The latest Foreign Affairs contains one of the most specious rebuttals to critics of the American strategy in Iraq I've read. Stephen Biddle's article "Seeing Iraq, Thinking Vietnam," contains one basic argument: since the Vietnamese insurgency was a "Maoist people's war," and the Iraq insurgency is a clash of distinct communities, divided along ethnic and sectarian lines, Vietnam/Iraq analogies don't stand up. He takes particular issue with proponents of classic counterinsurgency strategy. Since that category includes me, I feel obliged to respond—particularly since Biddle is overlooking important aspects of the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, and counterinsurgency theory.
First, let's look at the presumed distinction between a people's war and a communal (a.k.a. civil) war. Although Vietnam had nothing like the obvious divisions between very large sub-populations, it's ridiculous to say that there were no ethnic or sectarian tensions in Vietnam. Long before Ho Chi Minh or Karl Marx were born, lowland Vietnamese and highland "Montagnards," two ethnically distinct communities, regarded each other with disdain. This conflict played a role in the Vietnam War, though it did not define the two sides in the conflict—though the continued suppression of the Montagnards was clearly a goal of both the North and South Vietnamese regimes. It's also worth mentioning the historical animosity between the Vietnamese and Chinese, which was a far more important factor in the People's Republic of China's attack on South Vietnam in 1975 than, say, differences over Marxist-Leninist dogma.
Before the division of the country into North and South, considerable animosity existed between populations of both major regions of Vietnam. Religious tensions also existed, particularly between the Catholic elite that French colonial administrators created, and which continued to dominate South Vietnamese politics after the French withdrawal. To the extent that you buy the argument that Communism was a sort of "secular faith," the Vietnam War was also a clash of ideologies, rooted in inter-group tensions.
It's not worth exaggerating these characteristics of Vietnam to rebut Biddle, however. If Biddle is right, classic counterinsurgency doctrine should have worked better in Vietnam than another country where, like Iraq, the ethnic and sectarian divisions were sharper. Fortunately, there is a very pertinent example from nearly the same time period as Vietnam, the Malayan Emergency. Unfortunately for Biddle, classic counterinsurgency was wildly successful in Malaya, where tensions between Malays and Chinese antedated the Emergency and British colonial rule. The Communist MRLA guerrilla movement, rooted in the minority Chinese population, was therefore not unlike the distinctly Ba'athist bent of Sunni insurgents, or the Islamist orientation of Shi'ite revolutionaries. (There are, of course, Sunni Islamists and more secular Shi'ite insurgents, so the previous sentence is guilty of caricaturing "the insurgency" yet again.)
The British strategy in Malaya, the archetype of classic counterinsurgency theory, should therefore, in Buddle's thinking, have been a spectacular failure. Instead, it was so much of a success that it became an archetype for generations of counterinsurgency practitioners and scholars.
Perhaps because he is stating his opinions in a short article, Biddle didn't have the opportunity to pick apart counterinsurgency strategy per se. Like the facts of the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts, however, the strategy itself includes important details that Biddle omits. For example, the primary goal of counterinsurgency is, through a patient program of population security and reform, to defeat the insurgents militarily and politically. For example, in Malaya, the British made a credible case that they would quit their former colony, leaving in their place a new government that represented the interest of Malays and Chinese alike. Meanwhile, British and Malayan forces gathered intelligence on the insurgents, swept them out of a series of "enclaves," and effectively used small-unit tactics to pursue the guerrillas outside of these enclaves.
The fact that the MRLA agents captured, the MRLA guerrillas turned, and the MRLA sympathizers won to the government's cause were Chinese was just another important facet of the strategy. In conflicts like Iraq and Malaya, counterinsurgency's theater or grand strategy requires the reconciliation of battling ethnic or sectarian groups. In other cases, the conflict is more purely ideological, requiring a different outcome. Differences at the higher planes of strategy don't change the general methods needed at the operational, tactical, and technical levels. The same rule applies to conventional warfare: the US military that evicted Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991 used the same methods to invade Iraq in 2003.
I do agree with Biddle on other points, such as the risk the United States is taking in pursuing "Iraqization" in a way that's inflaming, not suppressing, inter-group tensions. However, his core argument, the lessons of counterinsurgency do not apply to Iraq, is flawed historically and strategically. Biddle concludes his article by saying, "Whatever the prospects for peace, they would be considerably better if Washington stopped mistaking Iraq for Vietnam and started seeing it for what it really is." Agreed—as long as we don't exaggerate both the similarities and the differences between these two wars, and we don't throw out counterinsurgency strategy altogether in the process.