U.S. strategy in Iraq could take a page from Vietnam

November 24, 2006|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — New tactics favored by U.S. commanders in Iraq borrow heavily from the end of another war that might seem an unlikely source for a winning strategy: Vietnam.

The tactics -- an influx of military advisors and a speeded-up handover to indigenous forces followed by a gradual U.S. withdrawal -- resemble those in place as the U.S. effort in Vietnam reached its end.

In historical assessments and the American recollection, Vietnam was the unwinnable war. But to many in the armed forces, Vietnam as a war actually was on its way to succeeding when the Nixon administration and Congress, bowing to public impatience, pulled the plug: first withdrawing U.S. combat forces and then blocking funding and supplies to the South Vietnamese army.

If they hadn't, the South Vietnamese army, which had been bolstered by U.S. advisors and a more focused "hearts and minds" campaign in the later stages of the war, could have been able to fend off the communist North, many leading military thinkers have argued.

In their view, progress was undermined by President Nixon's decision to begin withdrawing U.S. troops in 1969 in the face of political pressure at home, despite military objections that the South Vietnamese army was not ready to go it alone. Another key U.S. mistake, they contend, was the deep cuts Congress made to military aid to Saigon beginning in 1974.

For many in the military, the lessons of Vietnam are clear: Maintain public support, and be patient.

Consciously or not, President Bush encapsulated that view during his weekend trip to Hanoi, where he was asked whether there were lessons in Vietnam for the war in Iraq. Instead of military tactics or strategy, he answered by talking about the impatience of the American public, and how success in war can be slow. "We'll succeed unless we quit," Bush said.

Differing views

The view that Vietnam could have been won if public opinion and political will had continued to support the war effort is far from universal, particularly among historians outside the military.

Stanley Karnow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who covered the war from the day the first American was killed in 1959 to its end, said Hanoi was nowhere near capitulation by 1973, when the Paris peace accords were signed.

"They're clutching at some sort of way to justify hanging on in Iraq," said Karnow, whose "Vietnam: A History" is considered by many to be the definitive account of the conflict. "The war in Vietnam, in my estimation, was unwinnable for the simple, basic reason that we were up against an enemy that was prepared to take on unlimited losses. They would have gone on fighting endlessly."

For years, the debate over the end of the Vietnam War occupied students and scholars in the military's academies and war colleges. But with the Pentagon struggling to find answers in Iraq, the lessons of Vietnam have taken on more than just an academic interest.

The course that senior military commanders now appear to be steering in Iraq closely mirrors the "Vietnamization" program implemented by Nixon and his commander in Vietnam, Army Gen. Creighton Abrams, in the late stages of the war.

Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, laid out that path at congressional hearings last week. He said the biggest change he anticipated in the coming months was a large-scale increase in U.S. advisors.

He also said he hoped to hand over responsibility for security to Iraqi forces in less than a year -- faster than Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the U.S. commander in Iraq, had estimated just weeks earlier -- and spelled out his resistance to an increase in American combat troops.

"I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more," Abizaid told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "If more troops need to come in, they need to come in to make the Iraqi army stronger."

Familiar strategy

For some military experts and historians, several of whom advise the Pentagon on Iraq policy, that strategy sounded familiar, recalling Abrams' shift in Vietnam after he took over from Army Gen. William C. Westmoreland in 1968. After that revamp, an increased advisory effort and an accelerated pacification program, which included enlarging the South Vietnamese army, was finally beginning to work by the early 1970s, the military scholars argue.

Those efforts were undermined, their thesis goes, by a lack of political will at home, which forced the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and the Saigon government to go it alone before they were ready.

"Gen. Westmoreland preferred to fight the war with American troops; he saw the advisory effort to help the South Vietnamese as very secondary," said Kalev Sepp, a counterinsurgency expert at the Naval Postgraduate School who has traveled to Iraq frequently to advise U.S. commanders. "When Abrams took over, he turned it back around, and he emphasized the advisory system as part of the way the Americans could disengage."

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