On Point: The "Iraqi Tet" Fantasy


by Austin Bay
April 12, 2005

Al Qaeda remains trapped in a Vietnam fantasy.

Al Qaeda is desperately trying to produce an "Iraqi Tet" -- aMiddle Eastern repetition of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong 1968offensive in South Vietnam.

On April 2 and again on April 4, the terror gang led by AlQaeda's Iraq commander, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, launched "military-styleattacks" on the Abu Ghraib prison complex in Baghdad. In the April 4assault, U.S. forces took 44 casualties (most of them minor wounds). Theterrorist gang, however, took 50 casualties, out of a force estimated at 60gunmen.

On April 11, the gang attacked a Marine compound at Husaybahnear 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 thethugs' public slaughters have killed too many Iraqi innocents. January'selection dramatically lifted public morale and changed the media focus --suddenly, democracy looks possible, and an Arab Muslim democracy is AlQaeda'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 Qaedaconcocts a military surprise.

U.S. forces, however, are "hard targets" -- unlike civiliansstanding in line to vote, U.S. troops shoot back. Since 9-11, Al Qaeda hasnever 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 mostmeasures a disaster for the communists, as a media and hence politicalevent, Tet snuffed "the light at the end of the tunnel." The Johnsonadministration had told the American public Vietnam had reached a turningpoint -- "the light" -- but Tet demonstrated that North Vietnamese Army(NVA) regulars and Viet Cong (VC) guerrillas were still capable of potentaction.

NVA General Vo Nguyen Giap planned for maximum psychological andpolitical impact. Communist forces simultaneously hit cities and militarybases throughout the south. Though they took huge casualties, Giap's realtarget was President Johnson. Communist attackers managed to break into theU.S. embassy compound in Saigon. The assault was repelled, but the moraldamage -- and dramatic photos -- energized Sen Eugene McCarthy's "peacecandidacy." Political support for LBJ and the Vietnam War withered.

Iraq, however, is no Vietnam. The Vietnam War was strategicdefense, a bitter Cold War "battle of containment." The War on Terror is astrategic political and military offensive directed at the dictators andtheocrats who rule by death squad and export terror -- and it's a war we arewinning.

With Iraq's democratic political process gearing up, Zarqawi hasdecided the risk of facing U.S. troops is worth the reward in headlines.Hitting the Husaybah Marine compound is supposed to generate media echoes ofLebanon 1983 and the U.S. Marine barracks terror bombing that led toAmerican withdrawal.

U.S. Navy Capt. Hal Pittman, CENTCOM's senior spokesman, told meTuesday that the terrorists seek media coverage of these attacks "to empowertheir cause, break the momentum of representational government (in Iraq) anddissuade 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'retrying to create a spectacular event, overrun a patrol or border outpostsomewhere, an event with huge media value that would promote their cause andmake them seem more powerful than they are."

At Abu Ghraib and Husaybah, Zarqawi failed militarily. He didn'tget his scare headlines, either. Short of detonating a nuclear weapon inBaghdad, a ground attack on the Green Zone that succeeds in cracking theU.S. embassy and taking hostages is the only "Tet" card Zarqawi has. TheGreen Zone, however, is Iraq's hardest target.

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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