The Case Against War
6. The benefits of regime change outweigh the costs.
While the United States would likely be the eventual victor in a war against Iraq, it would come at an enormous cost. It would be a mistake, for example, to think that defeating Iraq would result in as few American casualties as occurred in driving the Taliban militia from Kabul last autumn. Though Iraq's offensive capabilities have been severely weakened by the bombings, sanctions and UNSCOM-sponsored decommissioning, its defensive military capabilities are still strong.
Nor would a military victory today be as easy as during the Gulf War. Prior to the launching of Operation Desert Storm, the Iraqi government decided not to put up a fight for Kuwait and relied mostly on young conscripts from minority communities. Only two of the eight divisions of the elite Republican Guard were ever in Kuwait, and they pulled back before the war began. The vast majority of Iraq's strongest forces were withdrawn to areas around Baghdad to fight for the survival of the regime itself, and they remain there to this day. In the event of war, defections from these units are not likely.
Close to 1 million members of the Iraqi elite have a vested interest in the regime's survival. These include the Baath Party leadership and its supporters, security and intelligence personnel, and core elements of the armed forces and their extended families. Furthermore, Iraq--a largely urban society--has a far more sophisticated infrastructure than does the largely rural and tribal Afghanistan, and it could be mobilized in the event of a foreign invasion.
Nor is there an equivalent to Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, which did the bulk of the ground fighting against the Taliban. Iraqi Kurds, having been abandoned twice in recent history by the United States, are unlikely to fight beyond securing autonomy for Kurdish areas. The armed Shiite opposition has largely been eliminated, and it too would be unlikely to fight beyond liberating the majority Shiite sections of southern Iraq. The United States would be reluctant to support either, given that their successes could potentially fragment the country and would encourage both rebellious Kurds in southeastern Turkey and restive Shiites in northeastern Saudi Arabia. US forces would have to march on Baghdad, a city of more than 5 million people, virtually alone.
Unlike in the Gulf War, which involved conventional and open combat in flat desert areas where US and allied forces could take full advantage of their superior firepower and technology, US soldiers would have to fight their way through heavily populated agricultural and urban lands. Invading forces would likely be faced with bitter, house-to-house fighting in a country larger than South Vietnam. Iraqis, who may have had little stomach to fight to maintain their country's conquest of Kuwait, would be far more willing to sacrifice themselves to resist a foreign, Western invader. To minimize American casualties in the face of such stiff resistance, the United States would likely engage in heavy bombing of Iraqi residential neighborhoods, resulting in high civilian casualties.
The lack of support from regional allies could result in the absence of a land base from which to launch US air attacks, initially requiring the United States to rely on Navy jets launched from aircraft carriers. Without permission to launch aerial refueling craft, even long-range bombers from US air bases might not be deployable. It is hard to imagine being able to provide the necessary reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft under such circumstances, and the deployment of tens of thousands of troops from distant staging areas could be problematic. American forces could conceivably capture an air base inside Iraq in the course of the fighting, but without the pre-positioning of supplies, its usefulness as a major center of operations would be marginal.
Such a major military operation would be costly in economic terms as well, as the struggling and debt-ridden US economy would be burdened by the most elaborate and expensive deployment of American forces since World War II, totaling more than $100 billion in the first six months. Unlike in the Gulf War, the Saudis--who strenuously oppose such an invasion--would be unwilling to foot the bill. An invasion of Iraq would also be costly to a struggling world economy; higher oil prices could be devastating to some countries, causing even more social and political unrest.