It's a telling fact that the hot book among Iraq strategists this season is "A Better War," an upbeat account of American counterinsurgency policy in the last years of the Vietnam conflict. I noticed that the head of Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid, was reading it when I traveled with him in September. The influential State Department counselor Philip Zelikow read the book earlier this year. And I'm told it can be found on the bookshelves of senior military officers in Baghdad.
Perhaps it's a measure of just how badly things are going in Iraq that the strategists are looking to Vietnam for models of success. But it's interesting that the Iraq team, like its predecessors in Vietnam 35 years ago, is getting serious about counterinsurgency doctrine after making costly initial mistakes.
"A Better War" was published in 1999. The author, Lewis Sorley, a former military and intelligence officer, drew on an extensive collection of documents and tape recordings from legendary Army warrior Gen. Creighton Abrams, who commanded U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972. The book's contrarian argument is that after Abrams replaced Gen. William Westmoreland -- and scuttled his "search and destroy" tactics in favor of a pacification strategy of "clear and hold" -- the Vietnam War began to go right.
Indeed, Sorley argues that by early 1972 the United States had effectively won the war and could turn the fighting over to its South Vietnamese allies.
By Sorley's account, it was politics back in America that turned victory into defeat, by blocking U.S. support for the Saigon government after North Vietnamese troops invaded the South en masse in 1974 and '75. That seems to me a considerable stretch -- many other analysts argue that the South Vietnamese army was never strong enough to prevail against Hanoi. A Vietnamization that required continuous American life support wasn't much of a victory.
But Sorley offers some fascinating evidence that Abrams's strategy of securing South Vietnam village by village was working better than is generally understood. He quotes William Colby, who ran the pacification effort (including its controversial "Phoenix" counterinsurgency program), assessing its success: "By 1972, the pacification program had essentially eliminated the guerrilla problem in most of the country."
What caught my eye in Sorley's book was the phrase "clear and hold." For the identical words appeared in Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's Oct. 19 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which she laid out the clearest articulation of U.S. strategy in Iraq that I've seen. "Our political-military strategy has to be to clear, hold and build: to clear areas from insurgent control, to hold them securely, and to build durable, national Iraqi institutions," she said.
In Vietnam, Abrams's version of "clear and hold" replaced Westmoreland's ruinous idea that with ever-larger U.S. troop levels and a bigger "body count," the United States could bleed its adversary into submission. Abrams's approach included a sharp drawdown in U.S. troops, an emphasis on training and advising local security forces, a focus on securing the capital, stress on intelligence operations over main-force battles and an aggressive effort to interdict enemy supply lines from neighboring countries. All those factors are evident in planning for the Iraqi version of "clear, hold and build."
The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, appears to be enthusiastic about this counterinsurgency approach. U.S. commanders are working with Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province to create a force known as the "Desert Protectors," as well as a new Sunni-led army division there. Khalilzad has brought from his previous post in Afghanistan a plan for provincial reconstruction teams that could combine military, economic, legal and other tools to provide jobs, social welfare and eventually stability. That plan is eerily reminiscent of some of Colby's ideas about pacification.
The trick is to move from "clear" to "hold." A senior administration official tells me the United States is managing precisely that transition in Mosul, Kirkuk and parts of the Euphrates Valley -- bringing in well-trained Iraqi police to fill the vacuum once the insurgents are pushed out. The next big project is for U.S. and Iraqi forces jointly to try to stabilize the Baghdad area. "Clear, hold and build" will fail if it's seen as an exit strategy, this official argues. It must be seen as a strategy for victory, much as Abrams saw his earlier version.
The new focus on counterinsurgency is good, but that doesn't mean it will work. The Vietnam analogy is instructive and also haunting. At the end of the day, the challenge is for Iraqis to build a government that works and an army that can stand and fight. Otherwise, "clear and hold" will run into the same brick wall it did a generation ago.