2003 March 30 Sunday
US Iraq War Strategy Wise?

In advance of the outbreak of hostilities in Iraq some proponents of the war against Saddam's regime exaggerated the ease with which Saddam could be ousted. At the same time, to be fair, many of the war's opponents painted excessively pessimistic pictures of an enormous quagmire with huge casualties both among the Iraqi civilians and coalition soldiers. Initial reports of rapid advances enforced the Panglossian view. However, the mood switched from optimism to pessimism within a week. The sandstorm, over stretched supply lines caused by rapid advances, a lack of rapid collapse of the Baath Party control of bypassed towns, the failure of the "Shock And Awe" attack to cause regime collapse in Baghdad, and unexpected resistance from fighters sallying forth from bypassed towns to attack convoys all led to a big shift from optimism to pessimism about the course of the war. While the initial optimism was excessive it is likely that the current most pessimistic views are excessive as well. We should ask what the real mistakes were, whether the mistakes can be rectified, and if so at what cost and in what time frame.

First of all, what have been the surprises?

  • The "Shock and Awe" air attack didn't cause a collapse of the regime. Its not clear how many people believed it would. Its importance may have been overstated by a media looking for dramatic angles on the war planning. I think I wasn't alone in feeling a lot of skepticism about the ability of a bombing attack to bring down the regime. The only way bombing could have brought it down would have been if the top leaders were all killed.
  • The Baath Party was both willing and able to maintain control of the bypassed cities in the south of Iraq.
  • Some of the Fedayeen and Al Quds fighters have turned out to be highly motivated.
  • The Baathists and Fedayeen have used their terror apparatus to force otherwise unwilling Iraqis to try attacks against coalition forces. This is clearly reminiscent of World War II Soviet tactics.

In light of these surprises was the initial US strategy a mistake? First of all, it is important to understand that the decision to bypass the southern Iraqi cities is not obviously a mistake. The goal of the US war plan is to take Baghdad. There is a good reason for making directly for Baghdad If and when Baghdad falls then the enforcers of the Baathist system of repression in the rest of Iraq will be faced with the knowledge that their days are numbered for their smaller and weaker outposts. Also, the populaces of those other cities will be far more likely to oppose the local representatives of the regime if Saddam is gone from power in Baghdad.

The chief question about the war that is debated is not whether we should be taking the southern Iraqi cities. The most contentious question is how big should the US and coalition forces be. One reason we are seeing a lot of criticism in the media from retired military officers and off-the-record from serving officers is that much of the Army officer corps wanted a larger force with more divisions to do the invasion. Anything that goes wrong is taken by these officers as a reason to argue that they have been right all along and that the civilian leaders who overruled them are wrong. There are highly visible retired US Army officers such as Barry McCaffrey working as news analysts for the big news channels who are representing this point of view on news shows. These folks have motive to cast a negative light on various developments just as the Pentagon officials speaking publically have motive to portray developments in a more positive light.

Here are some questions that can be asked about the wisdom of the US war plan that concentrates on a rush to and attack on Baghdad using a force that is only a third the size of the ground force used in the first Gulf War to liberate Kuwait:

  • Was there a shortcoming in US military intelligence that caused the US to underestimate the level of motivation of some core portions of the regime?
  • Can the coalition forces defend their supply lines sufficiently to support an attack on Baghdad if the cities of southern Iraq are not taken before the attack on Baghdad?
  • Does the US have sufficient forces to invade Baghdad in a way that minimizes casualties?
  • Does the lack of the example of another city that has fallen to coalition forces have the effect of reducing opposition to Saddam's regime in Baghdad?

Lets take the last question first. To put it another way: if the coalition forces focused first on some other major Iraqi city and totally purged it of its Baathists and of its Fedayeen and other Saddam supporters what would be the potential benefits? Here's a list of potential advantages of taking other Iraqi cities before Baghdad:

  • The example of another city fallen to coalition forces might help convince the people in Iraq and especially in Baghdad that Saddam's regime really was going to fall. The idea here is that the example of the fall of another major Iraqi city would embolden the opponents of Saddam's regime in Baghdad while at the same time weakening the motivation of Saddam's loyalists and of those who defend his regime.
  • Many Baathist, Fedayeen, and other regime supporters would be killed while taking other cities and therefore would not be around to cause problems after the war was over.
  • Threats to supply convoys would be reduced.

The problem with taking another city first is that the taking of that city would cause destruction and death as well. That is important for the post-war period because the more death and destruction the rebuilding will be harder and the resentment of Iraqis toward the US forces will be greater. Would the amount of destruction and death that would be caused by the capture of another city be paid back by less destruction and death in the taking of Baghdad? Its hard to say. It even depends on which city is taken instead of Baghdad. If the first city taken was Basra then the potential benefit would not be as great as would be the case if the first city taken was one further north and along the route of the US Army supply convoys. That's because taking a city that is near a supply convoy route would presumably greatly reduce the forces that could sally forth from that city to strike the US supply convoys.

It may be possible to protect the supply convoys without taking the southern Iraqi cities. Troops can be stationed near the areas where the convoys are most likely to come under attack, more tanks and APCs can be included with the supply convoys, and intelligence collection will lead to targets to hit in the bypassed cities to selectively knock out some of the Baathist, Fedayeen, and Al Quds forces leadership.

The bypass of the southern cities has at least one historical precedent: the US island hopping campaign in the Pacific during World War II. Though in that case the Japanese forces on the bypassed islands had less of an ability to attack the US forces that bypassed them. Japanese air bases on the islands could be attacked and their aircraft gradually destroyed without invading the islands. So the military value of those bypassed islands was probably less than the military value of the southern cities to the Iraqi regime.

Here's the key reason for the bypass strategy: the regime falls if Baghdad falls. Baghdad is the center of gravity for the Iraqi regime. The bypass strategy may well be the most sensible way to bring down the regime with a minimum loss of life and property.

The most substantial objection one can make about the US conduct of the war is that the US didn't send enough ground forces. If this argument is correct (and I think only time will tell) then the underestimate of the threat from the Fedayeen and other forces in Iraq would be one reason the US didn't send enough ground forces. But it is important to note that a mistake in intelligence estimates of enemy fighting motvation is not the main reason for the lower level of ground forces as compared to Gulf War I. The main reason there are fewer ground forces is that some of the top civilian leaders think that the quality of the weapons and information systems in the US military has gotten so good that the US ought to be able to conquer Iraq with a much smaller ground force than the force the US is fighting against. Also, the civilian leaders think the Saddam Hussein regime is so unpopular that few people Iraqis will fight for it. Plus, underlying all of these considerations are the general reasons why Arab societies do not produce effective militaries.

One argument for a larger US force is that it has to attack into urban environments where the defending force can basically use civilians and buildings as shields. Another argument for a larger force is that there are people in the regime who are so dependent on it and loyal to it that they will force others to fight to a much greater extent than was the case in Kuwait. Basically, the stakes for the Baathist elite are much greater this time around and they have home court advantages. Hence we hear reports of Iraqi soldiers found shot by their own side in order to force other Iraqis to go into battle. Also, we hear about families being held hostage by the regime in order to compel youthful family members to take up arms and become suicide attackers.

Still another reason to expect greater resistance in Iraq is the presence of Islamist fighters (some Al Qaeda, some from other organizations) who have come into Iraq to fight against the Great Satan. In fact, more jihadi martyr wannabes are flocking to Iraq. These people have more motivation to fight than do most of the Iraqi military. The Jihad seekers can be seen as an argument to use more ground soldiers to get the war over with before more fanatics make it to Iraq. On the other hand, it could also be argued that a lengthening of the war would draw more in to Iraq where they can be killed in order to remove them as future threats. If there are Islamists running around trying to kill American soldiers then taking the time to hunt them down and kill them while the war is still raging will prevent the Islamists from killing American soldiers afterward.

One final argument for using a larger ground force would be the ability to show up at Baghdad with a much larger force all at once and do a ground-based "Shock and Awe" against Baghdad's defenders in order to demoralize the defenders and cause them to give up before large numbers of civilians are killed. Also, if a larger force had been used and the time spent fighting had therefore been shortened the fighting would not have extended as far into the hotter spring months. Of course, the Iraqi regime might collapse in two or three weeks even with the current level of the coalition fighting force. In that case heat might not end up being much of a problem. Whether that will happen is hard to predict at this point.

How the war plays out will have a great deal of impact on future decisions in weapons development, procurement, and upgrades of existing weapons systems. The most radical change taking place for the battlefield is the development of pervasive systems of sensors networked together to provide real-time integration of information about threats and the status of friendly forces. Iraq is a testing ground for the current level of implementation of the information revolution on the battlefield. Even if the current level of technology fails to provide as large an advantage as its most enthusiastic proponents expect the US military is going to learn a great deal from its experience of trying to use technology to compensate for a larger force and it may well learn more than it would have had it deployed with the larger force which many officers advocated.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 March 30 02:00 AM  Military War, Rumours Of War


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