Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of the Iraq war, appeared before reporters on Tuesday to assure them that the combat American and British forces experienced over the past four days neither surprised nor particularly impressed his commanders. With his forces poised to engage Iraq’s best forces around Baghdad, the general has more important priorities than skirmishes with Iraqi forces in the rear.
Yet again if Iraqi resistance in places like Basra, Nasiriyah and Umm Qasr means little to the war’s outcome, these actions have opened a window of opportunity for another army: the legions of retired generals, media consultants and disgruntled commanders who always saw the plan to strike deep and fast at the Iraqi capital as too risky for a nation famously averse to casualties.
Many of the great land campaigns of history were based on the willingness of generals to place their supply lines at risk in order to outmaneuver and outpace their adversaries. From ancient times we have the examples of Alexander’s march across Asia, Hannibal crossing the Alps and Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes. The campaigns of Gustavus Adolphus, Marlborough and Napoleon are classics of maneuver and speed at the expense of logistical certainty.
During the Civil War there was Stonewall Jackson’s campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, Grant’s Vicksburg campaign and Sherman’s march across Georgia. In modern times, we have the German Ardennes campaign, Rommel’s operations in the North African Desert and Patton’s race across France. The Great Captains of history have always understood logistics, but never let that stop them.
FRANKS THE BOLD
Franks, the CENTCOM commander, and his component commanders confronted a strategic situation that would have challenged even the most brilliant military planners. They possessed insufficient forces to conduct a deliberate campaign. They did not have sufficient time to employ an attrition strategy, such as had been the case in the first Gulf War, and lacked a vital staging area — Turkey — on the very eve of battle.
They faced an adversary they had to assume would employ asymmetric strategies, including urban combat, use of civilians as human shields and employment of chemical or biological weapons. Franks was under enormous pressure to conduct a campaign that was swift, decisive and, hopefully, low-cost in terms of human life.
Conventional military doctrine told Franks and his staff to hold off the offensive until more forces could be deployed and delay the ground offensive until the battlefield could be properly prepared.
InsertArt(1837965)With the approval of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers and President George W. Bush, the chose instead to throw away the book. In a move that surprised virtually all observers, including innumerable retired military officers, CENTCOM began the ground offensive on the first full day of the war.
Even more unbelievable to some, coalition ground forces were directed to bypass Iraqi units in built up areas and move as rapidly as possible towards Baghdad. The 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division advanced across more than 200 miles of desert in four days. In its wake it left a long and vulnerable supply line and towns and villages containing hostile forces.
THE DANGERS OF MOVING FAST
This move was not without serious risks. Unlike some of his famous predecessors, Franks could not cut himself off entirely from his supply base back in Kuwait. Modern military forces, unlike those of Napoleon, cannot live off the land. This means that the 3rd Infantry Division had to be careful not to outrun its supply lines. This happened to in 1944 during Patton’s advance to the Rhine.
The longer the supply line is, the greater the chance that it will be subject to interdiction. Two Confederate generals, John Singleton Mosby and Nathan Bedford Forrest, gained fame and notoriety by raiding the supply lines of Union forces advancing south. The British Long-Range Desert Patrols, the “Desert Rats,” repeatedly attacked the the supply lines of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, which ran from Tunisia all the way to the outskirts of Cairo. Raiders rarely defeat their adversaries but they can slow them down and force the diversion of large numbers of troops from offensive operations to guarding the supply lines.
The greatest danger confronting generals who attempt deep, swift advances is that they leave themselves open to counterattack. Robert E. Lee attempted such a campaign in both 1862 and 1863; both ended in near disasters. The advance of U.S. Marines to the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea in 1950 was a similar high-risk endeavor.
THE GAMBLE WORKS
Franks clearly gambled that he was facing an adversary who could not or would not use speed and maneuver against him. Franks apparently guessed correctly. The regular Iraqi army melted away. The Republican Guard stayed fixed in their defensive positions around Baghdad, and predictable pockets of die-hard resistance flared in the south. “Dead-enders” is what Rumsfeld called them Tuesday — men whose livelihood, even lives, depend on the survival of Saddam’s regime. Of course they fight on!
InsertArt(1837964)Clearly, Franks was willing to take the risk. To mitigate the potential dangers of a rapid advance to Baghdad, he directed the 3rd Infantry Division to advance south of the Euphrates River avoiding the towns and villages along the way. The division could thereby avoid getting bogged down in urban combat.
This bold move also left potential nests of enemy forces along his line of supply. As a result, Iraqi forces were able to organize themselves in the city of Nasiriyah to ambush U.S. supply units. Marine combat forces have been battling Iraqi irregulars there for more than two days. Elements of the 101st Airborne have been drafted into duty protecting the convoys moving up from Kuwait.
All of this appeared to strike some observers as a near disaster, or at best, a setback that raised questions about the American war plan. This betrays a colossal misunderstanding of what war really is, perhaps an understandable thing in modern America, where wars of recent memory have been small, short and fought almost entirely from 15,000 feet or above. The hardest part of the war clearly lies ahead, but to date, with only 39 confirmed allied casualties, five days of fighting have cost less in human terms than the first few minutes of the Normandy invasion.
It is clear that winning the war with Iraq as distinct from the battle for Baghdad will require more forces. Indeed, this always was clear. That is why these forces are on their way. The 4th Mechanized Infantry Division, the same one denied access to Turkey, will make an appearance in the region in about two weeks when its tanks, artillery and other equipment finish the long trip through the Suez Canal, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. In the meantime, coalition air forces will tear Republican Guard defensive units to pieces.
It would be wrong to suggest that the war is a foregone conclusion. Areas behind the main American thrust toward Baghdad are unpredictable, and Franks’ officers will have to come to an accommodation, at some level, with Iraqi Shiites once remaining Saddam loyalists are subdued. Franks plans to rely on audacity, speed and the enormous professional competence of the coalition armed forces to prevent a disaster in southern Iraq. In stark contrast to what his most vocal critics claim, Franks’ command of the war so far suggests this is a mission he can accomplish.
(Dan Goure, an NBC News military analyst, is senior defense analyst at the Lexington Institute in Washington and a former defense official during the first Gulf War.)