US Commanders Admit: We Face a Vietnam-Style Collapse


Richard Moore

Original source URL:,,2023866,00.html

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    US Commanders Admit: We Face a Vietnam-Style Collapse
    By Simon Tisdall
    Guardian Unlimited UK
    Thursday 01 March 2007

Elite officers in Iraq fear low morale, lack of troops and loss of political 

An elite team of officers advising the US commander, General David Petraeus, in 
Baghdad has concluded that they have six months to win the war in Iraq - or face
a Vietnam-style collapse in political and public support that could force the 
military into a hasty retreat.

The officers - combat veterans who are experts in counter-insurgency - are 
charged with implementing the "new way forward" strategy announced by George 
Bush on January 10. The plan includes a controversial "surge" of 21,500 
additional American troops to establish security in the Iraqi capital and Anbar 

But the team, known as the "Baghdad brains trust" and ensconced in the heavily 
fortified Green Zone, is struggling to overcome a range of entrenched problems 
in what has become a race against time, according to a former senior 
administration official familiar with their deliberations.

"They know they are operating under a clock. They know they are going to hear a 
lot more talk in Washington about 'Plan B' by the autumn - meaning withdrawal. 
They know the next six-month period is their opportunity. And they say it's 
getting harder every day," he said.

By improving security, the plan's short-term aim is to create time and space for
the Iraqi government to bring rival Shia, Sunni and Kurd factions together in a 
process of national reconciliation, American officials say. If that works within
the stipulated timeframe, longer term schemes for rebuilding Iraq under the 
so-called "go long" strategy will be set in motion.

But the next six months are make-or-break for the US military and the Iraqi 
government. The main obstacles confronting Gen Petraeus's team are:

  € Insufficient troops on the ground
  € A "disintegrating" international coalition

  € An anticipated increase in violence in the south as the British leave

  € Morale problems as casualties rise
  € A failure of political will in Washington and/or Baghdad.

"The scene is very tense," the former official said. "They are working round the
clock. Endless cups of tea with the Iraqis. But they're still trying to figure 
out what's the plan. The president is expecting progress. But they're thinking, 
what does he mean? The plan is changing every minute, as all plans do."

The team is an unusual mix of combat experience and academic achievement. It 
includes Colonel Peter Mansoor, a former armoured division commander with a PhD 
in the history of infantry; Colonel HR McMaster, author of a well-known critique
of Vietnam and a seasoned counter-insurgency operations chief; Lt-Col David 
Kilcullen, a seconded Australian officer and expert on Islamism; and Colonel 
Michael Meese, son of the former US attorney-general Edwin Meese, who was a 
member of the ill-fated Iraq Study Group.

Their biggest headache was insufficient troops on the ground despite the 
increase ordered by President Bush, the former official said. "We don't have the
numbers for the counter-insurgency job even with the surge. The word 'surge' is 
a misnomer. Strategically, tactically, it's not a surge," an American officer 

According to the US military's revised counter-insurgency field manual, FM 3-24,
written by Gen Petraeus, the optimum "troop-to-task" ratio for Baghdad requires 
120,000 US and allied troops in the city alone. Current totals, even including 
often unreliable Iraqi units, fall short and the deficit is even greater in 
conflict areas outside Baghdad.

"Additional troops are essential if we are to win," said Lt-Col John Nagel, 
co-author of the manual, in an address at the US Naval Institute in San Diego 
last month. One soldier for every 50 civilians in the most intense conflict 
areas was key to successful counter-insurgency work. Compounding the manpower 
problems is an apparently insurmountable shortage of civilian volunteers from 
the Pentagon, state department and treasury. They are needed to staff the 
additional provincial reconstruction teams and other aid projects promised by Mr

The cut in British troops in southern Iraq, coupled with the actual or 
anticipated departure of other allies, has heightened the Petraeus team's 
worries that the international coalition is "disintegrating" even as the US 
strives to regain the initiative in Iraq, the former official said.

Increased violence in the south is expected, caused in part by the 
"displacement" of Shia militias forced out of Baghdad by the US crackdown. 
American and Iraq forces entered the militant Shia stronghold of Sadr City on 
Tuesday for the first time since the surge began. No other major operation has 
yet been attempted there but "we or the Iraqis are going to have to fight them",
one US officer said.

According to a British source, plans are in hand for the possible southwards 
deployment of 6,000 US troops to compensate for Britain's phased withdrawal and 
any upsurge in unrest.

Morale is another concern in the Green Zone headquarters: American forces are 
preparing for a rise in casualties as the crackdown gathers pace. In a message 
to the troops after he assumed overall command last month, Gen Petraeus praised 
their sacrifices while warning of more "difficult times" to come.

"We serve in Iraq at a critical time ... A decisive moment approaches. Shoulder 
to shoulder with our Iraqi comrades we will conduct a pivotal campaign to 
improve security for the Iraqi people. The stakes could not be higher," Gen 
Petraeus said.

"It's amazing how well morale has held up so far," the former official said. 
"But the guys know what's being said back home. There is no question morale is 
gradually being sapped by political debates."

The advisers are also said to be struggling to prevent the "politicisation" of 
the surge by the Shia-dominated government. The fear is that any security 
advances may be exploited to further weaken the position of Baghdad's Sunni 

Despite progress this week on a new law sharing Iraq's oil wealth, the Petraeus 
team believes the government is failing to work hard enough to meet other 
national reconciliation "benchmarks" set by Mr Bush. Yet it is accepted that the
US is asking the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to do what most politicians in
normal circumstances would refuse to contemplate. "What we're doing is asking 
Maliki to confront his own powerbase," one officer said.

Possibly the biggest longer term concern of Gen Petraeus's team is that 
political will in Washington may collapse just as the military is on the point 
of making a counter-insurgency breakthrough. According to a senior 
administration official, speaking this week, this is precisely what happened in 
the final year of the Vietnam War. Steven Simon, the National Security Council's
senior director for transnational threats during the Clinton administration, 
said a final meltdown in political and public backing was likely if the new 
strategy was not seen to be working quickly.

"The implosion of domestic support for the war will compel the disengagement of 
US forces. It is now just a matter of time," Mr Simon said in a paper written 
for the Council on Foreign Relations. "Better to withdraw as a coherent and at 
least somewhat volitional act than withdraw later in hectic response to public 
opposition... or to a series of unexpectedly sharp reverses on the ground," he 

"If it gets really tough in the next few months, it will throw fuel on the fire 
in Washington," the former official said. "Congress will be emboldened in direct
proportion to the trouble in Iraq." If the policy was not judged to be working 
by Labor Day (the first Monday in September which marks the start of the new 
political year), Mr Bush could lose control of the policy to Congress and be 
forced to begin a phased pull-out, he suggested.

A senior Pentagon official said this week that it was too early to gauge the 
strategy's chances of success - but preliminary reports were encouraging. "There
are some promising signs. There is a new overall Iraqi commander in Baghdad. A 
number of joint operations have just begun. The number of political murders has 
fallen. Iraqi forces are showing up as promised, admittedly a little bit under 
strength, and are taking up some of the responsibilities that Maliki said he 
would," he said. "We have to be realistic. We're not going to stop the suicide 
bombers and the roadside explosive devices for some time. And the military alone
are certainly not going to solve the problem. Maliki has to meet the benchmarks.
A civilian surge is needed, too. The Iraqis have to do it themselves."

US officials say they also have rising hopes of a breakthrough in 
Sunni-dominated Anbar province where tribal chiefs are increasingly hostile to 
al-Qaida and foreign fighters - and are looking to build bridges with moderate 

But this week's US decision to join talks on Iraq with Iran and Syria, after 
previously refusing to do so, is nevertheless seen as an indication of the 
administration's growing alarm at the possibility of a historic strategic 

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