The Return of “Vietnamization”

Those of us of a certain age remember the Vietnam War. While I was a youth at the time I do remember well President Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization. What it amounted to was a gradual withdrawal of American forces from South Vietnam. Our forces were to be replaced by well-trained and motivated South Vietnamese Army soldiers. Our withdrawal policy was political in nature. It had nothing to do with the actual facts on the ground, but had everything to do with an American public sick of our involvement in Vietnam War that showed no sign of ending. The policy of course failed spectacularly. The images of our embassy personnel being airlifted from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon are almost burned into our national consciousness.

President Bush is making noises like he’ll do something similar to Vietnamization shortly after the elections in Iraq scheduled for January 30th. Indeed columnist Robert Novak suggested that Bush is planning to get out of Iraq altogether during 2005. Perhaps Karl Rove believes a face saving withdrawal is in the long run better for Republican prospects than another ugly Vietnam-like ending. If so it is based on the realization by sober Republicans that the Iraq war is, as I suggested long ago, unwinnable.

But I suspect Novak is probably wrong on this one. I don’t think our troops will beat a hasty exit from Iraq in 2005. But I do think that the political pressure will continue to build to “bring the troops home”. A convenient excuse may be needed to withdraw. Iran may provide one. Bush might decide the United States have bigger fish to fry and that while we would like Iraq to be free of civil strife, we accomplished our main goal. And what was our goal? Originally it was to find and confiscate weapons of mass destruction that we just knew were in Iraq. Of course when the facts on the ground gave lie to Bush’s claims Bush morphed it into freeing the people of Iraq from a brutal dictator.

I do find it interesting that General Abizaid suggested in the Washington Post recently that the role of U.S. forces in Iraq may change soon to one of primarily helping the Iraqi National Guard become self sufficient. This was the same strategy we used in Vietnam that failed so miserably. On paper the South Vietnamese Army looked very impressive. It had hundreds of thousands of troops. The U.S. government subsidized it to the tune of billions of dollars. We also provided extensive training and logistical support. And yet the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong won. Why? The North Vietnamese had the will that the South Vietnamese did not. In some years during that war more than a hundred thousand soldiers per year were disserting from the South Vietnamese Army. While this is not of the same magnitude as with the Iraqi National Guard and the Iraqi police the trend is the same. With each successful attack by suicide bombers against Iraqi forces more Iraqi forces just stop showing up for work. They rightly figure it is not worth their lives. Just today the police chief of Samarra resigned after guerillas attacked his home.

Since the South Vietnamese experience suggested this approach did not work, it is reasonable to assume the same tactics won’t work in Iraq either. We’ve been trying and failing to bolster the Iraqi army and police since we won the war last year. And the members of their army and police keep disserting. It seems unlikely that we will now succeed where we have so far failed. And it is naive to expect that by having elections things will calm down. The battle for control of Iraq is in reality just beginning. It will continue for many years, if not decades, after we leave. Saying Iraq will become stable does not make it so. The reality on the ground will belie our inflated expectations.