Monday, November 21, 2005

Iraq and Vietnam

The events of the past few days in the United States Congress have sharpened the sense that the steady erosion of support for the US presence in Iraq is starting to bite. Naturally, this brings up visions of Vietnam.

The two conflicts are, of course, quite different in their details. In Iraq the US faces an insurgency with private support but not a conventional foe with support from major states as it did in Vietnam. One commonality though is the common initial failure to focus on building up local regimes with sufficient independence to fight for their own survival---in both cases this was a political failure above all.

At any rate the history of the second half of the Vietnam conflict – the failed “Vietnamization” strategy, is now again of interest for any lessons it might contain for the current building up of the post-Saddam Iraqi state. Nixon then Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird has weighed in to argue that Vietnamization failed only because the US Congress deserted South Vietnam while the Soviets and the Chinese kept arming the North. Two recent articles (here and here) by Richard Miniter examine the Vietnam-Iraq parallels in some detail and argue also that there are no real lessons to be learned, the insistence of the media notwithstanding. These articles build on a study by Jeffrey Record and W. Andrew Terrill last year.

There is though the important aspect that Iraq still has to solve the problem of reconciling the Sunnis to (democratic) Shia power – a challenge with no real parallel in Vietnam either. While continued American support is essential to the emergence of a new Iraq, a crucial ingredient will have to come from the Iraqis themselves.

It is scarcely necessary to note that the future of Iraq is of considerable importance to India. A triumph for the insurgency there would be viewed as a triumph for Al Qaeda worldwide and can only fan flames close home that India would be better off without. For that matter the fall of Saigon inaugurated an era of Soviet adventurism that led to Afghanistan and, eventually, to much trouble for India in its own neighborhood.

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