President Bush sounded an alert to the American population, as well as the U.S. military personnel assembled for his visit the other day to Central Command headquarters in Florida. “The path we are taking,” he said, “is not easy, and it may be long,” but he promised that the United States would pursue it “all the way to victory.”
What he didn't say was that the fact that the road to victory is unlikely to be short or easy is probably due to some extent to serious miscalculations in U.S. planning for the campaign. American military leaders are quietly making it known that the campaign plan was imposed on them against their best judgment by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and other civilian staff members.
They add that the miscalculations were based on intelligence provided by Iraqi exile and Israeli sources, which contradicted analysis provided by the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency. Iraqi exiles have ambitions, an ax to grind, and a sometimes out-of-date, distorted view of the country they left.
The Israelis have contempt for Arabs as fighters, in spite of their unpleasant experiences in wars in 1948, 1973, and 1982. Here are seven mistaken assumptions that may put the United States into a much longer, harder war than anticipated:
1. The Iraqis as a people hate Saddam Hussein enough that they won't fight for his government. This has turned out to be wrong. Not only regular Iraqi military but also Baath party militia, other irregulars, and Iraqi tribal fighters are resisting U.S. forces' advance toward Baghdad.
2. The assumption that Americans would be treated as liberators by Iraqis turns out, in general, to have been wrong. The Iraqis welcome humanitarian aid, but are not for sale to American rule. Put another way, Iraqi nationalism is apparently stronger than hatred of Saddam's regime and what it has brought down on their heads - economic ruin as well as bombs.
3. Based on the previous assumptions, the U.S. went into Iraq with a campaign battle plan that defies normal military strategy.
The concept of “overwhelming force” has been prominent in U.S. military planning for decades. It says defeat Iraqi forces and take its capital, Baghdad. The United States and the United Kingdom have so far put 250,000 troops into the war theater to fight an Iraqi army of 350,000 - considered not to be very good, based on the 1991 Gulf War, but numerous - plus Baath militia, Saddam Fedayeen, and tribal forces.
Further, U.S. strategy was to drive straight for Baghdad, roughly 300 miles across the desert from the Kuwaiti border, not stopping to subjugate Iraqi military along the road on the assumptions that the Iraqi population would welcome U.S. forces, and Iraqi forces wouldn't fight.
The United States also assumed that some Iraqi elements, particularly the Shia Muslims in the south, would revolt. They haven't yet, having done so in 1991 and having been hung out to dry without U.S. support to face angry, retaliatory government forces who put them right back down.
Normal military strategy says that you don't concentrate on places - like Baghdad - but people, and should seek to engage and destroy the enemy's forces. The U.S. battle plan had us going straight to Baghdad to eliminate Saddam Hussein, assuming that general Iraqi resistance would collapse once that had been achieved. That could still be true, if and when we get that done.
4. Another miscalculation was that U.S. forces would be pushing toward Baghdad from the north as well as from the south, east, and west. That assumed that Turkey would grant permission to stage U.S. forces out of Turkey in spite of its 99 percent Muslim population's general opposition to the war.
The assumption that Turkey would go along was based on an assumption that it could be persuaded to allow staging of U.S. forces on its soil in return for a large multibillion-dollar gift of aid, plus an American green light for Turkish troops to go into the Kurdish area of Iraq adjacent to Turkey, a longtime Turkish goal. Turkey did grant overflight clearance to the U.S. but not permission to stage troops. It has, nonetheless, put an estimated 3,000 troops into the Kurdish area of Iraq.
The United States has now parachuted some 1,500 troops into northern Iraq. It may now be that these will join Kurdish irregular forces in the attack on Baghdad from the north. Engaging the Kurds in such an endeavor is to open Pandora's box, of course.
5. The “straight to Baghdad” plan seems also to have forgotten that if the assumptions above turned out not to be correct, U.S. armored forces surging across the desert would leave behind them a vulnerable 300-mile-long supply train, subject to Iraqi attack and even possible interdiction.
U.S. armored forces use unbelievable amounts of fuel, ammunition, water, food, and other supplies. Keeping the supply tail safe and functioning while the spearhead presses forward toward Baghdad presents a truly formidable task - by no means beyond U.S. capacities, but very hard.
6. “Shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad and of Iraqis elsewhere in the country has turned out to be both shocking and awesome. Substantial damage has been done to Saddam Hussein's forces and in particular to systems of communications, command, and control, degrading their fighting ability.
At the same time, it seems to have been forgotten that the Iraqis are used to being bombed, having been on the receiving end of it many times in the past two decades, and some of their forces, particularly the irregulars, are probably able to function effectively on a very low-tech basis.
7. The weather has also turned out to be a factor, not that anyone ever assumed otherwise. Ironically, the lengthy wrangling in the U.N. Security Council as the United States tried to get a second resolution authorizing the war and signing on more allies pushed the battle campaign into increasingly unfavorable weather conditions - the sandstorm season, devilishly hot weather, and so forth.
In a way we got caught. The United States had to give the diplomatic process the chance to work. At the same time our troops were in place and every minute spent in New York pushed a battle campaign - which became more and more inevitable - deeper into bad war-fighting weather.
Thus, with some of the key assumptions behind the U.S. battle campaign having turned out to be wrong, American forces now find themselves coming up to Baghdad, preparing to surround a force that could be larger than itself, with some of that enemy force still behind them, threatening their supply line.
Many efforts are now being made to compare the upcoming battle for Baghdad to battles from other wars, some of them recent. Baghdad will not be Mogadishu, except in the sense that U.S. forces may be forced to fight street-by-street for control of the Iraqi capital in combat resembling that which took place briefly in the Somali capital in 1993. No U.S. forces ever tried to “take” Mogadishu. Another possible parallel sometimes explored is the Israeli attack on Beirut in 1982.
There again, the parallel doesn't hold. Beirut was a battlefield itself among different armed, competing elements, including the Palestinians. The Lebanese government had collapsed and was not a coherent opponent to the invading Israeli force. Wars in Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, and the Balkans and the various Israeli-Arab conflicts offer no valid parallels to try to judge what the battle for Baghdad could be like. Some military commentators are hearkening back to the battle between the Germans and the Russians for Stalingrad in 1942-43.
There are some possible parallels. One disquieting piece of the analysis is that Saddam Hussein has since his student days in Cairo considered Stalin to be something of a model. A 323-page biography of Saddam written in 2002, long before the war started, contains in its index 15 references to the Soviet dictator.
It is almost certain that Saddam has studied the siege of Stalingrad. In a nutshell, the Germans attacked Stalingrad, deep in the Soviet Union, with insufficient forces and a supply train stretching some 400 miles back to Germany. The Red Army was significantly inferior to the German forces in technological terms and - based on the Russians' performance in World War I and the fact that Stalin had systematically terrorized the Red Army and the Soviet population - the Germans and others assumed that the Red Army would not fight.
Instead, the Russians fought like dogs and the Germans finally had to surrender to avoid being slaughtered, after an estimated million casualties had occurred. Drawing parallels with Stalingrad is interesting but probably not useful.
The United States is certainly not Nazi Germany and Iraq is not the Soviet Union. The United States is enormously superior to Iraq in its military capacity, will take Baghdad, and will win the war. But President Bush was certainly right to underline to Americans and the world the formidable task that lies ahead. Taking Baghdad will be hard, will likely take a while, and will almost unavoidably entail casualties.
We might as well be realistic about the task ahead of us.
Dan Simpson, a retired U.S. ambassador, is an Associate Editor of The Blade.
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