Asymmetrical strategies

Paul Hirst
20 March 2003

The war has begun. How it will be fought, and what its outcome will be, depend on two factors that are still incalculable. How many Iraqi troops will offer serious resistance? With what degree of competence will Iraqi strategy be executed?

Neither the Allies nor the Baghdad regime can know this. A low level of commitment and competence will mean a walkover, but tens of thousands fighting to the end will certainly mean high civilian and moderate Allied casualties. Although the military outcome is not in doubt, the political consequences of heavy civilian casualties in the region and beyond may limit the Allies’ options in the region.

The Rumsfeld strategy

What do we know about the forces available to both sides and the likely strategies that they will follow? Partly by design and partly by necessity, the Americans have chosen to follow a version of Donald Rumsfeld’s preferred strategy. Rumsfeld is an advocate of the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ and believes in information-centred war based on precision guided munitions.

The US has a lot of air power available and little heavy armour. There are some 600 combat planes on carriers and at bases in the Gulf and Turkey. Further afield are heavy bombers in the UK, Diego Garcia and Bulgaria. Also available are hundreds of cruise missiles on the surface ships of the US fleet. This makes possible an all-out sustained air attack.

Ground forces are far weaker than in 1991 and much weaker than the US Army wanted – short by at least three heavy divisions and hundreds of tanks. This is partly because Turkey has not cooperated and partly because to address the problem would have taken too long for the Washington timetable for war. The US has at its disposal one mechanised infantry division and one weak British armoured division. The remainder of the ground forces are marines, airborne troops and special forces. This strategy relies on airpower rather than tanks and artillery to clear the way for the infantry.

The US aim will be to isolate and immobilise Iraqi ground forces. The country will be cut up into isolated chunks that can be screened and bypassed. Forces will be concentrated on key centres. Most of the Iraqi army will be left if it does not try to fight too hard.

The first phases of air attack will aim to destroy military and civilian communications, paralysing the regime, and then to destroy the airforces and missile sites. Following this, helicopters will ferry troops to occupy air bases, seize oilfields and occupy strategic road junctions and bridges. It is likely that Basra and Kirkuk will be taken early, but that Baghdad will be screened. Special forces will take key sites, but the city will not be attacked to begin with.

The Iraqi options

How the Iraqis will fight is beyond prediction. What follows is based on Iraqi intentions and political interests, and assumes some support for the regime and an effective pre-prepared strategy. The Iraqi air force is weak and the regular army ill-equipped and badly motivated. The army cannot undertake mobile operations in the face of Allied air power.

The only rational strategy, therefore, is not to rely on central command and to eschew a war of movement. Passive local defence sounds like a mistake, but it is the only strategy likely to work. Communication and movement play to the Allies’ strengths; silence and the defence of fixed positions, by contrast, forces them to accept battle on Iraqi terms. By this logic, the air and missile forces ought to be used right away in an all-out attack on the Allies and Israel. In all probability, they will all be destroyed, but they will be anyway. And this at least has some propaganda advantage in the Arab world.

Fighting on the streets of Baghdad?

In this strategy the most reliable ground forces and all tanks should be dug in within the most densely settled parts of the major cities. There they can be covered by some 6000 AA guns and 2000 portable SAM launchers believed to be available to the Iraqis. This would force the Allies to bomb or besiege the cities. Baghdad is a huge city and large-scale resistance could in theory soak up the whole Allied force like a greater Stalingrad. This won’t happen, but taking the city is still a real problem. Bombing increases the cover by creating ruins, and blocks the streets to Allied armour. The Allies will seek to avoid fighting street by street, and thus creating a greater Jenin. That is what Saddam would want, thousands of civilian casualties that shame the Allies in the Muslim world. But a siege is also unattractive to the Allies, it means starving the people and hoping that they will force a collapse.

Weapons of Mass Destruction

What of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction? He probably has very few, and he would be wise not to use them. If he does, he achieves little and retrospectively legitimates Allied action. Military defeat is unavoidable, the only question is how much political advantage can be secured by resolute resistance before defeat. This is the best that wicked regime that cares nothing for its people can achieve.

Whether it can be so Machiavellian, or so self-deluded as to believe its own propaganda that it can repel the Allies, is unclear. So far the evidence seems to show that there has been no systematic fortification of the residential areas of Baghdad.

Let us hope, whatever we think of the merits of this war, that the Iraqi forces melt away and that as little blood as possible is shed on both sides. Then at least the people could start in a post-Saddam Iraq with some hope.

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