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Lesson unlearned on danger of spin

The Baltimore Sun

The following is taken from a statement delivered Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee. The author holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His e-mail is acordesman@aol.com.

Nearly half a century ago, I entered the office of the secretary of defense at a time when it was neoliberals who thrust us into a war in Vietnam. Over the years that followed, I saw the same tendency in that war to downplay the risks and threats and internal divisions in the nation where we fought that I see in the way that this administration treats the Iraq war today.

I saw a subculture build up that exaggerated our successes in introducing democracy, in using foreign aid and in bringing security to the people. I also saw a shift from reliance on our own forces to what we called "Vietnamization," and then our withdrawal from a nation where we had created the government and military forces that remained dependent upon us - for money, for vast amounts of weapons and supplies, and for the threat that North Vietnam would be bombed if it invaded.

The ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) was never ready for independent action. It had made real progress in many areas, and key units fought well and with great courage. Its overall development and capabilities, however, had been grossly exaggerated. It remained dependent upon American support, and when we ceased to fund aid and provide a credible threat to North Vietnam, it could not survive.

Much of the tragedy that followed has been eased with time. Vietnam is now a friendly state and making progress in many areas. The fact remains, however, that it took nearly three decades for some of the ARVN, and for the Vietnamese intelligence cadres who fought on our side, to be free of camps, threats and constant political pressure.

When I visited Vietnam several years ago, I found that many of the sons and grandsons of ARVN officers still are politically suspect and have problems in education and getting certain jobs.

As I testify today, I cannot forget these experiences. I cannot forget the problems we created by exaggerating our successes in training Lebanese forces in the early 1980s, or the mistakes we made during our first five years in Afghanistan. We have been where we are in Iraq before, and we have done great damage to other countries in the process.

We are now dealing with the legacy of neoconservatives, and a badly planned gamble with the lives of 27 million Iraqis. We have again lied and exaggerated our progress in political development, security efforts, economic aid and the development of host country forces. For the second time in my life, we may well be seeing a failed president and a failed administration preside over a failed war.

I cannot promise you that we can avoid this. The chances are all too great that we cannot. I do not believe, for example, that we can ever succeed with Iraqi force development unless we can succeed in persuading the Iraqis to achieve political conciliation between Arab Sunni, Arab Shiite and Kurd. As Gen. David Petraeus and many other senior U.S. officers have said, the key to security is not military but political.

I also cannot deny that much of the official reporting on Iraqi force readiness, and progress in Iraqi force development, is the same tissue of lies, spin, distortion and omissions I saw in Vietnam. There is simply no integrity in the reporting on manpower and the number of units in the lead. Very real progress and success have been distorted and exaggerated to the point of absurdity. The critical linkages between creating effective regular military forces and creating effective police, rule of law and government services have been misreported or ignored.

As in Vietnam, we have downplayed the present and future degree of Iraqi dependence on U.S. military equipment and aid. We have downplayed just how dependent Iraqi forces are and will remain on U.S. air power, armor, artillery, embeds and partner units, and support. We have rushed undertrained, underequipped and inexperienced units into combat and missions for which they were not ready. We have systematically mismanaged the balance between regular military forces and the police, and the capability to support our ability to "win" with the forces and capabilities needed to "hold" and "build."

Moreover, we are now in the middle of an ever more bitter partisan debate over U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Yet we may well be moving toward a bipartisan move to rush our forces out of Iraq years before Iraqi forces are fully ready, and with far too little regard for the human cost to Iraq and to our strategic position in the gulf. The Congress seemingly wants out - to end the war. The administration increasingly seems to want a cosmetic victory in Baghdad, to declare victory and to leave.

We may have to leave. Open civil war, failure at conciliation, the inability to provide nationwide security with existing U.S. and Iraqi forces, and/or a steadily more bitter low-level mix of sectarian and ethnic conflict, may leave us no choice. But I urge you to think long and hard about such actions, and particularly about abandoning Iraq too soon if there is still hope. I urge you not to confuse the lies and exaggerations about ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) readiness with the ability to rush out of Iraq and leave the fighting to them. I urge you not to ignore the real progress they have made, and what a meaningful and honest long-term program could do over the next three to five years if Iraq moves toward conciliation.

The Iraqi army, the national police and the regular police need years of continued support. Real progress takes patience, resources, persistence and time. There is also a core of real competence under the smokescreen of spin and propaganda. As long as there is real hope of broader progress in Iraq, the ISF and Iraqi people should no more pay for the mistakes of American neoconservatives than the ARVN and Vietnamese people should have paid for the mistakes of American neoliberals.

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