If You Liked Vietnam, You’ll Love the War With the Islamic State

If You Liked Vietnam, You’ll Love the War With the Islamic State

Gary Anderson

Vietnam analogies are often overused, particularly by people who want to stay out of a proposed war or get us out of one we are fighting. Although I agree that the Islamic State, or whatever it is calling itself this week, must be dealt with militarily; the strategy with which the Obama administration is going about it is deeply disturbing and its basic elements bring vividly to mind the War in Vietnam which began in earnest when I was in the Tenth Grade; American involvement did not end until I was a senior Marine Corps First Lieutenant in 1973. I am not yet senile enough to have forgotten key details.

President Obama is repeating three key strategic mistakes that President Johnson made in Vietnam. First, he has embarked on an open ended commitment; there was no measurable end state. In a similar manner, President Obama throws around the words degrade, defeat, and destroy as if they are interchangeable. Degradation and defeat are things that have to be accomplished before an enemy is destroyed. In some cases, the aim of a conflict is only to defeat the enemy as it was in ejecting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in DESERT STORM. Degrade is something you do to his command and control along the way to defeating him.

It is nearly impossible to completely destroy a movement as we have seen with al Qaeda for thirteen years. It is possible to destroy the armed forces that allow the enemy to occupy territory and protect his seat of power. The president did not make it clear which goal he has in mind. If he cannot clearly define the end state, we will have a conflict every bit as open ended as Vietnam.

If the president’s aim is to destroy the military forces of the Islamic State, he is making the second mistake by thinking it can be done by airpower alone. Airpower can help in defeating the expansion of the would-be Caliphate’s territory, but it will not root them out of the cities and towns that they have already captured. Their light infantry will embed itself in the population and use the civilians as shields subjecting us to the grinding pictures of dead women and children which will eventually obscure the war crimes of al Baghdadi and his minions. President Johnson hoped to defeat the North Vietnamese and force them to stop supporting their Viet Cong surrogates with pure airpower. Every time he escalated the bombing, the North Vietnamese responded asymmetrically in kind. We can expect that al Baghdadi will do the same with raids from his strongholds in Syria and Iraq or with terror strikes in the region and possibly in the United States. If we could have recaptured Fallujah and Ramadi from ISIL’s predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) with airpower alone, we would have done it; and al Baghdadi’s forces are much better organized and equipped that AQI.

That brings us to President Johnson’s third great mistake; he allowed North Vietnam to become a sanctuary. He used the bombing campaign to send signals but refused to attack its key war making infrastructure or send in American ground troops to destroy its standing army for fear of Chinese intervention. North Vietnam used this sanctuary to reinforce and resupply its troops in South Viet Nam and continue the open ended conflict indefinitely.

President Obama has emulated Johnson and will create sanctuaries by taking the ground option off the table. He hopes that we can use the Iraqi Army, Kurds, or moderate Syrian rebels to eject the Islamic State forces from occupied territory. That is sheer fantasy. Al Baghdadi’s forces are hardened and experienced light infantry. The foreign jihadists at its core have years of combat experience and they like to fight. It took us eight years to bring the Iraqi Army up to a point where it could stand alone. Now, gutted by three years of Maliki’s incompetence and mismanagement, it will likely take a minimum of three years to repair the damage to a point that it is ready for urban combat. The Kurdish Peshmerga fighters are legends in their own minds. They are adequate guerillas, but hardly assault troops. Less than a month ago, Obama was dismissing the moderate Syrian rebels as a hopeless rabble. One wonders how they have suddenly been transformed into the hope of the region.

Young progressives of Barak Obama’s generation were taught by their professors that the Vietnam War was an evil undertaking few had the inclination to seriously study. Obama himself described it as one of the “dumb wars” when he was a candidate. There are no dumb wars; there are however, wars fought in a dumb manner. Our president appears to be embarking on one.

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Comments

Well, looks like I am the delusional one. The ground troops are coming, and they will be ours:

"Army Chief: Division Headquarters Will Deploy Soon to Iraq by Michelle Tan, Army Times"

I forgot that if you look carefully at some pre-election polls, there is support for ground troops to Iraq within some partisan cliques. I guess the Army just has to wait a bit, and the budgeting situation will change among services. Bureaucracy is as bureaucracy does. The AVF and contracting, the money gift that keeps on giving.

Looks like I'm the delusional one for thinking the President might actually place a multi-functional aviation battalion consisting of one attack company of AH-64s, one assault helicopter company, and one general support company with MEDEVAC, CH-47, and C2 birds in each of Jordan, Kurd-territory of Iraq, and Saudi Arabia along with one Ranger battalion in each location, and six MLRS launchers with GMLRS rounds. That's a good "non-combat" start for reaching out and touching Daash/ISIL/ISIS without persistent boots on dangerous ground.

If Turkey would allow the same, we really could speed this process up...but that would be truly delusional of me to think that will occur. What is not delusional is my belief that nearly all these troops would be nearly completely safe in their bases in those locations and only at risk when flying in, getting the job done, and out of dangerous territory on a temporary basis with other Arab, Kurd, and Turk ground forces (forgive my inclusion of the latter Turks...wishful thinking).

Bureaucracy is as bureaucracy does. The AVF and contracting, the money gift that keeps on giving.

Please address the $2.8 trillion annual cost of healthcare before you criticize military and foreign policy bureaucracy, contracting, and your community's own little "gifts" to our medical bills and cost of health insurance.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/21/us/drive-by-doctoring-surprise-medical...

If the firewall blocks it, google: "After Surgery, Surprise $117,000 Medical Bill from Doctor He Didn't Know"

One more comment, we helped to create a sanctuary in Syria by our regime change policies against Assad. We aided and abetted and paid for and supported the sanctuary, as we did in AfPak. At this point, it would be cheaper to just hand the arms directly to IS since that is what happens. Does the CIA ever get this stuff right, ever? No wonder people are not interested in what REALLY happened on the ground in Afghanistan in the 80s, it would show that almost everything we try to do backfires.

I would be interested to know who would host these ground troops, how we would pay for them which government would give the green light, what we would have to promise to our stupid allies who won't do the work themselves, etc.

How EXACTLY is this ground troop option going to work. I am serious, who has written how many are needed, where they would come from, the logistics, what agreements would have to be signed, and how this would poll with the American people, and how robust that support would be given that they are used to being manipulated now and sometimes see through it, sometimes not. Would contractors get the work? What are the relationships between these private contractors and DC officials, etc?

I swear, sometimes I think the Chinese are paying off officials in DC, because since the end of the cold war, from puffing up China to use against the Soviets, to off-shoring, to tying ourselves down in Europe and the Mid East, we just keep handing them geostrategic power, and money power, and political power, and and so on and so on.

And in what non-fantasy world or reality would this ground war take place, a ground war with more troops than whatever we having been doing in Jordan or the region?

I don't disagree with the initial points, but how exactly is the American ground option supposed to work, especially since we are insistent in taking on Assad whose ground troops are pretty battle hardened at this point, to put it mildly. And we have contributed to the disorder by not just by the initial regime change, but given our relationship to Turkey (and other NATO members with insane immigration policies and local shilling for votes of ethnic diaspora), by pushing the Jordanians to get more involved in Syria than they might like, by whatever happened between Bandar and the usual DC crew some years ago, etc.

This is AfPak COIN all over again, the idea that we can pay governments that have conflicting national goals to somehow change their basic calculus.

The problem is the problem set. Some problem outsiders can't solve, you can only hope not to make things worse. Since the end of WWII, the US and our military have made this consistent mistake, the idea that we can do anything even when that that anything is essentially delusional. We create the very messes that we then have to pick up.

Okay, the military doesn't make policy but outsiders as part of the conversation can illuminate or do the opposite. We are going to fight Assad, to bleed the Iranians, except where we want to take on IS, where we will help Assad and the Iranians, unintentionally, we will train armies that then use that training against us, and for dubious national security goals, except for ideologues, contractors, or foreign governments.

How is this ground troop option supposed to work given the regional sensibilities, the feelings of the American people, the nature of our supposed allies, etc?

It's an open question. How, exactly, is it supposed to work in the reality as it exists today, with the nature of the economy, the feelings of various constituencies,etc?

It seems that dumb wars are engaged in to obtain land, resources, and/or to subjugate a perceived enemy when that opponent shows no aggressive intentions toward the war's initiator.
Many of the wars initiated by Islam armies in their bloody history were of that dumb sort.
Smart, good reasons to go to war: self and national preservation, protection of innocents being harmed by a dumb aggressor when other means [sanctions against, trade cutoffs, ...] of dissuading the aggressor fail, and imminent serious threats and promised serious threats by aggressor hierarchy.
We should anticipate the likelihood of dumb leaders and their dumb advisers initiating dumb wars. Please substitute "stupid and deadly" for "dumb."
The response of sane citizens: organize and oppose the fools and their tools.
That's some of what our spiritual ancestors did in 1776, 1812, 1941 against their foreign opponents. Against domestic dolts, organize for recall votes of the reprehensible congressional representatives, and promote installation of competent citizens.
Now is the time to think inside the box -- the ballot box!

I would have thought the key sanctuary for IS is the KSA. Our leadership, both political and military, are more than happy to bullshit their way around the 800 lb. KSA gorilla in the room.

IMO the beltway is more likely to cancel the F-35 than question the KSA and the Gulf States for the support of their Sunni proxy in the effort to thwart Shia Iranian ambition.

Rather than return to VN where hundreds of thousands of crack VN regulars and millions of PLA troops where available to NVN we should just look at our attitude to the sanctuary provided by Pakistan for the Talibs. IMO the comparative similarity in the IS as a fighting force and that of the Taliban provides a much more informative measure than the massive threat that faced a US invasion of NVN.

The average US taxpayer will understand completely the damnable implications of the fact that unlike Pakistan, wherein US and Western commercial investments are nonexistent, the money and US/Western vested interests tied up in the Gulf dwarfs even the Pentagon’s pork barrel.

Many folks who live within the region are appalled by the mindless violence of IS & ALQ but are disgusted by our blatant hypocrisy vis-à-vis the oil rich states and wish a pox upon the houses of the IS,ALQ, KSA et al and US in equal measure.

The inability of our enormously expensive military to achieve anything meaningful in the region has left the US taxpayer bewildered. The routing of five US trained and equipped Iraqi Divisions by a few thousand irregulars riding shiny new pickups suggests to them that we haven’t got a clue as to the application of FID either.

We need to demand honesty from political and military leadership and leave the 40 year old ghosts of VN to rest in peace – if for no other reason than VN is one of the few Asian countries where the natives genuinely like us.

IMO our current leadership needs to put it to the US taxpayer that we can currently pay $4 for a gallon of gas and go on sacrificing 500 US military personnel and hundreds of billions of dollars every year for the foreseeable future or we can pay $20 a gallon for a year or so and attack the COG of all of the region’s problems.

RC

I would have thought the key sanctuary for IS is the KSA. Our leadership, both political and military, are more than happy to bullshit their way around the 800 lb. KSA gorilla in the room.

IMO the beltway is more likely to cancel the F-35 than question the KSA and the Gulf States for the support of their Sunni proxy in the effort to thwart Shia Iranian ambition.

The key sanctuaries for IS are northern/eastern Syria and the Anbar province. No ground troops are there from Iraq, Syria, or the U.S.

We get that you and Carl dislike the KSA and think them all wahhabists and salafists. But is there a KSA state-supported formal group comparable to the Quds, Hezbollah, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps? Is Saudi Arabia a theocracy or Iran? You aren't claiming ISIL is state-supported other than perhaps by Qatar?

Seems to me that the coming F-35 is one of sole assets that can address ISIL over the long term in a manner similar to the no-fly zone except in this case a no-ISIL zone in those Syrian and Iraqi sanctuary areas. We can thumb our nose at Assad with those aircraft, knock out their fighter fleet and air defenses if required, and then fly Reapers, Global Hawks/Tritons, and other remotely piloted aircraft to our heart's content.

Rather than return to VN where hundreds of thousands of crack VN regulars and millions of PLA troops where available to NVN we should just look at our attitude to the sanctuary provided by Pakistan for the Talibs. IMO the comparative similarity in the IS as a fighting force and that of the Taliban provides a much more informative measure than the massive threat that faced a US invasion of NVN.

The average US taxpayer will understand completely the damnable implications of the fact that unlike Pakistan, wherein US and Western commercial investments are nonexistent, the money and US/Western vested interests tied up in the Gulf dwarfs even the Pentagon’s pork barrel.

You are right. The NVA was more formidable than the Taliban, but we also had up to a half million troops to address that threat. North Vietnam (you mentioned the PLA as in China?) also early on lacked the modern armor of Hussein's Army or the Soviets who also had trouble with the Mujahideen.

Also consider how much easier it was for us to resupply a narrow, coastal Vietnam vs. distant, largely/entirely inland Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria. Air support from the sea likewise was easier. We could fly bombers over South Vietnam anytime we wanted from Guam and Japan (?). The North was a tougher target as the Linebacker operations illustrated. We also could not easily fly B-52s over Syria to carpet bomb.

Both you and Carl seem to forget how essential the Pakistan ground supply line was to ISAF. If we had alienated Pakistan as we did at one point in the conflict, those supplies would have been halted and cost far more. In addition, have you been paying attention to Pak Army attacks in North Waziristan and the capture of those who shot Malala?

IMO our current leadership needs to put it to the US taxpayer that we can currently pay $4 for a gallon of gas and go on sacrificing 500 US military personnel and hundreds of billions of dollars every year for the foreseeable future or we can pay $20 a gallon for a year or so and attack the COG of all of the region’s problems.

OK Secretary Rumsfeld. We could kick the Kingdom out of power and their replacement would be completely friendly to the U.S, right? Now imagine how much oil would be pumped by all those non-Saudi workers who are getting ambushed, kidnapped, and having heads cut-off not for one year...but for perpetuity. The years of havoc that would follow would make what we saw in Egypt look like a cakewalk by comparison. And we thought ISIL was well-funded...

Oh BTW, how long would it take for Pakistan nukes to end up in Saudi Arabia aimed at Israel. How long would it be before some "fruitcake" as you call them pulls the trigger on a missile and KSA, now no longer a kingdom, is now a glass parking lot due to Israeli retaliation. How much oil would we get from the ground in the KSA then?

MF,

The West can’t solve the problem. I would have thought that was obvious. Only the Saudis can solve the problem. The proliferation of fruitcake is a Saudi Law Enforcement issue. The IS has declared their desire to sack Mecca and Medina which I take means they would decapitate every last member of the House Of Saud for good measure.

For the last 25 years the House of Saud’s deal with the fruitcake has been they can murder, rape, kidnap etc. whoever they desire but it has to be outside the KSA. In a similar way the Punjabis and the Raj turned a blind eye to the hotheads in the NWFP – as long as it stayed on the ‘reservation’ it was their business. Well those deranged chickens have come home to roost.

As you rightly point out a military intervention would probably escalate to a rogue nuclear strike in the near term. I personally believe that is likely to happen in the longer term if the fruitcake’s current trajectory remains locked on.

As you will recall the fruitcake lift-off came in August 1990 when the prodigal son of the richest non-royal in the kingdom (recently returned from ‘fighting’ the Soviets in AF) offered the services of his ‘Mujahedeen Army’ to repel the Iraqi invaders tearing up Kuwait. The good King Fahd declined the offer and chose a brigade from the 101st Airborne as a ‘speed bump’ instead. OBL took exception to his 'Muj Army' being rated less worthy than an infidel ‘speed bump’ and stormed off in a fit of pith to plot vengeance.

Since that day the House of Saud has been falling over itself in hand-wringing mode to placate the fruitcake’s indignation that they were denied their God-given right to be the vanguard of ‘The Land of the Two Holy Mosques.’

I’m sure you’ll agree the circus has put on quite a show since those early formative days. I think it fair to suggest that the lunatics are now running the asylum and have been for a while. IMO we should be telling the House of Saud as far as we are concerned it is their responsibility to close the circus down.

The KSA is probably the only modernized wealthy country wherein a tyrannical form of Law Enforcement is widely accepted by the local populace as not only legitimate but enlightened. They chop dozens of people’s heads off every month for ‘crimes’ we consider a normal feature on a Saturday night out and it doesn’t even make the local newspaper.

So what I’m advocating is not war-war with the KSA but very loud jaw-jaw. KSA citizens are responsible for so much blood spilt and treasure spent (much of it American) and our leadership has to start yelling that fact into their faces. It is way past the time for quiet diplomacy and we should refuse to have anything to do with them and denounce their homegrown terrorists loudly and publicly until they get rid of them.

RC

Rant Corp:

I'm all for it. I don't see what our civilized idea of rightful property is gaining us other than providing money to those who use it to try and destroy us. They do nothing of the actual physical or mental work needed to extract the oil anyway.

We just take the fields and refineries and send the House of Saud back into the desert whence they came.

I agree with the views put forth here by Col Anderson. I would just add the following:

- I think it's a mistake not to include Iran and Syria in the coalition against ISIL. Syria has been fighting what is now ISIL or "Islamic State" since the beginning of the current conflict. Very early on, former high ranking MI6 officer Alastair Crooke identified the Jihadist elements participating in the Syrian conflict. From July 2011:

http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/MG15Ak02.html

- The most reliable potential ground force partner in Syria is SyAA, the NDF and dare I say it, LH.

- The Iranians have been advising and providing logistical support in Syria for some time now. They've done a remarkable job, given the level of resources involved. Now they're doing the same in what they consider the adjoining Iraqi theater.

_ I'm at a loss trying to remember a war that was waged against a common enemy, by two uncoordinated, competing coalitions. (Maybe someone here can identify one.)

- Obviously American strategists are seeking a maximalist return from this conflict, vis-a-vis Syria and Iran. I really don't see how realistic this is as a pursuit.

- Another facet of not including the Syrian government in this U.S.-led coalition is that it prevents a UNSC resolution being passed at the United Nations. Obviously this is not a GHW approach to the war, as was the case during DESERT STORM, where the elder Assad's regime was included in that U.S.-led coalition.

- Without Syria and Iran on the U.S. team, the length of this conflict will likely be longer, providing greater risk and opportunity of terrorism by ISIL, particularly against Europe.

- Obama has indicated that the use of U.S. airpower against ISIL will be rendered much as it is against terror groups in Yemen and Somalia. Given the size and threat of ISIL, I would argue the application be rendered more like it was in turning back the Easter Offensive in 1972, and more recently the largely successful, initial phase of OEF-A. It should be remembered that the U.S. and Iran initially cooperated in that war (Iran had been assisting the NA against the Taliban/Jihadists for years prior to 9/11), but following success the U.S. turned around and branded Iran as a member of the "Axis of Evil," discarding what could have been sustained as a productive alliance that might have prevented a resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Here we are in a war against ISIL, and what could be a very valuable asset is again being turned away.

Mark,

You asked: 'I'm at a loss trying to remember a war that was waged against a common enemy, by two uncoordinated, competing coalitions. (Maybe someone here can identify one'.)

One suggestion. China in the Sino-Japanese War 1937-1945, which pitted at times in addition to the warring Communists and Nationalists, local warlords, guerillas of uncertain loyalty - not to Japan, Nazi Germany (helping the Nats), a semi-private American air element and a Soviet mission (to the Nats). There was the 'Burma Road' to move supplies to the Nats, which became an airlift operation after the fall of Burma in 1942.

Wiki has much more info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Sino-Japanese_War