Old Is New Again

This David Ignatius column is the most interesting thing I’ve yet seen on our problems in Iraq. Ignatius brings back some words of William Colby — and another (but helpful) Vietnam analogy:

“American troops only rarely could find the enemy; since it proved almost impossible to fix him, fighting him generally consisted of fighting off attacks, not finishing him according to the best military tradition,” Colby wrote in his book, “Lost Victory,” published in 1989, seven years before his death. A far better strategy, he argued, would have concentrated on providing security to Vietnamese villages through aggressive “pacification” operations such as the controversial Phoenix program, which Colby ran from 1968 to 1971.

If you aren’t familiar with Phoenix, it was one of the few things we tried in Vietnam that actually worked. Soldiers — mostly Marines, actually — worked closely, and in small numbers, with village chiefs and militia. Their goal was to make the South Vietnamese safe from the Viet Cong, one hamlet at a time. They did so by training up the locals in a non-condescending manner, helping establish a non-corrupt local government, and turning each town into a mini fortress, then slowly expanding the security zone.

Imagine a war won, not by advancing the front, but by scattered, spreading ink blots slowly merging together.

Phoenix wasn’t glamorous, but it was working. Unfortunately, it was only tried in a small area — and the loss of public support for the war doomed Phoenix, along with the Republic of Vietnam.

So what does this have to do with Iraq? Read on:

Colby’s critique of “overmilitarization” in Vietnam is worth reviewing now, at a time when many analysts are urging President Bush to send more troops to Iraq. The latest call came over the weekend from Sen. John McCain. “We need a lot more military, and I’m convinced we need to spend a lot more money,” said the Arizona Republican after visiting Baghdad.

Sending more troops always sounds like the right answer when the going gets tough on the battlefield. But as Vietnam showed, deploying a bigger, heavier force isn’t necessarily a wise choice. The large U.S. garrison, with all its attendant logistical needs, might simply reinforce the impression that it’s America’s war — making the enemy more aggressive, our local allies more passive and U.S. troops more vulnerable.

Could something like Phoenix work in Iraq?

Already, the Kurdish north is mostly at peace, and the Shia south is manageably tense. The “Sunni triangle” is our main problem area, and one that, if you look at the map, seems well-suited to the ink blot test.

Just take it one town at a time, and save Tikrit for last.

UPDATE: If you’re interested in Cold War might-have-beens, check out Cold War Hot: Alternate Decisions of the Third World War. One of the stories looks at what might have happened had we focused our entire Vietnam effort on a Phoenix-type program.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Here’s a related story from James Joyner.