The Vietnamization of Iraq

It didn’t require oracles or entrails after the U.S. public signaled its rejection of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy on November 7, 2006. Something had to change.

A week later, when General John Abizaid, Combatant Commander of the U.S. Central Command, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he signaled that the White House was on the verge of abandoning the status quo. The president finally had decided that the only course forward in Iraq was to accelerate the fitful training program, started two years earlier. The training program was supposed to create a professional Iraqi military establishment that would be loyal to the national Iraqi government, be effective enough to defeat the insurgency and the foreign extremists, and allow the withdrawal of U.S. ground combat forces from Iraq.

Abizaid insisted more than once in the hearing that he did not believe that more U.S. troops were needed in Iraq –at this time. He also said he could not recommend removing troops even on a phased drawdown. But when challenged by committee members that this amounted to continuing the status quo, he categorically denied this was the case.

The “new” plan envisions expanding the U.S. “training teams” currently embedded with Iraqi military units to 22 members from the current 11 to 15 U.S. troops per team. To achieve this number of advisors without increasing U.S. strength in-country, U.S. units currently conducting security patrols and sweeps would have to redirect their activities to the training mission. Overall, Abizaid estimated the plan would double U.S. forces accompanying Iraqi units to 8,000. (This number of advisors would be enough to put a 22-person U.S. team with each company in the Iraqi army –assuming four companies make up an Iraqi battalion, three battalions make up a brigade, and three brigades make up each of the ten Iraqi divisions.)

So at mid-November, the White House and Pentagon rhetoric –“as Iraqi forces stand up, U.S. forces will stand down” –was still old. The “plan” was old. What was new was the urgency of its application by the White House. And what was driving this urgency was the perception that the administration had to repackage and republish its “plan” before the December 6th report by the congressionally chartered Iraq Study Group which was expected to endorse stepped-up training and a reduction of U.S. combat operations.

For those with long memories, this new training program should recall the mid-20th century in a far off land where the U.S. was fighting its first “long war.” And because some memories are long, a number of observers have already drawn parallels between Bush’s Iraqization of the current war and Richard Nixon’s “Vietnamization” program.

Before looking at the pitfalls and the promises of redirecting the U.S. effort in Iraq –and how to avoid the former, it’s worth a short look at the U.S. advisory effort in South Vietnam as well as an equally brief recap of Iraq’s history.

South Vietnam
In 1950, four years before the final French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, President Truman sent the first 35 member U.S. military advisory group (MAG) to Vietnam to work with the French army. The Geneva Accord that formalized the end of hostilities between the Viet Minh and the French also partitioned Vietnam at the 17th parallel. This was to have been a temporary arrangement, for the Geneva agreement also called for a 1956 nation-wide referendum on unification. However, the U.S. and the French-installed regime in South Vietnamese refused to sign the Geneva agreement and to hold the referendum.

President Eisenhower saw a hostile ideology, having been stopped in its attempt to swallow South Korea, now moving south from Communist China into all of the former French Indochina. Civilian and then military advisors were sent to help the South Vietnamese government. In 1955, Washington initiated direct foreign aid programs to Saigon and undertook to train the South Vietnamese army.

By 1960, 900 U.S. military advisors were in South Vietnam. The next year, the U.S. advisory effort expanded from the army to the air force. Two years later, the number of U.S. military advisors stood at 15,000 while U.S. aid totaled $500 million. In June 1965, the Indochina war became “Americanized” when 23,000 advisors were committed to combat operations and U.S. military units arrived in-country. At the end of 1965, U.S. troop strength was 184,000.


Like South Vietnam, Iraq is the creation of European colonial powers, this time post-World War I Britain which assumed control of the area known as Mesopotamia when the Ottoman Empire dissolved. As in South Vietnam, the monarch that initially ruled from Baghdad was overthrown, but unlike South Vietnam’s multiple military coups and weak government, once Iraq’s Ba’athist party took control it retained a tight grip on the country.

Baghdad also had the advantage of petroleum wealth. Moreover, South Vietnam faced almost immediately a renewal of the war with Ho Chi Minh’s North Vietnam and its agents in the South while Baghdad was not embroiled in a major conflict until Saddam Hussein attacked Iran in 1980.

U.S. involvement in South Vietnam has already been sketched. In Iraq, the U.S. provided intelligence and logistics support to Iraq because Iran under the ayatollahs was now Washington’s nemesis in the Persian Gulf. Then, in August 1991, barely two years after the Iran-Iraq war ended, Saddam invaded Kuwait. In a six week air and four day ground war, Iraqi forces were thrown out of Kuwait. For the subsequent 12 years, the U.S. and Britain maintained “no-fly zones” over northern and southern Iraq, culminating in March 2003 with the ground invasion that overthrew Saddam and started the chain of events that led to the current government in Iraq.

Asymmetry Before Asymmetry

Already by 1963 in Vietnam, the “crusade” against a communist takeover in the south was so captive to the North’s agenda that the Saigon government was severely fractured. The country was wracked by social, political, and economic instability. Its fledgling military force was a rag-tag collection of colonial troops that lacked any administrative and logistical support capability. Officers sorely lacked command experience. Gradually, with intense assistance from Washington, the army became more proficient. But it was proficient in the U.S. way of war, complete with massive firepower and non-stop air support, not in the way it had to be to fight an established insurgency in Asia.

From the introduction of large U.S. combat units in 1965 to 1968, the year of the decisive Tet offensive, the armed conflict was “Americanized” while the South Vietnamese army and civilian agencies were flooded with advisors and “trainers.” The hope was that with additional advisory personnel at all levels of government and in virtually all disciplines –plus an influx of matériel support –a revamped South Vietnamese army able to assume “point” (lead) in the war against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese infiltrators would emerge.

Saigon responded to Tet 1968 with, among other steps, a general mobilization of South Vietnam. They saw and heard what lay ahead: the United States was committed to departing as quickly as possible and “re-Vietnamizing” the war. But those “mobilized” were not taken into the regular South Vietnam army; the Saigon government expanded and armed South Vietnam’s territorial security forces and militia, whose ostensible purpose was to be the first line of defense against marauding Viet Cong.

Echoes of Vietnam in Iraq

Although not often alluded to, the lack of physical security and of a reasonable degree of predictability in Iraq after April 10, 2003 was the beginning of the Americanization of that conflict. In both South Vietnam and Iraq, the lack of security compelled large scale U.S. intervention running concurrently with the assistance effort. But in Iraq the fault lies entirely on the White House and the Pentagon for dismantling the only institutions that might have served as nationalistic rallying points able to fill the vacuum created by the fall of Saddam Hussein.

In Vietnam, advisors were with every level of military command. Moreover, the continuous presence and high profile of some U.S. advisers gave the perception that the U.S. was in charge –undercutting the Vietnamese officer corps and creating an unconscious dependency on the U.S. advisors. And this deficiency was exacerbated by the U.S. military’s personnel policies: individual rotation and a 12 month duty tour. Advisors obviously could only be rotated on an individual basis, but with the 12 month rule a first-time advisor was effective for only six-to-eight months as he had to fit into the advisory team itself before he could tackle “advising.” The last two to three months of the U.S. advisor’s tour might well be spent not on the “front line” but back in Saigon or other, “safer” venue. One chronicler of Vietnam, Lewis Sorley, noted what must be close to a record: one Vietnamese officer had 47 different advisors.

Iraq is heading down the same track as South Vietnam nearly forty years ago. Although fatalities as numbers bear no relation to those during 1960-1973, the White House has little room to maneuver other than to press for more independent action by the Iraqi army. In Vietnam, U.S. micromanagement of the war contradicted the implicit premise of the advisory effort. The premise behind Bush’s declaration about Iraq’s security forces standing up is also false: that the military training programs will develop the requisite leadership that the indigenous government security forces need to provide enough security for the rule of law to be restored.

The real difficulty that seems not to have been publicly aired is that effective trainers are made, not born. Put another way, a soldier cannot simply be plucked from a fighting unit, put down in a foreign country with no preparation –cultural studies, language, local knowledge –and be transformed into a good trainer. It is not enough to be proficient in ones professional capacity, for training requires a degree of trust that itself requires learning about the trainees.

Complicating the picture even more is a reported “ground swell” in the Pentagon to pour in more troops –up to 30,000 –and more money in yet another try to “win” –defined as expanding (including training) the Iraqi Army beyond the current ten divisions and securing Baghdad once and for all. That sounds like Nixon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and is just the kind of “option” that could appeal to the White House.

Such a “solution” completely ignores the reality that the crux of the problem is in Iraq are not military in nature. The U.S. needs to support a political solution in Iraq, and in the region, to help end the violence in Iraq and ultimately end the civil war. Iraq’s army cannot get control over the sectarian and other armed opponents of the government without such a political initiative. Should the current policies espoused by the administration be carried forward without change, the Iraqi army will remain dependent on 22 embedded U.S. combat “training and advisory” personnel and U.S. airpower. The severity of the challenge was illustrated in the early December newspaper headline describing an Iraqi-led operation: “About Five Minutes Into It, We Had To Take Over.”

As long as the administration and the Pentagon insist on emphasizing military “solutions,” the greater the danger that when U.S. forces do withdraw, as will have to happen eventually, Iraq, as it exists today, will disintegrate–with repercussions throughout the Gulf and the entire Middle East.

Col. DAN SMITH is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus , a retired U.S. Army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Email at