Vietnam analogies are often overused, particularly by people who want to stay out of a proposed war or get us out of one we are fighting. Although I agree that the Islamic State, or whatever it is calling itself this week, must be dealt with militarily; the strategy with which the Obama administration is going about it is deeply disturbing and its basic elements bring vividly to mind the War in Vietnam which began in earnest when I was in the Tenth Grade; American involvement did not end until I was a senior Marine Corps First Lieutenant in 1973. I am not yet senile enough to have forgotten key details.
President Obama is repeating three key strategic mistakes that President Johnson made in Vietnam. First, he has embarked on an open ended commitment; there was no measurable end state. In a similar manner, President Obama throws around the words degrade, defeat, and destroy as if they are interchangeable. Degradation and defeat are things that have to be accomplished before an enemy is destroyed. In some cases, the aim of a conflict is only to defeat the enemy as it was in ejecting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in DESERT STORM. Degrade is something you do to his command and control along the way to defeating him.
It is nearly impossible to completely destroy a movement as we have seen with al Qaeda for thirteen years. It is possible to destroy the armed forces that allow the enemy to occupy territory and protect his seat of power. The president did not make it clear which goal he has in mind. If he cannot clearly define the end state, we will have a conflict every bit as open ended as Vietnam.
If the president’s aim is to destroy the military forces of the Islamic State, he is making the second mistake by thinking it can be done by airpower alone. Airpower can help in defeating the expansion of the would-be Caliphate’s territory, but it will not root them out of the cities and towns that they have already captured. Their light infantry will embed itself in the population and use the civilians as shields subjecting us to the grinding pictures of dead women and children which will eventually obscure the war crimes of al Baghdadi and his minions. President Johnson hoped to defeat the North Vietnamese and force them to stop supporting their Viet Cong surrogates with pure airpower. Every time he escalated the bombing, the North Vietnamese responded asymmetrically in kind. We can expect that al Baghdadi will do the same with raids from his strongholds in Syria and Iraq or with terror strikes in the region and possibly in the United States. If we could have recaptured Fallujah and Ramadi from ISIL’s predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) with airpower alone, we would have done it; and al Baghdadi’s forces are much better organized and equipped that AQI.
That brings us to President Johnson’s third great mistake; he allowed North Vietnam to become a sanctuary. He used the bombing campaign to send signals but refused to attack its key war making infrastructure or send in American ground troops to destroy its standing army for fear of Chinese intervention. North Vietnam used this sanctuary to reinforce and resupply its troops in South Viet Nam and continue the open ended conflict indefinitely.
President Obama has emulated Johnson and will create sanctuaries by taking the ground option off the table. He hopes that we can use the Iraqi Army, Kurds, or moderate Syrian rebels to eject the Islamic State forces from occupied territory. That is sheer fantasy. Al Baghdadi’s forces are hardened and experienced light infantry. The foreign jihadists at its core have years of combat experience and they like to fight. It took us eight years to bring the Iraqi Army up to a point where it could stand alone. Now, gutted by three years of Maliki’s incompetence and mismanagement, it will likely take a minimum of three years to repair the damage to a point that it is ready for urban combat. The Kurdish Peshmerga fighters are legends in their own minds. They are adequate guerillas, but hardly assault troops. Less than a month ago, Obama was dismissing the moderate Syrian rebels as a hopeless rabble. One wonders how they have suddenly been transformed into the hope of the region.
Young progressives of Barak Obama’s generation were taught by their professors that the Vietnam War was an evil undertaking few had the inclination to seriously study. Obama himself described it as one of the “dumb wars” when he was a candidate. There are no dumb wars; there are however, wars fought in a dumb manner. Our president appears to be embarking on one.
Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel who has been a civilian advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of international Affairs.