The Vietnamization of Iraq: Bush's Electile Dysfunction

January 30, 2005, when the Iraqi elections are scheduled to take place, is the 37th anniversary of the Tet offensive -- a major attack launched by the North Vietnamese against American and South Vietnamese forces in 1968, which many observers consider the beginning of the end of the war in Vietnam. Certainly it marked the point at which Americans lost confidence in official pronouncements that the war in Vietnam was winnable.

In January 1968, Army Lieutenant Colonel Charles Krohn (now retired) was serving with the 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry, which had been ordered to relieve a group of Marines who were surrounded by enemy forces in Hue, Vietnam's ancient capital. "It was a valiant but futile effort, and the battalion casualty rate was more than 60 percent," Krohn wrote recently in the Washington Post. Wondering if the Iraqi insurgents are students of history, Krohn continued, "Are they aware that protracted war goes against the grain of the American experience? Do they understand that the president's encouraging words are effective, but only up to a point, given battlefield reversals and disappointment?"

Our apparent inability to control the insurgency is troubling. In South Vietnam there was a government we could work with -- one that understood how to combat insurgency better than we outsiders did....

The suspicion lingers that someone is whispering in the ears of the insurgent leadership that the American public will remember Tet '68 soon enough if there is sufficient violence as the elections approach, and if there are more suicide attacks than U.S. forces can readily suppress.

"I would not be in much shape to hold elections..."

On Friday January 7, in Baghdad, Iraq, Air Force Brig. Gen. Erv Lessel warned that Iraqi insurgents may be planning "spectacular" attacks in the weeks leading up to the elections in Iraq, while at about the same time in Washington, Bush suggested the elections would be "an incredibly hopeful experience" for the Iraqi people." The divergent remarks came after a week in which nearly 90 Iraqi security troops were assassinated, apparently because they were viewed by the insurgents as collaborating with the occupiers.

The violence was not limited to remote provinces. On January 4, Ali al-Haidari, the governor of Baghdad Province, was killed by gunmen at the same time that a fuel-truck bomb exploded near the Iraqi Interior Ministry killing 10 and wounding 60. Five American soldiers were also killed in three other attacks, more than had been killed in any single day since the December 21 suicide bombing of a mess tent in Mosul. Fourteen American soldiers and four contractors were killed in the Mosul attack.

The January 4 attacks apparently led Iraq's president and most senior Sunni Arab official, Ghazi al-Yawar, to join those suggesting that the elections scheduled for January 30 be postponed. Al-Yawar urged that the United Nations consider the question. Previously Bush and others had highlighted al-Yawar's support for holding elections despite escalating violence. But Al-Yawar and other Sunni leaders are concerned that they will be disenfranchised if the vote proceeds while violence continues or escalates in predominantly Sunni areas of Iraq.

Al-Yawar's concern echoed that of Iraqi elder statesman Adnan Pachachi, who wrote in the January 2 Washington Post

None of us could have imagined a year ago that parents would refuse to send their children to school because of rampant kidnapping in the capital, Baghdad. Baghdadis have told me that they have no intention of leaving their homes on Election Day, because they fear the terrorists. The same can be said of areas such as Fallujah, Samarra and Mosul, where a recent attack on a U.S. Army base shows how easy it would be to disrupt elections....

Some argue that delaying elections would give a victory to the terrorists, and I admit there is merit in this argument. But there is more than one way for the terrorists to win in Iraq in January. Another would be for them to cause large numbers of Iraqis to stay away from the polls, not in protest but out of fear for their lives. That would result in elections whose legitimacy would be questioned. Whoever was perceived as having won such a flawed election would claim a mandate, while others would claim they had been disenfranchised. Very few scenarios take us deeper into chaos and civil unrest than this very likely outcome. I would argue that the prospect of these disastrous events unfolding is far worse than any short-lived claim of victory the terrorists might make.

Delaying the election a few months, Pachachi argues, would make it possible to "engage groups that are now outside the political process while addressing the security situation." Pachachi takes the Iraqi "political class" to task for not undertaking a serious discussion about the future of Iraq as a constitutional federation. He notes that delaying elections in Afghanistan helped ensure that the results were widely accepted. "It is far more important for Iraqis to accept the legitimacy of the election results, whatever they might be, than that elections be held on a particular day...," Pachachi concludes.

Even interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, while publicly supporting the Bush administration insistence that the elections go forward on January 30, telephoned Bush on January 3 to discuss "impediments" to adhering to Bush's arbitrary schedule.

Some of Bush's statements have suggested that he does not have a detailed understanding of the Iraqi elections, having commented that he was "confident when people realize that there is a chance to vote on a president, they will participate." Iraqis will not be voting for any executive offices in the election scheduled for January 30.

Bush has acknowledged that large areas of Iraq may be unable to vote on January 30, however. "Four of the 18 provinces are places where the terrorists are trying to stop people from voting," Bush told reporters on January 8. His comments reflected statements by Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, who told reporters at a news conference in Baghdad on January 6 that large parts of Iraq were still not secure for voting. The areas involved are: Al Anbar, which includes Fallujah and Ramadi; Nineva, which contains Mosul; Salahadin, which includes Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's home town; and Baghdad. Together the regions represent more than half of the population of Iraq. "Today I would not be in much shape to hold elections in those provinces three weeks from today," General Metz said.

"...potential for deepening the conflict."

The same day Lt. General Metz made his pessimistic assessment, Brent Scowcroft, who was "Poppy" Bush's National Security adviser spoke at a luncheon hosted by the nonprofit policy group the New America Foundation Scowcroft served until recently as chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, and is described as "close to the Bush family." In the past he has publicly expressed views believed to be shared by George H.W. "Poppy" Bush.

"The Iraqi elections," said Scowcroft, "rather than turning out to be a promising turning point, have the great potential for deepening the conflict." Scowcroft predicted that, if elections were to go forward, with the likely result that the government would be dominated by the majority Shiites, "an incipient civil war" could develop. He recommended turning US operations over to the UN, who, he suggested, might be regarded with less hostility by the Iraqis.

Sharing the podium with Scowcroft was another former National Security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who held the post in the Carter administration. Scowcroft observed wryly that he and Brzezinski were both considered "realists" when they were in office, but that the term had acquired pejorative connotations in the Bush administration.

"I do not think we can stay in Iraq in the fashion we're in now," Brzezinski said. "If it cannot be changed drastically, it should be terminated." He suggested that the most optimistic outcome in Iraq would be a Shiite-dominated theocracy, "not what we would normally call a democracy."

In recent days convicted embezzler, likely Iranian agent, and neocon favorite Ahmed Chalabi returned to Baghdad from Iran, and has emerged as the Iraqi Shiite coalitions's de facto ambassador to Iran. While in Iran, Chalabi met with Iranian presidential candidate Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal.

Brzezinski suggested it would take $500 billion, 500,000 troops, and a resumption of the draft to provide adequate security in Iraq. That assessment seemed consistent with observations by Gen. Mohammed Shahwani, head of intelligence for the interim Iraqi government, who told Arab media outlets on January 3, "I think the resistance is bigger than the U.S. military in Iraq. I think the resistance is more than 200,000 people." Shahwani's estimate included 40,000 hard core resistance fighters, but these, he said, were backed by part-time fighters and others who offered intelligence, logistical support or shelter. US doctrine calls for 10:1 troop-rebel ratio to control an insurgency; the US currently has 150,000 troops in Iraq.

Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said, "The Iraqi figures do ... recognize the reality that the insurgency in Iraq has broad support in Sunni areas while the U.S. figures downplay this to the point of denial."

"People are fed up...."

"People are fed up after two years, without improvement. People are fed up with no security, no electricity, people feel they have to do something," Shahwani said.

In fact, less electricity is being delivered to Iraqis now than when Saddam Hussein was in power. Most Iraqis receive electricity for 12 hours a day, and must rely on kerosene and natural gas for cooking -- both of which are in scarce supply. With winter temperatures near freezing in Baghdad, many families face the prospect of a cold candlelit winter.

Infant malnutrition rates in Iraq have nearly doubled since March 2003, according to a study by the Norwegian Fafo Institute for Applied International Studies. "it's on the level of some African countries," Fafo deputy managing director Jon Pederson told the Associated Press. "Of course, no child should be malnourished, but when we're getting to levels of 7%-8%, it's a clear sign of concern." In November, citing the Fafo findings UNICEF reported "Before the current conflict began, many children were malnourished, and 1 in 8 died before the age of 5. The latest reports show that acute malnutrition among children under 5 has nearly doubled in the last two years. Almost 8% are now suffering the effects of chronic diarrhea and protein deficiency." The Iraqi interim government disputes the Fafo figures.

"... this phase of the Iraq campaign must be halted ...."

In a move that invited comparisons of Iraq to Vietnam, the US military announced plans to deploy hundreds of US "advisers" inside Iraqi military units, to try to stem desertions and improve performance. The magnitude of the problem is underscored by the military's apparent willingness to divert troops needed for combat operations against insurgent forces. Bush himself has acknowledged the problem, telling a news conference on December 20, "... the whole command structure necessary to have a viable military is not in place...."

"Most comparisons of Iraq to Vietnam are superficial and some are absurd," Stratfor's George Friedman wrote recently, "but one lesson is entirely relevant to Iraq. In Vietnam, the United States attempted to simultaneously re-engineer Vietnamese society and wage a counterinsurgency campaign. That proved impossible." The two goals are contradictory, says Friedman.

The creation of a democracy requires the creation of democratic institutions, which requires the participation of Iraqi citizens who then become targets for the guerillas and subject to what Friedman called "massive" intimidation. Survival, suggested Friedman, becomes the primary concern of these officials if they remain in office; they are not likely to be very effective nation builders. Moreover, as more and more Iraqis are recruited into the new government, it becomes difficult to distinguish among those who support the American action in Iraq, those who are merely opportunists, and jihadist infiltrators. "Corruption aside," wrote Friedman, "every one of the institutions is full of jihadist agents, who are there to spy and disrupt."

As in the latter days of the Vietnam War, the US goal in Iraq now is to shift the fighting burden to indigenous forces. Like the army of the Republic of Vietnam, the Iraqi army is thoroughly infiltrated by guerilla operatives. The US is thus in a bind: if it conducts joint operations with the Iraqi army, the guerillas will be informed about every stage of the undertaking; if it fights alone the Iraqi army will never develop, thereby defeating the principle objective.

Friedman views this as identical to the central problem the US encountered in Vietnam. Intelligence activities in Iraq, as in Vietnam, require working with local forces, which means that operations will be compromised. But all of the infiltrators can't be purged from the local forces, hence an effective allied force can't be created.

Like Lt. Colonel Krohn, Friedman cited Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's failure to recognize the guerilla threat as one of the key factors leading to the current state of affairs. In Friedman's view, had the US acted decisively in May and June 2003 guerilla forces might have been sufficiently disrupted that, "it could never have been born." A similar opportunity presented itself in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's capture. Friedman wrote that " Those four months were wasted in diffused action in several areas, rather than in a concerted effort to turn Sunni elders against the guerrillas." By the time the assault on Fallujah began in November 2004, the threat of reprisals from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's jihadists had undermined any US efforts to achieve cooperation with Sunni elders.

Friedman's view of the post-election situation is similar to that voiced by Scowcroft and Brzezinski. Friedman predicted a lull in guerilla operations, followed by another offensive. "There is, therefore, no possibility that the Sunni guerrilla movement will be suppressed unless there is a dramatic change in the political landscape of the Sunni community," Friedman wrote. His conclusion: "... this phase of the Iraq campaign must be halted as soon as possible." That, of course, would represent a failure to achieve the goal of creating a democratic Iraq.

"...'broken' force."

Rumsfeld is also under attack from within the military. On January 6 a bluntly worded memo from Lt. Gen. James R. "Ron" Helmly, the three-star general who heads the Army Reserve, was leaked to the Baltimore Sun. Addressed to Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, the memo was sent up the chain of command by way of Gen. Dan K. McNeill, who heads the Army Forces Command. In it Helmly warned that the reserve was unable to meet its mission requirements. In particular, the practice of "plucking" individual reservists from their home units, and sending them to round out active duty units has "broken" some Reserve units. Helmly also highlighted the Army's over reliance on "volunteers" from the reserve, rather than requiring individuals or units to serve. This, he wrote, "distort[s] the very nature of service," and attracts those who "enjoy lesser responsible positions in civilian life." He objected to the Army practice of paying volunteers an extra $1000/month, saying that the practice blurs the distinction between volunteer and mercenary.

Responding to Helmly's memo, Sen. Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island said in a statement, "By consistently underestimating the number of troops necessary for the successful occupation of Iraq, the administration has placed a tremendous burden on the Army Reserve and created this crisis."

Meanwhile, members of a National Guard units from California and Michigan went public with allegations that they were sent to Iraq with chronic illness, broken weapons, and malfunctioning vehicles. One sergeant wrote that his unit's M-60 machine guns were in such poor condition that "Perhaps we should throw stones?"

  • Residences at Ft. Bliss where the units trained were so overcrowded that contagious illnesses such as strep throat and bronchitis spread quickly through the ranks. Nurses nicknamed the symptoms "the McGregor Cough," after the McGregor Range Complex where most of the units' training took place.
  • While apparently not part of their scheduled training, guardsmen learned from colleagues already in Iraq that they should learn hand-to-hand combat. So they began practicing on their own on mats in a gymnasium basement, only to have the mats locked up without explanation.
  • Vehicles labeled "good to go" to Iraq developed problems within the first ten miles after soldiers signed them out. Many had blown transmissions and were not fixed until after the units arrived in Iraq.
  • Weapons training was incomplete -- apparently only the minimum necessary to deploy, rather than enabling soldiers to require realistic combat skills.

"We'll call you"

Another echo of Vietnam can be found in the increasing number of veterans returning from the war in Iraq who are appearing at homeless shelters around the country. Seabees Petty Officer Luis Arellano, 34, told UPI's Mark Benjamin, "I drove off in my truck. I packed my stuff. I lived out of my truck for a while." "A while" turned out to be about three months. "One day you have a home and the next day you are on the streets," Arellano said. Arellano reported being rushed out of the military, rather than receiving medical care he needed for a shrapnel wound in his hand. "It is all about numbers. Instead of getting quality care, they were trying to get everybody demobilized during a certain time frame. If you had a problem, they said, 'Let the (Department of Veterans Affairs) take care of it.'" Arellano was told after returning that the military could not take care of him as long as he was on active duty. He was coerced into signing an agreement that he would seek care from the veterans administration. "When we got there, the VA was totally full. They said, 'We'll call you.' But I developed depression," said Arellano.

Almost half of the 300,000 homeless veterans served in Vietnam. Some veterans' advocates suggest that similarities in combat experiences between Vietnam and Iraq mean that the homeless veterans of the Iraq war who are starting to appear are "the crest of a wave." According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, nearly 28,000 veterans returning from Iraq have sought health care, and approximately 20% have been diagnosed with a mental disorder -- mostly major depression or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Lance Cpl. James Claybon Brown Jr., who is staying at a homeless shelter run by US Vets, spoke to UPI about combat stress in Iraq.

We had a few situations where, I guess, people were trying to get out of the country. They would come right at us and they would not stop.We had to open fire on them. It was really tough. A lot of soldiers, like me, had trouble with that.

That was the hardest part. Not only were there men, but there were women and children -- really little children. There would be babies with arms blown off. It was something hard to live with.

Mental problems are emerging as a "major casualty cluster" from the war in Iraq, possibly because the enemy is indistinguishable from the civilian population.

But in at least one aspect, the war in Iraq is unprecedented: the proportion of US children who have lost a parent in the war. This is a result of the relatively higher number of married members of the US military, and the reliance in Iraq on reserve forces, whose members tend to be older than enlistees. As of mid-December 2004, Scripps Howard papers identified nearly 900 children who had lost a parent. "This is a new state of affairs we have to confront," said Charles Moskos, a military sociologist and professor at Northwestern University. "As much as we are concerned about veterans' programs, we now have to be concerned about orphan programs. This is the first time we have crossed this threshold."

Forty percent of the 1,256 war dead through November 2004 were married, and 429 had children, at least half of whom were 10 years old or younger. More than 40 troops died without ever seeing their children; thirty-four wives were pregnant when their husbands died. Fifteen women gave birth while their husbands were deployed, and while some were able to see their children on paternity leave, most died before they could.

The war's psychological impact on the young children of soldiers who died is only beginning to be explored, but four-year old Jack Shanaberger offers one example. Jack's father, Staff Sgt. Wentz Shanaberger, a military policeman from Fort Pierce, FL, was killed March 23 in an ambush in Iraq. On learning of his father's death, Jack solemnly told his mother, "I don't want to be a daddy because daddies die."


"U.S. expects more attacks before vote" Associated Press. 9 Jan. 2005.

Oppel, Richard A. "Iraqi Governor Slain by Gunmen; Bombing Kills 10" NY Times 4 Jan. 2005

Pachachi, Adnan "Delay the Elections" Washington Post 2 Jan. 2005

Filkins, Dexter "Weeks Before Vote, General Says Parts of Iraq Are Not Ready" NY Times 6 Jan. 2005

Oppel, Richard A. and David E. Sanger."Iraqi Premier Calls Bush to Discuss Obstacles to Election" NY Times 4 Jan. 2005

Khan, Brig. Gen. Shahedul Anam "Iraq elections: A choice between the devil and the deep blue sea" Daily Star (Bangladesh) 6 Jan. 2005

Priest, Dana and Robin Wright "Scowcroft Skeptical Vote Will Stabilize Iraq" Washington Post 7 Jan. 2005

Holland, Steve "Bush Says Four Iraqi Areas Pose Voting Challenges" Reuters. 8 Jan. 2005

Parker, Ned "Iraq battling more than 200,000 insurgents" Agence France Presse. 3 Jan, 2005

Lobe, Jim "Meanwhile, Back in Iraq..." Inter Press Service. 5 Jan. 2005

"Nation Faces Winter With Little Electricity" Reuters. 19 Dec. 2004

"Number of malnourished Iraqi children rises, study says" USA Today 23 Dec. 2004

Schmitt, Eric "U.S. May Add Advisers to Aid Iraq's Military" NY Times 4 Jan. 2005

"The Jan. 30 Fraud" 3 Jan. 2005

Krohn, Charles A. "In Iraq, Echoes of Another Offensive" 29 Dec. 2004

Friedman, George "Facing Realities in Iraq" Stratfor. 30 Dec. 2004

Goldm, Scott "Ft. Bliss Training Was Poor, Members of Guard Unit Say" LA Times 23 Dec. 2004.

Graham, Bradley "General Says Army Reserve Is Becoming a 'Broken' Force" Washington Post 6 Jan. 2005

Benjamin, Mark "Homeless Iraq vets showing up at shelters" UPI. 7 Dec. 2004

Hoffman, Lisa and Annette Rainville "Nearly 900 children have lost a parent in Iraq" Scripps Howard News Service. 15 Dec. 2004

See also "Dahr Jamail on Devastated Iraq" from the Nation Institute's Tom Dispatch.