Sunday 6 April 2003

A Vietnam-Like Situation Possible

In Vietnam in 1972 there was a hearts and minds program called chieu hoi to entice the population in the south to rally to the government. The late Gavin Young of the Observer quipped: “I think the Americans have bitten off more than they can chieu hoi .” Is this the case with Iraq if, whatever happens in Baghdad, liberation turns to occupation and resistance?

To lose the hearts and minds, which the Americans have surely done so far in Iraq, would surely be to lose the war, whatever the strategic results. But don’t whisper “Vietnam”, and certainly “quagmire”, the word with which the Iraqis daily taunt the Americans. To do so in print has invited the reflex denial that the topography — desert versus jungle — is different and not good for guerrilla war; that Vietnam took 10 years to lose and we’ve been here two weeks. One historian wrote last week that the Iraqis were not “politicized as the Vietnamese were by the Vietcong”, a startling observation given the evidence of recent days. Nationalism, patriotism and fatwas from the Arab world are surely enough. Iraqi strategists, according to one Arab editor, study Vietnam constantly. And they talk of it too. Not only will 100 Bin Ladens be unleashed by this struggle, they say, but “100 Vietnams”.

“Let our cities be our swamps and our buildings our jungles,” Tariq Aziz told the Institute of Strategic Studies before war began. On Friday Iraq’s Information Minister Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahaf talked of turning Iraq into “another Indochina”. Has Baghdad become a mini Ho Chi Minh trail of hidden tunnels and arsenals?

George C Scott, as Gen. Patton in the eponymous film, hisses: “Rommel, you sonofabitch, I read your book”. The key book for the Iraqis was written by Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the brilliant architect of the war against the French and the Americans. It was published in English in 1961, under the title People’s War, People’s Army, long before the US war in Vietnam hotted up. Though full of partyspeak, it shows how easy it is to hold up and demoralise a hugely superior army that has a long supply convoy. Giap exploited what he called “the contradictions of the aggressive colonial war”. The invaders have to fan out and operate far from their bases. When they deploy, said Giap, “their broken-up units become easy prey”. First harass the enemy, “rotting” away his rear and reserves, forcing him to deploy troops to defend bases and perimeters.

“Is the enemy strong?” wrote Giap. “One avoids him. Is he weak? One attacks him.” There will never be enough troops to hold down the scattered guerrilla forces. Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of US forces in Vietnam, estimated that he would have needed 2 million troops to “pacify” the country. At the peak of the war he had half that number. You can apply the principle to Baghdad or the country beyond — the topography matters less than the principle. Commanders talk of their puzzlement at Republican Guard units “melting away” after the onslaught of last week. Are they preparing a trap?

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