Misreading History?

In comparing Iraq to previous counterinsurgency campaigns, in particular Vietnam, there are differing lessons. Here are the comments of military planners and analysts, drawn from their FRONTLINE interviews.

Stephen Biddle
Council on Foreign Relations

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… As it begins dawning on them that there is something of an ongoing guerilla campaign [in Iraq], people think, "Okay, let's walk through what we think we know about guerilla campaigns." And naturally, Americans turn to Vietnam. For Americans, Vietnam is the paradigm of guerilla warfare. ... And [they] started to try to do what they thought went well in Vietnam and avoid what went badly.

And that eventually came together in the president's "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" in 2005, which looked straight out of the Nixon administration playbook for dealing with the Vietnam War. It used the same basic logic and pillar of U.S. strategy in 1969: We are going to win hearts and minds through a combination of political reform and economic development, and in the process we are going to hand the fighting off to an indigenous military. ...

Even the rhetoric was remarkably similar - the Nixon administration talked about 'as the Vietnamese army gets stronger we will be able to withdraw our forces.' The president's phrase was, 'As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.'

And the problem in all this was that the underlying nature of the conflict in Vietnam was ideological and class-based - what you had was a war between two different ideas about how South Vietnam should be governed and whose class interests should be primary.

Iraq, by contrast, certainly by December 2005 had become a conflict about sectarian and ethnic identity. And the problem with a war over identity as opposed to a war over ideology is, I can change my mind a lot easier than I can change my identity. It's much, much harder to change people's self-identification. Once they come to believe that they are primarily Sunni and secondarily Iraqi, or primarily Shiite and secondarily Iraqi, and moreover, people with other identities are trying to kill us -- it's very hard to put that toothpaste back in the tube.

Conrad Crane, Ph.D.
Director, U.S. Army Military History Institute

… The army had a very robust body of counterinsurgency doctrine at the time of Vietnam. At the conclusion of Vietnam, the American military in general said, "We're not going to do this anymore." Rather than learn from our mistakes or learn to do it better, the idea was, that's just too hard to do. We're going to figure out how to avoid that. And the focus went to beating the Soviets in Europe again.

In the 1980s, interest in counterinsurgency returned. But it was based on the El Salvador model, which was we send in a few advisers, some money, and basically the host nation solves its own problem. So we did have counterinsurgency doctrine going into Iraq, but it was based on this El Salvador model.

What were the conditions in Iraq that made it different from El Salvador, or Vietnam?

The biggest difference between Iraq and what happened in El Salvador was just the necessity to involve the whole force in counterinsurgency. It was not just a few advisers, it was very significant military resources, interagency resources, development resources. It was a much more complex problem. And with having to change the [Iraq] regime as well, [it] meant that we were trying to build the very government we had to support, which also made it more complex. ...

The insurgency we're facing in Iraq is a very complex array of enemies. In the past, you tended to look at counterinsurgency theory looking at a monolithic enemy - we're dealing with the North Vietnamese or with Che Guevara. ... In Iraq, we find an array of enemies, a multilayered array. We also find that, as in many insurgencies, this is a mosaic war: The war in one province is not the same as the war in another province. The situation that Gen. [David] Petraeus faced in Mosul was not the same situation in Al Anbar Province or in Baghdad. And commanders in their own local areas have to have the resources and the initiative to be able to take care of their situation based on that and develop their own solutions.

Lt. Col. Andrew Krepinevich (Ret.)
Defense Department consultant

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… The Army had, in a sense, gotten out of the counterinsurgency business after Vietnam. ... Even in the 1990s, when we deployed forces to places like Haiti or Bosnia under the Clinton administration, it was: "Well, what's your exit strategy? We're not going to be here very long. Get in and get out."

So the Army institutionally had prepared itself to be a world-class sprinter, [to] fight very short, very decisive wars. Now it finds itself showing up for the track meet, and its enemy wants to run a marathon, and this requires an incredible amount of gear shifting for the Army as an institution. It also requires a very different mind-set. It requires you to adapt yourself mentally very quickly. ...

There's a perception among America's enemies in Iraq, and particularly among the radical Islamists, that when the going gets tough, the Americans get going home. They see it in Somalia in Mogadishu. They see it in Beirut, [Lebanon], after the Marine barracks bombing in 1982. They see it, from their perspective, in Vietnam.

So this is a case of where they don't believe the Americans have the stomach to fight a long, tough war. They certainly are willing to use technology; they're not willing to risk their soldiers. And they also believe that the American people have sort of a national attention deficit disorder, that we can only really focus on things for a short period of time before we want to get onto the next thing.

So a protracted war as opposed to a short war, a manpower-intensive war as opposed to a war where technology really dominates -- that is their formula for success, and they've seen it work in the past. ...

So to use kind of an American sports analogy, these guys have learned how to throw a curveball, and we haven't shown we can hit the curveball. And like any good pitcher, until that batter shows them he can hit the curveball, that's all he's going to see. He'll never see the fastball. And right now they are sticking it to us.

Col. Douglas Macgregor (Ret.)
Military strategist

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… [T]he assumption [for Iraq] was that we could just muddle through, we would figure it out as we went, that the Army was big, it was powerful, it had lots of firepower, lots of mass.

This, after all, is exactly what we did in Vietnam. We simply dragged the conventional army into the place. Even though, for instance, President Kennedy when he read the first request for conventional troops in Vietnam in 1961 said no -- "If we introduce a lot of conventional troops into South Vietnam we will do two things: We will deform the economy, and we will arouse nationalist sentiment against us." Absolutely right. We essentially repeated the kind of heavy-handed blundering that we engaged in in the first years in Vietnam, from which we also never recovered. ...

Incidentally, we didn't admit to killing very many people in Vietnam, and then it came out after the war was over, we had killed over two million. This is the same sort of thing now. We don't know how many people we have actually killed or wounded or incarcerated. We know we have driven over a million people into exile, but my point is very simply this: Who are we killing? Who is the enemy? Most of these people simply want us out of the country. They are humiliated and offended by our occupation.

Lawrence Kaplan
The New Republic

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… Casey is really part of this cohort of Vietnam-era officers who really have lived through and imbibed the lessons of Vietnam.

… Casey and Abizaid -- both in a sense see themselves as the heirs of Gen. Creighton Abrams, who of course is known for, in the latter stages of the war in Vietnam, for finally pushing the Army to embrace the successful counterinsurgency strategy. And, of course, by this time it is too little and too late.

But Abizaid and Casey see themselves as the heirs of the Abrams strategy in the sense that the idea of a light footprint they see as compatible with classic counterinsurgency doctrine, which is not to embrace heavy operations, not to rely heavily on firepower, not to use big unit sweeps. And so I think their idea is that turning over power to the Iraqis doesn't necessarily contradict the strategy of winning hearts and minds.

But now you have this competing camp of Army officers in Iraq, largely at the brigade level, who also see themselves as heirs of Vietnam counterinsurgency strategy, and they take away a quite different lesson. Their lesson is that rather than have a light footprint, the key is really to have a heavy American presence within the towns: not to rely heavily on firepower and conventional Army doctrine, but rather to establish bases, to pour funds into towns, to establish civil affairs projects, rebuild sewers, power plants and the like.

This is Petraeus.

This is Petraeus. But it is also ... an operational concept at least in this war identified very closely with [Col.] H.R. McMaster, who in September 2005 first invades and then pacifies Tal Afar in northwest Iraq. ...

The fascinating thing is Patraeus will go [into Baghdad with the surge], and he probably will make classic counterinsurgency ... a theater-wide strategy. The problem is, an effective counterinsurgency strategy requires time and patience, and at this point the American public has run out of both. So in a sense you are seeing replay in miniature of Vietnam, where by the time the Army gets it right, the public has split from the program.

Anthony Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies

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… [W]e had no core competence anywhere in the U.S. government either civilian or military to deal with what was becoming a major set of problems in a very large country, again, of 26 million people.


Why should we? We don't go around randomly building failed states -- and the term is 'building,' it's not reconstruction. There isn't something there to reconstruct.

We don't have people trained in dealing with, salvaging command economies. We don't have people who rebuild countries to deal with insurrections where sectarian and ethnic differences, and we have a long history of problems. In Vietnam, people forget that we lost the Buddhists long before we lost the war. We had sectarian and ethnic differences there, and we failed to cope. We had far more people, eventually, on the economic aid and civil side.

We failed in Somalia; we couldn't cope with the scope of a failed state. We failed before then in Lebanon trying to create a unified military and deal with sectarian differences there. And, as has become all too clear, we were making roughly the same mistakes in Afghanistan.

But in part, it is simply because we did not realize [with Iraq] that this is a civil-military operation of vast scale which requires a talent pool which Americans raised in Western society really don't have the skills to deal with.

Col. Thomas X. Hammes (Ret.)
Defense Department counterinsurgency adviser

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… Vietnam and Iraq don't translate real well; no insurgencies translate particularly well because they're all unique. Vietnam, you're fighting a monolithic, Communist insurgency that's carefully controlled from the north. In Iraq, you're fighting a coalition of the willing.

A much better model for Iraq is Afghanistan against the Soviets. It's a coalition of groups that are coming together to fight the Soviets who will never get along. In fact, when the Soviets leave, the civil war starts, which is going on to this day between Pashtun and the Uzbek and Tajik, and also within those groups, too. ...

We see the same thing in Iraq. ... The Iraqis respond exactly as the Afghans did when they figured out the Soviets were going home: They back off on fighting the Americans and focus on the real fight, which is against each other. We begin to see the sectarian violence go up and, essentially, the civil war starts to gather momentum.

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posted june 19, 2007

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