Such parallels from the Vietnam War are haunting, and should not be tossed aside in current strategy formulation. These are the lessons learned at the cost of 58,220 American soldiers who gave the last full measure of devotion in Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, America paid a heavy price in lives and treasure to prop up a corrupt and unrepresentative government, which it hoped could function as a regional ally and bulwark against the seemingly prevailing ideology in the region. American military personnel attempted to both provide population-centric security and bring massive firepower to bear on the enemy. With the benefit of hindsight, many military historians have declared the Vietnam War “unwinnable,” yet America was not less secure because of the loss.
In the same way that Viet Cong forces took advantage of the porous border with Cambodia during operation Cedar Falls, ISIS fighters in Iraq would just as easily slip across the border (which they control) into Syria and wait for the Americans to leave. And just like the residents of the Iron Triangle outside Saigon, not all Sunni residents of Anbar province view being governed by ISIS as particularly worse than a corrupt Iranian proxy government in Baghdad. The politics of the region, particularly the animus between Shia and Sunni Islam, are a jumble of tribalism, mistrust, anarchy and greed. The government in Baghdad is helplessly divided and, as history consistently reveals, American military efforts cannot fix a political problem.
As in Iraq and Afghanistan, not all wars are worthy of continued American involvement, and hardly any wars in U.S. history could be considered existential. During the Korean War, President Harry S. Truman correctly elected not to expand the war into China, despite the vociferous urging of General Douglas MacArthur. Likewise, President Johnson did not permit an invasion of North Vietnam, despite the fact that in both cases the enemy center of gravity lay beyond the local battlefields of Korea and South Vietnam. Neither president opted to unleash the supposed guarantor of continued American existence—the nuclear triad. While it is true that these conflicts were limited wars without existential risks, it is proper that they were conducted as such by the U.S. administrations that oversaw them. Escalation to total war, or an existential fight for national survival, is only appropriate in the direst circumstances, in which a loss on the battlefield might mean national calamity. Despite the repulsive and brutal conduct of ISIS, the stakes for the United States are not that high. Confusing a messy, localized civil war with an existential threat to American national security is a strategic mistake.
AMERICAN POWER toppled the Taliban and Saddam rapidly with modestly sized forces, but the maelstrom and “surges” that followed pulled hundreds of thousands of American and allied troops into its wake. Like the process of Vietnamization, in both Iraq and Afghanistan U.S. forces sought to train, advise and equip allies in the hopes that they could stand on their own and American troops could leave with some political gains realized. In Iraq, the United States spent nearly a decade and approximately $20.2 billion on a dubious mission to train the Iraqi army to secure the country. This army had years to develop under the tutelage of the finest American instructors and was the beneficiary of millions of dollars of U.S. military hardware. Yet it is the black flag of ISIS that waves atop U.S.-made Humvees, armor and heavy weapons. This suggests that motivation, loyalty and esprit de corps matter more than the latest technology, hardware and training cadre.
Again, war is a contest of wills, and the U.S. policy at present is to stiffen the spine of the locals who are expected to do the fighting. The U.S. Marine Corps tried this in South Vietnam with Combined Action Platoons, a small group of Marines and a Navy Corpsman residing in a rural hamlet, strengthening the local militia forces. The CAP program is often judged as successful because it denied sanctuary to enemy forces, but successes at such a low level had little impact. The political dysfunction in Saigon overshadowed stability in rural hamlets.
Stiffening the spine of local forces, sometimes referred to as Foreign Internal Defense, can work if there is a baseline level of common mission already in existence among the host nation forces. American advisors can provide expertise and technology, but vision and commitment need to be homegrown. In addition to the lack of discipline and esprit de corps that accompanies good militaries, a major failing in the Iraqi army is the lack of a shared vision of the end state for Iraq. It isn’t obvious that a Shia soldier in the Iraqi Army, from Basra for instance, considers it a good idea to fight ISIS in Anbar province. He may not view Anbar as his home or even part of his conception of Iraq. It is understandable, then, that he may want victory there less than an ISIS fighter does. Anbar just doesn’t mean as much to him.
In the early sixteenth century, Machiavelli observed that troops who are not fighting for their own homeland are not inclined toward bravery because their “trifle of a stipend” is acceptable until war comes and then they “run from the foe.” This begs the question whether members of the Iraqi army can be said to be fighting for the U.S. conception of a single federated Iraq, or for their own religious sect or tribe. American military and political leaders hoped that a reliably paid and equipped Iraqi army would fight like those defending their homeland. In fleeing before the ISIS advance, they proved to resemble the “mercenaries” and “auxiliaries” of whose dubious dedication Machiavelli warned.
WHAT IS to be done? Washington continues to substitute tactical action for strategy, and thus continues to throw good money and American lives at the chimera of a pluralistic and tolerant Iraq (and Afghanistan) while at the same time breeding dependency on America. American decisionmakers would be well served to avoid ideologically guided wishful thinking as this often tempts the strategist to ignore history’s warnings. Americans aren’t the only ones who brush aside historical lessons with wishful thinking. Why would Adolf Hitler open himself up to a two-front war and invade the Soviet Union in June 1941? His extreme ideology compelled him to brush aside Napoleon’s harsh lessons about invading Russia.
Another step in the right direction is to stop speaking in euphemisms when discussing the performance of the Iraqi (or any) army. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter noted that the Iraqi army “showed no will to fight” in Ramadi, but a White House spokesman characterized the dismal performance as a “setback.” Investing rhetorically in an ally is a slippery slope, and almost always comes at the cost of sober and dispassionate analysis of battlefield performance. If unchecked, when “their” performance turns into “ours” and “they” starts to be “us,” two unfortunate things usually follow. First, it conflates the security of the Iraqi state with that of American national security. And, more insidiously, cutting losses becomes harder. The fear of “losing face” has led many commanders to attempt to turn straw into gold with new strategies. It gets harder to withdraw absent a plausible “mission accomplished” narrative because of the inevitable argument that cutting losses is tantamount to forfeiting American military credibility. As Clausewitz reminded his readers, once the blood and treasure expended exceeds the value of an objective, that objective must be given up. Giving up an advise-and-assist mission for Iraqi allies will be politically impossible when the effort transforms from a military analysis of “them” into face-saving political measures involving “us.” Moreover, despite some marginal but real tactical differentiation, publicly referring to forward operating bases (FOBs) or combat outposts (COPs), as “lily pads”—implying fleeting presence—is another misleading battlefield euphemism. With the Obama administration being bullied into dripping the U.S. Army back into Iraq a few hundred soldiers at time, it would be unsurprising if these “lily pads” remain into the next decade.
Military history warns that observers with skin in the game are unable to see strategy unfolding as it actually is. Despite evidence that the government in Saigon was increasingly corrupt and repressive, President Johnson observed in 1967, “Certainly there is a positive movement toward constitutional government.” In June 2005, the Bush administration claimed that there were 160,000 Iraqi security forces who were trained, equipped and on the verge of independent operations. The results of this training were on full display in the May 2015 ISIS victory in Ramadi. The list of misstatements goes on when we view our allies as we wish to see them, not as they are. Even if intelligence assessments in private offer more accurate assessments, their own skin in the game, coupled with a guiding ideological approach, will always color the vision of political leaders. Not succumbing to the temptation to offer a continual drumbeat of rosy analysis for public consumption is a critical first step to avoiding foreign-policy missteps, or at least reversing those errors already committed.