In February 1968, the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong launched a general offensive in Vietnam during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. From mid-1966 onward, the North Vietnamese had found themselves under increasing pressure from American and South Vietnamese forces. They were far from defeated, but they were weakening and the likelihood of their military victory was receding. The North Vietnamese decided to reverse the course of the war militarily and politically by marshaling available forces, retaining only limited reserves and going on the offensive throughout South Vietnam.
The attack had three strategic purposes. First, the North Vietnamese wanted to trigger a general uprising against the Americans and the South Vietnamese government. Second, they wanted to move the insurgency to the next stage by seizing and holding significant territory and resisting counterattack. And third, they wanted to destabilize their enemy psychologically by demonstrating that intelligence reports indicating their increasing weakness were wrong. They also wanted to impose casualties on the Americans at an unprecedented rate. The American metric in the war was the body count; increasing the body count dramatically would therefore create a crisis of confidence in the U.S. public and within the military and intelligence community.
General Offensives and Crises of Confidence
From a military standpoint, the offensive was a failure. The North Vietnamese military was crippled by its losses. While seizing Hue and other locations, the North Vietnamese were unable to hold them. But they succeeded psychologically and politically by raising doubts about U.S. intelligence and by creating a political crisis in the United States. In war, perception of the enemy's strength and will, and confidence in your own evaluation of those things, shifts the manner in which one fights. The U.S. intelligence estimate before Tet was more right than wrong, but by marshaling all forces for a general offensive, the North caused U.S. trust in that evaluation to collapse. Even though the North Vietnamese were militarily far weaker after the offensive, the military failure proved less relevant than this creation of a crisis of confidence.
The use of a general offensive to reverse military decline is not unique to Tet. The Germans did the same in their offensive in 1944 at the Battle of the Bulge. While the Germans also had a military intent, their psychological intent was as important. Before the battle, the Allies thought the Germans were finished. They were, and so the Germans had to show they still had power. They accordingly threw their reserves into a battle to break the Allies' nerve.
When launched at a time when it is assumed it could not be launched, the general offensive is a powerful weapon. Such an offensive is now underway in Iraq. When we step back, we see a broad offensive by Sunni jihadists underway in a range of countries. In Afghanistan, a massive summer offensive is underway in parts of the country once regarded as secure. To the south, the Pakistani Taliban launched a major offensive a few weeks ago that sparked a Pakistani counteroffensive, putting the Pakistani Taliban on the defensive. In Syria, while the Islamic State (formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has not surged, it also has not declined. Southern Jordan has meanwhile seen clashes between jihadists and government forces. In the Palestinian territories, Hamas has announced, though not launched, a third intifada. To the west, Egypt is experiencing terrorism, while in Libya jihadists have asserted themselves in various ways.
The Question of Coordination
Like the Vietnamese and Germans, the jihadists have, broadly speaking, been on the defensive in recent years, and in many cases they had been dismissed as broken. They differ from the Vietnamese and Germans in the sense that they do not constitute a single force. The question remains, however, whether there has been coordination between these offensives. Clearly, the Jordanian, Syrian and Iraqi offensives are linked. Not so clear is whether they are operationally linked to events in Afghanistan and Pakistan or North Africa. To the extent there was coordination, it would have come from Saudi Arabia. As one might imagine, Saudi actions are deliberately murky, so it is difficult to establish anything definitive here. But the Saudis are most threatened by the prospect of a U.S.-Iranian entente. The Saudis also find the jihadists useful for domestic political purposes and as a lever to maximize regional Saudi influence.
There are small hints here and there of coordination, such as this video. But mysteries always have small hints that one can pretend combine to prove something. So far, we see nothing definitive indicating overall coordination. But in a certain sense, it doesn't matter. These uprisings have occurred close enough to each other that they have had the same effect regardless of whether they were coordinated — giving rise to a sense that the situation in the region is destabilizing dramatically and that jihadist strength has been underestimated.
In a sense, there was no need for coordination because in each theater jihadists were responding to the same three processes. First, there was the increasing evidence that the United States is drawing down its forces such that the door is open to broader jihadist military action. Second, American negotiations with Iran have created a fear among Sunnis, including in Saudi Arabia, that the entire political structure of the region is about to tilt massively against them. And third, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt and even Syria all saw recent elections intended to create lasting regimes unfriendly to the jihadists. Within the past few months, these factors combined to force action by the jihadists with or without overt coordination.
Jihadists in particular — and many Sunni populations in mixed countries like Iraq — either individually, regionally or in coordination launched an offensive designed to make their military power appear as large as possible and thereby redefine politics in areas where their political influence has declined in recent years. Iraq is the most obvious example of this.
The country is divided into three regions. The Shia, the largest group, control the Baghdad government and massive oil reserves in the south. In the north, the Kurds are well-organized and well-defended and also control oil supplies. The Sunnis have little access to oil, are smaller in numbers than the Shia and have become increasingly marginalized since the creation of the post-Saddam Iraqi government. Given that a new government was being formed after recent elections with the same structure as before, the Sunnis had to throw their reserves into the battle. If taken seriously, the threat of a Sunni military force that can seize the country gives the Sunnis a seat at the table, both politically and economically.
From news reports, it would appear that a massive Sunni army is marching in the country — exactly the image the Islamic State wants to portray. The reality is more modest. This is less an invasion of Shiite or Kurdish territory than an uprising within the Sunni regions in favor of the Islamic State, which is limiting itself to consolidating power within the Sunni region. It is not clear how the group will cope if the Shia reorganize their military and strike north and west or if the Kurds were to attack. Still, the Sunni offensive has hit Iraqi Shiite self-confidence hard. Shiite self-confidence could shatter, or the Shia could draw together and counterattack. If the latter, the Islamic State might fight poorly or well against the Shia. The Islamic State hopes Shiite confidence collapses in the face of all this uncertainty.
This uncertainty has had the same effect on the Americans and Iranians that it has had on the Shia. Neither the United States nor Iran seems to have expected an attack of this magnitude. Both seemed to be operating on intelligence evaluations that made it appear that Iraq was stabilizing under a Shiite-dominated government and that the real issue was how to manage Kurdish oil sales. The Islamic State wants to make the United States and Iran wary of their respective intelligence estimates, and therefore wary of taking any political or military action in Iraq. So far, the Islamic State has succeeded in creating panic in Iraq and wariness in outside countries.
Gauging an Offensive's Success
We will soon start to learn if the general offensive has worked, destroying old assumptions and creating uncertainty. This will be measured differently in each country. Will the fighting in Jordan spread? Can the Afghan Taliban seize and hold territory as the United States draws down to limited forces? If the Pakistani military puts the Pakistani Taliban on the run but they survive, does their mere survival threaten the regime?
The general offensive from a position of weakness can work, but it takes a combination of fragmentation, indifference and misunderstanding. The Tet offensive is the classic success. The Bulge is the classic failure. The North Vietnamese made the American media vastly overestimate northern military strength. At the Battle of the Bulge, Patton was not impressed by the German offensive and urged that the Germans be allowed to roll on to Paris so as to burn up all their fuel. As with both earlier general offensives, first reports of jihadist military success should be taken with a grain of salt.
Evaluating the offensive will give us a better sense of Iraq as the Iraqi army tries to mount a counteroffensive. But we must not focus on Iraq: This is a broader general offensive from Pakistan to the Mediterranean, whether coordinated or not. Some theaters will see failure, others success as Tet did. And though Tet serves as an imperfect historical comparison, there is a powerful parallel: At a time when reasonable people thought that the fighting had been contained in Iraq and elsewhere in the region, they have discovered that there was no basis for that assumption. And that reminds us of Tet.