[Marxism] From foreignaffairs.org: Seeing Baghdad, Thinking Saigon

CF 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


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.


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.


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.


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 
strategic value.

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 
to compromise.

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.


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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