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The risk of a ‘Tet’ in Iraq?

The Achilles heel of America’s military is public support back home, and America’s enemies have exploited it well in decades past. Now, the military is wondering if something similar could be looming in Iraq, and if so, how to prepare for it. Brave New World.
U.S. military police, dead colleagues at their side, take cover at the entrance to the U.S. Embassy in Saigon on the first day of the Tet Offensive, Jan. 31, 1968.
U.S. military police, dead colleagues at their side, take cover at the entrance to the U.S. Embassy in Saigon on the first day of the Tet Offensive, Jan. 31, 1968.
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Somewhere in Iraq right now, right this very moment, a scheme to deliver a knockout blow to the American-led force occupying the country is almost certainly being planned. Like all such plans devised by guerrillas fighting a vastly superior force, this one aims to make up for what the Iraqi resistance lacks in firepower with sheer, unadulterated bloodshed.

U.S. military and intelligence officials remain uncertain about the degree of coordination behind the continuing attacks on American forces in Iraq, which still average about 16 a day. There is disagreement between military intelligence officers in Iraq, and among intelligence analysts generally, whether Saddam Hussein is playing a direct part in these attacks, the amount of support for them among Iraqis and what percentage can be laid to non-Iraqi extremist groups attracted to the country solely as a way to strike out at America.

One thing all of them agree upon, however, is the likelihood that some group will attempt to mount a catastrophic attack of some kind in an effort to rock not only the American military in Iraq but, more importantly, support for the deployment at home.

“In Iraq, there is no doubt in the minds of anyone with more than a few working brain cells that something more formidable than routine troop ambushes is being planned, and perhaps by more than one entity,” says retired Army Col. Jack Jacobs, an MSNBC military analyst. “Any party to a conflict is always looking for the knockout punch that will end things quickly.”

One of the few real vulnerabilities of the American military in the past 40 years, analysts and historians note, is the risk that major casualties or a single spectacular failure can cause public support to collapse. Such a collapse exposes elected leaders to enormous political pressure, particularly in election years and if U.S. casualties continue to mount.

America’s enemies know this well and in the past four decades have exploited it adroitly.

In the 1968 Tet Offensive, simultaneous attacks on American and South Vietnamese positions by North Vietnam and its Viet Cong allies around the country led to huge casualties for the North, but also showed optimistic assessments of a “light at the end of the tunnel” to be hollow. American troops numbers in Vietnam began to fall immediately, and aides to President Lyndon Johnson say Tet played a big role in his decision chose not to seek another term. The term “Vietnamization,” a Nixonian reference to the need to get American forces out, became official U.S. policy soon afterward.

In 1983, after U.S. and French troops intervened in southern Lebanon to control the fallout of the Israeli invasion there, a Hezbollah truck bomb destroyed of the main U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Americans. The Marines were supposed to help stabilize a new Lebanese government and prevent the Lebanese and Palestinian guerrillas from re-engaging. But the bombing led to a quick withdrawal and the descent of Lebanon back into chaos.

In 1993, the U.S. humanitarian intervention in Somalia deteriorated when American troops became embroiled in the country’s civil war. In October of that year, U.S. Army Rangers and other forces were lured into an ambush in the capital city of Mogadishu, leaving 18 American soldiers dead. By the end of the year, all U.S. forces had withdrawn.

In each of these attacks, the main objective was not a military victory per se, but rather the destruction of America’s will to fight by demonstrating to the American public that the progress being touted by its leadership was an illusion.

Gen. Montgomery Meigs, who retired recently as the U.S. Army’s top commander in Europe, worries about how this dynamic might play out in Iraq.

“With the pressure on the (Bush) administration from the changing political sentiment back home and an election around the bend, there will be a temptation to make the campaign look successful, to encourage commanders on the ground to minimize casualties, and to ‘turn security and governance’ over to the Iraqi’s well before they can handle the task,” he says.

What kind of strike?
The military in Iraq has taken great pains to reduce the likelihood of a Beirut-style disaster, dispersing units as much as possible and keeping those who must be massed together in places like Baghdad behind enormous layers of security.

“Absent American forces providing the bad guys with a juicy target of opportunity, like a large base unattended, a huge convoy without security, shooting down a plane at Baghdad airport, the most likely events are large-scale attacks against soft civilian targets in Iraq, designed to produce masses of Iraqi casualties,” says Jacobs, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in Vietnam shortly before Tet. “This will inflame Iraqi opinion against the U.S., cause the [Iraqi] government to demand immediate independence and Democrats will seize on the events to heap invective on the administration and demand an outline of the plan to combat the deteriorating situation, for which the administration has no answer.”

Inoculating the mission
In recent weeks, Republicans and conservative pundits who supported the Bush’s decision to go to war have been concerned about polls showing increased concern about Iraq and have been urging him and his top official in Iraq, J. Paul Bremer, to make a more forceful argument about progress being made there.

But this effort, so far confined to a few columns complaining that the media is emphasizing American deaths over progress rebuilding schools and opening factories, has been difficult in the face of new divisions over how to pay for the occupation, as well as the administration’s continuing inability to attract new allies to shoulder the burden of patrolling it.

“I want them to give me something I can hang my hat on — electricity being generated, kids being fed, policemen graduating,” says a Republican member of Congress, requesting anonymity. “What I get instead is ‘we’re confident’ and that just isn’t washing with the casualties.”

In fact, one under-reported fact that the Pentagon would like to get out (but which it does not want to be seen as marketing): The number of American troops killed during the month of September — 22 as confirmed by the Pentagon — is down markedly since August, when 41 Americans died in combat and war-related accidents. No matter how Americans may differ about how or why their troops found their way to Iraq, few will argue that the lower death toll isn’t a welcome development.

The Pentagon is tremendously sensitive about using such measurements as an indication of “progress,” in part a lingering acknowledgement that the “body count’ statistics passed out with such detached abandon during the Vietnam war failed, in the end, to convince the U.S. public that its troops were winning, or even that victory was possible. And so, at least to my knowledge, you will read it here first: U.S. deaths were cut nearly in half last month.

Yet the “metrics” of the war remain elusive, and assertions that coalition forces are prevailing rest primarily on the word of top commanders like Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the senior U.S. commander in the country. “I still firmly believe that there is no overwhelming popular support” for the Iraqi resistance, Sanchez told a Knight-Ridder reporter last week. “There is absolutely no question that we’re winning.”