If ever proof was needed that the president's "surge" plan in Iraq is actually a ruse, a guise for something else, it came yesterday.
Five American soldiers were killed when a group of Iraqis dressed in American army uniforms penetrated a secure government compound in the Baghdad suburb of Karbala. The insurgents drove an armored GMC SUV - standard US government issue - through multiple checkpoints to enter the compound, one of the most protected areas in Iraq.
Once inside, they drove directly to a building housing security officials planning counter-insurgency activity. They opened fire on a meeting in progress, targeting only Americans. After 20 minutes of exchanged gunfire, the attackers got back in their SUV and drove away. Iraqi officials noted that the attack was striking for the sophistication of its planning and execution.
Amid all the carnage and chaos that is Iraq, why is this attack noteworthy? And what does it say about the plausibility of the president's "surge" strategy?
The attack is noteworthy because it mirrors some of the reasons for failure of the American war in Vietnam. Simply put, the US could never get the Army of South Vietnam (ARVN) to carry the burden in fighting the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. That is why in 1965 Lyndon Johnson decided that if the war was to be won, he would have to pour in hundreds of thousands of US troops to do the fighting themselves.
The reasons for ARVN's refusal to fight were straightforward. They perfectly presage the problems with the Iraqi army today.
First, many of the soldiers in the South Vietnamese Army were themselves either indifferent or even hostile to the U.S. presence in Vietnam. They saw the damage the war inflicted on their country and wanted the U.S. to leave. They took every opportunity - sometimes passive, sometimes active - to sabotage their government's cooperation with the Americans.
Second, because promotion in the army was based not on experience or leadership but rather on loyalty, corruption, or family connections, the quality of the officer corps was exceptionally poor. Soldiers refused to put their lives at risk under the direction of inexperienced, cowardly, or corrupt officers. They routinely failed to show up for important missions and showed no initiative in the field, holding back under fire to avoid injury or death.
Finally and most importantly, the whole of the army (and the civilian bureaucracy as well) had been infiltrated by the Viet Cong. As a consequence, army maneuvers were routinely disclosed to the enemy before they ever began. This made it a near certainty that aggressive operations would be ambushed, that fighting would be fierce, and that losses would be high.
The U.S. military understood this infiltration well.
Thus, whenever possible, to preserve its own element of surprise and protect its own forces, the U.S kept ARVN out of the loop of planning for field operations.
All of these conditions apply literally unchanged in Iraq. When over 80% of the population want the Americans to leave, when more than 60% believe it is acceptable to target Americans, it is quite literally impossible to constitute an army that does not contain much of the same poisoned sentiment.
And when jobs are obtained by tribal or sectarian connections, and when the job is more a matter of a paycheck than of putting your life on the line, it is inevitable that discipline and ardor will be weak.
And the greatest vulnerability, of course, is infiltration. When everything the U.S. does - from getting food on the mess tables to the logistics of ammunition, fuel, and weapons transport - depends on the goodwill and assistance of Iraqis, the mission is already lost. For it only takes one infiltrator to doom a patrol, to sabotage a firefight, to pass killers through checkpoints as friends.
All of this is very well known to commanding officers in Iraq, all of whom have studied the reasons for U.S. failure in Vietnam. This is why the U.S. army refuses to provide any more weapons to the Iraqi army: they know they will just end up in the hands of hostile insurgents, the way the uniforms and SUV did in the firefight yesterday. The same thing happened in Vietnam. A 1967 study in the field revealed that 36% of weapons captured from Viet Cong soldiers were of American manufacture.
But if the U.S. cannot trust those it is training to take over the fighting, if it will not provide them the arms to take over the fighting, what are the odds they will be able to, in fact, take over the fighting? Of course, they are zero. For that is not really the plan.
The "surge" plan has always been a fraud. If, as president Bush has claimed, loss in Iraq would be "catastrophic for the U.S." does 21,000 troops begin to rise to the level of the purported threat? Before the war began, General Eric Shinseki told Donald Rumsfeld it would take 500,000 to 600,000 troops to secure the country. There are now 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and the bedlam vastly exceeds what it was going in. Can raising the troop level to 161,000 now possibly make any difference? It is patently a sham.
Whatever the "surge" is really for - whether it's to support an attack on Iran or just a cynical ploy to not "lose" the war on Bush's watch - it is clearly not about winning. We need to end the charade and demand an immediate reversal before the escalation becomes worse.