The Non-Tet Offensive and the October Non-Surprise
October 23, 2006
There are many valid comparisons the US should make to its experience in Iraq and its experience in Vietnam. The Tet offensive is not one of them. Anyone who tracks the patterns of violence in Iraq knows that provoking a more intense civil war in Iraq became a strategy for the more extreme Sunni Islamist groups in 2004, as they slowly increased attacks on Shi'ite targets, which began to lead to Shi'ite reprisals. By late 2005, civil fighting had reached the point where Sunni vs. Shi'ite clashes had become more important to Iraq's future than attacks on the Coalition.
There are no reliable data on the exact patterns in Sunni versus Shi'ite sectarian violence, and both MNF-I and the Iraqi government almost deliberately avoid reporting on Kurdish versus Arab violence. None of the data that are available, however, show any radical rise in violence that can be tied to the American election, to some sudden massive offensive to try to influence its outcome, or to some campaign in October that is tied to domestic American politics.
The reality is totally different. If one looks at the Department of Defense's status reporting on attacks, incidents, and casualties issued at the end of August, one sees a nearly twelve-fold steady increase in sectarian incidents between January and mid-August. The nation had slowly and steadily been moving towards civil war.
There is no evidence of a surge, but simply that the Iraqi constitution and election polarized Iraqis even more than before and that the failure of the new Iraqi government to achieve conciliation helped the process to steadily escalate. Iraqis are fighting Iraqis for Iraqi reasons, not to influence elections or force the US out of Iraq. This has built up for more than two years, and any reference to a "Tet offensive" requires both a massive ignorance of the realities in Iraq and an equal ignorance of the realities in Vietnam.
The very term "October surprise" borders on the absurd. It originated with the idea that the Reagan political campaign somehow manipulated the Iranian hostage crisis so the Iranian government delayed release of the hostages to influence the election and defeat Carter. Iran had ample reason to want Carter out, but no reason to want Reagan in, and no meaningful evidence has ever surfaced of any Republican conspiracy to shape events.
In the case of Iraq, the whole idea that Iraqis are trying to shape the outcome of the Congressional election makes just as little sense. The operation in Baghdad failed for several major reasons: there was no progress in conciliation and political compromise to inspire reductions in violence; sectarian and ethnic violence was rising in many areas outside Baghdad, including Basra and Kirkuk; the Iraqi forces were not ready; the National police and MOI still had elements fighting on the Shi'ite side; the city was simply too big to secure; the government could not occupy and provide services in the areas that were occupied; the militias were left intact; and no one had reason to trust either government forces or the other side. Throw in the fact that it was impossible to cordon off or secure the city, or to tell factional fighter from ordinary citizen, and the "ink spot" approach was doomed to failure from the start.
The October boost in US casualties was almost inevitable the moment the US attempted to stiffen and replace Iraqi forces in an essentially hopeless mission. The US simply did not have enough troops in Baghdad, and it had to pull personnel out of other areas, making them more vulnerable and raising casualties. US forces had to fight insurgents and opposing sects on their enemy's territory and under tactical conditions where US forces became far more vulnerable. US casualties went up because the US attempted to reinforce a tactical failure in a climate where political conciliation and the Iraqi government offered steadily less hope.
There are very good reasons to change tactics and strategy. We need to stop staying the course and see if there are any new ways to encourage political compromise and speed the build-up of Iraqi forces and capabilities. Even if there is a sudden flurry of causalities and attacks in the next week, however, it will not reflect any major departure from the problems and trends that shape the facts on the ground. Worrying about Tet offensives and October surprises is ridiculous and can only confuse the real causes and seriousness of the situation.
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