Not (yet) an Arabian Tet

Paul Hirst
2 April 2003

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I argued on the eve of war that the coalition and Saddam were following asymmetrical strategies. If Iraqi resistance proved substantial, then the US-UK forces could face very real difficulties. This has proved to be the case. The US briefed the media that the invasion would be a walkover and the regime in Baghdad would crumble quickly. Now, faced with setbacks, many in the media are reacting as if the coalition is faced with military disaster, which is not the case.

Five barriers to a quick war

Donald Rumsfeld is the architect of the coalition strategy: he seriously miscalculated both the nature of the war and the scale of Iraqi resistance. Even so he is not directly responsible for all of the military delays and setbacks. So far the coalition forces have met only moderate armed resistance and they have yet to engage core units of the enemy in substantial numbers.

The progress of the invasion has been impeded by five factors. First, the need to avoid civilian casualties if possible. This means holding back the key US asset, massive airpower. The numbers of Iraqi civilian dead are already causing outrage: all-out bombing of pockets of resistance in urban areas would greatly magnify the civilian losses.

Second, the narrow front on which the attack had to be launched. The US army is moving along limited routes in the Euphrates-Tigris corridor, with numerous choke points at key bridges near towns like Nasiriya and Hindiya. Saudi and Turkish opposition has prevented the rapid advance on several extensive fronts towards Baghdad. The numbers of troops are not initially the key problem, because more forces could not easily have been deployed or supplied from Kuwait.

These first two factors minimise the effect of the coalition’s key military strengths, airpower and mobility, and maximise the disruptive power of the Iraqi strategy of local defence. The coalition’s strategy has been forced upon it by political choices and constraints; by contrast the Iraqi strategy is cleverly designed to counter US strengths.

Third, the extremely bad weather: violent sandstorms and heavy rain, which has stalled the spearheads and impeded the re-supply of forward units.

Fourth, stretched supply lines. The rear echelon American troops have proved very vulnerable to ambush. They are not apparently equipped, organised or trained for self-defence; a real failing in a style of war that eschews rigid front lines. This has diverted large numbers of combat troops back to cover supply lines stretching back 150-200 miles toward the rear.

Fifth and last, there are intelligence and planning failures. Military planners were told to assume that there would be mass surrenders by the regular army and that the people would turn on the secret police and party apparatus. The coalition forces would then move rapidly to confront the Republican Guards. US forces were big enough for a rapid campaign and a storming attack on the Iraqi forces on the outskirts of Baghdad.

The slow progress of the coalition raises a series of questions. What will happen before the reinforcements arrive in strength from mid-April onwards? The coalition cannot wait. It will be even more vulnerable to guerrilla tactics if it stands still. It must begin to confront the main Iraqi forces south of Baghdad if it is not to lose momentum, thus giving even greater encouragement to the enemy. Iraqi success has procured the regime the legitimacy for an all-out defence of Baghdad. A ‘pause’ will give time to strengthen its defences. The problem for the coalition is that it has almost no reserves. By the third week most troops will be close to exhaustion. That will be the point of maximum vulnerability, before reinforcements arrive in large numbers.

Dealing with Baghdad

How will the coalition deal with Baghdad? This has always been a problem, unless the regime just collapsed. It does not look like the regime will collapse even if the Republican Guard takes a total battering outside the city. The coalition does not have enough troops for a careful strategy of taking it street by street whilst using minimum firepower, and they are probably unwilling to take the casualties anyway. But right now they do not have the numbers for a real blockade of the whole city until reinforcements arrive. Storming the city and besieging it are both unpalatable options.

Will resistance collapse when Baghdad is taken? This is difficult to gauge but so far, Ba’ath Party militias and security forces have been prepared to put up a fight and are probably well prepared to go underground after a defeat. Even if 90% of the people want to see the back of Saddam that does not mean that they will welcome the coalition fighting street battles with pro-regime irregulars for months afterwards. The 10% of the population who benefit from the regime can provide the support base for a fanatical minority who will fight on.

So far Saddam has had the best war that he could have expected. Resistance has surprised the coalition forces. The US and UK forces can appear brutal and incompetent to the growing hostile audiences in the Arab world and elsewhere. Whether this is true is a secondary matter. Only a rapid collapse of the regime and a painless victory could have counteracted this sort of propaganda.

So far, whatever the military realities, this has been a political defeat for the coalition. It is not yet an Arabian Tet offensive (where the armed uprising of communist Vietnamese forces in 1968, though a military failure, was a political success in that it broke the US belief in its inevitable victory), but it could become one if mishandled. Saddam cannot hope to throw out the invaders, but he can hope to defeat them politically by appearing to offer heroic resistance.

Who to blame: Saudis, Turks or Rumsfeld?

Why did the US miscalculate? The mistakes are both political and military. Because the US was in such a hurry to go to war, it forfeited support in the region. Saudi cooperation was probably never a possibility, but Turkish support might have been available with subtler diplomacy; American policy-makers seem to have assumed that the Turks would swallow their pride and listen to the rustle of dollars.

Rumsfeld was central in choosing the military strategy. He was emboldened by Afghanistan and saw the negative voices in the US military confounded. He assumed that airpower and precision-guided munitions could do even more in Iraq, ‘decapitating’ the regime. He rejected the advice of officers he saw as backward-looking, like Army Chief of Staff General Shinseki, that more heavy ground forces were needed. Seduced by the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’, he clearly believed that high-tech weapons would defeat the enemy and infantry would be needed merely to occupy territory. Baghdad would not need to be besieged because, like the Taliban, Saddam’s brutal regime was brittle and would shatter at the first hard blow.

What now? The war is likely to take eight-ten weeks. The coalition will not be defeated and it is unlikely that major military operations will drag on for months. The fighting may involve far more civilian casualties than the coalition would like or world public opinion will tolerate. Afterwards Iraq is likely to be very insecure, and coalition troops highly exposed. The coalition will not, and politically cannot, do other than prosecute this war to its conclusion. It would be appalling for all this mayhem to have occurred with Saddam remaining in power.

How to win the peace

The problem for a change of course now is less the war than the peace. The coalition, both to help it prosecute the war and to maintain political credibility in Iraq and the region, needs to make it clear that the peace is a matter for the international community, not just for the US and UK. The best way to do this is UN trusteeship for the interim government in Iraq. The UN may be a frail instrument for war, but it could be a useful tool of peace in this case. Rather than imposing a protectorate, the US should support a constabulary raised from Muslim states outside the region, like Morocco and Malaysia.

Peacekeepers need to have enough Arabic speakers and arouse the minimum of hostility. After an initial phase, US and UK troops should withdraw to bases out of the way of Iraqi civilians. This will make them less of a target for Iraqi militias and outside terrorists.

The coalition also has a major job to do to restore relations with allies and other states in the region. It needs a serious concerted effort to push Israel toward peace negotiations with the Palestinians. It should quickly repair relations with Syria and also make it clear that there is no intention to attack Iran. This latter is no more than common sense: if Iraq has resisted, imagine the millions who would rise to defend Iran.

The US has been careless and in a hurry, driven on by hubris. It can only escape from its political mistakes by acting intelligently and multilaterally about the peace and saying so now.

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