The Iraq/ISIS Debate: Beware the Ghosts of Saigon and Karbala

When debating Iraq, the fall of Saigon is as important as the history of Karbala.

Are we about to witness a “Saigon moment” in Baghdad? Or are we perhaps witnessing something more comparable to Iraq's February 1991 uprising, only this time in reverse?

Before addressing those questions, it’s worth considering Heather Marie Stur’s view that the Vietnam War is a bad comparison for Iraq. Certainly, it is right that we understand the slippery slope to a quagmire (as Paul Pillar has argued) but the Vietnam War also has applicable lessons for managing exit strategies.

Stur is right to suggest however, that the damage inflicted to Iraqi society by years of sanctions, war, sectarian governance and the shifting components of Iraqi politics needs to be better understood by policy makers. Reading about the Montagnards will not help that.

However, unlike in 1975, the United States has now militarily reentered the fray. A process has begun of assessing a bloated (and expanding) army that is moving brigades and even divisions across huge expanses of terrain, against a comparatively nimble and well-equipped insurgency.

Aside from the security situation, we also see America’s adversaries sense a moment of weakness after an unpopular war. After Saigon fell, U.S. adversaries were quick to exploit America’s setback. At Cam Ranh Bay, Russia found a perfect home for the Soviet Pacific Fleet, as well as airfields at Da Nang. Across the world, insurgents, terrorists and dictators (including Saddam Hussein) were emboldened.

Nonetheless, Ford had promised that “the United States would not permit our setbacks to become a license for others to fish in troubled waters.” But he could do little to stop Russia from casting their fishing lines. In Iraq today, Obama still has options to compete with the worst aspects of Iranian influence, but the situation is tenuous.

Iran has been quick to exploit U.S. indecision, not only in the post withdrawal phase but also historically, following the 1991 uprising against Saddam. As Saddam’s shells rained down on Karbala and Najaf in the fateful months of February and March 1991, America stood aside fearing Iranian influence. But in the ensuing months, Iran increased its support and sanctuary for anti-Saddam groups, while U.S. efforts to support resistance were hampered by the memory of ‘91. Today, as Obama weighs his options, Iran—and now Russia, are moving quickly.

Military lessons from Vietnam

Historically, only in Vietnam have we witnessed such a dramatic collapse of a (largely) U.S.-created army. As in Vietnam, here is a disaster primarily overseen by a confrontational autocrat who has weakened his forces through coup proofing and micromanagement, although blame cannot be laid solely at the feet of Maliki: other powerful actors, both Sunni and Shia, have done much to fan the flames.

In Iraq, the same haunting questions loom large: how much of this problem is political and how much is military? As Obama mulls this question, the security dimension of the problem appears to grow.

It is therefore necessary to understand the limits and opportunities of security cooperation on this scale. Notably, almost every malady that has plagued the collapsing Iraqi security forces once plagued the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).

Furthermore, as the United States considers strategic and tactical guidance for Iraq, several lessons stand out. If the United States presses harder for Maliki and his allies to do more to revive the Sahwa, or if Maliki instead relies on a vastly expanded network of Shia militias, what chance do they stand against better-equipped and more-experienced insurgents? The example of the numerous but lightly armed local Regional Forces in South Vietnam does not bode well.

ISIS doesn’t need a Saigon moment

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