by Austin Bay
April 12, 2005
Al Qaeda remains trapped in a Vietnam fantasy.
Al Qaeda is desperately trying to produce an "Iraqi Tet" -- a
Middle Eastern repetition of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong 1968
offensive in South Vietnam.
On April 2 and again on April 4, the terror gang led by Al
Qaeda's Iraq commander, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, launched "military-style
attacks" on the Abu Ghraib prison complex in Baghdad. In the April 4
assault, U.S. forces took 44 casualties (most of them minor wounds). The
terrorist gang, however, took 50 casualties, out of a force estimated at 60
On April 11, the gang attacked a Marine compound at Husaybah
near the Syrian border. As I write, terrorist casualties are unconfirmed,
but the assault flopped.
While bomb attacks on unarmed Iraqi civilians continue
(particularly against Shiites), public opinion now matters in Iraq, and the
thugs' public slaughters have killed too many Iraqi innocents. January's
election dramatically lifted public morale and changed the media focus --
suddenly, democracy looks possible, and an Arab Muslim democracy is Al
Qaeda's worst nightmare.
Hence the "Tet gamble." Bombs haven't cowed the Iraqi people --
but perhaps the American people will lose heart and buckle if Al Qaeda
concocts a military surprise.
U.S. forces, however, are "hard targets" -- unlike civilians
standing in line to vote, U.S. troops shoot back. Since 9-11, Al Qaeda has
never won a military engagement at the platoon level (30 men) or higher.
Coalition forward operating bases are heavily fortified.
But the Tet fantasy is so compelling. Though Tet was by most
measures a disaster for the communists, as a media and hence political
event, Tet snuffed "the light at the end of the tunnel." The Johnson
administration had told the American public Vietnam had reached a turning
point -- "the light" -- but Tet demonstrated that North Vietnamese Army
(NVA) regulars and Viet Cong (VC) guerrillas were still capable of potent
NVA General Vo Nguyen Giap planned for maximum psychological and
political impact. Communist forces simultaneously hit cities and military
bases throughout the south. Though they took huge casualties, Giap's real
target was President Johnson. Communist attackers managed to break into the
U.S. embassy compound in Saigon. The assault was repelled, but the moral
damage -- and dramatic photos -- energized Sen Eugene McCarthy's "peace
candidacy." Political support for LBJ and the Vietnam War withered.
Iraq, however, is no Vietnam. The Vietnam War was strategic
defense, a bitter Cold War "battle of containment." The War on Terror is a
strategic political and military offensive directed at the dictators and
theocrats who rule by death squad and export terror -- and it's a war we are
With Iraq's democratic political process gearing up, Zarqawi has
decided the risk of facing U.S. troops is worth the reward in headlines.
Hitting the Husaybah Marine compound is supposed to generate media echoes of
Lebanon 1983 and the U.S. Marine barracks terror bombing that led to
U.S. Navy Capt. Hal Pittman, CENTCOM's senior spokesman, told me
Tuesday that the terrorists seek media coverage of these attacks "to empower
their cause, break the momentum of representational government (in Iraq) and
dissuade the coalition to continue its support."
Zarqawi's gang "used a fire truck at Husaybah as a car bomb.
That's theatrics if you've ever seen theatrics," Pittman said. "They're
trying to create a spectacular event, overrun a patrol or border outpost
somewhere, an event with huge media value that would promote their cause and
make them seem more powerful than they are."
At Abu Ghraib and Husaybah, Zarqawi failed militarily. He didn't
get his scare headlines, either. Short of detonating a nuclear weapon in
Baghdad, a ground attack on the Green Zone that succeeds in cracking the
U.S. embassy and taking hostages is the only "Tet" card Zarqawi has. The
Green Zone, however, is Iraq's hardest target.