The limits of military power

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
29 May 2002

In the past few days, there have been two surprising demonstrations of the limits of military power. The US chiefs-of-staff have warned the Bush administration against rushing into an attack on Iraq and the Israelis have conspicuously failed in their use of harsh military measures to control the suicide bombings. In the first of two articles, the implications of the changing US military attitude to Iraq are explored. Next week’s article will analyse the problems facing the Israeli Defence Force as it confronts bitter opposition in the densely populated towns and refugee camps of the West Bank and Gaza.

Iraq: military caution

An underlying feature of the US “war on terror” has been a sustained commitment to overthrowing the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. There have been many attempts to link the regime to terrorist activities elsewhere in the world, with virtually no success. Yet President Bush’s labelling of Iraq as one part of the “axis of evil” was a clear indication of the deep opposition to the regime. The reasons for this are clear, and comprise two elements.

One, very obviously, is that it is unacceptable to US foreign policy to have such a regime in the heart of the world’s most strategically important oil-bearing region. Iraq alone has about eleven per cent of the world’s oil reserves – about four times as much as the United States (including Alaska) – and it is in the middle of a region with almost two-thirds of the world total, at least ten times as great as the much-vaunted Caspian basin reserves. In Washington’s view, to have an oppositional and possibly expansionist regime right in the middle of such a region is a continuing and wholly unacceptable security risk.

Even more important than this, though, is the recognition that one of the key components of the regime’s security posture is to develop its own deterrent forces, principally comprising chemical and biological weapons and delivery systems. For four years it has escaped UN inspections; there is an assumption that it is working vigorously to weaponise its chemical and biological weapons (CBW) systems; and there is a belief that this will serve as a powerful limitation on any intervention, exactly as the Iraqi regime intends it to do.

For the United States, this is utterly unacceptable. It is simply inconceivable to have a situation where a rogue state could deter the United States and its allies from taking action in pursuit of their own security interests. There are bitter memories of the ability of the Iraqis to develop biological weapons in the run-up to the 1991 Gulf war and of the limitations that this placed on coalition action.

Mainly for these reasons, the termination of the Iraqi regime is regarded as a necessity in Washington, and there have been numerous indications that a major military operation would be initiated later this year with the aim of destroying the regime.

Now come credible reports that the US joint chiefs-of-staff, having done detailed assessments of the needs and nature of such an operation, are urging caution. At the very least they say that a war with Iraq would be fraught with difficulty, and that substantial time would be needed to develop the forces. There are even indications that alternatives might be sought, perhaps through the use of special forces or by encouraging internal opposition to the regime and thereby fostering rebellion and collapse.

The logic of restraint

At first sight, this seems an extraordinary situation. By almost universal consent, the United States is the world’s pre-eminent power, with military forces of extraordinary capability, able to take action in any part of the world and backed up by incredibly powerful tactical and strategic nuclear forces. There is a dedicated military command, Central Command (Centcom), concerned exclusively with the region, the fifth fleet patrols the Persian Gulf, and one side effect of the Afghanistan War has been the development of bases across southwest and central Asia.

Furthermore, the Iraqi armed forces are far weaker than they were at the time of the Gulf War, with the army only half its previous strength and the air force practically non-existent. Two no-fly zones have pinned down Iraqi forces and limited their operations, and the whole country has been under punitive sanctions for more than a decade. In such circumstances, a determined effort to destroy the regime should be very much more straightforward than eleven years ago.

This is not how the joint chiefs see it, with a stated requirement of at least two hundred thousand troops and the risk of substantial casualties. So what are the factors that account for this unexpected caution?

There are many explanations, but three are particularly important. The first is that the United States does not have the regional support that was forthcoming in 1991. Then, Kuwait had been occupied, Saudi Arabia was apparently threatened and Iraq was seen as a regional threat. Although the great majority of the coalition forces were American, there were substantial numbers from Britain and France, Arab countries such as Egypt and Syria contributed significant numbers of ground troops, and more than twenty-five other countries participated.

This time, the United States is far more isolated. There is some support from Britain, although the government is far more cautious in private than it admits in public. Other European countries are highly dubious, and support in the middle east is absent apart from some smaller Gulf states, and even they are urging caution.

The second factor is that this lack of regional support hugely limits any military operation, especially in relation to launch-points for an invasion of Iraq. In 1991, the Saudi authorities allowed coalition forces almost uninterrupted access to their territory, as well as committing their own forces. Turkey, too, was available for military operations.

Now, there is doubt over whether the Saudis would even allow US aircraft to operate from their bases, and little if any chance of troops being allowed to invade Iraq across the Saudi border. This leaves the much smaller territory of Kuwait as the only launch point. Turkey might allow the basing of offensive air forces, but full-scale US troop movements would be highly unlikely. Other neighbours of Iraq, notably Iran and Syria, are hardly going to be supportive – not when they have been designated part of the “axis of evil”, and when their own domestic public opinion is so vigorously anti-American.

Finally, the Iraqi regime itself appears to be firmly in control aided by the recent economic upturn which has allowed, among other things, an increase in military spending. It is true that the regime does not have the military power of eleven years ago, and there is certainly the strong possibility that elements of the armed forces might turn on the regime if faced with an all-out US invasion. But this is by no means certain.

The core units of the Iraqi army, the Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard, together with large elements of the security apparatus, have much to lose if the regime falls, and their loyalty may therefore remain strong in the face of an invasion. Furthermore, while most Iraqis have experienced all the consequences of a brutal regime, coupled with more than a decade of sanctions, much of the blame for this is laid at the door of the United States, not the regime.

The consequence is that any attempt to destroy the regime, especially if it involves an occupation of Baghdad, could lead to intense urban warfare with many Americans killed. Furthermore, regime survival is at the heart of Saddam Hussein’s strategy. It has to be assumed that an attempt to destroy the regime itself – which is, after all, the intended aim of the whole operation – will most likely lead to the Iraqis using any chemical and biological weapons that they may now have. Moreover, such weapons would be used not just against US troops in Iraq itself, but against targets in neighbouring countries such as Kuwait.

In extreme circumstances of imminent regime destruction, attacks against Israel might even be contemplated in the expectation that there would be a massive response from the Sharon government leading to regional escalation. Given the existing levels of anti-American feeling across the middle east, greatly exacerbated by recent Israeli actions, even an attack on Iraq that did not bring in Israel would heighten tensions to a remarkable degree.

The Afghanistan connection

Even with these substantial problems and limitations, there still has to be a question mark over why the US Joint Chiefs have taken this cautious view. After all, Iraq is not a strong state and US forces are formidable. Furthermore, if Iraq is left alone, its further development of weapons of mass destruction in such a strategically important region would surely be a nightmare for the Bush administration, with its need to regain international control after 11 September. To have the world’s leading rogue state able to act with impunity could not be tolerated.

Are there other reasons for the caution? The answer is yes, and they stem from some of the less obvious features of the military actions of the past eight months. As has been argued throughout this series of articles, the “war on terror” has been much less easy to fight than most elements of the media would have us believe. Where there have been direct confrontations between US troops and guerrilla forces, the latter have fought with a remarkable determination. The United States has suffered casualties and much equipment damage and has ended up leading a coalition of some eleven thousand troops in Afghanistan itself, with tens of thousands deployed regionally.

In the past three months the guerrilla forces have almost entirely gone to ground; they have proved extraordinarily difficult to intercept. Most are hidden in cities, towns and villages in Pakistan. That country, hugely preoccupied with Kashmir and the risk of an appalling confrontation with India, is deeply reluctant to give the United States a free hand in the border areas, and cannot spare the troops to confront the guerrillas itself.

More generally, the pace of military operations in the region as a whole has put a strain on many of the US units. There has been a substantial increase in accidents involving aircraft, large numbers have had to be withdrawn from service for maintenance and repairs, and the whole system is experiencing some quite serious strain. Furthermore, the rate at which missiles and precision-guided bombs have been used has resulted in serious shortages. It will take many months to restore the stocks, let alone to build them up to the levels required for an all-out assault on Iraq.

Meanwhile, there is no guarantee whatsoever that the war in Afghanistan is over – indeed there are recent indications of a reforming of some Taliban elements, with the bitter rivalries between warlords giving them an opportunity to regain influence. While the Taliban is almost universally discredited outside of Afghanistan, it is worth remembering that it came to power in the mid-1990s precisely because it brought some sort of order, however harsh, to an anarchic country crippled by warlordism.

What next for Iraq?

If the US is limited in its immediate ability to attack the Saddam Hussein regime, one major alternative might be to combine support for oppositional forces with more intensive air attacks and the use of special forces, progressively crippling the regime and ensuring its collapse.

It sounds possible in theory, but there are three immediate problems. Oppositional groups are fractured and weak, sustained air attacks with their inevitable civilian casualties would strengthen opposition to US actions in the region and in Europe, and US special forces are already under heavy pressure because of operations in Afghanistan, Georgia, the Philippines and elsewhere. In short, there is a discontinuity between what the Bush administration believes is essential, destroying the Iraqi regime, and the capabilities of the US military to do it.

This all goes a long way to explaining why President Bush was so careful to emphasise the need for co-operation with European partners during his meetings in Germany last week. It may also explain his considerable efforts to support President Putin in Moscow, as Russian opposition to a war on Iraq would certainly be a limitation. What this all means is that, at least in the context of Iraq, the Bush administration is recognising the limitations on “going it alone”, so more protracted efforts may be made to bring the Europeans on board.

At the same time, we should not be under any illusion that the administration is in any way downgrading its determination to terminate the Saddam Hussein regime. That remains a fundamental requirement, not least to demonstrate that oppositional states must simply not be allowed to develop weapons of mass destruction. The security advisers close to Bush will maintain their stance, and there may well be questions over why the chiefs of staff are so cautious at a time of burgeoning defence budgets.

Even so, what these potential limits to US military power do indicate is that European allies may be more important than anyone realised. With that comes the potential to exert some influence on Washington in its policies towards the middle east. More generally, the military caution over attacking Iraq might just be the first sign that the strongly unilateralist tendencies of the Bush administration are starting to hit some limits.

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