Vietnam War Terms Make a Comeback
WASHINGTON -- It was just 45 days ago that President George W. Bush, in a campaign-perfect photo-op, landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of California, swaggered across the deck in full flight gear, and declared that "Operation Iraqi Freedom" had liberated that nation from the evil clutches of former President Saddam Hussein.
But within six weeks, the U.S. Central Command in Baghdad has unleashed a new campaign with a far more ominous name. "Operation Desert Scorpion" is designed, in the equally ominous words of Monday's 'Wall Street Journal', "to avoid a prolonged guerrilla campaign" that appears to be underway, at least in what is now referred to as "the Sunni Triangle" of central Iraq.
It is clear that the 10 weeks of chaos that followed the collapse of Hussein's government in early April have taken a serious toll on U.S. hopes that Iraqis, either out of fear and awe of Washington's military might or out of gratitude, would simply do what they were told by their supposed liberators.
But even the U.S. mainstream press, which has been dutifully documenting the ardent efforts of the country's troops to restore order and win over the population, is now suggesting that things are not going according to plan, assuming that there ever was one.
"Significantly, this realization is reaching deep into the U.S. heartland," writes respected TomDispatch.com editor Tom Engelhardt. "Newspapers from Cleveland, Tallahassee, Charlotte and Salt Lake City carried headlines this weekend such as 'Losing the Peace', 'Iraq War Still Hot, Commanders Say', 'Civilian Deaths intensify Anti-U.S. Ire' and 'The War Is Over, But U.S. Soldiers Keep Dying'."
Engelhardt also noted this weekend that the vocabulary of the Vietnam War is re-infiltrating the press. For instance, New York Times' military analyst Michel Gordon this weekend used the dreaded word "counter-insurgency" about prospects for defeating unhappy armed Iraqis: "Unlike the rush to Baghdad, this fight will not be measured in days but in months, if not years... For the Americans this is a campaign of raids, bombing strikes and dragnets, as American commanders try to isolate and destroy remnants of the old order."
"It is more like a counter-insurgency than an invasion," Gordon added, in what Engelhardt said marked the first reference to the tactic in relation to the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
In a swift echo, The Christian Science Monitor followed with an article Monday titled "U.S. Anti-Guerrilla Campaign Draws Iraqi Ire". "The U.S. army has changed from being a liberator to an offensive occupier," the article quoted Fawzi Shafi, editor of a new weekly newspaper in Fallujah, the apparent center of anti-U.S. resistance, said.
Rehabilitating schools and providing free gasoline to communities are now referred to by the old Vietnam cliché of "winning hearts and minds"; arms seized by U.S. troops have been called "weapons counts", an eerie echo of the "body counts" of Vietnam days.
And while the U.S. strikes of the past 10 days are referred to so far only by their operation codenames, it takes very little imagination to see them as akin to "search-and-destroy missions" of that unlamented period. Washington's first short-lived governor in Iraq, Ret. Gen. Jay Garner, even told the 'New York Times' that he saw "Vietnam and the strategic hamlet concept" as relevant to the Iraqi occupation, presumably to separate the population from rebellious elements.
It remains unclear precisely who those rebellious elements are, although counter-terrorism expert Paul Bremer, the Henry Kissinger associate who succeeded Garner, said they do not appear to be under centralized command.
While Ba'athists and Fedayeen Saddam are no doubt involved -- the media was filled with stories last week insisting that a bounty is being paid for dead U.S. soldiers, although it was unclear who would pay them if there was no central control -- administration officials here and military commanders in Iraq have also suggested that al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist fighters from outside Iraq are infiltrating the borders and rallying to the resistance.
Eager to expand the war on terrorism to Saudi Arabia, some neo-conservative writers, such as Stephen Schwartz of the strongly pro-Israel Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), have suggested that Wahhabi clerics are infiltrating fighters into Iraq to fight with the resistance. Others say Iran is building a tactical alliance with al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups with a similar aim in mind.
But it is also possible that the armed resistance, which has taken the lives of 10 U.S. soldiers and injured dozens more in just the past three weeks, may also be recruiting among sectors that are fast growing disillusioned or angry about the American military presence.
While U.S. forces reportedly have done much better with Shiite communities that opposed Hussein since he emerged as Baghdad's top leader in 1979, last week's "Operation Peninsula Strike" against suspected Sunni rebels also reportedly wiped out several members of a Shiite family near Fallujah, apparently by accident.
Indeed, according to the Journal's account, the main victims of Peninsula Strike turned out to be members of clans that were opposed to Hussein, suggesting that the U.S. military -- as in Afghanistan -- is being manipulated by informants more interested in pursuing their private or clan interests against others than in pacifying the country.
"The show of force so far has failed to stop the attacks, while many civilian casualties have raised support for America's foes," the Journal concluded from the latest offensives.
Or, as Engelhardt noted in reviewing several weekend news reports of apparently innocent victims of the latest operations "that rang with a familiar Vietnam-era conundrum -- how do you carry out brutal assaults on hard-to-find guerrilla forces in civilian areas without knowing the language, area or culture, without alienating that population when some of them die, others are mistreated, and many are humiliated"?
"What we are seeing here is a fundamental reassessment of the situation in Iraq in terms of political and military stability," said Daniel Goure, a Pentagon adviser at the Washington-based Lexington Institute.
"We have been operating on two assumptions: that once the war was over the Iraqis would rapidly move into peaceful mode, and second, that there would be a new political and economic spirit in the country. We discovered neither of these assumptions is true."
Don't call it a quagmire. Yet.
Jim Lobe writes on international affairs for Inter Press Service, Oneworld.net, Foreign Policy in Focus and AlterNet.org.