All Writings
June 20, 2005

The Emerging Vietnam Paradigm

Increasingly, the war in Iraq is resembling the American quagmire in Vietnam. More and more American troops are killed daily while Iraqis are dying by the hundreds, and there is no end in sight to the cycle of violence. The Bush Administration must think realistically about an exit strategy, however unpleasant the available options may seem. To reach out for a solution requires first a better understanding of the background of the insurgency, including the motivations for it, and then settle on an exit strategy hopefully more “dignified” than the American exit from Vietnam.

Mounting an effective response to the insurgency’s challenge has been made difficult because the administration continues to apply Western logic and rationales to explain the insurgents’ behavior and motivation. But whether their intention is to drive the Americans out, undermine the Iraqi government that they consider a U.S. puppet, kill collaborators, create chaos to instigate public unrest, realize the dream of establishing a new caliphate, or restore Sunni domination, the insurgents operate out of a set of convictions and a time frame different from those of the West.

That is, they do not measure success by the number of Americans or Iraqis they kill or by how many of the dead are their own. They gauge it by their ability to endure and persevere while keeping the Americans guessing and on their toes. Although strategically the insurgents seek to throw the Americans out of Iraq, tactically, they want to make them “bleed” by inflicting steady casualties, and gradually eroding their military morale, thus making the occupation unsustainable. In the process, they are increasingly alienating the Sunnis from the Shiites and the Kurds by promoting sectarian conflict. This is effective because, notwithstanding a strong national pride, most Iraqis still harbor feelings of tribal loyalty that are reinforced by deep historical enmity for each other. Although the insurgents do not have a unified strategy, they share many common interests that enable them to operate with deadly effect. They are embedded in sympathetic Sunni communities that strongly support their activities, and they are highly motivated, operating from a deep conviction that the conditions created by the Iraq war and the American occupation are unacceptable and so must eventually be brought to an end.

Albeit many of the insurgents are not Islamic extremists, their ranks including former Ba’athists or nationalists, Islam plays the critical role of serving as a unifying element against a common enemy. Regardless of the heavy losses they sustain, the insurgents use Islam to replenish their material resources and to recruit newcomers to join the “crusade” against the Americans and their Shiite and Kurdish allies. This strong religious component raises the acceptable threshold for fatalities and material losses considerably higher. Thus, though inflicting heavy casualties, American incursions into Faluja, Ramadi, and the Anbar region and more recently into Karabila–the bastion of Iraqi nationalism along the Syrian border–have actually emboldened the insurgents. As long as they fight in the name of Allah, they accept the consequences, regardless of their cost. They will readily die for the cause they ardently believe in and leave it to the next generation or the one that follows, should they fail, to carry on the battle until it is won. Therefore, irrespective of the depth of their religious conviction, dying for what they consider to be a holy war against the infidels and their allies becomes a virtue, even a great deed, and for many it is a martyrdom to be celebrated.

Finally, many insurgents believe that a disaster of historic dimensions has befallen the Sunni community. For the first time in Arab history, a Shiite government controls a major Arab country, not just any Arab country. Iraq is considered the cradle of Arab civilization: it symbolizes Arab glory, cultural riches, and historic pride. Many insurgents, especially from other Arab states, view the war as a war for Arab pride and salvation. They also fear and are alarmed by the prospect that Shiite Iran will seize the opportunity to consolidate Shiite domination over a huge land mass (there are nearly 100 million Shiites in Iran and Iraq) as well as control more than 30 percent of the world’s known oil reserves.

In view of this, and considering the limitations of the American and Iraqi forces, there appears to be no military solution. Those who argue that increasing or doubling the number of U.S. troops in Iraq would defeat the insurgents are engaged in a dangerous illusion. Yes, this can decrease the number of attacks but it will not end them; meanwhile, American casualties will increase dramatically. Already, several recent opinion polls–by Gallup, Pew, ABC news, and the Washington Post –show a sharp drop in the American public’s support for the war. A majority of Americans now even believe that the war was ill conceived and unnecessary. In Congress, Democrats and even some Republicans are calling for an exit strategy, and no one seems to have any appetite for more American casualties which will be the direct consequences if an increase in the number of troops.

One other hard-core reality must be considered. As long as the insurgents, however misguided, are willing to die for a cause, it would be impossible to blunt their force completely. The Bush administration need not look any further than the experiences of Britain in Northern Ireland and that of Israel with the Palestinians. Faced with overwhelming odds, the insurgents would go underground and wait out the Americans. Unlike Westerners, Arabs do not measure time in weeks, months, or even years; they measure it in decades and generations. In that sense, time is on their side because they can outlast American staying power. In the interim, they will continue to infiltrate regular police and military units and resume their deadly attacks in due course.

U.S. commanders in Iraq do not seem to agree on the means or the time frame for bringing the chaos under control. Some recently speculated it would take about 18 months for Iraqi security forces to be able to handle Iraq’s security needs. Others believe that the Iraqi military and police will not be ready anytime soon to deal with the insurgents or maintain internal security and so foresee a considerable U.S. military presence in Iraq for years to come.

For now, the Sunnis must be given hope that, if they cannot rule all of Iraq, the new constitution will restore to them a modicum of self-government through a confederate system, similar to that seen in the Kurd’s current self-rule. The administration should persuade the government that it is in the best interests of the Iraqi people to write a constitution that, while preserving Iraq’s territorial integrity and unity, also responds to the specific needs of the three main segments of the population. This is particularly critical since the Shiites and Kurds that comprise the coalition government continue to insist on maintaining their separate militias of roughly 100,000 respectively, which in itself does not inspire much confidence. If the coalition government decides to maintain these separate security forces for any future contingency, the Sunnis have no reason to believe that they can trust either the Shiites or the Kurds to deal with them as if they are all on equal footing. This issue becomes especially worrisome for the Sunnis because the overwhelming number of recruits for internal security and the military are drawn from the Kurdish and Shiite communities.

As part of a new American strategy, the administration must also modify its policy toward Iran and Syria, working in due course toward normalized relations. For reasons of self- preservation, neither of these regimes has any interest in helping to promote Iraqi democracy. But whether they have been simply lax or actively supportive of the insurgency, both can do a great deal more to curtail the infiltration of foreigners and the smuggling of weapons into Iraq. Yet, as long as the Bush administration openly calls for a regime change in these two nations, it would be naive to assume that they would willingly cooperate with the United States. The administration cannot have it both ways in this regard. In the final analysis only a true democracy in Iraq would have serious influence on the internal affairs of Iran and Syria and that is where American focus should be directed. The policy of intimidation of these two countries has failed. Iran and Syria have good reason to assume that the administration cannot seriously threaten them because the American public has no stomach for more misguided adventures, especially since Iraq is beginning to look like another Vietnam.

Finally, the United States must establish a time table for phased withdrawal. Even though this might embolden some insurgents, the benefits will certainly outweigh any negative repercussions. The Iraqi government must sooner or later take full charge of its own destiny, understanding that in the end only self-reliance will secure Iraq a democratic future. American withdrawal will also strengthen the hand of Iraqi nationalists whose main concern is the occupation. An end to the occupation will also end their support of the insurgency.

If the administration does not take these measures, there will be no hope that the insurgency will die out. But American and Iraqi troops as well as Iraqi civilians will continue to die for years after President Bush has left the White House, and the terrible mistakes of Vietnam will have been repeated.