Iraq Situation Defies Vietnam Analogy, CENTCOM Chief Says
By John Valceanu
American Forces Press Service
DOHA, Qatar, Feb. 13, 2005 U.S. involvement in Iraq now is a very different situation from U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict more than 30 years ago, Gen. John Abizaid said today in Baghdad, Iraq, on the final leg of a three-day tour of the country.
Abizaid, who heads U.S. Central Command, said there are numerous fundamental differences between the two conflicts, despite commentators' attempt to draw analogies between the current fight against terrorist insurgents in Iraq and America's war against communists in Southeast Asia.
"The difference between Vietnam and Iraq militarily are actually really much more stark than people believe," said Abizaid, who is responsible for a region that includes 27 countries in the Middle East, Central Asia and the horn of Africa. "In Vietnam you had a coherent opposition that had a political message with an external support network that ran not only through North Vietnam, but also through the Soviet Union and China. You don't have any state support for the insurgency in Iraq to speak of."
There is also not much of a comparison to be drawn between the actual fighting forces of the Vietnamese insurgency and the terrorist cells operating in Iraq, according to Abizaid.
"In Vietnam you had a series of irregular units, guerrillas; then you had Viet Cong main force units; then you had North Vietnam combat units," Abizaid said. "Here, what you have are really a group of disjointed cells that take some coordination and direction. But the communists had an organization and structure, at least in this stage of the insurgency. There's really no parallel to that at all."
The lack of a support network, along with lack of popular support for the insurgents, according to Abizaid, also cause the Iraqi insurgency to be much weaker and operate at a lower level of sophistication than the one the United States faced in Vietnam.
"The level of insurgency is clearly much less, by any standard, and the ethnic difficulties that beset Iraq didn't necessarily have the same level of effect in Vietnam," Abizaid said. "In Vietnam the insurgency was a true national insurgency. It was certainly a people's insurgency as described by them, with all the bells and whistles of communist ideology and activity behind them. But here, it really is a Sunni insurgency that has almost no support from Shiia or Kurds."
Unlike insurgents in Vietnam, who enjoyed considerable support from the population, the Iraqi insurgents represent violent extremists who do not find many sympathizers, even among the Sunni population in Iraq, according to Abizaid.
"When you look at Iraq, the one thing that gives you a lot of hope is that 80 percent of the population are pretty much on board with the future," Abizaid said. "In Vietnam there was an awful lot of popular support for [the insurgents]. In Iraq, in the Sunni community, I would say that the insurgency isn't necessarily popular. There are many people in the Sunni community that are sitting on the fence. All the political discussions that are going on here within the Sunni community right now indicate a great desire to get off the fence and come on board."
The teams of advisers being embedded in Iraqi military units are also very different from those sent to Vietnam. For one thing, according to Abizaid, the Vietnam advisers worked in an existing military structure. In Iraq, the advisers are helping shape a newly created military.
"We are taking an institution that we essentially zeroed out, and we're building it from the ground up," Abizaid said. "You couldn't move forward with the old officer corps, because their professional ethos was that of exploiting the people, if not killing the people, when it so suited them. What we have to do now is not only build a loyal and a capable armed force to combat the insurgency, but an officer corps that will be loyal to the institutions of the people who are being represented by them."
This move toward assisting and advising Iraqi forces, with the clear goal of empowering them to defend their own nation from the insurgents, is also very different from Vietnam, where the U.S. assumed a greater and greater role in fighting the insurgents as time went on, noted the CENTCOM commander.
"The goal of 2005 is to get the Iraqis out front to be in charge of fighting the counterinsurgency," Abizaid said. "I don't think that's very Vietnam-like at all."