ISIS and the Viet Cong: Just How Many Islamic State Fighters Are There?

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ISIS and the Viet Cong: Just How Many Islamic State Fighters Are There?

As the United States slides back into war in the Middle East, the specter of Vietnam hovers over the endeavor with some observers wondering if wishful thinking will again replace hardheaded analysis about the risks and the costs.

Iraq's Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi (L) meets with U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the defence ministry in Baghdad November 15, 2014. Dempsey arrived on Saturday in Baghdad on an unannounced visit to meet U.S. commanders preparing to increase American assistance to Iraqi and Kurdish forces battling Sunni Islamic State (IS) militants. (Photo: Reuters)

Why was I reminded of Vietnam on Saturday when Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Iraq to “get a firsthand look at the situation in Iraq, receive briefings, and get better sense of how the campaign is progressing” against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL?

For years as the Vietnam quagmire deepened, U.S. political and military leaders flew off to Vietnam and were treated to a snow job by Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander there. Many would come back glowing about how the war was "progressing."

Dempsey might have been better served if someone had shown him Patrick Cockburn’s article in the Independent entitled “War with Isis: Islamic militants have an army of 200,000, claims senior Kurdish leader.”

Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff of Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, told Cockburn that “I am talking about hundreds of thousands of fighters because they are able to mobilize Arab young men in the territory they have taken.”

Hussein estimated that Isis rules about one-third of Iraq and one-third of Syria with a population from 10 million to 12 million over an area of 250,000 square kilometers, roughly the size Great Britain, giving the jihadists a large pool of potential fighters to recruit.

While the Kurdish estimate may be high – it certainly exceeds “the tens of thousands,” maybe 20,000 to 30,000 that many Western analysts have claimed – the possibility that the Islamic State’s insurgency is bigger than believed could explain its startling success in overrunning the Iraqi Army around Mosul last summer and achieving surprising success against the well-regarded Kurdish pesh merga forces, too.

So, on his flight back to Washington, Dempsey will have time to ponder whether he has the courage to pass on this discouraging word to President Barack Obama about ISIS or whether he will put on the rose-colored glasses like an earlier generation of commanders did about Vietnam, where Westmoreland insisted that the number of enemy Vietnamese in South Vietnam could not go above 299,000.

Unfortunately, those obstinate Vietnamese Communists would not observe that artificial, politically inspired limit. Westmoreland was aware of the troubling reality but knew that acknowledging it would have undesired consequences in the United States where many Americans were souring on the war.

The inconvenient truth finally became abundantly clear during the Tet offensive in late January and early February 1968, but still the misbegotten war went on, and on, ultimately claiming some 58,000 U.S. lives and millions of Vietnamese.

Westmoreland’s gamesmanship with the numbers was known to some CIA officials – first and foremost, a very bright and courageous analyst named Sam Adams – but CIA Director Richard Helms silenced them out of fear of political retribution. “My responsibility is to protect the Agency,” Helms told them, “and I cannot do that if we get into a pissing match with a U.S. Army at war.”

Today’s CIA Director John Brennan is similarly at pains to protect the Agency on a number of fronts. Is he likely to tell the truth about ISIS if it means the prospects for a renewed war in Iraq and a new war in Syria are especially grim? If not, are there no Sam Adamses left at the CIA?

Honest Analysts?

Honest intelligence analysts played a key role in the November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities,” which helped thwart Bush/Cheney plans to apply Iraqi-type “shock and awe” to Iran during their last year in office. The NIE concluded, unanimously and “with high confidence,” that Iran had stopped working on a nuclear weapon in late 2003.

In his memoir, Decision Points, President George W. Bush called the NIE’s findings “eye-popping.” He openly bemoaned how the estimate deprived him of the military option, writing “How could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?”

The NIE on Iran was issued seven years ago. One has to hope that a few honest analysts on the Near East have survived the CIA directorships of Michael Hayden, Leon Panetta, David Petraeus and John Brennan and have the courage to tell the truth about ISIS – including how U.S. military intervention now is swelling ISIS’s ranks, much as the Bush/Cheney invasion of Iraq in 2003 created the conditions for the group’s birth, then called “Al-Qaeda in Iraq.”

If honest intelligence analysts are silenced, as Sam Adams was 47 years ago, they need to plumb their consciences and see if they have the guts to make public both the undercounting of enemy forces AND the fillip given to their multiplication by further U.S. military involvement.

Though having worked within the system to get the real enemy troop estimates to senior U.S. officials, Sam Adams went to an early, remorse-filled death, unable to overcome the thought of what might well have happened to shorten the war if he had broken with the CIA’s demands for secrecy and made the actual enemy numbers public.

Possibly, the armed conflict might have ended in 1968. Or, to put it another way, the Vietnam Memorial in Washington would have no need for a western wall since there would be no names to chisel into the granite.

If Gen. Dempsey decides to ape Westmoreland and dissemble about the realistic obstacles to military success against the Islamic State fighters and about the counterproductive effects of U.S. intervention, well, our country will need a new Sam Adams willing, this time, to blast the truth into the open.

Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence

Sam Adams’s memory is invoked each year as Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence make their annual award for integrity. SAAII is a movement of former CIA colleagues of former intelligence analyst Sam Adams, together with others who hold up his example as a model for those in intelligence who would aspire to the courage to speak truth to power.

SAAII confers an award each year to a member of the intelligence community or related professions who exemplifies Sam Adam’s courage, persistence and devotion to truth — no matter the consequences.

It was Adams who discovered in 1967 that there were more than a half-million Vietnamese Communists under arms — roughly twice the number that the U.S. command in Saigon would admit to, lest Americans learn that claims of “progress” were bogus.

Gen. Westmoreland had put an artificial limit on the number Army intelligence was allowed to carry on its books. And his deputy, Gen. Creighton Abrams, specifically warned Washington that the press would have a field day if Adam’s numbers were released, and that this would weaken the war effort.

A SECRET/EYES ONLY cable from Abrams on Aug. 20, 1967, stated: “We have been projecting an image of success over recent months,” and cautioned that if the higher figures became public, “all available caveats and explanations will not prevent the press from drawing an erroneous and gloomy conclusion.”

The Communist countrywide offensive during Tet made it clear that the generals had been lying and that Sam Adams’s “higher figures” were correct. Senior intelligence officials were aware of the deception, but lacked the courage to stand up to Westmoreland. Sadly, Sam Adams remained reluctant to go “outside channels.”

A few weeks after Tet, however, former Pentagon official Daniel Ellsberg rose to the occasion. Ellsberg learned that Westmoreland was asking for 206,000 more troops to widen the war into Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam — right up to the border with China, and perhaps beyond.

Someone else promptly leaked to the New York Times Westmoreland’s troop request, emboldening Ellsberg to do likewise with Sam Adams’ story. Ellsberg had come to the view that leaking truth about a deceitful war would be “a patriotic and constructive act.” It was his first unauthorized disclosure. On March 19, 1968, the Times published a stinging story based on Adams’s figures.

On March 25, President Lyndon Johnson complained to a small gathering, “The leaks to the New York Times hurt us. … We have no support for the war. This is caused by the 206,000 troop request [by Westmoreland] and the leaks. … I would have given Westy the 206,000 men.”

On March 31, 1968, Johnson introduced a bombing pause, opted for negotiations, and announced that he would not run for another term in November.

Sam Adams continued to press for honesty and accountability but stayed “inside channels” — and failed. He died at 55 of a heart attack, nagged by the thought that, had he not let himself be diddled, many lives might have been saved. His story is told in War of Numbers, published posthumously.

Ray McGovern

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. During his career as a CIA analyst, he prepared and briefed the President's Daily Brief and chaired National Intelligence Estimates. He is a member of the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

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