An Iraqi Tet Offensive?

By: Greg C. Reeson

The Guardian (UK) reported in its May 22, 2007 edition that Iran is working to establish ties with al-Qaeda elements and Sunni insurgents in order to launch a major summer offensive against coalition forces in Iraq. The intent of such an operation, if the factional elements could pull it off, would be to undermine the President’s security plan for Baghdad and al-Anbar Province, the so-called “surge,” just as General David Petraeus was scheduled to return to Washington to brief the Congress on military and political progress in Iraq.

Let’s suppose for a moment that the Iranians, Sunnis and al-Qaeda terrorists were able to come together in an organized assault against their common enemy, the United States, to launch the Iraqi version of the infamous Vietnam Tet Offensive. Just imagine the severity of the consequences, even if the offensive was only moderately successful. I suspect the sentiment in America would be much the same as it was in early 1968.

In January of that year, as American military forces in Vietnam expected a relative lull in fighting during the Tet holiday, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops launched simultaneous and coordinated attacks throughout the country. The American public was shocked as images of enemy forces inside the American Embassy compound in Saigon flashed across television screens throughout the country and the war, in all its brutality and savageness, was brought home to the viewing public as it had never been before. President Johnson withdrew from the race for the White House and the effort to “Vietnamize” the war gained considerable momentum.

On the battlefield, our enemies in Vietnam had suffered crushing losses as the Tet Offensive was systematically put down and attacking elements were forced to abandon their assaults without achieving significant tactical success. But in the eyes of the American press and public, and in the eyes of many Congressmen, it was the United States that had been handed a humiliating defeat. What was ultimately a military failure for the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong was in fact a crucial turning point in the war for public opinion. The press was crucial in shaping public perceptions about the war then, as it is with regard to the war in Iraq now.

The unfortunate truth today is that the public, the press, and a sizeable portion of our legislative branch lack a true understanding of existing military and strategic realities, both in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.

Militarily, on the battlefields of Iraq, coalition troops have conducted themselves with dignity and honor, and their performance has been nothing short of magnificent. When they engage enemy forces they defeat them with deadly precision, all the while making every effort to protect innocent civilians and avoid unnecessary damage. The enemy we face shows no such restraint, nor battlefield honor, and any coordinated offensive against coalition troops would be nothing more than a desperate act to turn the tide of public perception, once and for all, against a continued U.S. presence, no matter what the consequences might be for Iraq or its citizens. That desperate act would be short-lived and futile, ending much as the Tet offensive did in Vietnam: a military failure.

But having failed militarily, an Iraqi Tet offensive that featured spectacular attacks in Baghdad and Anbar Province, and the inevitable coalition and civilian deaths that would accompany such attacks, would finally push a wavering American public over the edge as scenes of violence and chaos filled news programs on the major network and cable channels. And as the public goes, so goes the Congress. The outrage from the populace would probably force the House and Senate to bow to the electorate, granting the Iranians, the terrorists, and the Sunni insurgents the battlefield victory they otherwise could not achieve.

At the strategic level, there is either a lack of comprehension of the consequences of our defeat or a willingness to suffer those consequences in order to bring our troops home as fast as possible. Either is unacceptable for the national security of the United States. Make no mistake about it; an abrupt American departure from Iraq will be catastrophic for the region and for the world.

Iranian influence throughout the Middle East will be extended and enhanced, and the clerical regime in Tehran will feel even more empowered to pursue its nuclear work in defiance of the world community. Additionally, Iran will be able to continue its meddling in Iraqi affairs, without interference from the U.S., and Syria and Hezbollah will continue to be used as pawns in proxy wars with Israel that devastate Lebanon and destabilize the region.

Terrorists across the globe will be emboldened, and the ideological movement of radical Islamists will exploit success in Iraq by attempting to take the fight to regional secular governments that will be forced to fight for their survival. Iraq will become a failed state in an already troubled region, sparking a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions that will cross the borders of neighboring states like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Kuwait. The possibility of a regional war cannot be discounted either, as Sunni governments already fearful of Iran and rising Shiite power will feel compelled to intervene in Iraq to prevent the wholesale slaughter of their sectarian brethren. The Kurds, too, may seize the opportunity to take advantage of the chaos and declare their independence. Such a move would invite military intervention in northern Iraq by Turkey, Iran, and probably Syria.

Each of these likely consequences has the potential to become the reality on the ground very quickly if American and coalition forces leave before establishing a security climate conducive to the diplomatic progress necessary for Iraq to move forward. The President’s security strategy may or may not work. It’s still too early to tell as “surge” forces continue to arrive and the full strategy is just beginning to take form.

But an Iraqi Tet Offensive could force premature departure by simply creating the perception that the “surge” has failed and that the cause is lost. The television images of multiple insurgent attacks throughout the country would likely force the end of the American-led mission in Iraq. The question then will become one of when, not if, the war will follow us home.

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