Why Iraq is not a new Vietnam

Why Iraq is not a new Vietnam
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It was fashionable in 2007 to label the Iraq War as the next Vietnam. It was easy to draw parallels – weak local allies, a post-invasion quagmire, insurgency, inability to win the “hearts and minds” led pundits to declare the Iraq War as ‘Vietnam 2.0.’ With a major crisis unfolding in the past week, it is hard not to again see similarities.

Two years after the American withdrawal, the Iraqi army has suffered a stunning defeat to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). The Sunni jihadist group, a reconstituted Al-Qaeda in Iraq, has spent the better part of the year enforcing its extreme brand of Sharia in eastern Syria and western Iraq, while fighting nearly every other faction in the Syrian civil war.

ISIS swept into the Fallujah in January, the site of some of the worst urban combat during the American occupation. The Iraqi military’s ineptitude in countering ISIS’s offensive is nothing short of jaw-dropping: two divisions of 30,000 trained soldiers broke rank and fled in the face of only 800 ISIS militants.

Alongside that comes the flight of more than half a million civilians to the relative safety of Iraqi Kurdistan, stirring images of North Vietnam’s rapid advance into South Vietnam in 1975. Just as ISIS fighters have expressed surprise at how easily they took Iraq’s second-biggest city, the North Vietnamese leadership had expected stiffer resistance from South Vietnam. This too came two years after an American military withdrawal.

This is particularly embarrassing for Washington, which spent ten years and trillions of dollars training the Iraqi Army for precisely this type of scenario. This form of indigenizing the conflict was done in Vietnam through then-President Richard Nixon’s policy of “Vietnamization.”

The hope was to shift the burden of combat and securing the country to local allies, enabling American forces to draw down. This failed spectacularly in South Vietnam, as their American-trained and armed military fell to the North a mere two years after the last U.S. combat troops withdrew in 1973.

ISIS now sits a mere 150km away from Baghdad an has begun to push onwards to the capital.

While ISIS’s march to Baghdad is without a doubt ominous, it is not quite the decisive end game that North Vietnam’s 1975 Spring Offensive was. For starters, ISIS has nowhere near the personal nor the material that the NVA did at the end of the Vietnam War.

It also lacks the widespread ideological appeal that Ho Chi Minh and his successors had among sympathizers in South Vietnam. Some Sunni tribes may be happy to have escaped President Nouri al-Maliki’s boot, but ISIS has repeatedly alienated local populations through gruesome atrocities.

Finally, and perhaps one of the most decisive factors, is Washington’s willingness to use hard power to support the Iraqi government. President Obama proclaimed that “all options” are open to fight the insurgents in Iraq. Though this will likely not involve ground troops, drone strikes and special forces will undoubtedly come into play. This stands in stark contrast to the run up to Saigon’s fall, when the Ford administration refused to resend the American military to Vietnam.

Ultimately, the parallels only go so far. It will be a long, bloody campaign to remove ISIS from Iraq. But do not count on the “fall of Baghdad” just yet.

About Author

Daniel Bodirsky

Daniel was previously a Program Editor and Asia-Pacific Analyst at the NATO Council of Canada, the Canadian representative at the Atlantic Treaty Association. Daniel is an MSc candidate in Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.