The war with Iraq will not be a replay of the smashing 1991 victory. It is not unreasonable to expect an overwhelming success on the battlefield. But a variety of factors make this conflict a very different proposition from the Gulf War. Indeed, America’s overwhelming military superiority may be one of the few things the two conflicts have in common.
The differing objectives of the wars are the most important differences to bear in mind when gauging the success or failure of the impending campaign. The purpose of the first Gulf War was to liberate Kuwait by ejecting the Iraqi invaders. The United States hoped a weakened Saddam would fall from power, but it did not make this a stated objective, largely in deference to our Arab allies in the 1990-91 coalition.
This time, President Bush has left no doubts that “regime change” is a major objective of the war. This is a formidable task and completing it complicates the military’s job enormously. Defeating inept Iraqi armed forces is one thing; replacing the civilian infrastructure of a long-running dictatorship is quite another.
NO HOLDS BARRED
Because Saddam knows we are coming to get him this time, and that his survival as Iraq’s leader is not an option, any reluctance he may have had in the 1990-91 conflict to use chemical weapons or even biological agents has been removed. U.S. ground forces fully expect to get “slimed,” as chemical attacks are known in the military. The most likely delivery method will be Iraqi artillery and short-range rockets, and American and British forces have trained accordingly.
Less well prepared are the civilians in the region, a population basically naked to this threat. The exception is Israel’s population, which over the years has been drilled in preparation for a chemical attack.
This time, however, if the Israelis are hit, it is highly unlikely they will heed American pleas for restraint. I fully expect them to lash back at Baghdad, and if they were to suffer serious casualties at the hands of chemical or biological agents, Israel might well choose to go nuclear. The seriousness of this cannot be overstated: An Israeli nuclear attack on Baghdad, whether delivered by their warplanes or their Jericho II missiles, would reverberate for years and have profound implications for American standing in the world. Rightly or not, much of the world would blame the United States for choosing a military solution and triggering this awful scenario.
The good news is that Saddam only possesses a small number of ballistic missiles capable of reaching Israel, Turkey, Kuwait or other gulf countries. Key population areas and all major U.S. and British military facilities are defended by upgraded Patriot missile batteries. Additionally, the Israeli Arrow antiballistic missile system, jointly developed with the United States, will give Israeli cities an additional layer of protection.
THE MILITARY CAMPAIGN
Like the Gulf War, the impending campaign to oust Saddam will start with massive air strikes to cripple command-and-control and leadership targets and destroy Iraq’s integrated air defense system. Storage and delivery sites for weapons of mass destruction also will be hit, along with headquarters and fielded troops of the Special Republican Guards and other elite Iraqi military formations.
Unlike 1991, however, this time the objective is a “coup de main” — a toppling of the Iraqi regime. This suggests the air phase of the war will not be protracted. Indeed, air and ground attacks may well be simultaneous to present the Iraqis with so many threats in so many places that they unravel while trying to react.
Simultaneous air, ground and special operations attacks hopefully will deny the Iraqis the option of engaging U.S. and British forces in a costly war of a attrition in built-up areas.
By hitting Iraq’s centers of power all at once (as we did in Panama in 1989 when we took down the Noriega regime), we may deny the Iraqis the capability to reconstitute a defense in the cities. The plan is designed to deliver a devastating aerial attack that undermines the will of the Iraqis to resist.
Urban warfare rightly is held up as the worst kind of combat. But it should be remembered that it takes a highly committed defender to fight in the cities, as the Russians did at Stalingrad and Leningrad in World War II, or the Chechens in Grozny in the late 1990s.
Toppling Saddam’s regime and replacing it with a democratic government is an extremely complex and a daunting task. Here, the overwhelming military victory will not ensure success. The great power of the U.S. government and those of other nations must be brought to bear to rebuild Iraq into a democratic example for the region.
Diplomacy, economic programs, information programs, justice and law enforcement will be crucial. Military programs providing security in the country will be important. Melding the outside Iraqi opposition with suspicious internal dissidents who did not flee the country will be very difficult.
The Bush administration has been very slow to bring the external opposition closely together or train an exile armed force. Perhaps this lack of coordination is by design in order to deny the Iraqi expatriates the opportunity to coalesce and claim a role on the battlefield victory that would enhance their legitimacy — and make them more difficult to deal with in the turbulent period following war.
American forces have made impressive strides since the last Gulf War. Look for a predominance of smart weapons that will require fewer bombs and aircraft and will minimize civilian casualties and damage to non-military targets in built-up areas.
American intelligence will be more comprehensive than it was in 1991 and that will be a great advantage to U.S. commanders. But what is Iraq’s intelligence capability? Unfortunately the Iraqis have not been idle. They have studied the lessons of 1991 and subsequent U.S. operations in Bosnia and Kosovo. We know that they have been able to get a fiber optic communications system installed for their command and control, making it far more difficult to intercept messages or disrupt the system during wartime. Meetings with Serb military and intelligence officers and others likely have given Iraq insight on how to “see” our stealth aircraft. Finally, Iraq almost certainly will try to jam our vital GPS, or Global Positioning Satellite systems. This will affect not only air, land and sea navigation but also the precision guidance systems like JDAM munitions that were so effective in Afghanistan.
(Wayne Downing is a retired Army general. He commanded all the U.S. special operations forces in the 1989 invasion of Panama and the removal of Manuel Noriega from power. He also commanded a special operations task force operating behind Iraqi lines in Desert Storm. )