The statement has been made many times that the war in Iraq is another Vietnam. Nevermind the differences on the ground between the two. The enemy has fought us to a stalemate, or is even winning, using guerrilla tactics in a war that in the minds of Americans has lost its definition. That’s enough for a lot of people. There has been news of finding some chemical weapons shells, and links between Saddam Hussein and individual terrorists or terrorist organizations. You practically have to go looking for this to find out about any of it. To the major media outlets it’s not big news; more like picking nits. So the nation has made up its mind that Iraq is like Vietnam, and like with Vietnam we should get out of Iraq, lick our wounds, suit up and focus on going after al Qaeda exclusively, presumably in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There’s just one problem with this idea: al Qaeda is in Iraq right now, in Anbar Province, and has been since about 2004. If we were to leave we would be ceding the battlefield to them. Is this smart? It seems to me the American people have lost the forest for the trees. From what I’ve been hearing about public opinion, we want to continue the fight against al Qaeda, and get Osama bin Laden. That’s great, but not if we insist that we up and leave an area where al Qaeda is based. That’s just stupid.
Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri are not in Iraq, presumably, but even if they were, getting them would not end the War on Terror. President Bush made this clear early on. Why none of this has sunk in with the public is beyond me. It seems that for most people here they assume that every attack against some ethnic group or our soldiers in Iraq is done by Iraqis, which is not true at all. Some attacks are homegrown, but a lot of them are not.
The dangerous situation we are in now politically is a lot of people here think that, just like Vietnam, if we get out of Iraq it will go through its own trials and tribulations, mass killings (which is not trivial, but Americans have already shown in recent years that they have no appetite for dealing with genocides), and whatever else, and things will work themselves out. Vietnam stayed in its “box”, and communism did not spread throughout Asia. Thirty years later we have a trading relationship with Vietnam, and it sounds like things are going swimmingly. It’s turned into a bit of a success story, and the dire predictions of the Domino theory have been proved false. I think the situation in Iraq is different.
Since its beginning, al Qaeda has sought out places in the world that are unstable, like Afghanistan was after the U.S. cut off its involvement there at the end of the Cold War. They use these places as bases from which they can plan their operations and train recruits. If we were to abandon Iraq, we would be handing al Qaeda just what they want. It wouldn’t be an ideal situation for them, but it would give them more breathing room in that part of the world. They would face opposition from the remaining Ba’athists (who have an alliance of convenience with al Qaeda right now), and the Shia. Whether these forces could defeat al Qaeda in Iraq is another matter.
In any case it’s clear the situation in Iraq would devolve into a true civil war if we got out, and I don’t think we would have an incentive to root for any side to win. Any of the possible victors: the Ba’athists, al Qaeda, or the Shia religious militants (such as al Sadr’s Mehdi militia) would be bad news for us.
It would also have geopolitical consequences, as John Burns and Michael Ware have made clear. Other Middle Eastern nations are getting nervous about Iran’s expanding sphere of influence in the region, and they fear that Iran may have designs on Iraq as well. The civil war could devolve further into a regional war between Sunnis and Shiites across the Middle East. I have no idea if this would benefit al Qaeda but I know it would not benefit us.
It’s a dangerous mistake to think that we are repeating history, and that by acting the way we did more than 30 years ago we will achieve the exact same result. Al Qaeda in Iraq recently discussed a possible strike at the U.S. (no, not at U.S. soldiers–at us). It’s time to stop looking to the past for answers to the current war. We don’t have the luxury of reminiscing about past exploits.