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In Iraq U.S. can show it has learned from Vietnam mistakes, say CISAC fellows

"We hardly needed the 30th anniversary of the Vietnam War's end to remind us of that war," write CISAC Fellows Lien-Hang Nguyen and Karthika Sasikumar. "Iraq provides daily reminders, prompting frequent comparisons to Vietnam." If the United States applies some lessons from Vietnam, it need not repeat past mistakes in Iraq, the researchers argue in this op-ed.

We hardly needed the 30th anniversary of the Vietnam War's end to remind us of that war. Iraq provides daily reminders, prompting frequent comparisons to Vietnam. While many of the analogies are misplaced, looking back at America's intervention in Vietnam can be valuable.

The major challenge now facing the United States in Iraq is to establish a stable and powerful indigenous military to provide a secure environment for nation-building.

The U.S. Army's initial unwillingness to integrate South Vietnamese soldiers into its military plans--and its later inability to motivate the indigenous troops to take over the fighting--tells us what to avoid in Iraq.

The old Iraqi army fell apart in April 2003 as American soldiers marched on Baghdad. As the insurgency grew and American casualties mounted, the coalition forces started putting Iraq's army together again. Many of the same soldiers came back to sign up--it was only at the higher levels that Baathist officers were purged. Both Iraq and the United States have an interest in strengthening a purely Iraqi force.

Still some lessons

President Bush calls the comparison of Iraq with Vietnam a "false analogy" and accuses those who use it of sending the wrong message to the enemy and to the troops. Likewise, Rep. Richard Baker, R-La., calls the analogy "wrong, disturbing and dangerous."

In fact, Vietnam does not make for a good comparison with Iraq--but the differences are informative. The most striking difference between the two situations is in the sequence of war and nation-building. In Vietnam, the United States attempted nation-building under South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem's administration for nearly a decade before intervening directly with ground troops; in Iraq, a short and overwhelming display of force preceded nation-building. Moreover, the Americans were facing a much stronger adversary--including an organized army--in Vietnam.

Beginning in 1969, the Nixon administration implemented its policy of "Vietnamization," withdrawing U.S. troops while simultaneously turning over to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam the fighting and the pacification efforts. By 1973, the South Vietnamese army was the strongest in Southeast Asia, boasting more than 1 million soldiers and toting the most advanced weaponry, thanks to U.S. Army programs such as Enhance and Enhance Plus. However, unimpressive performances during a joint incursion into Cambodia and the 1972 spring offensive testified otherwise. Finally, on April 30, 1975, Saigon fell to the communists. Where did Vietnamization go wrong?

From the entry of American ground forces in 1965, South Vietnamese forces were made to feel marginalized in defending South Vietnam. This was mainly due to the U.S. Army's belief in 1965-69 that the South Vietnamese troops were essentially irrelevant to victory or defeat. Not only were the soldiers equipped with inferior weapons, underpaid and given poor housing compared to their American counterparts, but they also were relegated to so-called pacification missions.

U.S. soldiers had more respect for their enemies from the North than for their allies in the South. Training and communication were beset with linguistic, social and cultural barriers. By the time South Vietnamese soldiers started replacing U.S. soldiers in 1969, it was too late to induce them to adopt what had come to be regarded as U.S. strategic goals, rather than South Vietnamese ones.

It's not too late

Now, in Iraq, a window of opportunity is still open for Americans. According to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the United States wasted the whole first year after the invasion in halfhearted attempts to create effective Iraqi military and police forces. The bulk of the army is made up of soldiers who were fighting Americans a few months ago. Ethnic and religious divisions among the men, and their legacy of service under an autocrat, make it difficult for them to attain modern professional military standards. However, the Iraqi people are much less distrustful of the Iraqi army than they are of occupying U.S. forces.

The Multinational Security Transition Command, set up late last year, must focus on the Iraqi army's esprit de corps. It is not too late to incorporate and integrate Iraqi forces in strategic planning and operations so that they have a stake in securing a stable Iraq. Otherwise, the Iraqi army will soon be overwhelmed by the size and hostility of a growing insurgency.

The Vietnam analogy has too often been deployed in times of political conflict in the United States. But the comparison can be useful. If we learn the right lessons from the mistakes in Vietnam, we need not be condemned to repeat them in Iraq.