PINR, n many respects, the current political conditions in Iraq are very similar to that of Vietnam forty years ago. In Vietnam, one of the major goals of the various U.S. administrations, from Truman's to Ford's, was to create a viable government in South Vietnam that had the support of the Vietnamese people but would also be a proponent of U.S. interests in Southeast Asia. In order to achieve this goal, Washington supported a handful of South Vietnamese leaders, from Bao Dai to Nguyen Van Thieu. Yet all of these leaders were corrupt and did not represent the interests of the Vietnamese people. In Iraq, the Bush administration is facing similar political concerns that successive U.S. administrations faced in Vietnam, while at the same time suffering from what many Americans feel is an unacceptable casualty rate that was only seen in the later years of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
There is growing concern in the United States over the Bush administration's policy in Iraq; according to an ABC/Washington Post opinion poll released November 02, for the first time a majority of Americans disapprove of the Bush administration's handling of the current conflict in Iraq. Additionally, the poll found that 60 percent of the U.S. population find the current casualty rate unacceptable. Subsequently, continued U.S. casualties have prompted the Bush administration to quickly pursue a policy that has already been labeled “Iraqification,” eerily similar to the failed “Vietnamization” policy of the 1960s and 1970s.
The policy of “Iraqification” involves training Iraqi military and security forces in order to have them replace U.S. forces; the intent is that Iraqis will eventually fight Iraqis for the interests of the U.S. government. Yet there is no reason to believe that this policy will be any more successful than it was in Vietnam. As in Vietnam, the type of individual who is willing to fight his own population in the interests of a foreign power is often corrupt and fails to make an effective fighter. The success of this policy relies on whether the Bush administration can marginalize Iraqi guerrilla forces and prevent them from gaining support among the civilian population.
Presently, it is not clear if the Bush administration is achieving this goal. While Washington has succeeded in establishing a central bank, circulating a new currency, restoring some essential services, and in appointing a governing council made up of Iraqis, resistance to the U.S. presence has been growing. The attacks by insurgent fighters have also become more deadly, culminating in the November 02 attack on a U.S. Chinook helicopter that killed 16 U.S. soldiers and wounded 21 more. The first week of November was the deadliest week for U.S. soldiers since early in the war with 36 U.S. soldiers losing their lives.
In the last month, U.S. officials admit that attacks on the some 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq have grown to three dozen a day. Contradicting President Bush's claim that the “desperation of resistance is proof we are winning,” the continued and now increased resistance speaks to a different theory: that Washington thus far has failed to root out Ba'athist elements and independent resistance groups, and has also been unable to prevent certain segments of Iraqi society from actively sympathizing with these fighters.
The clashes between resistance fighters and U.S. forces in the streets of Iraq continue to anger the Iraqi population who blames the U.S. for the current instability in the country. Recent polls from Iraq show that much of Iraqi society now views U.S. forces as occupiers rather than as liberators. These feelings of distrust can be expected to intensify the longer U.S. and guerrilla fighters continue to battle in the cities of Iraq.
The source of many Iraqis' anger is the overwhelming force frequently used by U.S. soldiers in response to attacks and civil disruptions. While this strategy is effective in large, open terrain, such as the desert, and when dealing with regular military units, it is typically ineffectual when used in dense urban environments filled with people carrying out their daily lives. Instead, this policy may virtually guarantee otherwise avoidable losses of civilian life and also add to an increasingly negative image of the U.S. presence.
The more Iraqis who have a negative image of the U.S. presence, the greater the risk that otherwise uninvolved Iraqis will either cooperate, support, or sympathize with anti-U.S. guerrillas. This is already evident in cases of resistance by Iraqi civilians; for example, in the Sunni Triangle city of Abu Ghraib, U.S. troops have been consistently fighting both residents and guerrillas. Unless U.S. forces are willing to completely lock down these cities, conducting operations in ones such as Abu Ghraib seem counterproductive and may only embolden the guerrillas.
In addition to stimulating resistance, operations in cities such as Abu Ghraib, along with the use of overwhelming force, hurt the image of U.S. involvement in Iraq. For instance, New York Times reporter Alex Berenson recently reported that in Abu Ghraib U.S. troops “fired on a photographer trying to cover the fighting and barred reporters from viewing the scene.” While such controversial images may be suppressed in the United States, they are not elsewhere; as well as on Arab television, European news networks frequently show videos of U.S. troops responding with overwhelming force in the middle of busy market streets. Instead of attempting to prevent these images from reaching the outside world, greater peacekeeping training must be given to U.S. forces to prevent their fighting methods from turning off not only Iraqi society, but also the wider world.
The continued inability to pacify Iraq will lead to a failure of U.S. objectives in the country and in the region as a whole. One of the main U.S. objectives in Iraq is to create a viable Iraqi government that has the support of the Iraqi people but that will also be congruent with U.S. interests in the Middle East. It is not clear if this objective is still possible. Noah Feldman, a New York University law professor who served as a consultant to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, warned London's Daily Telegraph that “any democratically elected Iraqi government is unlikely to be secular, unlikely to be pro-Israel, and frankly, moderately unlikely to be pro-American.”
Feldman's statement points to one of the most fundamental dilemmas the Bush administration faces: that a democratic Iraq may be an Iraq unfriendly to America. Furthermore, it highlights the difficulty that Washington is discovering in finding an Iraqi government that supports U.S. interests while also garnering the support of the Iraqi people — a situation that Washington never managed to accomplish in Vietnam. In fact, even Ahmad Chalabi, a member of the governing council who is close to the Pentagon, stated, “The Americans, their methods, their operations, their procedures, are singularly unsuited to deal with this kind of problem.”
But the U.S. cannot leave Iraq unless Washington is willing to face a loss of U.S. influence in the region and the world. If the U.S. were to pull out of Iraq without establishing a strong authority there, the country would likely fall into civil war that would possibly result in territorial fragmentation. The Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the center and Shi'a in the south could easily plunge into internecine conflict; this perhaps explains why, since Iraq's creation, the country has been largely run by authoritarian leaders who have repressed political dissent, thus securing the stability of the state. Furthermore, outside powers would inevitably become involved in any Iraqi civil war, creating the possibility of Iraq's Shi'a south becoming enveloped in the affairs of Iran — a bordering Shi'a Islamic republic — or the Kurds of the north attempting to create a Greater Kurdistan. These outcomes would be considered setbacks to U.S. interests.
The continued inability to pacify Iraq reflects the larger problem faced by Washington of successfully interacting with Arab and Muslim societies. Facing countries with values quite contrary to the United States', Washington has failed to provide these societies with a desirable cultural model to follow. Attempts to do so have only enraged Muslim societies and have resulted in a major polarization between the interests of Washington and the interests of these societies.
In light of this, Vice President Dick Cheney's claim that “We are rolling back the terrorist threat at the very heart of its power in the Middle East” could not seem further from the truth. Subsequent surveys by various groups, such as the Pew Research Center, show that hatred toward the United States has been rapidly growing in almost all countries throughout the world, especially Arab and Muslim ones that feel that the “war on terror” is simply a “war on Islam.”
This polarization will result in more attacks on U.S. interests abroad and possibly at home. Even individuals like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld are beginning to question official rhetoric; he admitted in his recent leaked memo that the United States “lack[s] the metrics to know whether we are winning or losing the global war on terror.” Because America is too powerful for any state actor to attack, and because hatred for America is spreading across the planet, individuals in a position of relative weakness will use the most effective means of damaging U.S. interests: engaging in terrorist tactics.