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After failure: US strategy in Iraq

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Paul Rogers
30 March 2003

The planning, timetabling and execution of the war have revealed severe flaws in US and British strategy. Iraqi armed resistance and civilian suspicion have been far higher than expected. Anti-war sentiment continues to rise in the region. How will the US respond?

Paul Rogers will be writing twice weekly for the duration of the war.
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The United States war plan in Iraq depended on massive air bombardments and rapid movements of ground troops towards Baghdad to bring the regime to its knees, possibly in a matter of days and certainly in a very few weeks.

The war in Iraq is not going according to this plan. The main reason is simple: the strategy was flawed from the start, and has been further thrown off course by short-term surprises and specific failures.

A shifting timetable

The US military planners had originally hoped to begin the war towards the end of March, when all of its intended troop deployments were to have been completed.

Three factors disrupted this. First, the reluctance of the UN Security Council to accede to pressure over a possible second resolution (as a follow-up to Resolution 1441) influenced the decision to launch the war a few days earlier than planned.

Second, the refusal of the Turkish parliament to allow US troops to move through Turkey into northern Iraq refocused attention on the southern front, with US planners believing that there would be sufficient US forces in Kuwait by around 26 March to begin the war from that direction alone.

These two events led war planners to bring the schedule forward by several days, probably to the night of 21-22 March. In turn, however, that was changed again in the light of credible intelligence reports locating Saddam Hussein and other Iraqi leaders at a leadership compound in the vicinity of one of the homes of Saddam Hussein’s younger son (and leader of the Republican Guard), Qusay.

At short notice, and at least two full days before the intended start of the war, President Bush authorised a massive attack on the compound. The assault on the night of 19-20 March used about forty cruise missiles fired from four ships and two submarines, along with two 1,000-kilogram bombs dropped by F-117A stealth strike aircraft.

The attack failed in its targeting of Saddam, yet it also gave the Iraqis clear notice of the onset of war; this meant that the rest of the US forces had to be rushed into action. The US journal Aviation Week (one of the most reliable sources of information on the war) reported that the new situation “left military commanders in the Middle East scrambling to move up their schedules. The attack may have come as a surprise to the Iraqis, but equally shocked were US troops assembled in the region and America’s British allies.” (Aviation Week, 24 March 2003).

As war plans were brought forward, US and British troops crossed the border from Kuwait, and substantial air raids were mounted on many parts of Iraq, notably Baghdad itself. These caused considerable destruction and substantial loss of life, yet even the massive attacks of the third night of the war failed to make the regime capitulate. Thus, within days of the start of the war, the ground offensive became essential to the central US war aim of terminating the regime.

Now, twelve days into the war, and with the ground offensive virtually stalled, military and political leaders frequently deny making any pre-war promise of a short war.

This is, at best, disingenuous. In the run-up to the war there were numerous briefings from within the Bush administration to selected journalists which confidently predicted that the intense use of air power combined with a rapid march on Baghdad would guarantee a quick victory. At their more optimistic, this even extended to a belief that three or four nights of intensive bombing alone would be enough to destroy the regime.

The Iraqi factor

In practice, and almost from the start, it became clear that US plans were not going to work as planned. Yet the full extent of early failures was concealed by the coalition’s effective news management, which consistently overestimated its progress – from the Basra ‘uprising’ to the premature ‘capture’ of Umm Qasr.

Four distinct factors combined to ensure the problems that handicapped the US and British from the outset. First, the severe weather, including lengthy sandstorms; second, the constraints on actions that might inflict especially high civilian casualties, which were partly a testimony to the enormous anti-war movements that have developed (especially in Britain).

The other two factors require more elaboration. Third, then, is the amount of resistance mounted by lightly-armed but determined Iraqi units, many of them targeting the long supply lines established as a consequence of the rapid initial movement of US troops from Kuwait towards Baghdad.

The extent of this disruption is extraordinary, considering that the confrontations involve the use of light weapons against the world’s best-equipped forces. The equivalent of three US army brigades are tied down protecting the supply lines, with additional fighting taking place in many of the urban centers on the route to Baghdad.

These three brigades represent about half of the army currently in Iraq and close to 30% of the combined force of army and Marine Corps units. These troops are facing a level of resistance that was completely unexpected and is now affecting the entire operation.

(A complicating factor here is the ‘embedding’ of correspondents with army and Marine Corps units. This kind of media coverage is predicated on a successful war – with the victor gaining not just the spoils of war but its media glamour. If however, a war does not go as expected, media correspondents are on hand to report its failures and setbacks too.

Correspondents with the troops are, of course, operating with ‘minders’ and may often be limited in what they can report, especially through the all-important medium of television. But what is forgotten is that such reporters also have satellite phones and can communicate direct with their offices, giving private indications of damaging circumstances that they cannot cover fully in their ‘live’ reports.)

The fourth factor is the failure of ordinary Iraqi people even to welcome US and British troops as liberators, let alone rise up against the regime. The reasons may vary. Shi’a memories of US inaction during the bloody 1991 uprising are often cited; but a more general pattern of sullen and suspicious attitudes throughout the southern areas subject to coalition control is becoming evident.

This situation is made worse by the increasingly tough behaviour of US troops, especially jittery after the recent suicide bombing, an incident with profound significance to US forces. In October 1983, the US Marine Corps lost 241 of its members to a massive truck bomb detonated outside a barracks block at Beirut airport, an event that precipitated the end of US intervention in Lebanon. This disaster is ingrained in the mindset of the modern Marine Corps.

Suicide bombings by people connected with the Iraqi army have an even greater symbolic impact than those from a paramilitary group, not least because the Iraqi armed forces have access to far more powerful weapons than, for example, Hamas.

What now?

The failed US strategy has in turn created a very dangerous set of circumstances.

At present, there are three possible options. First, the one formally announced by official US sources: a pause of several more days before an attack on Baghdad is launched. This would be highly risky and could be achieved only by combining a ground offensive with a very heavy use of air power that would result in large numbers of civilian casualties, ones measured in the thousands rather than the hundreds as at present.

If this option was followed through, it could start within a week, and build on the intensive bombardment of Republican Guard divisions that is currently underway (which includes extensive carpet-bombing by B-52s from RAF Fairford in England). The success of this policy is dependent on the aerial destruction of the Republican Guard, though there are indications of their capacity to regroup along pre-existing defensive positions in the southern suburbs of Baghdad.

The second option available is to await the arrival of another US army division of around 18,000 troops, originally intended for the northern front through Turkey. This would certainly reinforce existing capabilities. The equipment for the division is currently in transit from the eastern Mediterranean to Kuwait.

The problem is that the necessary equipment will not all be in place until 11 April, and it will take several more days to get the division ready for action and move it through southern Iraq. This would delay the offensive until the second half of April, closer to the hottest time of year when hostilities are likely to be much harder to wage.

The third option is for the US to bring in substantial reinforcements, comprising the 120,000 or so troops that are now being prepared for deployment in the region, before resuming its major advance. This would delay the war even further, certainly through the summer months.

The US dilemma: intensify, or delay?

The overall predicament for the US is whether to try and terminate the Iraqi regime with the forces now available. It has the ability to do so, but only through the use of its massive advantage in firepower. This would entail thousands of civilian deaths.

The alternative is to wait until there are far greater forces in the area. This however might delay a conclusion to the war by some months, giving greater opportunity for an even more vigorous anti-war mood throughout the Middle East and beyond.

Both these possibilities could be pre-empted by the assassination of Saddam Hussein (and other members of the Iraqi leadership) in a US bombing raid, but that seems unlikely given the deception and concealment tactics now being practiced.

In conclusion, what was expected to be a quick and easy victory is turning into something far more complex and difficult. The gravest result for the US would be severe damage to the neo-conservative security agenda in Washington, one built around the extraordinary yet deeply entrenched idea of a New American Century. This vision will not be readily abandoned. As a result, and in the face of the problems that have arisen, an intensification of the US war effort is highly likely.

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