ThreatsWatch.Org: Commentary

Iraq: The New Vietnam

But Not In The Ways Popularly Proclaimed

By Warren Wilkins

From the initial political debate to the advent of the Iraqi insurgency, certain pundits have lamented the disastrous parallels between the current conflict in Iraq and America’s intervention in Vietnam. At first, the blithely opined comparisons seemed largely superficial, and many remain so despite the passage of time and continued conflict in Iraq. Yet now, with the benefit of added perspective, the oft repeated canard that Iraq is like another “Vietnam” may indeed have merit. Just not in the way a segment of our punditry has previously suggested.

In Iraq, much like in Vietnam four decades ago, there exists a certain reticence on the matter of destabilizing foreign/external influences in the principle theater of American military operations (Iraq now, South Vietnam then). Iraq’s Sunni 'insurgent' groups, presumably including al-Qaeda in Iraq, are uniformly domestic outgrowths of the war - they are financed, staffed, and led by Iraqis outraged at the US “occupation.” Similarly, we are instructed that Iraq’s Shi'a militias (the Mahdi Army principle among them), while admittedly hostile to US forces, espouse a sectarian-nationalist ethos and operate independently of outside actors.

Neither template, however, succeeds in accurately reflecting the complete spectrum of realities on the ground in Iraq. Consider the preeminent Sunni insurgent group in Iraq for a moment, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and the capture of its then senior most Iraqi member, Khaled al-Mashhadani, last summer. According to news report published at the time of al-Mashadani’s apprehension, US Brigadier General Kevin Bergner said al-Mashhadani informed interrogators that al-Qaeda in Iraq is run by a foreign group under Abu Ayub al-Masri’s leadership.1 The Egyptian born al-Masri, for those understandably unfamiliar with the litany of shadowy terrorist operatives, is identified by the United States as the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Khaled al-Mashhadani’s disclosures not only betrayed the apparent depth of foreign hierarchal influence, but also the extent to which he and al-Masri endeavored to conceal the appearance of foreign involvement. VOA News subsequently reported:

He said that in order to mask the foreign influence, al-Mashhadani and al-Masri created a fictitious entity known as the Islamic State of Iraq. The made-up leader of the insurgent organization, a man called Omar al-Baghdadi, was played by an actor for propaganda recordings.2

ThreatsWatch provided an in-depth look at the fiction of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi in December 2007.

Elsewhere, Brigadier General Bergner would add: “What we’ve learned not just from the capture of al-Mashhadani but from other al-Qaeda operatives is that there is a flow of strategic directions of prioritization, of messaging, and other guidance that comes from al-Qaeda senior leadership to the al-Qaeda in Iraq leadership.”3

And now, on the heels of the recent fighting between Iraqi security forces and anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and Iranian backed “Special Groups,” we learn of the Iranian role in deliberations that ultimately informed Sadr’s decision to issue a stand down edict to his followers.

From McClatchy:

The backdrop to Sadr's dramatic statement was a secret trip Friday by Iraqi lawmakers to Qom, Iran's holy city and headquarters for the Iranian clergy who run the country.

There the Iraqi lawmakers held talks with Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Qods (Jerusalem) brigades of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and signed an agreement with Sadr, which formed the basis of his statement Sunday, members of parliament said.

Ali al Adeeb, a member of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's Dawa party, and Hadi al Ameri, the head of the Badr Organization, the military wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, had two aims, lawmakers said: to ask Sadr to stand down his militia and to ask Iranian officials to stop supplying weapons to Shiite militants in Iraq.

Note the cited aims of Ali Adeeb and Hadi al Ameri. Are we to conclude that when two Iraqi lawmakers beseech an Iranian Quds Force general to forswear supplying weapons to Shi'a militants, they are nothing more than unwitting dupes to the perforce neo-con agenda of ginning up a pretext for war against Iran? Moreover, why convene with the commander of the Iranian equivalent of the US Special Forces if the latter (and his nation) exercised no palpable influence over Sadr or the transit of weapons to his and other Shi'a militia factions?

Such inconvenient truths notwithstanding, talk of foreign/external influence on the armed factions opposing US and Iraqi governmental forces elicits scant media attention at best, and searing recrimination at worst. Charges of American “war mongering,” for example, can accompany any open discussion of Iran’s trafficking in weapons to Shi'a militia groups, the presence of training facilities in Iran for said groups, or the deployment of Iranian Quds Force operatives in Iraq. Likewise, any depiction of AQI other than that of an autonomous and entirely Iraqi institution trading on the al-Qaeda brand name will surely receive short shrift.

Sadly, this situation is not without precedent. Indeed, eerie parallels to the Vietnam conflict exist. For instance, the National Liberation Front (NLF) in Vietnam masqueraded for years as a wholly indigenous, sovereign South Vietnamese political organization opposing South Vietnam’s president, Ngo Dinh Diem, to the astonishingly incredulous approval of many a Western pundit.

Allegations of North Vietnamese influence over the NLF were routinely marginalized. Some even carried the NLF’s rhetorical mantle, promulgating a belief in its independence from all foreign or external influences. Of course, like the Islamic State of Iraq (according to al-Mashhadani), the NLF was created as a front organization to cloak foreign/external involvement—that of North Vietnam - in the insurgency. “The Central Committee,” a Communist defector once stated of the prevailing Communist political body in North Vietnam, “could hardly permit the International Control Commission to say that there was an invasion from the North, so it was necessary to have some name………to clothe these forces with some political organization.”4

Revered Vietnam scholar Guenter Lewy offered an equally succinct explanation of the role of the NLF. “The NLF, the evidence clearly shows, was formed at the instigation of the party in Hanoi,” Lewy wrote in America in Vietnam. “It was established as a typical communist front organization to hide the direction of the insurgency by the Communists.”5

In January of 1960, General Giap pronounced, quite prophetically, that “the North has become a large rear echelon of our army. The North is the revolutionary base for the whole country.”6 Today, Iran provides a reasonable facsimile of a “revolutionary base” for Iraqi Shi'a militants who harbor ambitions that are inimical to those of the United States and the fledgling Iraqi government. Throughout the Vietnam War, many remained steadfastly wedded to the farcical notion that the Viet Cong prosecuted their insurgency with WWII era weapons pilfered from the French during the Viet Minh war against Colonial France; this despite the glut of highly effective small arms weaponry procured from the Soviet/Communist bloc (via North Vietnam). Nowadays, on the battlefields of Iraq, many cast suspicion on any report of Iranian material aid to Shi'a militias like the Mahdi Army.

Obviously, the situations in Iraq and Vietnam are not wholly analogous. Nor could the foreign influence on either AQI, Shiite militias, or the NLF/Viet Cong be characterized as absolute. Nevertheless, since the country has been inundated with Iraq-Vietnam comparisons for years, it seemed appropriate to furnish a useful example, namely the reluctance of some to acknowledge foreign influence - political, military, or both - on America’s adversaries within Iraq. Today, these often are the same reluctant cast which saw only defeat in Vietnam, and now knows no course for victory in Iraq.

So yes, Virginia, in that respect Iraq is indeed like Vietnam.

End Notes
1 VOANews.com, “US Military: Most Senior Iraqi al-Qaeda Member in Iraq captured”, July 18th, 2007, p. 1
2 VOANews.com, “US Military: Most Senior Iraqi al-Qaeda Member in Iraq captured”, July 18th, 2007, p. 1
3 Robert H. Reid, “US says arrested al-Qaeda leader has bin Laden ties”, Boston Globe, July 19, 2007 p. A 5
4 Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978) p. 16
5 Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978) p. 16
6 Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978) p. 17

Notes