Lessons from Vietnam for Iraq

Posted in Iraq | 01-Dec-03

The American Author is a Doctor in the Baghdad Civil Health Team

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Before you roll your eyes at yet another inexperienced liberal who predicts doom for US interests in Iraq based upon what happened in Southeast Asia some twenty-eight years ago, let me present my credentials. I was a US Special Forces medical specialist in Vietnam and Thailand from 1967 through 1971, and spent time on the ground in border camps, reaction forces, and classified projects. I came to know the war close at hand, and devoured all the information that I could about the tactics of the enemy, as well as the tactics that we used to fight it. I am now part of the United States Army's effort in Baghdad, serving on a Civil Affairs public health team, travelling the mean streets of Baghdad every day, and getting to know the Iraqis. My unit came into Baghdad before the smoke had cleared and remains engaged.

Those of us on the ground here are starting to see how this war is evolving. It has turned from a slam-bang invasion and occupation to a guerrilla conflict. With all due respect to the Secretary of Defense and the National Command Authority, the coordinated attacks on us are not the work of lunatics released in the final days of Saddam's regime, or average Iraqis who are incensed by the lack of reliable power and water. They are the result of a directed, planned guerrilla conflict that is only entering its first phase.

This guerrilla conflict is likely a continuation of the war that our Administration has pronounced over, the logical extension of a war plan by a dictator who knew that he could not win a stand-up fight, and did not try to wage one. He chose instead to fight a delaying action, to give his key personnel time to go into hiding, to tidy up any evidence of weapons of mass destruction, and to move tons of cash and gold to places where he could draw upon them.

When the Coalition forces advanced into Iraq, they met resistance, some of it fierce, at certain points. A few towns, some bridges and other points were contested, but the large formations that were at the regime's orders did not materialize to fight on the battlefield. Certainly many of the enemy's forces were destroyed by our own firepower, by the precision bombing and the gutsy, aggressive maneuvering of our forces. But tens of thousands of enemy troops, and their weapons, simply faded away. Vanished. They were not killed, not interred in POW camps for transition back into society - they just went away. The large enemy combat formations that we expected to fight, that our intelligence had plotted to within 100 meters, evaporated. Now we are seeing them reconstitute, like water that has evaporated from the desert, forming storm clouds.

Some of these former Iraqi Army men have shown up at the gates of the US compound in recent days, demanding back pay as soldiers. While, on the face of it, it seems ridiculous for a defeated army to demand to be paid by the victors, there were those leaflets dropped by Coalition forces that urged the Iraqi Army troops to drop their weapons and go home, stating that they would be taken care of. The troops at our gates are nowhere near the number that disappeared. They are maybe enough to make up a battalion, a few hundred men, but nowhere near the divisions that Saddam had poised to resist us.

So, where did these guys go? Thousands of men are hard to hide. We surely should have had thousands of them as homeless, displaced persons after they laid down their arms. This is a humanitarian emergency, compelling us to act. I am in Civil Affairs, the unit that should have cared for them. We did not see them. It's as if there was some plan for them to go under ground and reemerge on order. I believe that there was such a plan.

We see some of them sometimes, as we ride through Baghdad on our missions, the fit young men of military age, with short hair and sullen expressions. The elite units of Saddam's army, especially the Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard, were living lavish lifestyles until the invasion, and they aren't happy. They are now jobless, with nothing to lose, looking at an occupation army living in the palaces that they used to occupy.

So how do I justify the comparison to Vietnam? How are these two conflicts similar, and what can we learn from the last one that will help us in this one?

A review of the basic principles of guerrilla warfare is in order, such as the tried and true principles that worked for Mao Zedong and his disciple Vo Nguyen Giap. First, the populace must support the guerrillas. Mao knew that the population is the ocean in which the guerrilla fish must swim, and the current guerrilla leadership in Iraq is insuring the loyalty of the populace by turning them away from the Americans and British.

The guerrilla leadership may have directed some of the looting, which broke out even before the smoke cleared, or they may have been exceedingly lucky. Looters hit the power, water, and sewage plants, ripping out vital machinery and even the wiring in the walls. The thorough looting guaranteed that essential services, such as power and water, could not function in Baghdad and beyond. In a city where temperatures are going above 120 F, this means no fans, no air conditioning, no refrigeration, no lights, and no water. Even the most sophisticated parent will curse the Coalition forces for not doing something to restore services, when his thirsty children are crying and baking in a desert home with no cooling.

The Bad Guys are also insuring that this pot continues to boil by sabotaging and attacking the power grid and water lines once they have been repaired. The average Iraqi holds the US responsible, as we are the ones with the tanks, trucks, and engineers who should be able to fix things. It is interesting to me that I have heard from two different Iraqis that, after the First Iraq War, Saddam himself was able to fix the damage and have water and power back on line in less time than it is taking the Coalition working together.

The message is clear: “Are you really better off after the invasion? What good is this freedom without water or electricity? The Americans lied when they told you things will be better.” The guerrillas are conducting their own campaign to win hearts and minds.

The second thing necessary for a guerrilla war to succeed is a border with a neighbouring country friendly to the guerrillas. In Iraq, you can take your pick. The Islamic militants in the south are directly connected to their Shiite brothers and their mullahs in Iran. The Iranian leaders, feeling threatened and surrounded by the US in Afghanistan and Iraq, enjoy the opportunity to strike at Americans and Brits through proxy forces. There is feeling here that the recent killing of six British military policemen by Shiite townsmen have the mark of Iran on them.

Syria has not been reluctant to take in remnants of Saddam's regime. Three semi-truck loads of cash, and three dump trucks full of gold have been seized by US forces on their way to the Syrian border. They were surely on their way to support the Baathist regime remnants in their efforts to rebuild and return. Militants on their way into Iraq from Syria are stopped or engaged in combat almost daily by Coalition forces.

Saudi Arabia would like us to accept their protestations of friendship, although the country continues to support radical Islamic movements spawned by the Wahabi sect, based in Saudi Arabia. It is certain that guerrillas fighting the Coalition could find welcome in many places along a porous and poorly defined Saudi border, and that the Coalition would be loathe to strike sanctuaries along that border.

The next thing on our guerrilla checklist is a cause that will compel young men to take up arms, and continue in the guerrilla cause in the face of fierce odds. When a guerrilla is isolated, hunted, and sees his comrades die, he must be motivated to continue the struggle instead of going home. This may be where the current Iraqi guerrilla leadership is vulnerable, but not for long.

Intelligence reports persist of men being hired by regime loyalists who pay cash for people to kill Americans. The motivation may be cash for now, but the GIs that are killed are just as dead as if they were killed for a cause. As time goes by, even if mercenaries and zealots are initially responsible for deaths of Coalition soldiers, these deaths will cause our troops to become harsher in dealing with Iraqis, more checkpoints, and more home invasions. Combine these measures with the lack of power, water and basic services, and you have a recipe for a cause. That cause is to force the invaders to leave. Iraq for the Iraqis.

In Vietnam, the United States attempted, for the most part, to fight the guerrillas with conventional units. There were some innovations, like the use of helicopters and riverine forces, but while American infantry, artillery and armor flooded the small country (coincidentally the size of California), the guerrillas enjoyed freedom of movement, the ability to choose the time and place of battle, and inflicted casualties on American troops that insured that political action would negate American gains on the battlefield. It was only when larger North Vietnamese Army formations joined the battle that US conventional units showed their strength, shredding their enemy every time. The North Vietnamese, however, had made the strategic decision to absorb the losses that it took to bleed the Americans enough to make them leave.

A final item for comparison to the Vietnam War is the mobilization of the American public and media to oppose the war effort. This involves what Lenin referred to as "useful fools", those in academia, the press, or elsewhere who could be depended on to back the position of the Soviet Union over the United States on any given issue. While the supporters of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were few in the early 60s, by the end of the decade organizers could master thousands of activists to take to the streets seemingly overnight. Domestic opposition to the war drove one president from office, and convinced Congress to withdraw support for the Republic of Vietnam, assuring the Communist victory.

The domestic opposition to the Iraq War started even before hostilities began. The usual suspects of the American far left were vastly outnumbered by the majority of the American public, who supported the pro-active use of force following the 9-11 disasters. As the casualty lists lengthen, as Iraqis organize to oppose US occupation, as there seems to be no end in sight for the occupation, the American public will turn against the war, and the anti-war movement will once again be a force in American politics. This, of course, will be followed by an American pullout, a vacuum in Iraq, and a bloodbath as scores are settled.

Clearly, there must be a plan to get ahead of the guerrillas; to defeat them militarily, while maintaining the loyalty of the populace, and to keep troublemakers out.

The developing guerrilla war in Iraq requires an effective counter-guerrilla force. For the United States, this means deploying a Special Forces Group. The force in Vietnam that proved a force multiplier, provided some 80% of all usable intelligence, and firmly secured its areas of operation, was the US Special Forces, specifically the 5th Group. Through the Civilian Irregular Defense Group, which recruited and trained indigenous personnel to serve in a counter-guerrilla role, borders and troubled internal areas were secured. The Special Operations Group sent teams to interdict the enemy's supply and infiltration routes across the borders, and struck at targets of high value, such as general officers, ammunition dumps, or armored convoys.

One battalion needs to urgently recreate and deploy the Iraqi Army, under US officers and NCOs in critical leadership positions. The Iraqi Army, knowing the terrain and culture, would gradually become the premier force to fight the guerrillas.

The second Special Forces (SF) battalion should become the border force, patrolling from their fortified camps with the aid of helicopters, drones, HUMMVs, Barrett sniper rifles, electronics, and old-fashioned stealth. Modified to fit the current tactical situation, SF border camps should once again become the first line of defense against guerrilla infiltration.

There is also a place for a unit doing the mission of the Vietnam war's SOG, the Special Operations Group. Operating in secrecy and using their own air assets, these small units of Special Forces and Seals would conduct cross-border reconnaissance, seeking out enemy camps and concentrations before they can harm us, calling air strikes or conducting direct - and deniable - action.

The use of Special Operations Forces in a guerrilla warfare environment proved successful during the Vietnam War, our last major involvement with guerrillas. Though the United States withdrew and our allies were, predictably, overrun, the counter-guerrilla tactics employed by SF were very successful.

The first admission that the National Command Authority needs to make is that they are now fighting an organized guerrilla force. Having done that, they can then proceed to fight guerrillas with proven and very effective counter-guerrilla tactics.

The Special Forces in Vietnam wrote the book, chapter and verse, through hard experience. That book needs to be opened again.