War Plans and Pitfalls

War Plans and Pitfalls

The arrangements are in place. What’s missing is any sense they could go awry.


After months of internal wrangling over tactics and strategy, it now appears that the White House has settled on the basic design for the US invasion of Iraq. President Bush was given a detailed plan for the assault on September 10, and it appears that key combat units have been moved to the Middle East or are being readied for deployment to the region. Although most of the world is still focused on the diplomatic whirlwind at the United Nations, American military personnel are behaving as if a war with Iraq is imminent. And while it is impossible to predict the exact day and hour when hostilities will commence, it is unlikely that “D-Day” will occur much later than the second or third week of February 2003.

That the Administration is fully committed to military action in its conflict with Iraq is no longer in question. Bush has said that nothing less than a regime change in Iraq will satisfy American objectives, and that UN support would be welcomed but is not considered a prerequisite for US action.

However, while there appears to be unanimity among top Administration officials on the need for a military assault on Iraq, there has been no such consensus regarding the precise form of such an attack. Senior military commanders with experience in the 1991 Persian Gulf conflict have argued for a Desert Storm-like engagement involving hundreds of thousands of US combat troops, while civilian strategists in the Defense Department and some conservative think tanks have advocated a more daring and innovative approach, employing a relatively small contingent of ground troops backed up by the massive use of air power and precision-guided munitions. It appears that President Bush–under pressure from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney–has accorded primacy to the unconventional approach.

Bush favors this approach for several reasons. To begin with, the unconventional approach allows for a much earlier assault on Iraq than would be the case under the conventional one. Any replay of Desert Storm, however scaled down, would require the deployment of hundreds of thousands of troops (plus all of their heavy equipment) from the United States and Europe to the Middle East. This task could not be completed until next spring, and so would require US forces to commence combat operations at the onset of the blistering desert summer. The unconventional plan, on the other hand, would entail fewer troop deployments and could be set in motion by early winter–the optimal time of year.

Adoption of the bolder plan also helps the United States get around the problems created by the reluctance of some friendly Arab countries, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia, to allow the use of their territory as a staging ground for the US invasion of Iraq. An army of 250,000 combatants would almost certainly require the use of bases in Saudi Arabia, as was the case during the 1991 conflict; a force of 50,000 can be assembled in Kuwait, Qatar and some of the other small Gulf kingdoms.

But it is ideology, most of all, that appears to govern the President’s choice of strategic options. By starting the war in January or February, the Administration would escape more than the summer heat–it would short-circuit the diplomatic process at the UN and undercut any international effort to rely on UN arms inspectors to complete the “disarmament” of Iraq. Even while pushing for a favorable resolution at the UN Security Council, US officials have warned that the time for diplomacy is rapidly running out. “We’re talking days and weeks, not months and years,” President Bush said of the time that should be given to Saddam Hussein to comply with UN demands for the disclosure and destruction of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) remaining in his possession.

The more innovative plan would also give armchair strategists in the military academies and think tanks an opportunity to test innovative, “out of the box” techniques that have been gaining favor in recent years. These include the use of commandos equipped with laser target-designators who can infiltrate deep into enemy territory and pinpoint targets for attack by laser-guided bombs and missiles. Such attacks are intended to “decapitate” an enemy force (kill or immobilize its top leaders, or otherwise impair their ability to transmit orders to combat units in the field) and to pulverize its “centers of gravity” (e.g., presidential palaces, major military headquarters, communications centers, fuel depots). Another approach to be tested is “effects-based” targeting–that is, attacks intended to produce a desired effect (here, the disintegration of the current Iraqi regime) by targeting the assets, properties and institutions most valued by the enemy leadership.

Finally, an early and decisive campaign against Saddam Hussein will set a powerful precedent for a new strategy embraced by the Bush Administration that calls for the pre-emptive use of force when the United States or a close ally is threatened by the WMD of a potential adversary. “We must deter and defend against the threat before it is unleashed,” the document affirms (emphasis added). “The United States can no longer solely rely on a reactive posture as we have in the past.”

Unless Saddam Hussein suddenly capitulates to US demands, therefore, American (and some British) forces can be expected to commence an attack on Iraq at some point between December of this year and February of the next.

Already, there are signs of the impending conflict. In addition to much-publicized reports of the buildup of US troops and equipment in Kuwait and Qatar, the Pentagon has announced a significant shift in the tactics employed by US and British aircraft patrolling the no-fly zones over southern and northern Iraq. Until recently, the aircraft struck ground targets only when fired upon or when anti-aircraft radars were aimed at them, and they usually confined their attacks to the gun and missile units directly involved in the encounter; for several months now, however, allied planes have engaged in pre-emptive attacks, striking at command-and-control facilities that are thought to manage the Iraqi air-defense system. Attacks of this sort, intended to make the airspace over Iraq completely safe for allied aircraft, typically precede a full-scale air offensive.

By far the most significant indication of the White House commitment to an early attack on Iraq is the planned transfer in November of Gen. Tommy Franks and up to 600 senior officers from the Central Command (Centcom), now based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, to the new US combat command center at Al Udeid air base in Doha, Qatar. Although described by Pentagon officials as part of a training exercise, the transfer is viewed by many observers as a precursor to the initiation of combat, as the officers involved are responsible for the management of all US forces in the region. To put this in historical perspective, the transfer of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf–one of Franks’s predecessors as commander in chief of Centcom–to Saudi Arabia in 1990 signaled the imminent onset of Operation Desert Storm.

Once the President gives the go-ahead for the actual invasion, US forces will follow a script that has been crafted by General Franks in consultation with Secretary Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and other Pentagon officials. In all probability, the White House has already selected the code name for this engagement, possibly an allusion to Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Not knowing the chosen name, we’ll dub it “Operation Desert Cyclone,” which suggests the importance of speed and shock effect in the Pentagon’s invasion plan.

Once commenced, Operation Desert Cyclone will probably take the following form:

Phase I: All-out air attacks on Iraqi air-defense sites, military and police headquarters, communications links, suspected WMD production centers and Saddam Hussein’s palaces and command centers in Baghdad. Attacks will also be conducted on installations used by the Republican Guards and the special security units that protect government leaders, along with the city of Tikrit–Hussein’s major political power base. The aim of these attacks will be, first, to give the United States uncontested control of the airspace over Iraq; second, to destroy Hussein’s capacity to communicate with his commanders in the field (especially those responsible for the use of WMD munitions); and, third, to demonstrate the futility of resistance to the US assault.

To conduct these attacks, the Pentagon will rely on long-range bombers based in the United States, England and the British-controlled island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Once Iraq’s air-defense system is thoroughly destroyed, the Pentagon will also make use of tactical aircraft based on US aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea and the Mediterranean, and at bases in Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey. (Saudi Arabia may or may not allow the use of Prince Sultan Air Base, located near Riyadh.)

Phase II: Airborne and helicopter assaults by US Special Operations Forces and commando units on suspected WMD sites and missile-launch facilities, on key command-and-control centers in Baghdad and other cities, and on Saddam Hussein’s own operational headquarters (if its location can be determined). The units involved in these missions will operate from forward bases in Kuwait, southeastern Turkey and (possibly) eastern Jordan.

Phase II will also include armed uprisings by Kurdish militias in the north and Shiite rebels in the south. These uprisings will be supported and directed by CIA and Special Forces personnel, and backed up by allied combat aircraft. Their goal will be to pin down Iraqi troops in outlying areas so as to prevent the reinforcement of units guarding Baghdad.

Phase III: A high-speed armored assault on key military and government facilities in and around Baghdad. The US forces involved–mostly Army and Marine units based in Kuwait–will seek to avoid head-on clashes with any regular Iraqi forces in their path and try to circle around them, using their superior speed and mobility to reach Baghdad without taking significant casualties. Upon arriving at the outskirts of the capital, these units will “marry up” with airborne and Special Forces units already in the city to complete the assault on Iraqi military headquarters, Republican Guard facilities and other props of the regime.

Once Saddam and his top associates are dead or in custody (or otherwise rendered powerless), the US command will invite surviving Iraqi military units to surrender–or face obliteration by US aircraft and armored forces. These units will be cut off from their senior commanders and sources of supply, so it is expected that their capacity to fight back will be limited.

If all goes as expected, Operation Desert Cyclone will be over in a matter of weeks. American troops will control Baghdad and other key cities, and the destruction of Iraqi WMD facilities will be under way. A provisional government–headed by US-backed dissidents based in Europe–will be installed in the capital by American patrons and protectors. The UN embargo will be lifted, the Kurds and Shiites will be granted limited autonomy in their respective regions, and most Iraqis will express heartfelt gratitude for their “liberation” from Saddam.

But will it really work out this way? Nobody, of course, can assume any given outcome in an undertaking this complex and risky. Certainly there are reasons to believe that the Pentagon strategy will bring a swift and decisive outcome, especially if it results in the early death or capture of Saddam Hussein. But there is also an enormous risk factor involved: If the Iraqis put up greater than expected resistance, or if some elements of the battle plan go awry, the relatively small US invasion force of about 50,000 combatants could become bogged down inside Iraq and come under attack from larger and more heavily equipped enemy units. This would require the US command to bring in additional troops from afar–a move that would take several weeks or longer, during which time the original invasion force could suffer heavy casualties.

The risk of heavy US casualties and other unwanted effects will be greatly compounded if the American invaders are halted at the outskirts of Baghdad and Iraqi troops elect to defend the city by means of house-to-house fighting. In this situation, US ground troops will be compelled to call for punishing air and missile strikes on occupied neighborhoods, killing many civilians and provoking outrage in much of the Muslim world–especially if, as expected, cameramen from Al Jazeera and other independent networks are there to record the carnage.

There is also a risk that US air and missile attacks will fail to destroy all of Iraq’s remaining ballistic missiles and Saddam Hussein will succeed in launching a few at Israel. (Iraq is thought to possess a dozen or so Scud missiles not found by UN inspectors in the early 1990s, but not to be capable of arming these missiles with chemical or biological dispensers.) Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has declared that Israel will respond to such moves by striking back at Iraq, presumably through air and missile attacks on Iraqi cities. This would no doubt spark massive protests throughout the Muslim world, and possibly threaten the survival of those Arab governments–Jordan’s, Egypt’s and Saudi Arabia’s among them–that provided bases to US troops or otherwise colluded in the invasion of Iraq.

A bloody struggle for Baghdad would undoubtedly produce alarm and discomfort in the United States, undermining popular support for Bush and his policies. It would also inflame passions throughout the Muslim world, especially if many Iraqi civilians are killed by American or Israeli forces. And it would greatly complicate the task of governing Iraq once US forces smashed their way into Baghdad’s center, leaving much of it in ruins.

Given these dangers, it is absolutely essential that Congress and the American people thoroughly debate the wisdom of attacking Iraq and the likely costs and benefits of the Administration’s favored invasion plan. Anyone who can remember or has studied the onset of the Vietnam imbroglio knows this much: The United States entered Vietnam without a national debate on the merits and methods of engagement, and the end result was a sheer, unmitigated catastrophe. We must not let this happen again.

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