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Les Gelb: Iraq is Vietnam 2.0

How a few crazy radicals took Iraq’s second-biggest city from the U.S.-equipped Iraqi military.

Writing for the Daily Beast under the provocative headline “Iraq is Vietnam 2.0,” Leslie Gelb bluntly provides his take on how a vastly outnumbered, ill-equipped group of jihadis just managed to take control of Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city, from the much more numerous and better-equipped Iraqi Army.

Drawing on the lessons his own long career in mainstream journalism (The New York Times) and government (U.S. Defense Department) and from his  perch as president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, Gelb says he’s seen it all before. The jihadis are crazy, militant, ill-equipped but are fighting for a cause in which they believe. The Iraqi military serves under the U.S.-installed kleptocrat thug Nouri al-Maliki, whose rule stands for the domination of Iraq by his own ethnoreligious faction. Writes Gelb:

Just look at the situation in Iraq these past months. We helped the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to field an Iraqi army that was the 20th-largest in the world, with more than a quarter million soldiers and a million-man Iraqi security force including counter-terrorism troops and police. By psychedelic contrast, jihadi forces in Iraq probably number several thousand.

Now take a look at exactly what happened in Mosul. While reports are sketchy, there were likely tens of thousands of Iraqi security forces of all types in and around Mosul. They had tanks and mortars and all sorts of armaments provided by the American taxpayer. On the other hand, the jihadis who won the battle probably numbered, according to the BBC, hundreds to around a thousand troops. Apparently they had no tanks or heavy artillery. The jihadis started firing, and the Iraqi security forces took off their uniforms, gave up their weapons and started running. All this after a decade of Americans fighting and dying and training and equipping them at the cost to the United States of well over a trillion dollars.

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So what’s the problem? The problem is not that these Iraqis weren’t well trained and equipped, it was they did not have a government worth fighting for. The Maliki government is Shiite, exclusionary and anti-Sunni. It is corrupt and inefficient. In sum, like most of these great freedom-fighting government we’ve backed over the decades—corrupt and inefficient.

Gelb also predicts that if the United States rides to Maliki’s rescue, that will only confirm what the Iraqi Army already believes: They don’t have to fight because the Americans will do it for them.

For those who don’t recall Vietnam, Gelb’s headline refers to the Nixon-era policy of the “Vietnamization” of South Vietnam, which was meant to train and equip an army of South Vietnam that could defend the country after the U.S. troops left. It didn’t work out too well.