U.S. strategy in Iraq could take a page from Vietnam

Times Staff Writer

New tactics favored by U.S. commanders in Iraq borrow heavily from the end of another war that might seem an unlikely source for a winning strategy: Vietnam.

The tactics -- an influx of military advisors and a speeded-up handover to indigenous forces followed by a gradual U.S. withdrawal -- resemble those in place as the U.S. effort in Vietnam reached its end.

In historical assessments and the American recollection, Vietnam was the unwinnable war. But to many in the armed forces, Vietnam as a war actually was on its way to succeeding when the Nixon administration and Congress, bowing to public impatience, pulled the plug: first withdrawing U.S. combat forces and then blocking funding and supplies to the South Vietnamese army.


If they hadn’t, the South Vietnamese army, which had been bolstered by U.S. advisors and a more focused “hearts and minds” campaign in the later stages of the war, could have been able to fend off the communist North, many leading military thinkers have argued.

In their view, progress was undermined by President Nixon’s decision to begin withdrawing U.S. troops in 1969 in the face of political pressure at home, despite military objections that the South Vietnamese army was not ready to go it alone. Another key U.S. mistake, they contend, was the deep cuts Congress made to military aid to Saigon beginning in 1974.

For many in the military, the lessons of Vietnam are clear: Maintain public support, and be patient.

Consciously or not, President Bush encapsulated that view during his weekend trip to Hanoi, where he was asked whether there were lessons in Vietnam for the war in Iraq. Instead of military tactics or strategy, he answered by talking about the impatience of the American public, and how success in war can be slow. “We’ll succeed unless we quit,” Bush said.

Differing views

The view that Vietnam could have been won if public opinion and political will had continued to support the war effort is far from universal, particularly among historians outside the military.

Stanley Karnow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who covered the war from the day the first American was killed in 1959 to its end, said Hanoi was nowhere near capitulation by 1973, when the Paris peace accords were signed.


“They’re clutching at some sort of way to justify hanging on in Iraq,” said Karnow, whose “Vietnam: A History” is considered by many to be the definitive account of the conflict. “The war in Vietnam, in my estimation, was unwinnable for the simple, basic reason that we were up against an enemy that was prepared to take on unlimited losses. They would have gone on fighting endlessly.”

For years, the debate over the end of the Vietnam War occupied students and scholars in the military’s academies and war colleges. But with the Pentagon struggling to find answers in Iraq, the lessons of Vietnam have taken on more than just an academic interest.

The course that senior military commanders now appear to be steering in Iraq closely mirrors the “Vietnamization” program implemented by Nixon and his commander in Vietnam, Army Gen. Creighton Abrams, in the late stages of the war.

Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, laid out that path at congressional hearings last week. He said the biggest change he anticipated in the coming months was a large-scale increase in U.S. advisors.

He also said he hoped to hand over responsibility for security to Iraqi forces in less than a year -- faster than Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the U.S. commander in Iraq, had estimated just weeks earlier -- and spelled out his resistance to an increase in American combat troops.

“I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more,” Abizaid told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “If more troops need to come in, they need to come in to make the Iraqi army stronger.”


Familiar strategy

For some military experts and historians, several of whom advise the Pentagon on Iraq policy, that strategy sounded familiar, recalling Abrams’ shift in Vietnam after he took over from Army Gen. William C. Westmoreland in 1968. After that revamp, an increased advisory effort and an accelerated pacification program, which included enlarging the South Vietnamese army, was finally beginning to work by the early 1970s, the military scholars argue.

Those efforts were undermined, their thesis goes, by a lack of political will at home, which forced the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and the Saigon government to go it alone before they were ready.

“Gen. Westmoreland preferred to fight the war with American troops; he saw the advisory effort to help the South Vietnamese as very secondary,” said Kalev Sepp, a counterinsurgency expert at the Naval Postgraduate School who has traveled to Iraq frequently to advise U.S. commanders. “When Abrams took over, he turned it back around, and he emphasized the advisory system as part of the way the Americans could disengage.”

Abizaid is known to have studied Abrams’ conduct of the war. Late last year, he was seen reading “A Better War,” a 1999 book by Vietnam veteran Lewis Sorley that argues Abrams was winning before being let down by politicians in Washington.

Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, an influential former commander in Iraq who now heads the Army’s system of war colleges and training centers, also studied Abrams’ strategy early in his own rethinking of Iraq strategy.

Among the administration’s Iraq war planners, the influence of the late Gen. Abrams has been felt before. The strategy of “clear, hold and build,” in which U.S. forces remain in captured towns to provide security while reconstruction begins, was first articulated by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice more than a year ago and closely echoes Abrams’ “clear and hold” strategy implemented shortly after he took over from Westmoreland. Philip Zelikow, a close aide to Rice, has acknowledged reading Sorley’s book as well.


More recently, officers steeped in Vietnam’s lessons have been brought into the Pentagon by Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as part of his task force rethinking Iraq strategy.

Among them are Army Col. H.R. McMaster, whose doctoral thesis was on the failures of the military leadership during Vietnam, and Army Col. Peter Mansoor, head of the military’s new counterinsurgency center -- an organization dedicated, in many ways, to reteaching the “hearts and minds” strategies that Abrams emphasized.

Although possible recommendations are still being debated within the Pentagon, the panel is reportedly leaning toward a short-term increase in U.S. forces, perhaps as many as 20,000, followed by a significant boost in training and advising efforts for Iraqis, including an increase in the size of the Iraqi military.

Andrew Krepinevich, a military analyst and Vietnam veteran who has spoken with members of Pace’s panel, noted that McMaster and Mansoor are Iraq combat veterans who are known for their expertise in irregular warfare.

“It wouldn’t be a surprise at all that these people would be drawing on the Vietnam experience,” Krepinevich said.

The argument that Abrams was on the right track has gained a strong following among influential military thinkers, including Sepp and Krepinevich, who have the ear of many in the Pentagon.


“There’s a considerable sentiment of those who really studied Vietnam and, ideally, served there, that the approach to the war after Westmoreland left was on a new track,” said retired Army Col. Stuart A. Herrington, another Vietnam veteran who has advised the Pentagon on Iraq policy. “It was a radical change in the approach to the war, and there’s no question that even [former North Vietnamese] adversaries now admit that the second approach was extremely, extremely damaging to them.”

Veterans of later years of the Vietnam conflict, some of whom are now in positions at the military’s leading war colleges, often describe a strategy that was beginning to work even as combat forces began to withdraw in the early 1970s.

James Willbanks, a former military advisor in Vietnam who heads the history department at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College, argued that pacification efforts -- the strategy of pushing South Vietnamese forces into the countryside to provide a physical and psychological sense of security -- had largely succeeded by 1972. He adding that the ARVN was even able to hold its own without American combat troops until Congress decided to withhold military funding to Saigon shortly after U.S. troops withdrew in 1973.

“We trained them to fight like us, and then we pulled all our support out,” Willbanks said, echoing sentiments of other military scholars.

Clear difficulties

These same experts acknowledge that, much like 30 years ago, any strategy that relies on U.S. forces serving as the backbone of a nascent indigenous force is fraught with military and political difficulties.

Perhaps most important, much like in Vietnam, the new strategy is being pushed after several years of large-scale combat operations that may have killed thousands of insurgents, but also alienated the local population.


In addition, the Iraqi and South Vietnamese militaries are hardly comparable. Although the ARVN was notoriously corrupt and politicized, it was a functioning institution that had been engaged in fighting the communist North for decades. Conversely, the Iraqi army is being built from scratch, and unlike the ARVN, which was clearly aligned with the government in Saigon, Abizaid noted last week that it remained unclear whether the Iraqi government sees their armed forces -- rather than armed militia -- as their preferred fighters.

Perhaps more troubling, however, is that like the Abrams initiatives, which ran from 1968 through 1973, the current move to step up training of the Iraqi forces comes at a time when domestic support for war is on the wane and political winds are blowing in favor of a quick pullout of combat forces.

“There are certain things you just can’t do in a military situation like Iraq or Vietnam, and if you violate these tenets, you’re at great risk,” Herrington said. “One of them is to take too long to figure out what you ought to be doing so the American public falters in its support.”

Such fears, and the consequences of losing political backing for the war in Iraq, have colored military strategy. Senior military officials have acknowledged that maintaining domestic support for the war effort is frequently factored into planning discussions.

“Unfortunately, the timeline we see that it would take to build a fully capable, competent [Iraqi] force -- and for us to feel comfortable stepping away -- is longer than the timeline that we feel now our country will support,” said Gen. James T. Conway, the new commandant of the Marine Corps. “So we have a little bit of a mismatch there.”

Their fear is that, like the ultimately failed Vietnamization effort, an unwillingness by the American public to support the war could force the Pentagon to pull its backing from the Iraqi military before the developing forces are ready.


“The [Vietnam] war was so far along and the withdrawal was so far along that the U.S. advisory effort was losing its effectiveness,” recalled retired Army Col. Walter Clark, who served as a provincial military advisor in the Mekong Delta in 1971 and 1972 before becoming commandant of the Citadel, the private military college in South Carolina. “I couldn’t snap my fingers and get a bunch of helicopters the Vietnamese might need.”

Lessons learned?

Despite the hurdles, the signs that the administration is heeding the lessons of Vietnam, as prosecuted by Abrams, are increasingly apparent.

Bush himself, as recently as June, told a White House news conference that he saw no parallels between the two wars. More recently, however, in addition to his comments in Hanoi, Bush acknowledged in an interview with ABC News that American setbacks in Baghdad may be comparable to the Tet offensive, the 1968 battle between American forces and Viet Cong guerrillas generally seen as the point where public opinion turned against the war.

But even among Abrams’ advocates, there is a nagging concern that, even with the relearning of Vietnam’s lessons, it may still turn out to be too little, too late.

“Having wasted more than three years ... pursuing a flawed strategy, the Pentagon lost the support of the American population and was not given the time to get it right, even when it was clear that Gen. Creighton Abrams’ pacification and Vietnamization approach might have worked,” Herrington wrote in a recent issue of Parameters, the journal of the U.S. Army War College.

“Sound familiar?”



Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes contributed to this report.