Rumsfeld and All the Army’s Men

According to insider accounts, many U.S. military officers, especially in the Army, view Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld the way most Europeans do—as headstrong, abrasive and arrogant. Mr. Rumsfeld, in turn, appears to view many Army officers as unimaginative. But somehow, when it comes to planning war, their adversarial relationship seems to work. It produced a generally successful battle plan for Afghanistan, and despite the recent setbacks, it is working for Iraq.

Operation Iraqi Freedom has several distinguishing characteristics. First, despite much public sniping to the contrary (mostly by retired Army officers), it is a big operation, with about 250,000 Americans in theater to date, another 25,000 Brits and up to another 100,000 or more U.S. troops on the way. Second, the air war has wisely been highly discriminating, focusing on political and military leadership targets rather than civilian infrastructure or even most fielded forces, in an attempt to decapitate Saddam’s regime rather than take on the whole country. Third, the drive to Baghdad is not a classic armored assault. Major cities and many Iraqi army units are being bypassed; U.S. supply lines are not being guarded as forces race quickly to the capital. While this has had its downside, it has enabled U.S. forces to approach within 50 miles of Baghdad in less than a week’s time. Fourth, the war plan has made excellent use of special forces in seizing oil fields and infrastructure, potential weapons of mass destruction facilities and key facilities such as airfields in the country’s west and north.

These basic characteristics of the allied military strategy may seem obvious and inevitable. They weren’t. Over the last year, there was vigorous debate between Mr. Rumsfeld’s civilian team on the one hand and the uniformed military on the other. Mr.Rumsfeld’s instincts were to go with a small force and a daring, modern battle plan building on the model of Afghanistan. The military’s instincts, especially among Army officers, were to deploy a big enough sledgehammer to crush the entire Iraqi military with brute force. According to Bob Woodward, it took 20 drafts of the battle plan to reconcile these contradictory impulses and produce the final strategy.

In the end, each side got half of what it wanted, and the country got a good war plan. Operation Iraqi Freedom is being fought with the big force the U.S. military wanted and the creative concepts Mr. Rumsfeld desired.

Some now argue that the deployment of only 250,000 Americans reflects a victory for Mr. Rumsfeld, and an effective repudiation of the Powell doctrine’s insistence on overwhelming force that most military professionals still espouse. But, they forget where this debate stood a year ago. Back then, civilians at the Department of Defense were pushing war plans involving just 50,000 to 75,000 U.S. troops. They lost that debate. In fact, our use of 250,000 Americans against 400,000 Iraqi troops actually gives us a more favorable force ratio than the United States possessed in Desert Storm (where we used 550,000 American troops against an Iraqi military of 1 million). Even though our deployed forces are not particularly armor-heavy, the expected fight for Baghdad places a greater premium on mobility, helicopters and infantry forces than on tanks alone, so there is nothing radical about using Marines and the 101st Air Assault Division for the coming battle. Finally, more armor is en route to Iraq just in case, including the 4th Mechanized Infantry Division and other units.

But, if the military won the debate over the size and character of the force, Mr. Rumsfeld appears to have provided much of the creative spark for the war’s tactics. Focusing the battle on elite Iraqi forces while trying to use a combination of carrots and sticks to induce the capitulation of the regular army, and even elements of the Republican Guard, is a very good idea given Saddam Hussein’s unpopularity within Iraq. Although the shock and awe idea is getting the headlines, it is an old-fashioned idea compared with Mr. Rumsfeld’s discriminating targeting strategy.

Admittedly, this plan for selective attacks has not produced the quick decapitation or collapse of the Iraqi regime that many hoped for. But it is still the right way to go. There is such a premium on avoiding civilian casualties in this war that an all-out air attack on Baghdad would be strategic folly.

There has been much recent discord over whether 250,000 U.S. troops are too few. Perhaps it is; indeed, virtually everyone agrees that we would have wanted the 4th Mechanized Infantry Division to be part of this campaign from the start. Alas, Turkey said no, and President Bush, tired of diplomacy, decided to start the war without waiting for the 4th to re-route itself through Kuwait. But, even if that was a mistake, its military consequences will be limited. While the coalition waits for sandstorms to subside and puts down resistance from Saddam’s Fedayeen irregulars in Basra and other southeastern cities, the 4th is gradually making its way to Kuwait, and the 101st is gradually making its way towards Baghdad. We should soon be in position to win this war decisively.