The Urge to Surge Versus the Action-Reaction Scenarios

Vietnam all over again: Congress Daily’s Charles C. Wilson was a Vietnam war correspondent in 1968 and he was embedded with the Marines in Iraq in 2003. His take on the potential response is chilling — what if the surge in troops turns the Sunni and Shia militias against the American invaders? It’s a worse-case scenario that is in the back of the minds of many whenever we hear the Commander-In-Chief start talking troop “augmentation.”

Note how easy it would be for suicidal Sunni or Shia mortar crews to fire shells into the Green Zone or into a slow moving American truck convoy out of Kuwait, perhaps inflicting heavy American casualties and making headlines around the world, just as the Tet offensive did in 1968.

What will Congress do in the likely event that the warring forces in Iraq respond to President’s Bush’s troop surge and anti-militia attacks by shifting their fire away from each other and onto Americans in their midst, inflicting heavy casualties in an Arab-world version of the Vietnam War’s Tet offensive?

“You are the first person to ask me that question,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joseph Biden, D-Del., told me, acknowledging that he has been worrying about that possibility while pondering possible unintended consequences of Bush’s decision to send an additional 21,500 American troops to Iraq with orders to take on the armed militias, including the Mahdi Army controlled by Shia cleric Moktada al-Sadr.

If Sadr’s militia, or any other one in Iraq, inflicts heavy casualties on American soldiers or civilians, “this place will go nuts,” Biden said, referring to Congress. In such a case, he predicted lawmakers would demand “complete withdrawal” of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Up to now, the Shiites and Sunnis have been more interested in killing each other by the score rather than Americans by the score. But hit-and-run wars such as Vietnam and Iraq have an action-reaction dynamic because, at bottom, they are a struggle for men’s minds, not territory. So militia leaders like Sadr would feel compelled to strike back in a telegenic way to stepped-up American attacks against them.

I saw this action-reaction phenomenon play out as a combat correspondent covering a slice of the country-wide Tet offensive in South Vietnam in 1968. Thirty-five years later, as a reporter embedded with the Marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, I wondered why the same phenomenon did not take hold.

Looking back, the reason was that tribal leaders and their militias were waiting to see how long the invading American forces would stay in Iraq and what they would do there. Now they know, from Bush himself, that he intends to raise the stakes.

Vali Nasr, a fully certified Iraqi expert who teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School and is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that one action-reaction consequence of Bush’s surge strategy might be the launching of a Shia insurgency against Americans at the same time the Sunni one rages on.

He did not mince words, telling lawmakers: “The radicalization of Shia politics is likely to worsen if the U.S. military directly targets Shia forces in Baghdad. That could provoke a Shia insurgency in Baghdad and the Iraqi south — among the largest population group in Iraq — which would present the United States with a vastly broader security challenge, one that can overwhelm U.S. forces. The United States today is hard pressed to defeat the insurgency that it is facing but runs the danger of provoking a potentially larger one.”

In other words, it might get worse before it gets better, if it gets better at all.

It does not require revealing any military secrets to note how easy it would be for suicidal Sunni or Shia mortar crews to fire shells into the Green Zone or into a slow moving American truck convoy out of Kuwait, perhaps inflicting heavy American casualties and making headlines around the world, just as the North Vietnamese and Vietcong Tet offensive did in 1968.

I hope this doesn’t happen, of course, and incoming commander Lt. Gen David Petraeus is well aware of that danger. But a growing number of lawmakers see the United States in another war of unintended consequences, and don’t know what to do about it — yet.

In that other unpopular war, Vietnam, suicidal enemy troops went right over the walls and fences surrounding the U.S. embassy in Saigon in 1968 and got into the building itself. This penetration shocked Congress, especially since Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the field commander in Vietnam, had said in 1967 that “the enemy’s hopes are bankrupt.”

Then, as now, a number of lawmakers talked about using Congress’ power of the purse to stop the war. But then as now, most lawmakers did not want to look as if they were denying money to keep American troops in the fight.

Indeed, it took Congress five years after the Tet offensive to get up its nerve to shut off funds for the war by declaring in a supplemental appropriations bill passed in 1973 that “none of the funds herein appropriated under this act may be expended to support directly or indirectly combat activities in or over Cambodia, Laos, North Vietnam and South Vietnam by United States forces after August 15, 1973.”

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., a likely Democratic candidate for president, served notice last week that she is among those who want history to repeat itself as far as Congress being willing to shut off funds for another unpopular war. But she and a growing number of lawmakers want this to happen sooner this time.

That view assures that 2007 will be a year of continual congressional challenge for Bush as he tries to salvage something positive from Iraq.

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