Iraq's Early Vietnam Moment
Editor’s Note: Four years ago – on Nov. 2, 2003 – a U.S. helicopter was shot down over Iraq, killing 16 U.S. troops, an early “Vietnam moment” in what was emerging as a powerful Iraqi insurgency.
The incident helped convince a newly organized group of former U.S. intelligence officers, the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, that the war was unwinnable. Below is the prescient analysis written by VIPS co-founder Ray McGovern on Nov. 3, 2003:
The killing of 16 US troops and wounding of 20 others on Nov. 2, 2003, when a U.S. helicopter was downed by a missile in Iraq, brings to mind the fateful attack by Viet Cong guerrillas on U.S. forces in Pleiku, Vietnam on Feb. 7, 1965.
The Johnson administration immediately seized on that attack, in which nine U.S. troops were killed and 128 wounded, to start bombing North Vietnam and to send 3,500 Marines to South Vietnam.
Unlike the U.S. advisory forces already in country, the Marines had orders to engage in combat, marking the beginning of the Americanization of the war. By 1968 U.S. forces had grown to over 536,000.
From the outset, my colleagues in CIA were highly skeptical that U.S. forces could prevail in Vietnam even with hundreds of thousands of troops.
CIA analysts were quick to remind anyone who would listen of the candid observation made by Gen. Philippe LeClerc, whom France sent to Vietnam shortly after World War 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.
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 in 2003, 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 keep on insisting 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 uncertain is the timing of the U.S. departure.
After many weeks of refusing to admit the word “guerrilla” into evidence, Rumsfeld has reluctantly made his peace with it. Yet, when asked Nov. 2, 2003, on TV who the guerrillas are, 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 clever 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 it is that are killing our troops.
At least 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 have to “stay the course.” We cannot “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? Only because, despite continued lying by the administration then in power, Congress belatedly woke up to the fact that the war was unwinnable, admitted that for the previous ten years Congress had been wrong, and finally cut off funding for the war. Even then, Congress was not leading; rather it was reacting to a storm of protest across the land.
“But we can still win, and we must support our troops!” We heard that then as well.
But, after being lied to and tricked into passing the 1964 Tonkin Gulf resolution authorizing the president to wage war, our elected representatives finally rose to the occasion and said ENOUGH!
Just one year ago our current Congress was similarly lied to and tricked into ceding to the president its constitutional authority to declare war. And yet, sadly, its recent vote to authorize an additional $87 billion for “post-war” Iraq shows that it continues to grovel.
What may be required are widespread grass-roots demonstrations, led perhaps by the families of those troops dying every day in an illegal war, to force our elected representatives to see the light and act with some courage. One can only hope that this time it doesn’t take ten years!
Is This Guerrilla War Winnable?
When Rumsfeld was asked on TV on Nov. 2, 2003, when he thought it might be possible to draw down U.S. troop strength in Iraq, he employed one of his favorite predicate adjectives, saying that this was “unknowable”—that it all depends on the security situation.
It is a no-brainer that U.S. 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 draw downs, pressure to send more troops will inexorably grow from neoconservatives and those they have co-opted—like the pompous but vacuous Joseph Biden, ranking minority member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. (It is a cruel twist of fate that, at a time when we need a Fulbright, we get Biden!)
Having learned nothing from history, from the U.S. intelligence community, or from the professional military, Rumsfeld’s whiz kids and those in Congress still under their spell may persuade President Bush that the best course is to send more troops to “get the job done”—(ironically sealing his political 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 second-string but influential advisers like Douglas Feith, William Kristol, and Kenneth Adelman, each of whom knows less about war than a freshman ROTC cadet.
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 U.S. personnel and facilities elsewhere as well. The U.S. 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 a 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 on Nov. 2, 2003, came when he attempted to grapple with the question of 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 U.S. 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 Berlin walls to make impracticable any viable Palestinian state, or bombing Syria.
Someone needs to tell Rumsfeld and Bush that Muslims watch it all on TV—and then crowd the recruiting stations.
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. Indeed, I had the privilege of watching—and helping—him face down strong pressure from other administration officials to cook the intelligence to the recipe of policy.
In contrast, the son seems oblivious to the importance of protecting intelligence process from prostitution. As a result, Cheney and Rumsfeld have free rein, CIA director Tenet kowtows, and intelligence community analysis is thoroughly politicized. The president has no place to turn for a check on Rumsfeld’s/Cheney’s whiz kids.
It is a classical 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”—and probably use the proceeds to add to his estates in Taos. This will bring no consolation, though, to the one likely to be the next one-term Bush 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. withdraws, would there be civil war in Iraq? Given that country’s history, one cannot dismiss this possibility.
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.
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