MOSCOW. (Yevgeny Satanovsky for RIA Novosti) - U.S. allies and their opponents, American Congressmen and terrorist leaders, professional politicians and ordinary people, journalists and generals are increasingly comparing the war in Iraq with Vietnam.
They are all in the wrong. Iraq is not Vietnam. The situation in Iraq is much worse, and the majority of parallels with the Vietnam war do not apply.
The fact that in Vietnam the Americans were fighting in the jungle, whereas in Iraq they are in the desert or urban areas does not make a difference. Nor is it manifest in the level of arms and technologies, or the changes that took place in the United States over several decades.
The main difference is that war in Vietnam was not so much between the North and the South, but between the superpowers. The U.S. was fighting the U.S.S.R., and the war reflected the rivalry of modernization models which once belonged to the same civilization. Trade and diplomacy helped alleviate the confrontation and keep it within certain limits. The Vietnam war was part of the big game. Its rules were questionable and its consequences appalling, but the rules were still there.
The war in Vietnam was not a conflict of civilizations. As distinct from Iraq, the Vietnamese did not kill each other for religious or ethnic reasons. In Iraq, many of those that are opposing the U.S.-British coalition fanatically believe in their mission of protecting the Muslim world against crusaders. Politically correct verbiage is appropriate in Western parliaments, but not in Erbil, Basra, or Baghdad.
It was not very difficult for the U.S. to leave Vietnam. South Vietnam lost, and North Vietnam won, but this was a victory of a nation rather than anarchy generated by religious fanaticism. Those who won in Vietnam were not going to continue the war in Europe or the United States. Those who may win in Iraq have opposite intentions, and have proved by deeds that their threats are very real. Of course, the U.S. could withdraw its troops and military advisers from Iraq, and this will mean the end of the war for the U.S. Congress and administration. However, this will mean nothing for those who are fighting America in Iraq, and the West in general.
The war in Iraq involves everyone. The Iraqis believe that it is a war of insurgents against the occupants; the West believes that it is the war of the coalition forces against the terrorists; a war between Arabs and Kurds; and a war between Kurds and Turkmen. It is also a Shiite-Sunni war, and Iraq is the main front of this war which is unfolding in the entire Muslim world - from Lebanon to Pakistan. The war in Iraq is Sunni strife and Shiite elite clashes; a war between Baath Party proponents and al-Qaeda advocates; local Shiite sheikhs and Iran-oriented quarters; the puppet government's opponents and its few supporters. This is also a war of all these groups against the Christian communities, which will have to leave what has been their homeland for almost two millennia in a couple of years. Family clans are at loggerheads; tribes are locked in mortal combat; and the locals are fighting against all foreigners regardless of where they have come from and what they are doing. This is what the Iraqi war is all about.
In Vietnam, the sides were fighting for control over the country, whereas Iraq has become a territory a long time ago. Not a single conflicting party, including the coalition forces and the Iraqi government, controls this territory. Nobody is able or even seriously claims to control it. Iraq is no longer a country. It is a country-size grey area.
On October 11, 2006, the Iraqi parliament adopted a law on the nation's federative structure, giving the official seal to the division of Iraq into autonomous regions. The majority of experts believe that this decision will lead to its disintegration in the near future. Imam As-Sadr is the most radical Shiite. He thinks it is possible to establish in Iraq an Islamic state on the Iranian pattern. In 2006, the extremist Mujahideen Shura Council reported the formation of an independent Islamic state in the Sunni regions. Kurd and Shiite leaders who control major oil-producing areas support the idea of a federation.
Does President Bush understand the situation when he talks about his new "strategy"? Probably. In any event, he is prepared to assume responsibility for what is taking place in Iraq, and this is a heavy burden for any politician. Will he follow in the wake of his critics? No way, and not because in this case he will kill his presidency - he has already been called America's worst president of the 20th century. He will not do this because it is pointless. It is one thing to alleviate military defeat, minimize U.S. losses, and reduce the damage done by his actions to the Republican Party. But adopting a decision which will allow for the repetition of September 11 attacks on the U.S. is quite a different thing. Not a single American president can allow this to happen again, certainly not Bush, who has unleashed this war for no reason and conducted it poorly.
In 2006, the U.S. contingent fluctuated between 123,000 and 150,000 officers and men. As of January 1, 2007, the figure stood at about 140,000. The strength of the allied coalition forces went down from 21,000 to 16,500 in 2006. A 21,500-strong new contingent merely makes up for the past year's withdrawal and adds some strength to the U.S. positions in those areas where it suffered the biggest losses - in Baghdad and Anbar province in the west of Iraq, where 30,000 American troops are unable to curb the local insurgents and al-Qaeda militants.
President Bush's "strategy" has nothing to do with real strategy, but makes sense as a tactical step. The Americans will have to redeploy and withdraw to bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, Jordan and Gulf monarchies. By establishing control over oil pipelines, terminals and fields, as well as the embassy district, parliament and the government in Baghdad, they may go away, while retaining their presence. Successful redeployment under fire is only possible after pre-emptive strikes against the enemy. To do this, it is necessary to increase the strength of the troops and build reserves for screening the moving units. These are the ABCs of military art.
What else can the U.S. president do? The civil war in Iraq has become irreversible. The war started in the name of democracy (if we forget about Saddam's fictional nuclear bomb) has brought neither security nor peace to the Iraqi people. They lived better under Saddam's dictatorship. Today, they have electricity for 12 hours a day, and in Baghdad for six to seven hours. Unemployment has reached 70% in some areas. Iraqis are fleeing from their country. About 500,000 to 1 million Iraqi emigrants are in Syria; 500,000 to 700,000 in Jordan; and some 100,000 in Egypt. In the official Iraqi estimate, about 100,000 people left the country every month in 2006; the total number of refugees has surpassed 2 million since 2003. More than 18,000 are doctors, scientists, engineers and teachers. Inside Iraq, more than 500,000 people left their permanent residences and moved to their religious communities' abode.
By the beginning of 2007, the Iraqi communities controlled three out of Iraq's 18 provinces. In 2006, the Iraqi army increased its strength to 119,000 and the police to 199,000. But the majority of Iraqi units are unable to resist the insurgents and terrorists without U.S. army support. The 100,000-strong Peshmerga forces are under the exclusive command of the Kurd leaders.
The militants of the almost 20,000-strong Mahdi Army led by Shiite radical As-Sadr, are ousting the Sunnis. In 2006 alone, 10 city districts with mixed population became Shiite. The Shiites prevail in the Baghdad administration. The anti-Shiite opposition consists of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, New Baath Party, 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Mohammad Army, and about 1,300 foreign militants.
At the same time, Riyadh and Cairo have called on the U.S. not to speed up troop withdrawal from Iraq. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan believes that the U.S. should draft a schedule for troop withdrawal and reduce the strength of its forces slowly, all the more so since the Kurd militants are creating permanent tensions on the Turkish border with Iraqi Kurdistan. The situation on the border with Iran is not calm either, although Tehran has established relations with both the predominantly Shiite government in Baghdad and the Shiite radicals, whom it is helping train militants and supplying with arms. In 2006, Syria restored diplomatic relations with Iraq after a break of more than 20 years, but blocked the border by stationing a 7,500-strong contingent there.
It seems that all possible mistakes in Iraq have already been made. The U.S. administration and President Bush may still make more mistakes in Iran and Syria, but they will not generate a regional disaster because it has already happened. New wars, or awkward diplomatic moves can only speed it up or slow it down. Time is the only cure for historic mistakes of this dimension. The experience of old colonial empires is of great help, and it says that haste makes waste. There is no sense in rushing troop withdrawal and losing face. It is necessary to come to terms with those who are ready to talk and be tough with those who are not; it is important to forget the cliches of the second half of the 20th century.
First and foremost, it is essential to part with the illusion that the world community is capable of effective action. It is no more than a small group of officials, politicians, journalists and international bureaucrats who claim the role of the world government without any grounds.
It is important to monitor the situation and support the stability of any regional regimes regardless of whether they are democratic or not. Effective quarantine should be established at Iraqi borders. It is necessary to gradually build up relations with those who will take power in Iraq, or the enclaves into which it disintegrates.
This medicine has bitter taste. The reality is unfair, ugly and offensive. It is very far from the infantile attitudes of messianic politicians. But there is no other reality.
Yevgeny Satanovsky is president of the Institute of the Middle East.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent those of the editorial board.
The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.