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Predicting Iraq’s defense strategy

Gen. Sultan Hashim Ahmad, Iraq’s defense minister and armed forces chief of staff, surveyed his unhappy planning staff. Sultan and his staff knew they were on the cusp of a war they could not win. Analysis by Gen. Bernard Trainor.
/ Source: contributor

Consider the following scenario: Gen. Sultan Hashim Ahmad, Iraq’s defense minister and armed forces chief of staff, surveyed his unhappy planning staff. Sultan and his staff knew they were on the brink of a war they could not win. Yet they were obliged to present Saddam Hussein with military options and, like military men everywhere, they were determined to do their utmost to serve their leader.

Sultan opened the meeting by explaining that Saddam had decided on a two-track strategy. The primary track was the continuation of diplomatic efforts to mobilize international and American domestic opposition to Bush’s war of aggression. The secondary track was a military strategy designed to support that goal by slowing the American advance while inflicting heavy casualties on them.

All agreed that the middle of Iraq, centered on Baghdad and populated by loyal Sunnis, as the sector that would get highest priority for defense. A vigorous defense there would be mounted as the diplomatic campaign was waged abroad. All six Republican Guards divisions armed with all their tanks would concentrate along the approaches to Baghdad. Anti-aircraft units from the provinces would be pulled back toward the capital, and the city itself would be defended by the 15,000-strong Special Republican Guard, with their unwavering allegiance to Saddam Hussein. They would be the only units allowed in the city until President Saddam authorized the outlying Guard units to fall back on the city and turn it into a citadel. In the final stage of the war, they would force the Americans into a costly urban war.


The assembled commanders also agreed that the 300,000 man conscript army could not be trusted to fight. Indeed, the regular army, targeted by American propaganda and U.S. intelligence feelers, represented a potential threat to the regime. Therefore, they would be kept well away from central Iraq. Eleven of the regular army’s 17 divisions would be deployed in the north facing Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. Their job would be to defend Kirkuk, Mosul, the adjacent oil fields and to block an attack down the Euphrates corridor to Baghdad. The remaining six divisions would face the Americans in the south on the Kuwaiti front. Both the northern and southern defenders would be stiffened and monitored by loyal special security units. But all in the room understood: these thousands would stand no chance against the Americans and the British.

Even if the ill-trained, ill-equipped regular army did not immediately surrender when the war began, the general staff concluded that the best it could do was delay and inflict casualties on the Americans.

The staff also concluded that the invasion would be so overpowering in the south that there was not much point in defending the border immediately adjacent to Kuwait. There was disagreement, however, over whether to force a bloody battle with the British and American troops tasked with taking Basra, Iraq’s second largest city located only thirty miles from the Kuwaiti border. Many thought it impossible to defend and unlikely to hold up against the main American advance.


Indeed, the Iraqi generals universally assumed the Americans in Kuwait would attack north and converge on Baghdad along both the Euphrates and Tigris River corridors. Sultan noted the importance of destroying all bridges to deny them to the advancing enemy, and mining the many river crossing points to delay the Americans and make them vulnerable to artillery as they forded the rivers. Attacks against vulnerable supply lines and helicopter refueling points were guaranteed to slow down the Americans. The staff concurred, too, with a more ominous contingency plan — mining the great dams that hold back the waters of central Iraq’s reservoirs so they might be blown up at key moments, unleashing a deluge that might sweep entire units of the advancing enemy’s army into oblivion.

Reluctantly, the staff also accepted preparations to torch the country’s oil fields and have Iraq’s artillery, missiles, and aircraft readied to deliver chemicals against the Americans on the battlefield and against hostile neighboring states. For the first time, a staff officer raised an objection, noting that the chemical weapons are too indiscriminate and could endanger the ill-equipped Iraqi troops more than the Americans. Sultan fixed the speaker with an icy stare and treated the concern with contemptuous silence.


General Sultan then informed his officers that while it appeared Turkey had decided against allowing an American second front to be launched from its territory, forces in the north still would have to prepare for the worst.

Despite their doubts that the army would put up much resistance, all agreed that the only option was to conduct a fighting retreat in the north as they planned to do in the south. Sultan stressed the need to be ruthless with the rebellious Kurdish population. Use of chemical weapons and the burning of the Kirkuk and Mosul oil fields was a distinct possibility on the northern front.

If the Turks did not allow an American invasion, Sultan said, he expected American paratroops and helicopter-borne troops to seize, occupy and defend the oil fields. He pointed out that such forces would be lightly armed, lacking mobility and thus vulnerable to counterattack. His audience looked dubious. He knew what they were thinking.

American air power was overwhelming and devastating.


Aware of his staff’s deep pessimism, Sultan assured them that the Americans were not invincible. He pointed out that the Americans depended upon technology to conduct their wars.

“That is their weak link,” he said. “It will be the primary target of our experts who would use Iraq’s formidable electronic warfare arsenal to confuse, deceive, interrupt and misdirect the Americans.”

Sultan explained how the Serbs in Kosovo had stymied the American air force and frequently ambushed it through electronic means coupled with camouflage and deception techniques. The Americans never destroyed the Serb ground forces, particularly Serb armored divisions, despite their supremacy in the air.

“The Serbs used brains, not guns to neutralize the Americans and we can do the same,” he proclaimed. “We have met with the Serbs and learned their techniques. “We have studied the American tactics in Afghanistan. We have some surprises for the over confident Americans. We will use the very technology they so depend upon as a weapon against them.”

At the end of the meeting Gen. Sultan, perspiring from rhetorical exertion, sighed and turned to leave. Before he did, he looked into the eyes of his staff. He knew in his heart that none of them believed a word he had said.

(Gen. Bernard Trainor, U.S. Marine Corps (retired), is an NBC News military analyst and a former military correspondent for The New York Times.)