[Marxism] From foreignaffairs.org: Seeing Baghdad, Thinking Saigon
clintonf at optusnet.com.au
Tue Mar 14 13:36:19 MST 2006
This Essay is from Foreign Affairs Magazine. Read it online at:
Seeing Baghdad, Thinking Saigon
By Stephen Biddle
>From Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006
THE GRAND DELUSION
Contentious as the current debate over Iraq is, all sides seem to make the
crucial assumption that to succeed there the United States must fight the Vietnam War again -- but
this time the right way. The Bush administration is relying on an updated playbook from the Nixon
administration. Pro-war commentators argue that Washington should switch to a defensive approach
to counterinsurgency, which they feel might have worked wonders a generation ago. According to
the antiwar movement, the struggle is already over, because, as it did in Vietnam, Washington has
lost hearts and minds in Iraq, and so the United States should withdraw.
But if the debate in Washington is Vietnam redux, the war in Iraq is not.
The current struggle is not a Maoist "people's war" of national liberation; it is a communal civil
war with very different dynamics. Although it is being fought at low intensity for now, it could easily
escalate if Americans and Iraqis make the wrong choices.
Unfortunately, many of the policies dominating the debate are ill adapted
to the war being fought. Turning over the responsibility for fighting the insurgents to local forces,
in particular, is likely to make matters worse. Such a policy might have made sense in Vietnam, but
in Iraq it threatens to exacerbate the communal tensions that underlie the conflict and undermine
the power-sharing negotiations needed to end it. Washington must stop shifting the responsibility
for the country's security to others and instead threaten to manipulate the military balance of
power among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds in order to force them to come to a durable compromise. Only
once an agreement is reached should Washington consider devolving significant military power
and authority to local forces.
As it is in 2006, in 1969 Washington's strategy was built around winning
hearts and minds while handing off more and more of the fighting to indigenous forces. From the outset
of the Vietnam War, efforts to coax the Vietnamese people away from the communists and into supporting
the Washington-backed government in Saigon were a crucial part of U.S. policy. "The task," President
Lyndon Johnson said in 1965, "is nothing less than to enrich the hope and existence of more than a
hundred million people." The United States transferred $2.9 billion in economic aid to South Vietnam
between 1961 and 1968 alone. In 1967, allied forces distributed more than half a million cakes of
soap and instructed more than 200,000 people in personal hygiene. By then, thanks to U.S. pressure,
elections at all levels of government had taken place throughout South Vietnam. The plan was to
undermine the Vietcong by improving the lives of the South Vietnamese through economic development
and political reform.
Of course, the counterinsurgency was about more than winning hearts
and minds; it was also about fighting. At first, following Congress' decision in 1965 to commit
large-scale U.S. ground forces, Americans did much of South Vietnam's defensive work. But in 1969,
the Nixon administration changed course and decided to transfer responsibility for ground combat
to the South Vietnamese. "We have adopted a plan which we have worked out in cooperation with the
South Vietnamese for the complete withdrawal of all U.S. combat ground forces and their replacement
by South Vietnamese forces on an orderly scheduled timetable," Richard Nixon declared. "This
withdrawal will be made from strength and not from weakness. As South Vietnamese forces become
stronger, the rate of American withdrawal can become greater." The strategy, which became known
as "Vietnamization," led to the complete withdrawal of U.S. ground forces from Vietnam by 1973.
After that, South Vietnamese troops who had been trained and equipped by the Americans conducted
all ground operations.
U.S. strategy in Iraq today is remarkably similar. To win the war, President
George W. Bush has advocated following three parallel tracks -- one for politics, one for economics,
and one for security. The first two involve using democratic reform and economic reconstruction
to persuade Iraqis to side with the new government in Baghdad and oppose the insurgents. The goal
of the Bush administration's third track is the creation of an Iraqi national military and an Iraqi
police force that can shoulder the burden of counterinsurgency on their own -- a project many
call "Iraqization," after its counterpart from Vietnam. The details of how to implement today's
policy may differ from those for the policy in the 1960s, but the two plans' intents are effectively
indistinguishable. Even the rhetoric surrounding the two plans is strikingly similar. Bush's
claim that "as the Iraqi security forces stand up, coalition forces can stand down" parallels Nixon's
hope that "as South Vietnamese forces become stronger, the rate of American withdrawal can become
Meanwhile, commentators such as Andrew Krepinevich argue essentially
that Washington is not refighting Vietnam properly ("How to Win in Iraq," September/October 2005).
Krepinevich sees the current U.S. strategy as a repeat of the failed search-and-destroy missions
of early Vietnam and wants Washington to adopt instead the approach of territorial defense used
in late Vietnam. Former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird argues that Vietnamization was working
fine until Congress pulled the plug on support for South Vietnam in 1975, and so he advocates recycling
the strategy and following through with it ("Iraq: Learning the Lessons of Vietnam," November/December
2005). Journalists scorn U.S. officers who insist on overusing firepower -- a mistake made in Vietnam -- and
lionize those who try to bring good governance to Iraq by holding local council elections, fixing
sewers, and getting the trash picked up -- the good lessons of Vietnam. Advocates of outright
withdrawal think the United States has already lost the hearts and minds of Iraqis and should therefore
cut its losses now, earlier than it did last time around.
A CATEGORY MISTAKE
Unfortunately, the parallel does not hold. A Maoist people's war is,
at bottom, a struggle for good governance between a class-based insurgency claiming to represent
the interests of the oppressed public and a ruling regime portrayed by the insurgents as defending
entrenched privilege. Using a mix of coercion and inducements, the insurgents and the regime compete
for the allegiance of a common pool of citizens, who could, in principle, take either side. A key
requirement for the insurgents' success, arguably, is an ideological program -- people's wars
are wars of ideas as much as they are killing competitions -- and nationalism is often at the heart
of this program. Insurgents frame their resistance as an expression of the people's sovereign
will to overthrow an illegitimate regime that represents only narrow class interests or is backed
by a foreign government.
Communal civil wars, in contrast, feature opposing subnational groups
divided along ethnic or sectarian lines; they are not about universal class interests or nationalist
passions. In such situations, even the government is typically an instrument of one communal group,
and its opponents champion the rights of their subgroup over those of others. These conflicts do
not revolve around ideas, because no pool of uncommitted citizens is waiting to be swayed by ideology.
(Albanian Kosovars, Bosnian Muslims, and Rwandan Tutsis knew whose side they were on.) The fight
is about group survival, not about the superiority of one party's ideology or one side's ability
to deliver better governance.
The underlying dynamic of many communal wars is a security problem driven
by mutual fear. Especially in states lacking strong central governments, communal groups worry
that other groups with historical grievances will try to settle scores. The stakes can be existential,
and genocide is a real possibility. Ideologues or nationalists can also be brutal toward their
enemies -- Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge come to mind -- but in communal conflicts the risk of mass
slaughter is especially high.
Whereas the Vietnam War was a Maoist people's war, Iraq is a communal
civil war. This can be seen in the pattern of violence in Iraq, which is strongly correlated with
communal affiliation. The four provinces that make up the country's Sunni heartland account for
fully 85 percent of all insurgent attacks; Iraq's other 14 provinces, where almost 60 percent of
the Iraqi population lives, account for only 15 percent of the violence. The overwhelming majority
of the insurgents in Iraq are indigenous Sunnis, and the small minority who are non-Iraqi members
of al Qaeda or its affiliates are able to operate only because Iraqi Sunnis provide them with safe houses,
intelligence, and supplies. Much of the violence is aimed at the Iraqi police and military, which
recruit disproportionately from among Shiites and Kurds. And most suicide car bombings are directed
at Shiite neighborhoods, especially in ethnically mixed areas such as Baghdad, Diyala, or northern
Babil, where Sunni bombers have relatively easy access to non-Sunni targets.
If the war in Iraq were chiefly a class-based or nationalist war, the
violence would run along national, class, or ideological lines. It does not. Many commentators
consider the insurgents to be nationalists opposing the U.S. occupation. Yet there is almost no
antioccupation violence in Shiite or Kurdish provinces; only in the Sunni Triangle are some Sunni
"nationalists" raising arms against U.S. troops, whom they see as defenders of a Shiite- and Kurdish-dominated
government. Defense of sect and ethnic group, not resistance to foreign occupation, accounts
for most of the anti-American violence. Class and ideology do not matter much either: little of
the violence pits poor Shiites or poor Sunnis against their richer brethren, and there is little
evidence that theocrats are killing secularists of their own ethnic group. Nor has the type of ideological
battle typical of a nationalist war emerged in Iraq. This should come as no surprise: the insurgents
are not competing for Shiite hearts and minds; they are fighting for Sunni self-interest, and hardly
need a manifesto to rally supporters.
The uprisings led by Muqtada al-Sadr's Shiite militia in Baghdad and
Najaf have been an exception to this general pattern, but it is the exception that confirms the rule.
Although Sadr may still have a political future, so far he has failed to spur a broad-based Shiite
uprising against either the U.S. occupation or the Shiite-dominated government. Some Iraqi Shiites
do resent the U.S. occupation, and nationalism does feed anti-American violence. But nationalism
is only a secondary factor in the war, and its main effect is to magnify the virulence of the Sunnis'
violence in what is fundamentally a communal civil war.
This is not to claim that there are no Iraqi patriots who place nation
above sect, or that a unified state is beyond reach. And this is certainly not to denigrate the courageous
efforts of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers who have sacrificed much for a new Iraq. But these efforts may be
in vain if the communal civil war in Iraq continues to be misunderstood.
KEEP NIXON OUT OF BAGHDAD
The problem with recycling the Vietnam playbook in Iraq is that the strategies
devised to win a people's war are either useless or counterproductive in a communal one. Winning
hearts and minds, for example, is crucial to defeating a people's rebellion that promises good
governance, but in a communal civil war such as that in Iraq, it is a lost cause. Communities in Iraq
are increasingly polarized and fear mass violence at one another's hands. Some Sunnis hunger for
a return to dominance; many others fear violent Shiite-Kurdish retribution for Saddam's Sunni-dominated
tyranny. Some Shiites and Kurds want revenge; others fear they will face mass killings in the event
of a Sunni restoration. Economic aid or reconstruction assistance cannot fix the problem: Would
Sunnis really get over their fear of Shiite domination if only the sewers were fixed and the electricity
kept working? This is not to say that Washington should not provide reconstruction assistance
or economic aid; the United States owes Iraq the help on moral grounds, and economic growth could
ease communal tensions at the margins and so promote peace in the long term. But in the near term,
survival trumps prosperity, and most Iraqis depend on communal solidarity for their survival.
Rapid democratization, meanwhile, could be positively harmful in
Iraq. In a Maoist people's war, empowering the population via the ballot box undermines the insurgents'
case that the regime is illegitimate and facilitates nonviolent resolution of the inequalities
that fuel the conflict. In a communal civil war, however, rapid democratization can further polarize
already antagonistic sectarian groups. In an immature polity with little history of compromise,
demonizing traditional enemies is an easy -- and dangerous -- way to mobilize support from
frightened voters. And as the political scientists Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder have shown,
although mature democracies rarely go to war with other democracies, emerging democracies are
unusually bellicose. Political reform is critical to resolving communal wars, but only if it comes
at the right time, after some sort of stable communal compromise has begun to take root.
The biggest problem with treating Iraq like Vietnam is Iraqization -- the
main component of the current U.S. military strategy. In a people's war, handing the fighting off
to local forces makes sense because it undermines the nationalist component of insurgent resistance,
improves the quality of local intelligence, and boosts troop strength. But in a communal civil
war, it throws gasoline on the fire. Iraq's Sunnis perceive the "national" army and police force
as a Shiite-Kurdish militia on steroids. And they have a point: in a communal conflict, the only
effective units are the ones that do not intermingle communal enemies. (Because the U.S. military
does not keep data on the ethnic makeup of the Iraqi forces, the number of Sunnis in these organizations
is unknown and the effectiveness of mixed units cannot be established conclusively. Considerable
anecdotal evidence suggests that the troops are dominated by Shiites and Kurds and that the Sunnis'
very perception that this is so, accurate or not, helps fuel the conflict. Either way, Iraqization
poses serious problems, and the analysis below considers both the possibility that integration
might succeed and the possibility that it might fail.) Sunni populations are unlikely to welcome
protection provided by their ethnic or sectarian rivals; to them, the defense forces look like
agents of a hostile occupation. And the more threatened the Sunnis feel, the more likely they are
to fight back even harder. The bigger, stronger, better trained, and better equipped the Iraqi
forces become, the worse the communal tensions that underlie the whole conflict will get.
The creation of powerful Shiite-Kurdish security forces will also
reduce the chances of reaching the only serious long-term solution to the country's communal conflict:
a compromise based on a constitutional deal with ironclad power-sharing arrangements protecting
all parties. A national army that effectively excluded Sunnis would make any such constitutional
deal irrelevant, because the Shiite-Kurdish alliance would hold the real power regardless of
what the constitution said. Increasing evidence that Iraq's military and police have already
committed atrocities against Sunnis only confirms the dangers of transferring responsibility
for fighting the insurgents to local forces before an acceptable ethnic compromise has been brokered.
On the other hand, the harder the United States works to integrate Sunnis
into the security forces, the less effective those forces are likely to become. The inclusion of
Sunnis will inevitably entail penetration by insurgents, and it will be difficult to establish trust
between members of mixed units whose respective ethnic groups are at one another's throats. Segregating
Sunnis in their own battalions is no solution either. Doing so would merely strengthen all sides
simultaneously by providing each with direct U.S. assistance and could trigger an unstable, unofficial
partition of the country into separate Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish enclaves, each defended by its
own military force.
Unfortunately, the alternatives to the Bush administration's policies
currently on the table are no more promising. Shifting from tactical offense to defense, for example,
could make things worse. Krepinevich proposes an "oil-spot strategy" that focuses on providing
security to civilians rather than on killing insurgents. In principle, such an approach could
help by protecting Iraqis against violence perpetrated by ethnic rivals. But finding the appropriate
troops to implement it would not be easy. There are too few Americans to protect more than a fraction
of Iraq's population, and it is far from clear that Sunnis would accept their help anyway. So the
plan would have to rely on Iraqi troops, which will inevitably end up being either integrated and
ineffectual or segregated and divisive. Tactical defense by the wrong defenders can be fatal in
a communal civil war, and in Iraq it will remain far from clear how to provide appropriate defenders
until the communal strife itself has been resolved.
The case for withdrawing U.S. troops is no stronger, largely because
the war does not hinge on the United States' winning -- or losing -- Iraqi hearts and minds. The
war is about resolving the communal security problems that divide Iraqis, and it is too early to
give up on achieving this goal via constitutional compromise. In fact, the very prospect that today's
conflict could degenerate into attempted genocide if compromise fails should be a powerful lever
for negotiating a deal. The presence of U.S. troops is essential to Washington's bargaining position
in these negotiations. To withdraw them now, or to start withdrawing them according to a rigid timetable,
would undermine the prospect of forging a lasting peace.
THE BEST PLAN
What, then, is to be done? Some elements of the current U.S. strategy
are worth keeping. The efforts of the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, to broker a constitutional
deal between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, for example, are crucial for success; his interventionist
approach is a major improvement over the strategy of quiet behind-the-scenes encouragement favored
by L. Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority from May 2003 to June 2004. Economic
assistance is a moral imperative; it should be continued and reinforced whatever its marginal
But critical departures from the current strategy are also necessary.
First, Washington must slow down the expansion of the Iraqi national military and police. Iraq
will eventually need capable indigenous security forces, but their buildup must follow a broad
communal compromise, not the other way around. If the development of the army and the police gets
ahead of the agreement, the forces will either exclude the Sunnis and be effective but divisive or
include the Sunnis but be weak. The latter result would mean lost effort and perhaps lives, but the
former would probably be worse, because it would jeopardize any constitutional power-sharing
deal that may emerge from Khalilzad's efforts. This dilemma leaves Washington with no choice but
to continue providing enough U.S. forces to cap the violence in Iraq.
Second, the United States must bring more pressure to bear on the parties
in the constitutional negotiations. And the strongest pressure available is military: the United
States must threaten to manipulate the military balance of power among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds
to coerce them to negotiate. Washington should use the prospect of a U.S.-trained and U.S.-supported
Shiite-Kurdish force to compel the Sunnis to come to the negotiating table. At the same time, in
order to get the Shiites and the Kurds to negotiate too, it should threaten either to withdraw prematurely,
a move that would throw the country into disarray, or to back the Sunnis.
If Washington fails to implement this plan, it will continue to have
only limited leverage over the parties, each of which sees compromise as risky. The groups fear
that if their rivals gain control of the government, they will face oppression, impoverishment,
or mass violence. Compromising means ceding some power to rivals, and a miscalculation that cedes
too much power could result in the enemy's seizing the rest later, with catastrophic results. In
contrast, an ongoing low-intensity war does not look so bad: as long as U.S. forces patrol Iraq,
the country will not break up and the conflict will not descend into all-out chaos. The parties'
refusal to compromise may be an obstacle to real peace, but it is also a way to avert mass violence.
The only way to break the logjam is to change the parties' relative comfort
with the status quo by drastically raising the costs of their failure to negotiate. The U.S. presence
now caps the war's intensity, and U.S. aid could give any side an enormous military advantage. Thus
Washington should threaten to use its influence to alter the balance of power depending on the parties'
behavior. By doing so, it could make stubbornness look worse than cooperation and compel all sides
Today, however, Washington is doing just the opposite. Washington's
stated policy is to field an ethnically mixed Iraqi military as quickly as possible in order to replace
U.S. troops, with or without a stable constitutional deal in place -- an approach that forfeits
Washington's primary source of leverage with all three local factions. The Sunnis have little
to fear from the plan, for if it succeeds, they will have been saved from a powerful U.S.-trained
Shiite-Kurdish army without having had to make any concessions. The prospect that the United States'
policy could fail, thus leaving the Sunnis on their own, may frighten them, but since the likelihood
of that happening is unrelated to their willingness to make political compromises, they have little
reason to negotiate. Iraqization gives Washington no more sway with the Shiites or the Kurds, because
it involves keeping U.S. troops in Iraq until these groups can defend themselves, regardless of
whether they negotiate seriously in the meantime. So the only way out of this problem is for Washington
to postpone Iraqization and make it contingent on the parties' willingness to bargain.
This shift in strategy will require changes in other current policies,
too. For example, Washington will have to suspend its campaign against the Sunni insurgent leadership,
former senior Baathists, and Sunni tribal leaders. If the key to success is a negotiated communal
compromise, Washington needs negotiating partners who can make a deal stick -- in other words,
leaders with authority among their own people and combatants. But many of the Sunnis with such stature
are now fighting in the insurgency, are in hiding, or are banned from politics because of their Baathist
pasts; others are excluded by Washington's reluctance to reinforce a tribal loyalty system based
on graft and patronage. The result is a weak Sunni political leadership lacking both the legitimacy
and the power to negotiate a settlement. Since such weakness could be fatal to the prospects for
ethnic compromise, Washington should consider trying to accelerate the emergence of a credible
Sunni leadership by endorsing a wider amnesty for former Baathists and insurgents and learning
to tolerate nepotistic tribal leaders.
Washington should also avoid setting any more arbitrary deadlines
for democratization. Pressure to reach demanding political milestones can further polarize
factional politics, and the parliamentary elections in December 2005 may already have hardened
communal divides. In a people's war, early electoral deadlines can make sense; in a communal civil
war, they are dangerous. Democracy is the long-term goal in Iraq, of course, but getting there will
require a near-term constitutional compromise whose key provision must be an agreement to limit
the freedom of Iraqi voters to elect governments that concentrate ethnic and sectarian power.
Resolving the country's communal security problems must take priority over bringing self-determination
to the Iraqi people -- or the democracy that many hope for will never emerge.
BACK ON TRACK
Putting such a program in place would not be easy. It would deny President
Bush the chance to offer restless Americans an early troop withdrawal, replace a Manichaean narrative
featuring evil insurgents and a noble government with a complicated story of multiparty interethnic
intrigue, and require that Washington be willing to shift its loyalties in the conflict according
to the parties' readiness to negotiate. Explaining these changes to U.S. voters would be a challenge.
Washington would have to recalibrate its dealings with Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds with great precision,
making sure to neither unduly frighten nor unduly reassure any of the groups. Even the most adroit
diplomacy could fail if the Iraqis do not grasp the strategic logic of their situation or if a strong
and sensible Sunni political leadership does not emerge. And the failure to reach a stable ethnic
compromise soon could strain the U.S. military beyond its breaking point.
Nevertheless, there are good reasons to think such a plan could work.
Most important, the underlying interests of all local parties would be far better served by a constitutional
compromise than by an all-out war. The losers would have to pay the butcher's bill of combat and bear
the oppressor's yoke in the aftermath; even the winners would pay a terrible price. Since no side
today can be confident that it would come out on top in a war, the prospect of losing should be a powerful
motivation to compromise. The December 2005 round of negotiations in Baghdad suggested that the
parties may have started to understand these stakes: the willingness of the Shiite negotiators
to yield to the Sunnis' preferences on the procedures for amending the constitution indicates
that compromise may be possible. The current U.S. strategy in Iraq makes this compromise less likely
by shielding Iraqis from the full consequences of their stubbornness and thereby weakening Washington's
potentially formidable leverage over the military balance of power. But if that changes -- and
it can change -- the chances for success will be significantly increased.
At a minimum, Washington should stop making matters worse. Understanding
the war in Iraq as a communal civil war cannot guarantee success, but without this understanding
failure is far too likely. Whatever the prospects for peace, they would be considerably better
if Washington stopped mistaking Iraq for Vietnam and started seeing it for what it really is.
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