Critics of the U.S. counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq complain that the military relies too much on metrics like enemy body counts to measure success. But national media maintain their own body count of U.S. deaths, cited daily in war coverage (Iraqi deaths seldom are totaled). When the number of U.S. deaths tops 2,000 sometime this month or next, there will be a spate of stories assessing what that means. Most will manage to draw some analogy with the U.S. military experience in Vietnam a generation ago. Regrettably, the similarities are all too clear:
1. Both countries have a long history of resisting outside invaders, including European colonial powers. They have almost no history of living under democratic governments.
2. U.S. intervention was driven by extrinsic considerations (spread of communism, Islamic extremism). There was little grasp in Washington of intrinsic factors such as local culture and values.
3. The indigenous resistance uses unconventional tactics to counter U.S. conventional might. Insurgents seek to weaken U.S. resolve and discredit a U.S.-installed regime.
4. The counter-insurgency campaign is hindered by poor intelligence and language differences. Distinguishing enemy combatants from noncombatants is often difficult.
5. Outsiders aid the insurgency to weaken U.S. influence in the region. Neighboring countries provide sanctuary, transit and resources for insurgent attacks.
6. Indigenous security forces are less committed to the fight than insurgents. Insurgents have thoroughly infiltrated security forces and the civil government.
7. Despite U.S. claims of high moral purpose, there is only limited support from key allies. The U.S. Army bears most of the burden of the counter-insurgency effort.
8. The U.S. lacks rigorous metrics for assessing progress in the counter-insurgency campaign. Failure to deliver quick victory has resulted in a “credibility gap.”
9. The U.S. military and economic presence produces rampant corruption. Reliability of local politicians is undermined by personal agendas and divided loyalties.
10. The U.S. encourages democratic reforms (including new constitution) despite widespread violence. Elections are hailed as a sign of progress, but underlying trends signal a hard road ahead.
I could go on. But there is at least one important way in which Iraq is nothing like Vietnam. Vietnam is an ethnically homogeneous country — 90% are ethnic Vietnamese — that was divided by outsiders. Iraq is an ethnically diverse country that was created and now is held together by outsiders. Oh, and one other thing — there are no jungles in Iraq.
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