Is this the Iraqi Tet?

The standard description of Tet is that we won tactically but somehow this didn’t get through to the American people. Unfortunately this misses the main point.

It’s true that tactically we and our South Vietnamese allies won. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were pushed out of all the areas they had captured and suffered enormous losses. But the lesson of Tet must be understood in its influence on the American psyche.

In 1967 the Johnson administration had launched a “Success Offensive” to convince the American people that the war was going well and that we could now see the light at the end of the tunnel. Westmoreland had been brought back to the States in November 1967 and had publicly stated that the enemy was no longer capable of mounting a major offensive.

Then out of the blue the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched what certainly was a “major offensive.” Although it cost them dearly, it took all the military force that the United States could muster nearly seven months to suppress the offensive. The political fallout was more immediate: One month after the start of the offensive McNamara resigned and a month after that, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.

The differences with Tet are clear — here it’s the government and militias allied (at least temporarily) with it that began the offensive. The grand strategic risk, however, is the same. The president and senior American commanders are all making positive statements about the course of the war,

“If you reflect back on those five years, I think it’s been a difficult, challenging, but nonetheless successful endeavor,” he [Vice President Dick Cheney] said in Baghdad, adding that “it’s been well worth the effort.”

and then all of a sudden, American TV screens show that this may not be correct.

In fact, it may be even worse. Reports indicate that Iraqi forces are doing so poorly that they are calling in US air strikes and, at least in Baghdad, US armor to bail them out:

Iraqi army and police units appeared to be largely holding to the outskirts of the Sadr City fighting, as U.S. troops took the lead.

Four U.S. Stryker armored vehicles were seen in Sadr City by a Washington Post correspondent, one of them engaging Mahdi Army militiamen with heavy fire. The din of U.S. weapons, along with the Mahdi Army’s AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, was heard through much of the day. U.S. helicopters and drones buzzed overhead. …

In all, U.S. troops killed 42 in Thursday’s Baghdad fighting, a sign of their growing engagement in the Iraqi-designed offensive.

Maj. Mark Cheadle, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said … If an Iraqi unit was about to be overwhelmed by an enemy, “of course we are going to assist.”

So what we see is stark evidence that Iraqi forces are not ready, willing, or able to conduct large scale operations against other forces in the country, this after five years of Coalition operations and more than three years of efforts to train and supply the Iraqi government forces.

I have no doubt that American commanders in Iraq were under no delusion about the capabilities of Iraqi forces. So how did this happen? Several possibilities:

  1. They might not have known what al-Malaki intended. I find this difficult to believe.
  2. They might have known, but felt that for whatever reason they could not interfere.
  3. They might have underestimated the capabilities of the al-Mahdi militia(s). This is possible, but we have capable intel folks in Iraq who can assess the Mahdi army’s readiness and willingness to fight.
  4. They may have ignored or downplayed their intelligence analysis. Again, this is possible, esp. if the team position is that our guys are ready to go.
  5. They may believe that it was time to give the Iraqis a go, and if they got into serious trouble, Coalition airpower and armor could always ride to the rescue. We can always blame the Iranians, implying that our support just evens the balance.

This last is the most troubling because it puts the United States into a dilemma. On the one hand we can’t afford to let government forces fail too badly because it will call into question our training and commitment. On the other hand, if we rescue them whenever they get into trouble, or worse, do the job for them, how are they ever going to develop as a capable military force?

And the message it sends to the rest of Iraq is that the Iraqi army is a ward of the occupation. Every time a US aircraft engages the Mahdi militia, it puts the government’s legitimacy — the holy grail of our counterinsurgency theory and a major justification for the surge — even further out of reach. If the Mahdi Army, which doesn’t seem to have much of an air force of its own, can just survive, it will give them enormous new popularity, much like Hezbollah’s reputation in the Muslim world soared after the July-August 2006 war with Israel.

The big question, though, is whether the disconnect between administration claims of success and the actual performance of Iraqi troops will have Tet-like implications for the US elections. So far, there don’t seem to be any — McCain’s popularity is holding up, no senior administration officials have resigned, and as of yet, the Democrat candidates appear to be focused on attacking each other.

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