History Lessons

Iraq Is Vietnam 2.0 And U.S. Drones Won’t Solve The Problem

U.S. drones and fighters won’t solve the problem: The problem is the Iraqi government.


When the jihadis took over the city of Mosul and began their march towards Baghdad, Washington was of course shocked. But officials, legislators, and policy experts in that fair city should not have been shocked. What happened in Iraq was history as usual. The U.S. fights in Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya and Vietnam and other places (maybe next in Syria), provides billions of dollars in arms, trains the friendly soldiers, then begins to pull out—and what happens? Our good allies on whom we’ve squandered our sacred lives and our wealth fall apart. That’s what’s happening in Iraq now.

And before the U.S. government starts to do the next dumb thing again, namely provide fighter aircraft and drone attacks and heaven knows what else, it should stop and think for a change. If America comes to the rescue of this Iraqi government, then this Iraqi government, like so many of the others we’ve fought and died for, will do nothing. It will simply assume that we’ll take over, that we’ll do the job. And when things go wrong, and they certainly will, this cherished government that we’re helping will blame only America. Don’t think for a moment it will be otherwise. Don’t think for a moment that the generals and hawks who want to dispatch American fighters and drones to the rescue know any better today than they’ve known for 50 years.

Sure, I’m in favor of helping governments against these militant, crazy and dangerous jihadis. But first and foremost and lastly, it’s got to be their fight, not ours. As soon as the burden falls on the United States, our “best friends” do little or nothing and we lose. If they start fighting hard, and we’ll know it when we see it, there will be no mistaking it. Then the military and other aid we provide will mean something.

Just look at the situation in Iraq these past months. We helped the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to field an Iraqi army that was the 20th-largest in the world, with more than a quarter million soldiers and a million-man Iraqi security force including counter-terrorism troops and police. By psychedelic contrast, jihadi forces in Iraq probably number several thousand.

Now take a look at exactly what happened in Mosul. While reports are sketchy, there were likely tens of thousands of Iraqi security forces of all types in and around Mosul. They had tanks and mortars and all sorts of armaments provided by the American taxpayer. On the other hand, the jihadis who won the battle probably numbered, according to the BBC, hundreds to around a thousand troops. Apparently they had no tanks or heavy artillery. The jihadis started firing, and the Iraqi security forces took off their uniforms, gave up their weapons and started running. All this after a decade of Americans fighting and dying and training and equipping them at the cost to the United States of well over a trillion dollars.

So what’s the problem? The problem is not that these Iraqis weren’t well trained and equipped, it was they did not have a government worth fighting for. The Maliki government is Shiite, exclusionary and anti-Sunni. It is corrupt and inefficient. In sum, like most of these great freedom-fighting government we’ve backed over the decades—corrupt and inefficient. And certainly non-inclusive in its politics, certainly not welcoming of potential opponents, certainly ill-disposed to give non-Shiites a legitimate share of power. So the Iraqi troops throw down their arms and run away.

No amount of U.S. air and drone attacks will alter this situation. This kind of outcome was inevitable for Iraq given the political lay of the land in that country. It is almost certainly what’s going to happen in Afghanistan. There too, we’ve fought and died, equipped and trained hundreds of thousands of Afghan troops. The Kabul government is a corrupt mess not worth fighting for. There too, Americans should not be surprised if the Taliban soon regains the offensive and Afghan troops take off their uniforms, lay down their arms and run. Remember Vietnam? The South Vietnamese had a million and a half men under arms and despite the unconscionable Congressional cutoff of future aid, these armed forces had plenty to fight with. But they gave up too. And to be sure, the United States and friends are not providing a great deal of arms and equipment to friendly Syrian rebels. But then, then, the jihadis didn’t have much to fight with or many men to do the fighting and they seem to be doing all too well in Syria.

Why don’t our “good guys,” our plentiful men in arms, our decently to very well-equipped security forces fight as well as the jihadis in Syria or Iraq or as well as the Taliban in Afghanistan or the North Vietnamese in Vietnam? It’s that motivation that is central to victory. If our “good guys” can’t supply this motivation for themselves, Americans should have learned by now that we in our goodness and kindness and sacrifice cannot supply it for them. That’s the central lesson of warfare for more than half a century. That’s the essential moral Americans can’t seem to learn.

Again, Washington should be prepared to help the “good guys” who are fully willing to help themselves. I’m not against that at all. I am against making these American wars because it simply does not work.

I am in favor of trying and trying the diplomatic route, which we seem to approach as a last resort, not a first one. In Iraq, this means Washington’s offering up some version of the federal plan that then-Senator Joe Biden and I proposed almost a decade ago. The idea was to keep the country whole, but to let each major group essentially run affairs in its own region. The Kurds are already doing so in the north, and many Shiites are doing so in the south. With some prompting from Washington, Maliki needs to empower a Sunni region in the center and give it its fair share of Iraq’s oil revenues. Then, maybe, the majority of moderate Sunnis and the Shiite soldiers will stand up to the crazed jihadis. A similar decentralized approach might be the only way to lessen or eventually stop the fighting in Syria and to provide some measure of peace in the future Afghanistan.

Before the United States jumps off another cliff, let’s simply stop and take note of the bloody realities of more than fifty years. These internal civil wars, including the fights against these terrible extremists, are won and can only be won by the people Americans want to help—not by American troops, planes, drones, trainers, equipment and arms. And in the interest of a great majority of people in these countries who suffer from these wars, Washington owes it to them to try, just try, the diplomatic path of decentralization and federalism.