Knowing When to Let Go

By Mark Moyar
Wednesday, December 6, 2006

In moving to swiftly transfer security responsibilities to the Iraqi government, the Bush administration appears to be heeding lessons learned during America's closest historical precedent, the Vietnam War. In Vietnam, the United States found that indigenous troops were inherently better suited to local security tasks than Americans. Because they spoke the language, had relatives and friends in their operational areas and belonged to the same ethnic groups, they were better able to get information from civilians. They knew where the enemy was likely to hide, and could identify him by noticing subtle distinctions that escaped American troops.

During the Vietnamization period, from 1969 to 1972, the reduction of U.S. involvement in security operations galvanized the South Vietnamese forces to become more proficient. Moreover, the Saigon government's handling of sectarian unrest showed that the Vietnamese knew better than the Americans how to solve their own political problems. Recent comments from the Bush administration indicate that America will spend less time telling the Iraqis how to solve their political problems.

Restoring order will require numerous decisions based on perceptions of the beliefs, loyalties and alliances of particular Iraqis. No American is likely to perceive these things as accurately as an astute Iraqi. If Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is to be an effective national leader, we must let him use his own judgment.

During Vietnamization, the United States installed more advisers with South Vietnamese forces, just as we are now planning to do with Iraqi forces. American advisers helped in South Vietnam, but we have exaggerated the importance of their role. By far the most important factor in South Vietnamese units was the quality of their own leaders, and the same has generally been true in other countries with authoritarian traditions like Iraq's. As in Vietnam, U.S. advisers should seek to persuade Iraqi authorities to replace bad commanders.

But in any war, the ultimate objective is political, not military, and thus military competence must, in the end, be subordinated to attainment of the desired political goal. South Vietnam's premier had to engage in a delicate balancing act to keep enough competent officers in power while also keeping enough loyalists to prevent fractious military officers from starting a rebellion. The national leader in Iraq must likewise figure out how to employ some good commanders while also selecting some simply for the purpose of co-opting various factions.

Critics of Vietnamization point to the ultimate defeat of South Vietnam. But in fact the South Vietnamese largely pacified their country by 1971, and defeated a massive conventional North Vietnamese invasion in 1972 without the help of U.S. ground forces. They ultimately lost because the United States withdrew support while the North Vietnamese enjoyed enough superpower support to mount an even larger offensive in 1975.

Iraq's security forces are not going to experience anything resembling the 1975 offensive; they need only end the low-intensity fighting among Iraqis. But this task will require great political skill on the part of Iraq's prime minister. We will find out very soon whether he possesses it.

Mark Moyar is the author of "Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965."

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