Sunday, June 29, 2003

# Posted 7:56 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THE GUERILLA MYSTIQUE: Criticism of the American occupation of Iraq is widespread. While much of it comes from those who have long insisted (or implied)that an American occupation must fail, some of it comes from those who are passionately committed to promoting democracy in Iraq but believe that the United States is not doing enough.

The editors of both the Washington Post and The New Republic fall into the latter category. Even though I am committed to hearing out both the constructive and the destructive critics, I have found it harder and harder and to take the latter seriously as a result of their Vietnam mindset. However, when the WaPo and TNR criticize the occupation I take their observations very seriously.

Recent criticism from the WaPo and TNR is all the more surprising because my own interpretation of the public record suggests that the occupation is going better than expected. Moreover, Josh is at least as optimistic as I am, if not moreso.

So what's going on? First and foremost, the rising casualty toll and persistence of guerrilla warfare has persuaded even supporters of the occupation that something is going seriously wrong. Second, the Pentagon's decision to have combat troops serve as peacekeepers suggests that one can trace much of the chaos in Iraq to the occupation forces' lack of appropriate training.

On the first point, I think that the WaPo and TNR may have fallen prey to media spin. The headlines coming out of Iraq are almost entirely negative. For example:And those are just the headlines from Friday's WaPo. By themselves, none of these headlines are inaccuate or misleading. Yet taken together, they indicate the inability of even top-flight journalists to put the military situation in a broader perspective.

As you might have guessed, I think the guerrilla threat is not all that serious. I tend to agree with this former Marine officer who argues that the Ba'athist insurgents have already demonstrated their incompetence as military strategists. In short, he argues that the Ba'athist offensive is extremely premature, given the overwhelming American forces still on the ground in central Iraq.

Without sounding like a kneejerk reactionary, I would like to suggest that the American media -- including moderate, mainstream, responsible publications such as the WaPo -- are still imprisoned in a Vietnam mindset. In contrast to those conservatives who constantly attack the mainstream media, I do not believe that this Vietnam mindset is part and parcel of a pervasive but unacknowledged left-liberal agenda.

Rather, much of this mindset reflects an honest but misguided effort to learn the lessons of history. If Vietnam were the only guerrilla war ever fought (in addition, perhaps, to those in El Salvador and Nicaragua) one might fairly conclude that American generals consistently underestimate the popular support and tactical sophistication of their opponents. Yet quite often, government forces destroy overconfident and unprepared insurgents.

Recently, I have been giving a lot of thought to the Vietnam-Iraq analogy thanks to Neil Sheehan's masterful work on the Vietnam War, A Bright Shining Lie. After confronting the depths of ignorance and incompetence that led to the fall of Saigon, it is ridiculous to suggest that the Ba'athist any surgents can mount any sort of challenge to American occupation forces.

In Vietnam, the United States was supporting a brutal regime that showed total disregard for its citizens' lives, economic welfare, and political rights. In contrast, the Viet Cong demonstrated an impressive concern for the people of Vietnam despite committing some appalling atrocities.

In Iraq, the United States has brought down a regime that strongly resembles the one its supported in Saigon. The occupation forces are also doing far more for the people of Iraq than even the Viet Cong did for the people of Vietnam. Even so, the unexpectedly swift fall of the Ba'athist government ensured that thousands of its supporters would fade into the woodwork, along with considerable amounts of military equipment.

Sad to say, even a flawless assault on the Ba'athist remnants will cost the lives of scores of American soldiers, even hundreds. No question, some of those lives might have been saved had Coalition forces launched their counterinsurgency campaign immediately after the fall of Baghdad. But in the long-run, a month-and-a-half delay is insignificant. With the postwar casualty toll standing at 23, it's hard to say that the US could be doing much better.

Which brings us to the second trend that has disturbed the democracy promotion advocates at TNR and the WaPo: the decision to employ combat troops as peacekeeping forces. Unsurprisingly, this decision has opened the Pentagon to ample criticism of its unpreparedness to face the realities of postwar Iraq. And such criticism is well-deserved. In fact, I agree wholeheartedly with Greg Djerejian's suggestion that the military should equip and train several divisions for the explicit purpose of peacekeeping and reconstruction.

Along with the WaPo and TNR, Greg think that our troops unpreparedness is an ex post facto vindication of those who insisted that the UN play a greater role in the occupation of Iraq. I wouldn't go that far. Yet while I stand by my argument that a strong UN voice would derail the occupation, I do recognize that peacekeeping damages soldiers' morale and that it wouldn't hurt to bring in UN or NGO officials with experience in Bosnia and Kosovo.

That said, I think that Coaltion forces have been doing an impressive job regardless of their insufficient training. Why? Because American soldiers instinctively put their democratic values into practive. Would further training improve these soldiers' efficiency and morale? Absolutely. Yet I suspect that chaos would still abound even with the best-trained forces in Baghdad.

What matters now is patience. If the President ensures that rebuilding Iraq stays at the top of the American agenda, we can overcome those errors that have already been made. While TNR and the WaPo are right to be concerned about the state of affairs in Iraq, the progress we have already made suggests that a long-term commitment to promoting democracy in Iraq will be well worth the effort.

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