After 12 days of war, the battle maps of Iraq provide some comfort to U.S. and British commanders. Major elements of three U.S. divisions are coiled at the gates of the Iraqi capital; U.S. forces are building strength in the Kurdish-held north; and, in spite of persistent resistance in the south, supplies and reinforcements are getting through. Still, many of the preconceptions that lay beneath the allied war plan now look flawed, and none more than the assumption made by some and encouraged by many in the Bush administration that the war would be a swift, clean “war of liberation.”
“Now that conflict has come, the only way to limit its duration is to apply decisive force,” President Bush said March 19, the eve of war. “And I assure you, this will not be a campaign of half measures, and we will accept no outcome but victory.”
Did the United States apply decisive force? In fact, did Gen. Tommy Franks, the war’s commander, have decisive force available to him and the authorization to unleash it? Franks himself insists he did.
Whatever the initial claims and expectations surrounding this war, a longer conflict presents clear challenges. In interviews with senior military officers as well as political and defense analysts, MSNBC.com found broad agreement on the difficulties now facing the United States in a protracted conflict, from damage to the world economy — including America’s — to further alienation of Iraq’s population.
HEARTS AND MINDS
Take Najaf, a city of half a million, as an example of how winning hearts and minds becomes increasingly difficult each day the war is fought. The street-to-street, house-to-house fighting needed to neutralize opposition in Najaf has already had a destructive byproduct: alienation of Iraqi civilians. The results are beginning to appear in U.S. media — bloodied children, terrified mothers, destroyed and damaged homes — and the effects cannot be underestimated, experts say.
“Two things create terrorists,” an intelligence official says. “One is misguided ideology. The other is a lust for vengeance.”
With combat wearing on, and tragic errors like Monday’s killings by U.S. troops of a carload of women and children near Najaf, the bitterness toward intended liberators could prove insurmountable.
To date, there is little evidence that Iraqis see the war as one of liberation. British forces fighting around Basra have found it difficult to ascertain whether they are viewed as liberators at the gates or just the latest oppressors.
“I would say the other shoe hasn’t dropped with regard to the question of Iraqis’ loyalties,” a British diplomat says. “Basra’s residents may be furious at being bombed, or they may be furious the allies have not fought harder to liberate them. Or they may genuinely regard an invasion by two foreign armies as an attack on their homeland. It’s simply too early to tell.”
A senior official at U.S. Central Command, interviewed by NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell in Doha, Qatar, Monday, insisted this is not a surprise.
“We let them down in ’91,” the official said, speaking of the first Bush administration’s decision not to prevent Saddam’s regime from crushing a rising by southern Shiites after the Gulf War. “If you’ve been beaten up and beaten down and persecuted, we shouldn’t be surprised that they are waiting to see.”
The global economy, already in a slump, also stands to suffer more if the war drags on. Looking beyond the day to day reaction of stock markets, economic experts fear that the higher oil prices, jittery investment climate, the lack of tourism and return to deficit spending needed to fund the war will combine to dash hopes of a return to the high growth rates of the late 1990s.
Thomas E. Mann, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, sees political dangers for the president, as well.
“Once the guns quiet, and we have to manage a fairly sizeable and fractious country, and given the way we went in will limit our ability to share that burden with others ... yeah, I think the potential for political difficulties is there,” says Mann. “Bush could face a Congress, particularly Republicans, who balk at approving the money needed to sustain a long-term occupation, especially if the American economy falls back into recession.”
Yet another danger if the war proceeds slowly: that a strike by terrorists at a major American target may lead some to blame the Bush administration for stirring anti-American hatred or diverting resources to Iraq that might have been employed against al-Qaida. As Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak put it Monday, “If there is one (Osama) bin Laden now, there will be 100 bin Ladens afterward.”
THE ‘CASUALTY TRADE-OFF’
To add to the specific complications of a protracted war is one overarching reality: War is about death, and a sure consequence of combat dragging into May or beyond is that more people will die or be maimed.
“More war means more body bags,” one senior military official says. “There’s no pretty way to put that. No one should be surprised, and to my knowledge, no one claimed otherwise before it, either.”
Another critical factor is whether the steady news of allied casualties will begin to erode American and British public support for the war down the road. Most analysts believe that, even if the war lasts a few months, that it will end before the threshold of public tolerance will be reached.
“One of the complications, of course, is 9/11,” says Mann. “It has created an atmosphere that makes all of us feel both vulnerable and patriotic and lends a level of support that might not otherwise be there.”
Indeed, combat deaths and injuries among U.S. and British forces, so far, appear not to have dented general public support for the war effort, according to the latest opinion surveys. Some 43 allied troops had been killed at this writing, and another 10 were listed as missing.
Down the road, however, the long, hard-fought Iraq war could be storing up trouble, experts say.
The quick victory many had hoped for — one that swept Saddam and his cronies from power, accompanied by mass surrenders and an outburst of relief on the part of ordinary Iraqis — would have been viewed as almost a mandate for the war. Its critics at home and among U.N. Security Council members would have been muted.
So far, quite the opposite has occurred.
Iraq’s own plan to resist the invasion has entranced the Arab world and other countries who felt the U.S.-led war bordered on bullying.
Within Iraq itself, the bitterness of the resistance being put up to U.S. and British troops, even in regions where Saddam’s rule is heavily resented, does not bode well for postwar forces.
“It is looking like a lot more than we bargained for,” says a retired general who, as a young officer, served in occupied Germany. “The ethnic divisions are a minefield, and the number of troops in there right now cannot possibly control every town in a country that size.”
Andrea Lopez, an expert on military occupations at Susquehanna (Pa.) University, also casts her concerns to when the shooting ends. Any postwar plan for a safe Iraq has to somehow unite three ethnic groups together. Step-by-step, uniting all the hearts and minds, convincing them that some form of coalition government is acceptable,” she says. “These are giant potholes.”