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Wednesday, March 26, 2003

The War in Iraq So Far: A Brief Analysis

Introduction: Be Wary of Media Hype or Excessive Criticisms:

Several emails have reached the buggy prof from various points around the globe, all essentially asking for his views about the conduct of the war and its likely course over the next few days. Not an easy thing to do; for the buggy prof, or for that matter anyone else . . . including all those brisk and busy arm-chair critics in the media, pontificators to the end . . . mainly TV anchormen and print-journalists who, coming alive on Monday, indulged in a furor of criticism and doom-doom stuff. Look! Look! The coalition's strategy was going astray, wasn't it? And operations were bogging down, and not enough boots on the ground, and obviously not enough armor, the silly twits in Central Command and the Pentagon. While, simultaneously --- The sky's falling! Run, Chicken Little! Run! Run!--- huge and unexpected resistance developing as if Fedayeen terrorists dressed in civvies, mainly recruited from Tikrit, Saddam's home-base, to terrorize the Iraqis, were the equivalent of the German panzer divisions that attacked the US forces out-of-the-blue at the battle of the Bulge in late 1944 in Belgium, and on on; an orgy, it seemed, of cluck-clucking on a vast scale reminiscent of the same gabbling outbursts that raged in the media in October 2001 as the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan started.

A simple question prompts itself here. How would the pundits and doom-sayers know any of this? Only a handful of men or women are in a position to assess the war's actual unfolding, or the progress made so far according to the timetable originally set --- which always, in any war, has to be adjusted for unforeseen contingencies, including sharp changes in weather (the fog and frictions of war, remember?) --- or the obstacles and threats in the way to the battle plan being successfully executed, let alone the various alternative military resources for dealing with them. That handful of analysts is at command central, headed by General Franks.

All the others are speculating, pure and simple.

Nor is this all. The pressures of network and cable chains to provide instant analysis make it vulnerable to the ebb and flow of not just daily battlefield developments, but sometimes hourly . . . right down to detailed analysis of fire-fights at the level of a platoon or squad! Itself not so bad maybe. Immediately, though, high-flying generalizations to the entire war ensue . . . the pundit-pontificators, all of a sudden, great military experts one and all: Saddam's strategy, it turns out, really this or that; American planners failing to anticipate the "that" while being fooled into focusing on "this"; the Iraqis certain to greet American and British forces with bullets, not flowers. On and on, these sky-hooting generalities; never mind the swerves between initial exhiliration and subsequent doomster-stuff. The result of such instant heady stuff? In plain language, a failure to gain any overall perspective on what has actually happened and will likely occur in the next few days or maybe weeks.

Remember, too, as we just noted, that many of these pundits and journalists were the same ones no doubt who, one week into the campaign against Taliban Afghanistan in October 2001, were assuring us that the war had gone astray there too: that American forces were in another Vietnam-like quagmire, that the military misjudged everything, that disasters hovered and loomed and roamed everywhere around the Afghan countryside. Come to that, they may be among the same vocal critics who were telling us two months ago that you couldn't fight a war against Saddamite Iraq and another against Al Qaeda and that the escape of bin Laden from his mountain redoubt last year was another catastrophe . . . all that before the recent capture of several of the highest-level Al Qaeda.

 

1. Exceptions

That said, most of the retired military officers appearing on television coverage are smart, knowledgeable, experienced, and open-minded and do their best to respond to what the anchormen demand: on-the-spot analysis of a huge battlefield area, covering almost the entire geography of Iraq, a state the size of California, and offer their opinions about what is going on and might happen. Those I've seen and listened to are impressive specialists, and their opinions are always worth listening to.

What they're asked to do, though --- instant, compact analysis of the military developments in the south of Iraq, or the north or the west, along with predictions of what will likely happen soon --- needs to be kept in perspective. They aren't any more privy to the information that only Central Command and maybe a few people in the Pentagon and White House happen to have than we are, despite contacts with maybe someone in the military or Pentagon who knows someone who has heard from some body else that such and such is really going on in Iraq. On top of that, the war and the various battle fronts are fluid. They almost always are, especially at the outset, let alone with several huge battles unfolding or shaping up on a nation-wide scope. The fluidity --- call it flux if you want (probably more accurate a description) --- can't be exaggerated. What seems to be the case Tuesday night might be drastically changed Wednesday morning, thanks to the swift changes in weather or unanticipated shifts in tactics on either side or --- extremely note-worthy --- the behavior of the local Iraqi population, especially the Shias in the south (60-65% of Iraq's 25 million), where an uprising against the hated Saddamite regime appears to be unfolding now in Basra, a city of 1 million, where British marines are seeking to destroy the thuggish Fedayeen terrorists in civilian clothes who, probably in the hundreds, have been using the local population as human shields and making it hard for British artillery, tanks, and coalition air power to act decisively.

One other caveat about even the military specialists. Retired army generals will tend, for obvious reasons, to worry there aren't enough army units --- especially armored divisions or brigades --- on the ground. Retired air force generals will tend, no less obviously, to defend the reliance on air power and other forms of smart weapons as more than adequate compensations. Retired admirals will dwell similarly on the courage and skill of the carrier fleets and the carrier pilots, and former special-ops will tout their line. All this is only natural.

 

And so? Well, given all this, you'd do well to regard all of the buggy profs' observations here as tentative and subject to major revision, quite apart from the fact that he's not a military expert like the impressive ex-military officers in the media, or a group of Ph.D.-trained specialists like Edward Luttwak at John Hopkins or Michael O'Hanlan at the Brookings Institute or Mackubin Thomas Owens (a former student of the buggy prof) at the Naval War College.

 

2) War Bogged Down, Strategy and Tactics Gone Astray?

Or so swarms of the media pundits have been telling us for two or three days now, essentially one week into the campaign, nothing longer. Huh, why the pessimism? With three US divisions within 50-100 miles of Baghdad, 50 US casualties at most (including the 12 POWs), only half of them due to enemy fire, and another 15-20 British casualties . . . a mobile offensive of huge armored columns over 200 miles in about 4 days that outdid all the other famous offensives of WWII and more recently: Rommel's breakthrough to Tobruk in North Africa in 1942, Patton's advance through Sicily in 1943 (heavy mountainous terrain) or his push to the Rhine in 1944, the British break-out of the Normandy area and advance to Brussels in Belgium far to the north, or the Israeli bolt across the Sinai desert in the 6 Day War of June 1967.

As Edward Luttwak reminded us today, none of these famed armored dashes came anywhere to matching the American advance from Kuwait northward toward Baghdad --- more precisely, about one-third the speed of the recent rush through southern Iraq even though, as he notes, the speed of tanks and armored vehicles and motorized infantry aren't any faster these days than it was in WWII. What kept the rapid advance of American armor going --- the 7th Cavalry, the 4th Infantry, and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (using only light armor, essentially landing craft that can maneuver on land) --- was the operational plan, the matchless information and reconnaissance, the speed-of-light communications, and the skills of the fighting men and women. That, and the lack of any tenacious resistance from the Iraqi forces in the way . . . with the 51st Iraqi division surrendering early, the Republican Guard units (about 50-60,000, divided into four divisions, three of them --- the Medina, the Hammarabi, and the Baghdad, all with heavy armor (Soviet made) --- standing in the way of the march on Baghdad itself.

All this, mind you --- as the pessimism suddenly replaced unwarranted expectations (media-created and –fed from the outset) that the war would last only a few more days, as though it would be a cake-walk or turkey-shoot, nothing more --- while the southern oil fields were secured, the oil platforms in the Gulf overrun by Seals (the explosives on them neutralized), the harbor at the mouth of the Gulf cleared of large numbers of mines, and the western half of Iraq was overrun by airborne troops and special-ops, making Scud attacks on Israel impossible (a big worry for the US and UK commanders should the Israelis have retaliated). Similarly, key bridges have been seized on the march to the north. With, on top of that, several Scud attacks destroyed by PAC-2 and PAC-3 Patriots (unlike the dud-performance of Patriot-1's in 1991), civilian casualties on the Iraqi side fewer than 200 even by Iraqi official estimates, and care taken within the rules of engagement not to attack several important military and communications posts that might endanger civilians. (There might have also been signals in the selection of the targets to the Iraqi military that they would be spared, even as the political leadership and its ranks and locations were destroyed.)

 

3) Claims of Unusual Resistance

These, to the extent we can make sense of them, seem exaggerated in much of the media. Snipers and Fedayeen thugs and a few stray mililtamen units operating in the rear do not constitute formidable opposition. What they will require is a diversion of some manpower from the advance divisions --- or those coming up from further South (the 101st Airborne, the British 1st armored brigade) --- to secure the rear. That is not unusual in any war. You can't protect huge supply lines hundreds of miles long 24 hours a day. So far, these have been inconveniences, possibly even underestimated before the war, but they haven't prevented supply convoys from getting through, and the coalition casualties have been light. In less than a week, a pipeline carrying fuel up toward the Baghdad front promises to be completed, a further relief from these guerrilla tactics.

Will the harrassment and small fire-fights in the rear grow more serious?

Maybe, if British and American forces have to fight their ways into southern cities they preferred to by-pass. What we do know, from good press reports about Iraqi military prisoners, is that they had to fight so far in many cities or elsewhere because the Fedayeen and secret police and other special guards of the totalitarian regime had guns at their backs. No surprise. For all their great valor and fighting ferocity, the Soviet armies in WWII had no alternative but to fight to the death German attackers at Stalingrad or Kursk and other besieged cities because the KGB regiments armed with machine guns were only a few hundred yards behind the front lines, dug in, ready to mow down any retreating Soviet troops trying to retreat. (A very good depiction of this tactic appears in a fine intelligent film Enemies at the Gate about the battle of Stalingrad that appeared a couple of years ago.) Similarly, as the Soviet army pressed into the outskirts of Berlin, the SS and Gestapo would shoot any German man, however old or whatever his condition, who tried to flee with his family westward --- and not just shoot them, but in many other instances hang them from street lamps with a sign hanging from their chest that read: "I'm a coward who refused to defend German women and children!" That's what brutal totalitarian regimes do.

No matter. At some point, perhaps as happened this week in Basra, the Shia population will probably start taking revenge and fighting back. The alternative of being held hostage as human-shields to protect the murderous thugs in civvies that Saddam has sent southward would appear, it seems, more grisly for them. And as the fighting goes on, the Shi-ites, who rose up in large number in March 1991 after the first Gulf War --- only to be deserted by the Bush administration that had earlier encouraged them to rebel --- are likely to become convinced that this time they won't be deserted.

Then, too, the Medina Republican Guard division, Saddam's pride that is placed south of Karbala (a Shia city that has to be taken by the 7th Cavalry), has had to disperse itself apparently over wide areas to limit bombing damage --- which has been going on through the big sandstorms (J-Stars and certain kinds of smart weaponry don't depend on visibility of targets in such conditions, relying instead on metrics that were mapped in advance by air and satellite reconnaissance and that can be reinforced by heat-seeking sensors and listening devices should there be any movement of Iraqi vehicles). Such dispersion makes any offensive action against the 7th Cavalry or other US forces nearby difficult, if not impossible. When the sandstorms abate as they're supposed to by tomorrow, the full weight of air attacks will be thrust at these Republican Guard forces, whose tanks, note, are old Soviet T-72's and no match for the Abrams M-1 Tanks or even the latest British Centurions, though Bradley armored vehicles themselves --- while carrying anti-tank guns --- could be vulnerable if they were separated from either tank or Apache helicopter protection in close-in fighting.

Essentially, the Medina division has three choices: to stand and fight and be destroyed, to try making a break back toward Baghdad, or to use chemical weapons. If used, the latter are always chancy in open battlefield conditions, never mind if winds are whipping around; and US troops are fully prepared, in equipment and tactics, to deal with chemical attacks. Will chemicals be used all the same? Not likely in the Medina case, whatever happens to the division. To use chemical weapons so soon would undermine Saddam's strategy --- or whoever may be implementing it if he's been killed or incapacitated by the first night's attack on his bunker --- of drawing coalition forces into brutal and prolonged fighting in the streets of Baghdad and causing large civilian casualties that would then, so the Baathist party leaders seem to expect, will cause massive protests and reactions in the rest of the world and force the US and British into a withdrawal or negotiations. If no withdrawal or negotiations occur, then the chemical and biological weapons are likely to come into play if they ever do.

 

4) Northern Front, Western Front

Apparently, in the north where special ops and Kurdish forces have been operating, airborne units have landed and reinforced them, allowing the seizure of a key airport that can handle huge C-17 cargo-carrying ships. These can carry an M-1A1 or M-1A2 Abrams tank, each weighing around 65 tons (though the air-lifted ones might be lighter, especially in the armor) and 2 Bradley armored vehicles, plus crews. Since there are now over 100 of these giant C-17s available, that means that in two or three days, there can be landed several dozen tanks and well over a couple of hundred armored vehicles (there are other, lighter ones than the Bradley too), ready for a movement south, accompanied by Apache helicopters and A-10 warhog tank-destroyers. If anything, that could be an underestimation, all depending on the flight patterns of the C-17's and the availability of tanks and armored vehicles that, among other things, filled 40 ships waiting weeks offshore of Turkey for the use of the 4th Infantry Mechanized division, the most digitalized in the US military that couldn't open up a Northern Front and sweep down toward Baghdad because of Turkish politics. The 4th Infantry is being air-lifted itself from its Texas base --- no, only a few hundred of the 16,000 size division were in Turkey overseeing preparations for offloading the ship --- to the ports available in Kuwait or being freed up and cleared of mines at Quum (spelling?) and further north in Basra where British marines are entering the city, possibly aided by the uprising they report.

The importance of the Northern Front is two-fold: first, to secure the northern oil fields, and second to put more pressure on Iraqi commanders as the US divisions and British armored brigade close in from the south. If those Iraqi commanders had to deal only with southern approaches, they would try to limit the points of entry into the city as certain key killing points (a specialty of the Iraqi military developed during the war with Iran), whereas the force entering from the North would force them to disperse the outer rings of Republican guards in a more dispersed manner. None of this, note, precludes a direct attack from the West, where US airborne forces early on seized two huge airfields as well.

 

5) Are There Enough Tanks and Other Armor and Ground Forces?

The buggy prof has no insights here above and beyond what can be found in the diverse views on this topic that have been clashing for two days now in the media --- a controversy that extends back, apparently, to the original strategy in which Rumsfeld and his supporters resisted calls for up to 400,000 US and British ground forces --- the size roughly in the first Gulf war. Note that in 1991, Iraqi forces were about double the size they are now, had more up-to-date equipment compared to ours, and seemed on the face of it a more formidable military overall than they are now. That upper limit was therefore reduced considerably, was the minimal level of 75,000 forces on the ground that apparently some air force/special-ops advocates argued for.

The 250,000 troops on the ground and armor were the compromise, and seem adequate for the missions they've had to deal with so far, though the inability of the 4th Infantry division to move in from Turkey has been a complication. As US and British forces close in on Baghdad, they have the choice, if they want, to wait for the 40 ships steaming toward Kuwait from Turkey to arrive and offload, a task that will take somewhere, it seems, another 10-14 days. (The airlift of the 4th Infantry from Texas can be completed very quickly at any time.) Other large mechanized units are being airlifted from Germany and the US, and can provide backup and further protection of the supply lines northward.

What can be said with some assurance is this: the war's further unfolding in the next 48-72 hours as the Medina and probably the other two Republican Guard divisions south of Baghdad are attacked will test the pros and cons of the two sides whether unusual intelligence-reconnaissance capabilities and smart-weaponry delivered from several air-borne systems, reinforced by the fighting capabilities of the M-1A1 and M -1A2 tanks and Bradley armored vehicles and motorized artillery, can assault large numbers of tank-laden crack divisions, dug in for weeks or months now, and succeed or not. Remember here: the M-1 tanks can start destroying the Iraqi Russian tanks a good 2000 yards further away, and if it's in the open, an M-1 tank can speed ahead at an astonishing 55 mph (the Bradleys can move upwards of 40 mph). And almost certainly, too, special ops will have moved close to the Medina division's lines and are ready to direct air attacks of various lethality.

 

6) The Battle of Baghdad.

Will this be necessary? Most likely. How should it be conducted? Here, the limits of prof bug's military expertise are stretched to the breaking point, and the best thing to do is to point you to two articles on this topic that appeared today: one by Edward Luttwak mentioned earlier, the other by a Dartmouth Professor who has specialized in urban warfare up to now. They give you some idea of what can be down in such urban warfare, and the tactics (and changes in rules of engagement) they might entail. Keep in mind that US planners have concentrated on the Baghdad battle for not just months now, but much longer, and there are very likely to be some surprise tactics --- maybe even stunning ones --- in store that they've prepared. Edward Luttwak

How To Take Baghdad