Sunday, August 29, 2010

Iraq, Afghanistan, and the ghost of Vietnam

When the last US combat brigade left Iraq last week, it did so in triumph. The 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division rolled across the border into Kuwait leaving an Iraq that is relatively stable, even though many politicians and opponents of the war had called it hopeless less than four years ago. Many of the same people are similarly painting the war in Afghanistan as a lost cause today.

We should all be proud of the magnificent job that the US military has done in Iraq and Afghanistan. Units who fought in these theaters of the War on Terror include soldiers from the Georgia Army National Guard, Rangers from Hunter Army Air Field, and elements of the 3rd Infantry Division from Fort Benning. Georgia soldiers also served with units based around the country and the world.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have long been compared to the US experience in Vietnam with many warning of a quagmire as US forces engaged al Qaeda and Shiite insurgents. It is possible however, that many in this country have learned the wrong lesson from the history of the Vietnam War.

It is widely believed in some circles that it is almost impossible for a conventional force to defeat insurgents fighting a guerilla war. This view is ignorant both of world military history as well as the history of the many small wars that the US has fought around the world. The US military, especially the Marine Corps, has defeated or neutralized insurgents in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, Nicaragua, and even Vietnam. The story of these and other conflicts is detailed in Max Boot’s The Savage Wars of Peace.

Boot disputes the conventional wisdom that the US military was defeated by the Viet Cong in a guerilla war. He explains how General William Westmoreland was the wrong man for the command of the US forces in Vietnam. Westmoreland was a West Pointer who tried to fight a conventional, big unit war similar to what he experienced in WWII and Korea.

Mounting casualties led to increasing public opposition, especially after the Tet Offensive of 1968. During Tet, the VC violated an armistice to launch surprise attacks around South Vietnam. The scale of the attacks convinced many, including veteran newsman Walter Cronkite, that the insurgency was not nearly defeated, as many in the government and the military had claimed. In reality, Tat was a huge defeat for the VC. WE and ARVN counterattacks decimated VC ranks and they never recovered (Boot, p. 310).

In the wake of Tet, General Westmoreland was replaced by General Creighton Abrams. Abrams implemented a “one war” strategy that focused on “clear and hold” in a manner similar to General Piraeus’ successful strategy in Iraq. William Colby, leader of the CIA’s Phoenix Program was also instrumental in turning the war around. The Phoenix Program targeted VC cadres in South Vietnam and was responsible. The program led to the killing of 26,000 local VC as well capturing 33,000 and inducing 22,000 to defect (Boot, p. 310).

The methods of Abrams and Colby were so successful that in 1970, only two years after Tet, 90% of South Vietnam was under Saigon’s control (Boot, p. 311). Sir Richard Thompson, a counterinsurgency expert, wrote in 1970 that he was “able to visit areas and walk through villages which had been under VC control for years. There was a much greater feeling of security and people were ready to take up arms for the government because they sensed that the VC were weaker…. Existing roads are kept open, and more are being repaired and opened monthly” (Boot, p. 311).

Yet we know that the Vietnamese communists ultimately prevailed, overrunning the South and reuniting the nation under communist rule. So what happened? In a word: Congress.

Richard Nixon began a policy of Vietnamization, turning over prosecution of the war to the Vietnamese and drawing down US forces in the country. As US forces left, the North Vietnamese saw an opportunity. On March 30, 1972, the NVA launched its Easter Offensive, a conventional forces invasion of the South. Nevertheless, the ARVN forces were able to hold long enough for US airpower to inflict heavy losses on the invaders and the NVA was ultimately turned back (Boot, p. 310-311).

The strong showing led the North Vietnamese to sign the Paris Peace Treaty on January 27, 1973. This was a victory for the United States since it imposed an immediate ceasefire in addition to stipulating the withdrawal of US troops. President Nixon promised the South Vietnamese that the US would come to their aid if the North Vietnamese broke the ceasefire (

Unfortunately for the South Vietnamese, President Nixon was forced to resign in 1974. Even before that, Congress passed the Case-Church Amendment on June 19, 1973 which banned US military activity in Southeast Asia after August 15. Congress also cut aid to South Vietnam from $1.26 billion to $700 million ( The North Vietnamese sensed blood in the water.

In 1975, the North Vietnamese launched a second conventional invasion of the South. This time, without American airpower or aid, the ARVNs fell back. Boot reports that the situation was so dire that the South Vietnamese troops had to reuse bandages taken from corpses (p. 310-311). With no American help forthcoming, an angry South Vietnamese President Thieu pleaded, “If [the U.S.] grant full aid we will hold the whole country, but if they only give half of it, we will only hold half of the country” ( Instead, Congress granted no aid and South Vietnam fell in 55 days.

Many of the prominent Democrats who prevented the US from honoring its commitments to South Vietnam also opposed the Iraq War. These include Senators John Kerry and Ted Kennedy.

Knowing the full story of the fall of Saigon, the lesson that we should learn is that when our enemies cannot defeat us on the battlefield, they sow dissension at home. They realize that their best chance is to exhaust the political will of the government’s civilian leaders. General Vo Nguyen Giap, leader of the NVA, stated “We were not strong enough to drive out a half-million American troops, but that was not our aim. Our intention was to break the will of the American Government to continue the war” (Boot, p. 316).

A very real danger is that history will repeat itself in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thanks in large part to the sacrifice and hard work of the US military, Iraq is now much more stable than many observers believed possible a mere four years ago. The turnaround is also due to President Bush’s troop surge and General Petraeus’ counterinsurgency strategy. Afghanistan has further to go, but variations on the same strategy could also work there given enough time. It is a testimony to the stabilizing effect of US forces, and the reality of the danger that remains, that more than half of Iraqis did not want US troops to leave yet (

Much of the violence in Iraq was caused by Shiite militia groups supported by Iran. Iran pledged to the Iraqi government in 2007 that it would stop equipping and training these groups ( This pledge may have been partly to reduce the violence in Iraq and lull the US into a false sense of security, making it politically easier for the Obama Administration to withdraw US combat troops. It might also have been inspired by the possibility of uniting Iraqi Shiites into a political bloc that would elect a government friendly to Iran.

As Iran moves ever closer to developing nuclear weapons, it is possible that they will become emboldened by President Obama’s stated goal of a withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan by July 2011. A nuclear armed Iran that is faced with only token US opposition might well decide that a conventional invasion of Iraq is in their best interests. After all, Iraq is a long-time enemy that fought a decade long war with Iran in the 1980s. Perhaps more importantly, Iraq also controls significant oil reserves. Control of Iraq’s oil would make Iran exponentially more powerful on the world stage. Nuclear weapons in the Persian Gulf and conventional forces in Iraq would also threaten the vast oil reserves of Saudi Arabia.

The danger for the United States is that, like the Americans of 1975, we will be tempted to wash our hands of Iraq if an Iranian invasion comes. To do so, would be a mistake of the worst order. Not only would Iranian domination of the Persian Gulf threaten our own economy, it would also threaten our allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, as well as the economies of the industrialized world. It would be very difficult to form a “coalition of the willing” to stave off a nuclear-armed terrorist state.

Additionally, it would further damage America’s reputation abroad if countries in which the US has invested vast amounts of men and material are allowed to fall to Iran. A fall of Baghdad and Kabul would arouse similar emotions as the famous photo of US embassy personnel being evacuated by helicopter from the roof of the Saigon embassy. It would lead our allies to question whether we can be counted upon and our enemies to sense our weakness.

Americans should make no mistake: Just because US forces are no longer in a combat role in Iraq, it does not mean that the war is over. It merely means that US troops are less likely to die in combat and that native forces are doing the lion’s share of the work. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to continue for some time as long as al Qaeda and Iran continue to oppose the elected governments and the US doesn’t cut off aid. As George Orwell once said, “the quickest way to end a war is to lose it.”

Boot, Max. The Savage Wars of Peace. Basic Books, New York, NY. 2002

Denver CO
August 27, 2010


Anonymous said...

Before visiting Vietnam I might have agreed with your analysis but having just spent 3 weeks in the country chatting to Viet Cong soldiers and looking at the ground I would take a different view.

The Viet Cong were some of the bravest soldiers but they told me that the Americans were a devastating enemy. One of them held out his arm, showed me the shot away flesh and said he was lucky it wasn't a Cobra or he would be dead (like 90% of his comrades in arms). He said the Americans would come like a whirlwind then they would leave so that the Viet Cong could re-group and re-arm for a repeat engagement. They did this for years.

I heard this again and again. It was as if the American Forces were treating Vietnam as a Turkey Shoot, improving weaponry, building more bombers, manufacturing more weapons of war. I looked at the ground and the lack of military roads, pillboxes, hardened fortresses was shocking - fortifications are no good against airpower or heavy artillery but they stop guerrillas and there were no fortifications...

I could invent a cheap conspiracy theory about all this - you know, the military industrial complex blah blah blah.. - but I actually think the explanation is really simple. The US was fighting the Korean War again (See Korea, Vietnam, Irag and Afghanistan). Their tactics in Vietnam were perfect for Korea, just imagine the effect of a Cobra on tens of thousands of Chinese advancing in the open.

Never underestimate the stupidity of Generals. Overall the US won the strategic game although they lost Vietnam. Delaying Vietnam nationalism until communism was on the wane did the trick for the wider Cold War. So the US won the Cold War but lost Vietnam, not a bad result for the West, but so, so, costly for the poor Vietnamese.

CaptainKudzu said...

I don't disagree. Westmoreland was a general who learned to fight in WWII and he tried to fight the Viet Cong using those tactics. However, when Creighton Abrams took command after Tet, the strategy shifted from Search-and-Destroy to Clear-and-Hold. By most accounts, the strategy was successful and stabilized the situation in South Vietnam to the point where the North Vietnamese had to mount a conventional invasion.

History repeated itself in Iraq. The initial strategy was more akin to the Search-and-Destroy of Vietnam. After the Anbar Awakening and General Petraeus assumption of command, the back of the insurgency was broken.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

Look at my website homepage - ,