Chopper Down In the New Vietnam

The killing of 18 US troops and wounding of 20 others in Iraq on November 2 brings to mind the successful attack by Viet Cong guerrillas on US forces in Pleiku, Vietnam on February 7, 1965.

The Johnson administration immediately seized on that attack, in which nine US troops were killed and 128 wounded, to start bombing North Vietnam and to send 3,500 Marines to South Vietnam. Unlike the US advisory forces already in country, the Marines had orders to engage in combat, marking the beginning of the Americanization of the war. By 1968 US forces had grown to over 536,000.

From the outset, my colleagues in CIA were highly skeptical that even with a half-million troops the US could prevail in Vietnam. They were quick to remind anyone who would listen of the candid observation made by General Philippe LeClerc, who was sent to Vietnam shortly after WW-II. The French general reported that, mainly because of the strong commitment of the Vietnamese nationalists/communists and their proven proficiency in guerrilla war, a renewed French campaign would require 500,000 men and that, even then, France could not win.

Civilian Whiz Kids vs. Military Professionals

In 1965, similar warnings were blissfully ignored by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and the civilian whiz kids with whom he had surrounded himself. Then as now, the advice of our professional military was dismissed.

While today’s civilian leaders at the Defense Department hobbled through what passed for post-war planning for Iraq early this year, Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki warned the Senate Armed Services Committee that post-war Iraq would require “something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers.” He was immediately ridiculed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz for having exaggerated the requirement. This evokes vivid memories of how McNamara and his civilian whiz kids dissed our professional military—and at such a high eventual price.

The poet George Santayana warned, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” What is increasingly clear is that neither the present-day Pentagon whiz kids nor their patron, Vice President Dick Cheney, have learned much from history. They encourage President Bush to insist, “We are not leaving;” and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld to protest that this war is “winnable.” But most of those with a modicum of experience in guerrilla warfare and the Middle East are persuaded that the war is not winnable and that the only thing in doubt is the timing of the US departure.

After many weeks of refusing to admit the word “guerrilla” into evidence, Rumsfeld seems to have made his peace with it. Yet, when asked yesterday on TV who are the guerrillas, he foundered, admitting in so many words that he hasn’t a clue. I was actually embarrassed for him. A terrific debater and otherwise reasonably smart man, Rumsfeld was reduced to telling us once again that Iraq is the size of California and bemoaning the deficiencies in “situational awareness” and lack of “perfect visibility” into who are those who are killing our troops.

At least yesterday we were spared the usual claims that we are “moving forward” and will prevail “at the end of the day.” Apparently even Rumsfeld could see how incongruous such banalities would have sounded after such a disastrous week.

Recent sloganeering is eerily reminiscent of a comparable stage in our involvement in Vietnam. We would have to “stay the course.” We could not “cut and run”—though that is precisely what we ended up doing in 1975 after 58,000 US troops and 3 million Vietnamese had been killed. Why did we leave? Because Congress, at last, came to realize that the war was unwinnable.

Is This Guerrilla War Winnable?

When Rumsfeld was asked yesterday when he thought it might be possible to draw down US troop strength in Iraq, he employed one of his favorite adjectives, saying that this was “unknowable” — that it all depends on the security situation. It is a no-brainer that US troop reductions are unlikely anytime soon, but apparently we shall have to wait for Rumsfeld to acquire better “situational awareness” before he and his whiz kids are willing to admit this.

Instead of drawdowns, pressure will inexorably grow from those neo-conservatives already pushing for a larger troop commitment. Having learned nothing from history, from the US intelligence community, or from the professional military, Rumsfeld’s whiz kids may persuade President Bush that the best course is to send more troops to “get the job done”—(and thereby seal his fate!) One small problem, of course, is the unwelcome fact that all too few troops are available for reinforcement. But this kind of military “detail” would not likely affect the urgings of advisers like William Kristol and Kenneth Adelman.

A Bush administration decision to escalate (to exhume that familiar word from Vietnam) in that way would only provoke more widespread guerrilla attacks in Iraq and terrorist acts against US personnel and facilities elsewhere as well. The US troop presence in Iraq is the problem, not the solution.

And someone needs to dispel Rumsfeld’s confusion regarding who is the enemy. It is every Iraqi with weapon or explosive who means to make the occupier suffer. The tools are readily available, and the guerrillas, whether homebred or from neighboring states, will not be quelled—even if 500,000 troops are sent.

No One Knows

The most embarrassing part of Rumsfeld’s interview with ABC’s This Week yesterday came when he attempted to answer a question about how to reduce the number of terrorists. “How do you persuade people not to become suicide bombers; how do you reduce the number of people attracted to terrorism? No one knows how to reduce that,” he complained.

Over a year ago, CIA analysts provided an assessment intended to educate senior policy makers to the fact that “the forces fueling hatred of the US and fueling al-Qaeda recruiting are not being addressed,” and that “the underlying causes that drive terrorists will persist.” The assessment cited a recent Gallup poll of almost 10,000 Muslims in nine countries in which respondents described the United States as “ruthless, aggressive, conceited, arrogant, easily provoked and biased.” And that was before the war in Iraq.

How can we be so misunderstood, you might ask? A major factor is the Bush administration’s one-sided support of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whether he is bulldozing Palestinian homes, encouraging new Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, building huge walls to make impracticable any viable Palestinian state, or bombing Syria. Someone needs to tell Rumsfeld that Muslims watch it all on TV—and then line up at the recruiting stations.

Cooked Intelligence

But no one will. There is no longer any sanity check. Sad to say, over the past year the director of the CIA and his malleable managers have shown a penchant for sniffing the prevailing winds and trimming the sails of their analysis to the breezes blowing from the Pentagon and White House. The president’s father had an acute appreciation for the essential role of unbiased intelligence, but there is no sign that the son understands this. Whether he realizes it or not, the analysis of the intelligence community has been thoroughly politicized, leaving him no place to turn for a check on Rumsfeld’s/Cheney’s whiz kids.

It is a Greek tragedy; with the major character flaw of hubris planting the seeds of the ruler’s own destruction. Rumsfeld eventually will write his memoir—his own version of McNamara’s “We were wrong; terribly wrong”—but this will bring no consolation to the next one-term president back in Texas.

It is also tragic that the president does not read very much, for he would have found the following in his father’s memoir:

“Trying to eliminate Saddam…would have incurred incalculable human and political costs. Apprehending him was probably impossible…we would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq…there was no viable ‘exit strategy’ we could see, violating another of our principles…Going in and occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally exceeding the United Nations’ mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression that we hoped to establish. Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land.”

Real Power to the UN

As long as the occupation continues, so will the killing of US troops and others. The way to stop the violence is to end the occupation; the only way to protect our troops is to bring them home. Whether or not US policymakers can admit at this point that they were “terribly wrong,” they need to transfer real authority to the United Nations without delay and support the UN in overseeing a rapid return to Iraqi sovereignty.

But, many protest, we can’t just withdraw! Sure we can, and better now than ten years from now, as in the case of Vietnam. If it is true that we are not in Iraq to control the oil or to establish military bases with which to dominate that strategic area, we can certainly withdraw. As in Vietnam, the war is unwinnable…hear that? Unwinnable!

If the US withdraws, would there be civil war in Iraq? One cannot dismiss this possibility lightly given the history of Iraq. But it is at least as likely that a regional-federal model of government that would include substantial autonomy for the Kurds in the north, the Sunnis in the center, and the Shiites in the south (something foreshadowed by the composition of the existing Council) could begin to function in relatively short order with help from the UN. While some degree of inter-ethnic violence could be expected, chances are good that this model would still allow a representative national government to function.

We won’t know if we don’t try. Besides, there is no viable alternative.

Ray McGovern, a 27-year veteran of the CIA, regularly briefed George H. W. Bush as vice president and, earlier, worked with him closely when he was director of CIA. McGovern is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity and is co-director of the Servant Leadership School, an outreach ministry in the inner city of Washington.


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