Why Iraq is not a new Vietnam

Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was fashionable in 2007 to label the Iraq War as the next Vietnam. It was easy to draw parallels – weak local allies, a post-invasion quagmire, insurgency, inability to win the “hearts and minds” led pundits to declare the Iraq War as ‘Vietnam 2.0.’ With a major crisis unfolding in the past week, it is hard not to again see similarities.

Two years after the American withdrawal, the Iraqi army has suffered a stunning defeat to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). The Sunni jihadist group, a reconstituted Al-Qaeda in Iraq, has spent the better part of the year enforcing its extreme brand of Sharia in eastern Syria and western Iraq, while fighting nearly every other faction in the Syrian civil war.

ISIS swept into the Fallujah in January, the site of some of the worst urban combat during the American occupation. The Iraqi military’s ineptitude in countering ISIS’s offensive is nothing short of jaw-dropping: two divisions of 30,000 trained soldiers broke rank and fled in the face of only 800 ISIS militants.

Alongside that comes the flight of more than half a million civilians to the relative safety of Iraqi Kurdistan, stirring images of North Vietnam’s rapid advance into South Vietnam in 1975. Just as ISIS fighters have expressed surprise at how easily they took Iraq’s second-biggest city, the North Vietnamese leadership had expected stiffer resistance from South Vietnam. This too came two years after an American military withdrawal.

This is particularly embarrassing for Washington, which spent ten years and trillions of dollars training the Iraqi Army for precisely this type of scenario. This form of indigenizing the conflict was done in Vietnam through then-President Richard Nixon’s policy of “Vietnamization.”

The hope was to shift the burden of combat and securing the country to local allies, enabling American forces to draw down. This failed spectacularly in South Vietnam, as their American-trained and armed military fell to the North a mere two years after the last U.S. combat troops withdrew in 1973.

ISIS now sits a mere 150km away from Baghdad an has begun to push onwards to the capital.

While ISIS’s march to Baghdad is without a doubt ominous, it is not quite the decisive end game that North Vietnam’s 1975 Spring Offensive was. For starters, ISIS has nowhere near the personal nor the material that the NVA did at the end of the Vietnam War.

It also lacks the widespread ideological appeal that Ho Chi Minh and his successors had among sympathizers in South Vietnam. Some Sunni tribes may be happy to have escaped President Nouri al-Maliki’s boot, but ISIS has repeatedly alienated local populations through gruesome atrocities.

Finally, and perhaps one of the most decisive factors, is Washington’s willingness to use hard power to support the Iraqi government. President Obama proclaimed that “all options” are open to fight the insurgents in Iraq. Though this will likely not involve ground troops, drone strikes and special forces will undoubtedly come into play. This stands in stark contrast to the run up to Saigon’s fall, when the Ford administration refused to resend the American military to Vietnam.

Ultimately, the parallels only go so far. It will be a long, bloody campaign to remove ISIS from Iraq. But do not count on the “fall of Baghdad” just yet.

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Categories: Middle East/North Africa, Security

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2 Comments on “Why Iraq is not a new Vietnam”

  1. June 21, 2014 at 1:48 pm #

    You lay out some important parallels between Iraq and Vietnam, thank you for taking the time to examine them.

    First, as a side note, you mention that our opponent du jour in Iraq, ISIS, is less appealing than Ho Chi Minh (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ho_Chi_Minh). Talking about that appeal, were you referring to the communist ideology, or to Ho leading an independence movement?

    In an increasingly religious post-Saddam Iraq, could Theocracy (flavor varied by region), be of similar appeal (put yourself in their shoes!)? How about “liberation theology”?

    Anyways, I would say there is one more parallel (and at the same time, difference) Iraq vs Vietnam and one difference.

    * The parallel is the questionable rationale for initial involvement.

    In Vietnam, it was the “domino theory”. Although debunked (we “gave up” Vietnam, dominoes did not fall), the domino theory was initially appealing in the context of the Cold war, since the US had a worldwide empire (USSR) as its main rival, with a stated ideology of converting the rest of the world too.

    In Iraq, the original line of reasoning is harder to pin down.

    WMD’s were known to be a non-threat to the US, they were mostly for public consumption.
    The relationship of Saddam and Osama Bin Laden, similarly good for TV, was also PR fluff.

    So were humanitarian considerations. Much of the human suffering in Iraq had been going on for decades with little concern by us, and Saddam’s worst atrocities were carried out while he enjoyed our support.

    This leaves what I believe is the true reason for action in Iraq, the NeoConservative argument, which I admit I do not really understand.

    “A successful intervention in Iraq would revolutionize the strategic situation in the Middle East…and all to the benefit of American interests.” – Robert Kagan, 1998

    * The difference is time and experience doing foreign interventions (never mind the reasons). We now know that the US batting average in these interventions rather low. We observed a pattern where, after we get involved, there is much wreckage compared to the status quo. The humanitarian situation, from the point of view of the local population, tends to also get worse after our involvement. This pattern is something to bear in mind as well, it was not known in Vietnam!

  2. Erim
    June 22, 2014 at 4:36 am #

    Of the three distinctions this article actually makes between Vietnam to Iraq two are factual pot-shots: half-baked and rather misleading.

    Does comparing the amount of personal and equipment matter in the modern precision strike era? Where the one was fought in the jungles with carpet bombing reliant, area denial tactics and the other in urban guerrilla war? I don’t think you need to march with a larger army and weaponry anymore (without even getting into the topographic differences of these battlefields).

    Two, comparing sympathizers in South Vietnam to their Northern counterparts is academically negligent here. The Vietnamese northerners or southerners didn’t distinguish between each other as members of different identities (ethnically) like Sunnis and Shiites do (religiously). But the Vietnam War was not limited to modern day Vietnam, but also included Cambodia with its Khmers. That land is as “borderless” as the current Syria-Iraq border too. The current Iraq situation is more like Cambodian Khmers (cast them as Shiite or Sunnis whomever) who first join ranks with their Viet communist comrades, then grow into distrust, then outright war against each other (post-US withdrawal by the way), which then led to ethnic cleansing/genocide. The killing didn’t stop in Cambodia till Vietnam drove into Phnom Penh with tanks. This article compares the wrong combatants in the Vietnam War and would even have one believe the number of tanks involved was a key factor, not a decade of armed conflict and ethnic mistrust. North vs South Vietnam is smoke-n-mirrors here. The actual parallel between the wars is the east-west fight after the American withdrawal between the Khmer Rouge and Communist Vietnam. That conflict is NOT distinct from the Vietnam War any more than the current cross Syrian-Iraqi ISIS conflict is from the Iraq invasion.

    I do agree that American willingness to re-engage militarily is an important fact different than the Vietnam example though.

    I can’t agree with anything else this short piece discriminates between the conflicts though, and for these things to go unexpressed is a disservice to any reader.

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