Force and Finesse

When Iraq denied earlier this month that it holds any weapons of mass destruction, the likelihood of a U.S.-led war to overthrow President Saddam Hussein this winter increased—rising from perhaps 50 percent to 70 percent or more. That’s because Saddam, given what many arms experts know about his current weapons programs and weapons inventories, is clearly in violation of the United Nations requirement that he supply information on weapons holdings, providing the Bush administration with most or all the justification it needs to go to war.

If press reports are right, the U.S. government has come up with an invasion plan for Iraq that balances old-fashioned brute force with innovative tactics. A creative war plan is needed, for several reasons.

For one, the aim is not to destroy Iraq but to overthrow its leader. For another, there is the danger of Iraq unleashing chemical weapons. Finally, America and its allies want to minimize bloodshed on all sides, largely out of concern for what a tough urban fight could do to the U.S. political position in the region and the broader Islamic world.

The plan may have to fall back on its brute-force elements in the end, but it is designed to improve the odds that urban combat in Baghdad—involving potentially heavy losses on all sides—might be avoided. It short, it would attempt to use air power, limited raids in cities, U.S. ground-force incursions into the heart of the Iraqi countryside and the threat of a storming of Baghdad to increase the chances that many Iraqis would turn against Saddam.

If Iraqis turn against their president, it would make the victory quicker and less bloody than it would otherwise be—and perhaps would result in Iraqis overthrowing Saddam before the allies do.

Given that essentially the same story about likely war plans has appeared in many media outlets in recent weeks, the leaks appear to have been orchestrated—and hence are either authentic or deliberately misleading to throw the Iraqis off guard. The plan, if true, represents an evolution in thinking.

Roughly a year ago, Washington was full of pundits, such as Pentagon consultants Richard Perle and Kenneth Adelman, both of the Defense Policy Board, and even some military analysts who thought that the Afghanistan model of relatively quick warfare, with a relatively small force, could be applied to Iraq.

They made two arguments. First, the United States now has many more precision weapons, and a much higher percentage of planes able to carry them, than a decade ago when it last fought Iraq. Second, they noted the decline in Iraqi military capabilities (never very good to begin with) over the past decade.

As debate progressed, however, it became clear that war against Iraq could not be expected to be a rapid-fire cakewalk. By spring, a consensus was forming that one would need to assume—if for no other reason than prudence—that there would be significant resistance at least from Iraq’s elite forces of Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard troops, numbering roughly 100,000.

In Operation Desert Storm—the 1991 war over Kuwait against Iraqi invaders—these units did not fold quickly in the face of the coalition offensive. They fought relatively badly but still fought bravely and doggedly.

Sticking to their guns

But proponents of easy victory, largely people close to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, did not completely change their tune. They still expected a relatively fast and bloodless win, but acknowledged that deploying a big force could improve the odds of quick Iraqi capitulation, or perhaps help persuade disaffected Iraqi generals to turn against Saddam. They also proposed using the large force in innovative ways, at least at first.

The invasion plan is said to involve an American force of about a quarter-million, and smaller numbers from allies such as the United Kingdom. Having conceded that a large force was necessary, the government’s war planners turned to thinking about how the large force should be used.

What the strategists came up with is a battle plan that, unlike a classic invasion, will probably not target all major elements of the military and economic infrastructure. The targets will be chosen as much with political and psychological as with military effects in mind.

In a classic invasion or air campaign, military targets would be attacked comprehensively and repeatedly. These would include major barracks, equipment yards and repair depots, training facilities, fuel and ammunition storage sites, air-defense capabilities including radar stations and missile launchers, airfields, ports and command-and-control capabilities.

National infrastructure, including general communications and transportation networks such as critical bridges and rail lines, would be hit as well. Weapons of mass destruction and missile-production and storage sites would also be struck hard. They would be attacked with precision-strike conventional ordnance and various types of specialized new weapons that might destroy their electronics, or in some cases with special-forces raids.

Any industry important for the immediate as well as the longer-term operation of military forces would be the focus of attack—petroleum refineries, key electricity production and distribution infrastructure, vehicle and aircraft manufacturing plants, and many types of machine shops capable of being converted to repair or build military equipment.

Moreover, in a more traditional attack, even strictly civilian sites might ultimately be targeted if it were felt that pain to the general population could erode morale or weaken the political base of the leadership. This latter philosophy guided military action, generally with poor results, in World War II and Vietnam but appears to have done much better against Slobodan Milosevic’s government in Yugoslavia in 1999.

A classic invasion plan also would envision seizing control of a country systematically and comprehensively, region by region and city by city. Finally, it would assume that enemy military forces would need to be destroyed in detail—even company by company and platoon by platoon—if necessary.

Political goals

The Iraq war plan now believed to be effectively complete does not follow this classic scorched-earth philosophy. To be sure, it provides the capability to make any attack as thorough and vigorous as necessary. But the real idea is to achieve a political goal rather than to assume that invasion must produce the unconditional capitulation of the entire country.

In broad terms, the objective of the attack appears to be twofold. First, strike Saddam’s government and inner circle of loyalist troops selectively, sparing not only as much of the population as possible but even as much of the armed forces as is feasible. Second, establish staging areas and strongholds within Iraq in order to make the prospect of a coalition military victory seem so obvious and imminent that Iraqi forces choose to overthrow Saddam themselves.

The plan would unfold roughly like this: Major but selective air attacks would open hostilities. They would concentrate on Saddam’s assets in Baghdad, his native region and stronghold of Tikrit, barracks and major operating bases of his special security forces, the Special Republican Guard, the Republican Guard, some central command-and-control assets, air defenses and airfields, and perhaps certain weapon-of-mass-destruction sites (if attacking them was not expected to disperse toxic materials and harm civilians).

Most of the main conscript army of more than 300,000 would be spared, if possible. So would most of the country’s infrastructure and economic base, though it would probably be necessary to destroy some bridges and other key infrastructure to prevent movements of Saddam’s elite forces.

These air attacks might begin before all U.S. forces were in the region. But it would be imprudent to start before most were already en route—to provide insurance in case something went wrong, to avoid a protracted fight and to send a strong message to the Iraqis that we are dedicated to winning.

The latter message, if well-understood, could reduce the odds of strong resistance. The desirability of deploying a large force before combat begins means that war is probably still a good two months off.

A ground campaign might begin almost simultaneously with aerial attacks but more likely a couple of weeks later. Time pressure to finish the war is likely to be considerable, given the preferences of regional allies and the prospect of summer heat. Moreover, there is little point in giving Saddam time to regroup and re-establish control of whatever forces survive initial strikes (assuming that he survives as well). By applying overwhelming force, the heavy-combat phase of the war should end within weeks; by contrast, a smaller-scale effort could drag on for months.

However, the early ground campaign probably would not involve a quarter-million allied soldiers marching into Iraq. What appears to have been settled upon this fall is an indirect assault on Iraqi positions.

Most coalition ground forces would move into Iraq, relatively close to Baghdad (on the assumption that Iraq will not be unwise enough to contest the invasion in open terrain), but outside of Iraqi artillery range and perhaps small-rocket range as well. From those positions, coalition forces would try to close off cities and be capable of quick-response strikes whenever intelligence provided targets.

The invading ground forces also would be in position to enter and seize the cities should Saddam’s forces resort to atrocities against Iraqis or any Western hostages, but the hope would be that such a direct attack would not be necessary.

Incentive for overthrow

At some point, the logic goes, large contingents of Iraqi soldiers would come to fear coalition forces more than Saddam. Having been promised fair treatment by a massive coalition psychological campaign, they would then take it upon themselves to unseat Saddam. At a minimum, even if that literal coup never occurs, Saddam would be so cut off from his main forces that an ultimate coalition invasion would be relatively uncontested.

Of course, this plan wouldn’t necessarily succeed. Saddam would surely disperse most of his elite forces before any actual war begins; he may jury-rig means of communicating with them even once Iraq’s airwaves are denied him; he would probably try to convince his forces that Americans are cowards, too afraid to fight in cities.

Moreover, he would hope that possible Israeli intervention in the war, plus an “Al-Jazeera effect” of Arab casualties showing up on TV screens throughout the region, would produce a clamor for a cease-fire from America’s Arab allies and the world in general.

As is always the case in war, the U.S. strategy may or may not work. If it fails, coalition troops would need to force their way into Baghdad with the bulk of their numbers, probably wearing chemical protective gear and vulnerable to suffering several times as many casualties as the 150 killed during Desert Storm, to say nothing of the large numbers, perhaps tens of thousands, of likely Iraqi civilian casualties.

So the plan appears a rather innovative, but not excessively optimistic, combination of old and new. Enough raw firepower to win the old-fashioned way if necessary, and to bail out forces in trouble if the plan goes badly, but enough creative tactics to minimize the chance of a blood bath in Baghdad.