Thursday, December 07, 2006

Hope continues to be the plan

The excellent Michael Gordon:
The military recommendations issued yesterday by the Iraq Study Group are based more on hope than history and run counter to assessments made by some of its own military advisers....

Jack Keane, the retired acting Army chief of staff who served on the group’s panel of military advisers, described that goal as entirely impractical. "Based on where we are now we can’t get there," General Keane said in an interview, adding that the report’s conclusions say more about "the absence of political will in Washington than the harsh realities in Iraq."
But here I must protest:
Even if the number of American advisers is increased, it is highly unlikely that the Iraqi forces would be capable of assuming the entire responsibility for security throughout the country in little more than a year. It took four years, from 1969 to 1973, for the Nixon administration to make South Vietnamese forces strong enough to hold their own and withdraw American combat forces from Vietnam. Even so, when Congress withheld authority for American airstrikes in support of those forces in 1975, the North Vietnamese quickly defeated the South and reunified the country under Communist rule.
God, this is going to last forever. The South Vietnamese forces were never strong enough to hold their own against the North. Look at the 1971 Operation Lam Son 719: what was supposed to be a showcase of South Vietnam's progress under American tutelage turned in to a disaster. Wikipedia puts it bloodlessly:
The operation failed owing to compromised operational security that telegraphed the intentions and timetable to the NVA as well as the overextension of the ARVN in difficult terrain, permitting the NVA to sytematically attack the column at places of its choosing. The withdrawal was particularly bloody due to the poor organization and confusion that ensued, resulting in staggering casualties for the ARVN...
But Larry Berman puts it this way:
Facing stronger resistance than expected, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) came under heavy fire, and the North Vietnamese... sent 36,000 regular troops in to battle. The North Vietnamese lost over 20,000 troops, but ARVN lost over half its force.... "Lam Son destroyed the cream of the South Vietnam army and was far more serious and detrimental than was believed at the time," observed Alexander Haig... [No Peace, No Honor, p. 108]
I don't know why - in the middle of an otherwise good article about Iraq - Gordon decided he just had to repeat the ridiculous fiction that South Vietnam could have survived the war. America's training program in Vietnam was never going to save the Saigon regime. Lam Son was supposed to showcase the success of America's change in strategy, and in one sense it did exactly that - it was a total disaster. Even America's aircrews suffered at Lam Son - the North deployed anti-aircraft fire extremely effectively. So Gordon's argument that Democratic permission for airstrikes would have kept Saigon viable is highly contestable, at the very least.

Back to Iraq: One of the enduring problems is that nobody in Iraq - not the US, not the Iraqi Army itself, has the skills necessary to fight the insurgency properly:
One big problem, Colonel Grunow notes, is that the Iraqi military is not proficient in counterinsurgency operations or sufficiently sensitive to the risk of civilian casualties.

"They are still fighting their last war, the high-intensity Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, a war with clear battle lines fought with mass military formations, and one in which civilians on the battlefield were a nuisance, and not a center of gravity," he wrote. The Iraqi military, he added, "must learn to fight using strategies and tactics far different than those used in the past."
When the US Army is saying that your force is insufficiently concerned about civilian casualties, you're so screwed it's not even funny. This bit at the end of Gordon's piece is nevertheless accurate:
A preface to the report by James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton, the group’s chairmen, said that one aim of the report was "to move our country toward consensus." The study contains all the ingredients of a Washington compromise. What is less apparent is a detailed and convincing military strategy that is likely to work in Iraq.

1 comment:

Gar Lipow said...

The myth in the U.S. that "we could have won in Vietnam if we had just stayed longer" is a core belief of a large part of the right.

Obviously you never know how big a part such myths play in making actual foreign policy. But many of the people who promoted and designed strategy for the war believed. To some extent (and I don't know how much) this was seen as a chance to "do Vietnam right". In other words, at least some of the intention was to do some of the same things we did in Vietnam, but do them smarter. Possibly I've just revealed a new level of insanity in the whole idea of attacking Iraq you are not aware of. For what it is worth, I doubt it was high on the list of reasons for invading, and choosing the tactics we did, but it was there.