war on the rocks

Iraq and the Fall of Saigon

June 17, 2014

For Americans of a certain age, the near-collapse of the U.S.-trained Iraqi Army and the possibility of an ISIS takeover of Baghdad has disturbing similarities to the rout of the South Vietnamese Army and the fall of Saigon in 1975. In both cases, the United States had fought a long and costly counterinsurgency campaign. In the case of Vietnam, the United States poured billions into the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN); in Iraq, roughly the same thing has happened. ARVN was defeated by a well-coordinated conventional invasion from the North after the United States had cut off support, but here the similarities begin to fall apart. The Iraqi Army is not yet defeated, although news reports are depressing: troops are abandoning their posts, large amounts of donated U.S. equipment are being destroyed or captured, and the invading “army” is a lightly armed but wholly dedicated movement of religious extremists instead of a combined-arms modern force. The question of whether the Iraqis will reverse their defeats will be settled in the coming weeks. If ISIS succeeds, there will be one final chilling similarity; there will be a wave of violence – executions, imprisonments and so forth – that will take place largely out of the public eye, and while Americans tune into their favorite reality shows, bodies will be filling ditches in Iraq.

What did we learn from the fall of Saigon that can be applied here? There are three big lessons.

The first is that the fall of the Maliki government, if it happens, will be seen worldwide as a U.S. defeat, despite the absence of American forces and despite the diplomatic logjams that caused the United States to withdraw fully by 2011. Beyond the environs of Washington, it won’t matter which administration negotiated what treaty, or that the Maliki government was determined to see a full U.S. pullout. That is all chaff. An Iraqi defeat will be, by extension, a U.S. defeat as well. And that defeat will have global repercussions, coming as it will now that the U.S. has already announced an Afghan pullout date. As we learned after Vietnam, losing a war is no small matter; the Cambodian genocide followed the fall of Saigon, and an emboldened Soviet Union, sensing American weakness, sent Warsaw Pact troops into the Western Hemisphere and ultimately invaded Afghanistan. If the Maliki government (which has done much to cause its own present problems) falls, there will be strategic repercussions for the United States that we have not yet anticipated.

Second, there’s not much the United States can do at this point. Some aid – which, in the case of South Vietnam, the U.S. denied the Thieu government in its last throes – is likely forthcoming. But the facts on the ground are such that if the Iraqis themselves won’t defend their country, then no one else can. The same is true anywhere the United States has tried to stand up local armies. Political will has to start with the locals. There have been some successes in building foreign armies, some little-remarked, such as the armies of Colombia, El Salvador and in the counterbalancing forces in the former Yugoslavia, and some far better known – the reconstitution of the Bundeswehr after WWII and the South Korean armed forces – that have become bulwarks of U.S. defense strategy. When the history of the U.S. intervention in Iraq is written, doctrine-writers might ponder why it took so long before high-quality equipment (airframes in particular) and training was available to the Iraqis, and whether that would have made a difference in the face of Maliki’s mismanagement and sectarian cronyism. But that will all be retrospective. At the present, we can only provide marginal aid and wait.

Finally, in both Vietnam and Iraq the advise-and-assist mission was given only lip service at critical times, and valuable time was lost prising priorities for people and materiel from the conventional U.S. effort. American defense policies will be better served by the admission that retraining and standing up local security forces must become the first priority urgently, even as the smoke settles from initial interventions. The training and equipment must be first-class, as must be the trainers. Standing up the army that will remain to fight America’s battles is not a sideshow, it is the main objective. The political side that accompanies the rebuilding of a nation’s armed forces must proceed in parallel and, to the extent possible, guide the installation of local leaders that can assist the United States as well as their own country. Our hands-off approach to Iraqi politics, even when our friends in Iraq, pockets full of American promises, looked for support and U.S. soldiers were dying to achieve U.S. objectives, was naïve. If 80% of counterinsurgency is political, our approach to host nation politics cannot be laissez-faire.

Americans and their political leaders are insulated by great distances from the trials of conflict, and particularly from the agonies of defeat. But losing wars has consequences that are not immediately apparent – in the way our friends perceive the United States, in the encouragement that a U.S. loss gives to our enemies, and in our own national confidence.

 

Colonel (USA ret) Bob Killebrew writes and consults on national defense issues as a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.  Prior to his retirement from active duty he served for thirty years in a variety of Special Forces, infantry and staff duties.

 

Photo credit: manhhai