Thinking the Unthinkable in Iraq

Editor's Note: We re-post this article as escalating violence between Iraqi factions stokes calls for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. Is the collapse of the American project unfolding in Iraq? Zachary speculates that we may be witnessing a slow-motion Dien Bien Phu, the disastrous setback that caused the French to abandon their colonial occupation of Vietnam some 50 years ago.

What will it take to get American troops out of Iraq?

Activists and commentators usually emphasize the political factors that might propel a U.S. withdrawal. A powerful faction in Congress could catch the anti-war bug and set a withdrawal date. Public opinion could sway even more decisively against the war, and the call for an exit grow so loud that a withdrawal must be orchestrated even against President Bush's wishes. Or the Iraqis somehow, against the odds, could suddenly display the resolve, competence and indeed sheer patriotism enabling them to take over the fight against Iraqi rebels and insurgents.

These three withdrawal scenarios are the only ones on the table. Either Congress revolts, the masses revolt or the Iraqi government revolts against the U.S. occupation and evicts the Americans.

We need to broaden the options. To do so we should think the unthinkable; consider the one scenario that is left out of virtually every public and private discussion of how to remove U.S. combat troops from Iraq.

That is the battlefield scenario. Call it the "Dien Bien Phu" scenario, in which American troops, tragically suffer a shocking, unexpected defeat on the ground in Iraq.

Every American wants every soldier to survive each day without harm, but the longer U.S. troops remain in Iraq -- under conditions of daily threat, where they lack protective gear and protective numbers, exposing them to deadly attack -- the greater the chances that Iraqi insurgents will deliver some devastating blow. A blow that might kill hundreds of Americans in one encounter.

All the possibilities are deeply disturbing. Insurgents could tunnel their way into the Green Zone, the fortified Baghdad neighborhood that is home to top U.S. officials, aid workers and contractors. Even in a brief time, many Americans could be killed before U.S. forces regained control. American troops might be routed in a conventional pitched battle in some Iraqi city; they could be surrounded, slaughtered, even taken prisoner in large numbers. A straightforward terrorist attack could also inflict large casualties. On October 23, 1983, 241 American servicemen were killed by suicide bombers in Lebanon. Losses on such a scale cannot be ruled out in Iraq.

To repeat for emphasis, no opponent of the war in Iraq wants American troops to suffer large casualties. Moreover, the low American casualty rate -- one or two soldiers killed a day -- may continue indefinitely. After all, President Bush has repeatedly assured the American people that the United States has adequate troops in Iraq, and that these troops are adequately protected. So there are reasons to think that low-intensity warfare, with only several deaths a week, can be sustained for a long time.

But why should a steady state of combat be sustained in Iraq? Working against the status quo is a powerful counterforce: nationalism. The United States is an occupying army in Iraq (the country's top commander, Gen. George Casey, admitted as much last fall, when he said the presence of American forces in Iraq "feeds the notion of occupation"). And occupying armies, whether real or notional, expose themselves to unexpected risks.

One of those risks is that U.S. troops may suffer unthinkable casualties in a single day or a series of attacks. Of course, some would say that such a setback, however horrible, would simply stiffen the resolve of the U.S. government and the American people to "stay the course." President Bush has already argued that the more than 2,000 Americans killed in Iraq since the war began comprise a collective reason to continue fighting in Iraq.

How then might the loss of scores or even hundreds of American soldiers in a single incident alter the nature of the U.S. engagement in Iraq?

The answer can be found in the pages of history, 51 years ago during the French occupation of Vietnam. A nationalist insurgency, led by Ho Chi Minh, is battling French troops. The French had left Vietnam during World War II but returned after the war's end in 1945. Ho, who had fought against the Japanese occupation, now turned his guns on the French. He faced long odds because the U.S. government backed the French occupation as a quid pro quo for France's support of the expansion of an anti-Soviet, European military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

While France is known today as a progressive nation in international affairs -- President Jacques Chirac staunchly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 -- back in the 1950s France was desperately trying to hold on to its Third World colonies, notably in North Africa, Southeast Asia and West Africa. In Vietnam, the French faced staunch resistance from Ho Chi Minh, who espoused a straightforward belief that is the cornerstone of nationalist campaigns everywhere: "Nothing is more precious than independence and liberty," was his famous mantra. Ho wanted self-determination for his people and freedom from foreign occupiers.

With the war in Vietnam proving more difficult than expected, the French command decided that its best hope for a decisive victory was to lure the Vietnamese into a large-scale battle. Blocking the chief transport route of the Vietnamese rebels at a place called Dien Bien Phu, the French seemed to have provoked the desired response: an attack on their massed forces. But instead of an attack, the Vietnamese encircled the French position, ringing the occupiers with trenches and tunnels. Buying time, the Vietnamese brought more troops to the scene, ultimately surrounding the French position with 70,000 soldiers, five times the number of French troops.

In March 1954, the Vietnamese attacked. Over 56 days, the attackers pushed back the French until they held only a small piece of Dien Bien Phu. Humiliated, one of the French commanders committed suicide. On May 7, 1954, the French surrendered. The Vietnamese took 11,000 French soldiers prisoner. The next day the French government announced a plan to withdraw from Vietnam.

It is folly to suggest that an American defeat on the scale of Dien Bien Phu is possible in Iraq. American military officials are keen students of history, and U.S. forces in Iraq are no longer so arrogant as to invite a large-scale attack simply as a way of flushing out and destroying the enemy. Still, the enemy's tactics are evolving, and nationalist passions in Iraq are rising. As other observers have noted, ever since World War II, U.S. policymakers have repeatedly mistaken the importance of national feeling in fueling opposition to American policies.

The insurgents in Iraq may indeed be moral monsters -- the outlaws of Donald Rumsfeld's imagination. The insurgents certainly are not democratic; they have no plan for social improvement in Iraq, they are not drum majors for justice. They are fighting a war in which the ends justify the means, and the means are extremely ugly.

But none of this means the U.S. is bound to win in Iraq. The insurgents are men and women with particular traits and, with the exception of a minority of foreign fighters in Iraq, these men and women are Iraqis. They were born and raised in Iraq, and they want to live in Iraq. No matter how long American troops remain in their country, they will always be regarded as aliens.

Because of this simple logic, opponents of U.S. forces in Iraq -- and defenders of their presence -- must begin to think the unthinkable.

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