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Why We Should Expect Insurgents to Use Petraeus's September Report to Launch a 'Tet Offensive'

Five times within the last 100 years, the US Armed Forces have had direct --- and painful --- experience with enemies who have tried to turn around a deteriorating situation by lashing back in one last, massive assault.

The list of presidents and their military commanders who have faced these crises reads like a who’s who of recent American history: Woodow Wilson and General John "Blackjack" Pershing; Franklin Delano Roosevelt and General Dwight D. Eisenhower; Harry Truman and Admiral Chester A. Nimitz, then General Douglas MacArthur; and finally, with less happy results almost four decades ago, Lyndon Baines Johnson and General William Westmoreland.

The first instance involved comparatively few US troops as Imperial Germany’s principal aim was to break the stalemate in the Western Front during World War I, a four-year bloodletting that cost some 2,820,000 military dead among the British, French and German antagonists in France.  The Kaiser’s generals believed that they could smash the Allied armies in one final titanic blow before the Americans soldiers, who were streaming across the Atlantic by the tens of thousands every month, could intervene.

When the crushing assault came in the spring of 1918, the British and French were thrown from their trenches with appalling losses.  Eventually they fought the Germans to a standstill due in part to the decisive intervention of some of the first of General Pershing’s combat divisions to arrive in France.  When the Germans learned that US soldiers were entering the line, orders were issued that "American units appearing on the front should be hit particularly hard" in order to quickly establish their dominance over the green Yankees.  They soon found, however, that American attacks "were carried out smartly and ruthlessly," and that "the moral effect of our fire did not materially check the advance of the infantry."  American losses during the offensive exceeded 25,800.

During WWII, the winter in 1944 found seven Allied armies arrayed along the German border, waiting for the coming spring weather to plunge into the heart of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich and crush the Nazi regime between themselves and the Soviet forces in the east.  Hitler’s armies struck first.  In a last desperate move to stave off defeat, he gathered most of his reserves for an offensive against the thinly held American front in the Ardennes Forest with the aim of severing the Allies’ supply lines to their northernmost armies.  US forces were taken completely by surprise.  Entire units were destroyed or captured, but Eisenhower’s men blunted the attack and sealed the fate of Nazi Germany.  American casualties topped 80,000.

Within months, and on the other side of the world, Imperial Japan sprang its own surprise against the Pacific Fleet of Admiral Nimitz off Okinawa.  Japanese suicide bombers --- "kamikaze" pilots crashing their aircraft into US warships --- had made their appearance earlier, but the massive, coordinated, and persistent attacks were far beyond anything that the Navy could have foreseen.  Almost 5,000 sailors were killed (as were more than 7,600 soldiers and Marines on land), but the Navy was not forced to abandon the seas around Okinawa, and the island’s capture provided a vital staging base for the planned invasion of Japan itself.  Ultimately, only the atom bombs and last-minute Soviet entrance into the war prevented a final conflagration far worse than what befell the Germans.

In 1950, more than 300,000 Chinese troops hidden in Korea’s Nangnim Mountains fell on far-flung US columns as they approached the Yalu River.  General MacArthur had confidently predicted that the war against the apparently defeated North Korean communists (who had invaded the south months earlier) would be over by Christmas, but now, China had suddenly intervened as the war neared her borders.  Badly mauled American divisions quickly retreated on the western side of the peninsula while, in the east, Marines successfully "attacked in the other direction" to break out of a deadly trap.  MacArthur's field commander, General Matthew B. Ridgway, instituted a series of counterattacks that ultimately drove the Chinese back across the original 38th Parallel border between the two Koreas.  The war would stretch on for nearly three more years, and 33,629 American would die protecting the freedom of South Korea.

The Tet Offensive of 1968, launched against towns and cities all across South Vietnam principally by Viet Cong guerrillas, was immediately recognized by both the communist and US forces as a disastrous defeat for the guerrillas.  Decimated by American firepower and unable to hold any captured territory whatsoever, they were no longer a major factor in the conflict which saw regular North Vietnamese troops take up nearly all of the combat burden in an increasingly conventional war.  But coming on the heels of General Westmoreland’s assurance that he could see "a light at the end of the tunnel," American decisionmakers were demoralized by the sudden show of enemy strength.  Politburo members in Hanoi quickly recognized their opportunity and geared propaganda efforts to support the initial media perceptions of Tet.

Today, the upsurge of American troops, increasing aggressiveness of Iraqi combat units, and the abandonment of Sunni chieftains who had previously provided at least passive support for the insurgency, have come together to impose an intolerable situation on the enemies of the Iraqi government and the United States.  Large areas near Baghdad that they either controlled or could operate in with relative immunity have shrunk radically during the last several months, and there is no sign that this trend will end soon.  It is impossible to believe that the insurgents will take this lying down.

Al Qaeda and other Islamic militants have displayed over and over again through their public statements that they are astute observers of the American political discourse over Iraq.  That a violent "offensive" of some sort will be launched to drown out or subvert the heavily promoted and anticipated appearance of General David Petraeus before Congress in September is practically a given.  It is also certain that Coalition forces in Iraq will work aggressively to disrupt the coming offensive --- and the "troop surge" itself serves that end.  But in the current news environment, any attacks by the insurgents, no matter how reckless or costly to themselves, are guaranteed to generate massive press coverage and criticism of US efforts even if the insurgents fail militarily.

A wise young major once said to me, "It doesn’t matter if 200 soldiers are killed --- or 20, or two. The size of the headline stays the same."  What may matter right now is how well the Pentagon and the Administration communicate to the public that, as in almost all our wars, a desperate enemy is very likely to strike a blow directed as much at the American leadership, news media, and public as the military itself.  The media-savvy enemies of the West could choose no better time for this than the days before and during General Petraeus appears before Congress.

This article, first published on HNN, has been reprinted in various editions of Stars and Stripes under the title,"History could repeat itself as Petraeus visits Hill."