam. Perhaps a facade of cooperative Iraqi sovereignty will conceal the real results for a time. But behind that veneer, practitioners of world terrorism will thank their gods for the victory and plan new ways to challenge America’s presence in the Middle East. And President George W. Bush, who so movingly articulated the reasons for fighting in Iraq, will be judged harshly for providing his troops with neither the mandate nor the military forces necessary to win.