Iraq reopens debate on Vietnam
New tactics favored by U.S. military officers in Iraq — an influx of military advisers and a speeded-up handover to indigenous forces...
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — New tactics favored by U.S. military officers in Iraq — an influx of military advisers and a speeded-up handover to indigenous forces followed by a gradual U.S. withdrawal — resemble those in place as the U.S. effort in Vietnam reached its end.
In historical assessments and the American recollection, Vietnam was the unwinnable war. But to many in the armed forces, Vietnam, as a war, actually was on its way to succeeding when the Nixon administration and Congress, bowing to public impatience, pulled the plug: first withdrawing U.S. combat forces and then blocking money and supplies to the South Vietnamese army.
If they hadn't, the South Vietnamese army, which had been bolstered by U.S. advisers and a more focused "hearts-and-minds" campaign in the later stages of the war, could have fended off the communist North, military thinkers have argued.
Consciously or not, President Bush encapsulated that view during his weekend trip to Hanoi, where he was asked whether there were lessons in Vietnam for the war in Iraq. Instead of military tactics or strategy, he answered by talking about the impatience of the American public, and how success in war can be slow.
"We'll succeed unless we quit," Bush said.
The view that Vietnam could have been won if public opinion and political will had continued to support the war effort is far from universal, particularly among historians outside the military.
Stanley Karnow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who covered the war from the day the first American was killed in 1959 to its ultimate end, said Hanoi was nowhere near capitulation by 1973 when the Paris Peace Accords were signed.
"They're clutching at some sort of way to justify hanging on in Iraq," said Karnow, whose "Vietnam: A History" is frequently considered the definitive account of the conflict.
"The war in Vietnam, in my estimation, was unwinnable for the simple, basic reason that we were up against an enemy that was prepared to take on unlimited losses. They would have gone on fighting endlessly."
Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security adviser who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it would be "a gimmick" for the Defense Department to increase the number of troops in Iraq temporarily before beginning to withdraw them.
Brzezinski said U.S. and Iraqi officials should jointly announce a withdrawal date for American troops that comes before the end of 2007. Even in the best possible outcome, though, Iraq isn't likely to be secular or democratic, he said.
"Obviously it's not going to be what we have previously described as a victory," he said.
His prediction about Iraq coincides with assessments by other former policy makers. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who negotiated the Paris Peace Accords in 1973 that led to the U.S. pullout from Vietnam, said Nov. 19 that a "clear" military victory in Iraq isn't "possible."
The course that senior military officers now appear to be steering in Iraq mirrors the "Vietnamization" program implemented by Nixon and his military chief in Vietnam, Army Gen. Creighton Abrams, in the late stages of the war.
Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, leader of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, laid out that path at congressional hearings last week. He said the biggest change he anticipates in the coming months is a large-scale increase in U.S. advisers.
He also said he hopes to hand over responsibility for security to Iraqi forces in less than a year — faster than Army Gen. George Casey, the U.S. commander in Iraq, had estimated just weeks earlier — and spelled out his resistance to an increase in American combat troops.
"I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more," Abizaid told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "If more troops need to come in, they need to come in to make the Iraqi army stronger."
For some military experts and historians, several of whom advise the Pentagon on Iraq policy, that strategy sounded familiar, recalling Abrams' shift in Vietnam after taking over from Army Gen. William Westmoreland in 1968.
After that revamp, an increased advisory effort and accelerated pacification program, which included enlarging the South Vietnamese army, was finally beginning to work by the early 1970s, military scholars argue.
Those efforts were undermined, their thesis goes, by a lack of political will at home, which forced the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and the Saigon government to go it alone before they were ready.
"Gen. Westmoreland preferred to fight the war with American troops; he saw the advisory effort to help the South Vietnamese as very secondary," said Kalev Sepp, a counterinsurgency expert at the Naval Postgraduate School who has traveled to Iraq frequently to advise U.S. military officers. "When Abrams took over, he turned it back around and he emphasized the advisory system as part of the way the Americans could disengage."
Among the administration's Iraq war planners, the influence of the late Abrams has been felt before.
"Clear, hold and build"
The strategy of "clear, hold and build," in which U.S. forces remain in captured towns to provide security while reconstruction begins, was first articulated by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice more than a year ago and closely echoes Abrams' "clear and hold" strategy implemented shortly after taking over from Westmoreland.
More recently, officers steeped in Vietnam's lessons have been brought into the Pentagon by Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as part of his task force rethinking Iraq strategy.
Among them are Army Col. H.R. McMaster, whose doctoral thesis was on the failures of the military leadership during Vietnam, and Army Col. Peter Mansoor, head of the military's new counterinsurgency center — an organization dedicated, in many ways, to reteaching the "hearts-and-minds" strategies that Abrams emphasized.
Although possible recommendations are still being debated within the Pentagon, the panel is reportedly leaning toward a short-term increase in U.S. forces, perhaps as many as 20,000, followed by a significant ramping up of training and advising efforts for Iraqis, including an increase in the size of the Iraqi military.
Hearts and minds
"There's a considerable sentiment of those who really studied Vietnam and, ideally, served there, that the approach to the war after Westmoreland left was on a new track," said retired Army Col. Stuart Herrington, another Vietnam veteran who has advised the Pentagon on Iraq policy. "It was a radical change in the approach to the war, and there's no question that even [former North Vietnamese] adversaries now admit that the second approach was extremely, extremely damaging to them."
Much like in Vietnam, the new strategy is being pushed after several years of large-scale combat operations that may have killed thousands of insurgents, but also alienated the local population.
Perhaps more troubling is that like the Abrams' initiatives, which ran from 1968 through 1973, the current move to step up training of the Iraqi forces comes at a time domestic support for war is on the wane and political winds are blowing in favor of a quick pullout of combat forces.
"There are certain things you just can't do in a military situation like Iraq or Vietnam, and if you violate these tenets, you're at great risk," said Herrington. "One of them is to take too long to figure out what you ought to be doing so the American public falters in its support."
Senior military officials have acknowledged that maintaining domestic support for the war effort is frequently factored into planning discussions.
Despite the hurdles, the signs that the administration is heeding the lessons of Vietnam, as prosecuted by Abrams, are increasingly apparent.
Bush himself, as recently as June, told a White House news conference that he saw no parallels between the two wars. More recently, however, in addition to his comments in Hanoi, Bush acknowledged in an interview with ABC News that American setbacks in Baghdad may be comparable to the Tet Offensive, the 1968 battle between American forces and Viet Cong guerrillas generally seen as the point where public opinion turned against the war.
But even among Abrams' advocates, there is a nagging concern that, even with the relearning of Vietnam's lessons, it may still turn out to be too little, too late.
"Having wasted more than three years pursuing a flawed strategy, the Pentagon lost the support of the American population, and was not given the time to get it right, even when it was clear that Gen. Creighton Abrams' pacification and Vietnamization approach might have worked," Herrington wrote in a recent issue of Parameters, the journal of the U.S. Army war college. "Sound familiar?"
Los Angeles Times reporter Julian E. Barnes contributed to this report. Comments by Brzezinski and Kissinger were reported by Bloomberg News Service.
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