The capture of Mosul and Tal Afar by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) throughout the month of June coupled with the terrorist group’s press towards Baghdad via Samarra and recent declaration an independent caliphate last Sunday has led some foreign policy analysts to worry that Iraq may be on the verge of a sectarian civil war. Barbaric images from the areas captured during the ISIS campaign are near-ubiquitous online, and feed concerns that a similar fate awaits the Iraqi capital.
While the uniqueness of the ISIS challenge cannot be underestimated, and while no wars are exactly alike, historical parallels between what happened in South Vietnam in 1975 and the current situation in Iraq are striking. The targeting of Iraq’s capital city by an extremist jihadist group from the north just two-and-a-half years after the formal withdrawal of American combat troops recollects the successful North Vietnamese Army (NVA) offensive to capture the South Vietnamese capital city of Saigon two years after President Nixon ordered the evacuation of the last U.S. combat troops from the country. Four critical parallels between the two cases may help inform the American and Iraqi response to ISIS as well as articulate the challenges that confront both countries as the crisis progresses.
First, in both 1975 Vietnam and today’s Iraq, the inheritance of foreign entanglements resulted from the departure of American troops. A year after the United States, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam signed the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, North Vietnamese Communist leaders in Hanoi drew up a two-year campaign to capture South Vietnam. The NVA’s push to reunify the country began with the capture of the province of Phuoc Long. By the time Ban Me Thuot fell in March 1975, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) was in disarray. Although President Richard Nixon had repeatedly promised President Thieu that the United States would “not tolerate violations of the Peace Agreement,” his resignation and succession by Gerald Ford ultimately meant that the United States was unable to “make good on Nixon’s promises to Saigon.” Similarly, the fact that ISIS has set its sights on Baghdad so soon after the formal withdrawal of American combat troops suggests that a hasty administrative handover from Washington left critical Iraqi institutions vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
Secondly, political unrest and weak leadership were also legacies of the United States’ military withdrawal from both South Vietnam and Iraq. In response to the NVA blitzkrieg, South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu adopted the so-called “enclave policy” of holding on to coastal urban centers in hopes that U.S. B-52 bombers would come to the rescue. A series of confusing orders from Thieu—who feared a possible coup against him—coupled with mounting political instability within South Vietnam ultimately resulted in Saigon’s capitulation. As tensions increase with Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish population over a lack of political representation, the country’s ruling Shiite sect, spearheaded by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, may face a similar situation to that of the South Vietnamese four decades prior.
Avoiding further military entanglement is as much on President Obama’s mind in 2014 as it was on Nixon’s and Ford’s forty years ago. The dispatch of 300 U.S. Army Special Forces combat advisers to Iraq echo President Obama’s commencement speech given at the United States Military Academy last month, in which he stated that “[on issues] that do not pose an existential threat to the United States…we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action.” On this matter, Obama seems to be walking a fine political line between collaboration with the Iraqi government and direct military intervention. Indeed, it should be noted that the president dispatched the advisers with a cautiously worded directive “to assess how we can best train, advise, and support Iraqi security forces going forward.” It will be critical for these advisers to balance multiple objectives on the ground, including setting up a joint operations center and supporting the Iraqi Army. And, while these are very noble pursuits, it will likely require a projection of Iraqi nationalism via American soft power to unify a people whose sectarian lines run deep.
Thirdly, as with South Vietnam in 1975, the Iraqi government faces more than just the threat of violent removal by ISIS. Even more important than their military campaigns, the NVA effectively employed so-called Armed Propaganda Teams who made use of storytelling and dramatic theater in rural areas to propagandize an idealized image of communist postwar rule. While ISIS does not yet field a fully conventional army able to physically overrun Baghdad, the terrorist group possesses a dangerous, modernized propaganda machine potentially capable of dismantling the city from the inside. Whereas the NVA used theater, ISIS is waging its propaganda war through Twitter and online videos.
Through a Western lens, ISIS’s psychological warfare is decidedly distorted—underpinned by exaggeration, inflated resources, and augmented by the violence of documented extrajudicial killings and summary executions. The extremist group employed these tactics to secure its territorial expansion among an already shell-shocked Iraqi population. Violence coupled with social media successfully thwarted potential resistance against ISIS fighters, which could have formed in Iraq’s Al-Anbar, Nineveh, Diyala, or Salah al-Din provinces.
The ISIS propaganda campaign has also received an external boost from several factions in the region hostile to Washington. The notable emergence last week of the decidedly anti-American Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army kept Sadr City under siege from 2003-2007, rekindled anti-interventionist fervor at the mere suggestion of American involvement. Ayatollah Ali Khameini’s recent accusation that the Obama administration is attempting to “exploit sectarian rivalries” to influence events in the Middle East may also suggest that the United States’ ability to exert leverage in the region has diminished. Given these circumstances, communication may be the only way for the Obama administration and its combat advisers to maximize their effect. In addition to their military endeavors, these advisers must assist in the running of a successful counterpropaganda mission as vocal opposition to the perceived reprise of U.S. military involvement intensifies.
A fourth and final parallel concerns the nature of political extremism itself. Despite marked differences in their governing philosophies, communism and religious radicalism behave similarly when it comes to justifying and implementing retaliation against perceived foreign occupations and sectarian rivals. Eric Hoffer’s 1951 book, The True Believer, instructively notes the ease with which even manifestly different forms of fanaticism can be whipped up among marginalized masses through similar means. As in the case of protracted communist struggles against foreign occupiers in South Vietnam, communication will likely be key to winning over marginalized Muslims whose mistrust of American influence may be their one commonality. Given that Iraq’s anti-American sentiment crosses sectarian lines, U.S. military advisers and the Obama administration must acknowledge that the al-Maliki government cannot appear heavily dependent on the United States.
Just before South Vietnam fell, President Thieu blamed Americans for “r[unning] away and l[eaving] us to do the job that you could not do.” As the fall of South Vietnam demonstrates, early vulnerabilities—including the effects of foreign military intervention, real or perceived presidential or political weakness, the withdrawal of military support from one’s principal military ally, a successfully executed propaganda campaign, and the nature of political radicalism—conspire to create an environment ripe for exploitation by extremists. Almost four decades later, facing a similar crisis, the United States cannot expect its junior allies in Iraq to perform miracles in the hope of successfully creating a functioning democratic government. It can, however, assist in countering the effective propaganda war waged by ISIS by empowering marginalized religious and ethnic groups to create a “cross-sectarian” government. Ultimately, it is up to the Iraqi government to gradually achieve political legitimacy in the eyes of its own people in order to stall or blunt ISIS’s advance.