The Hard Road to Baghdad

Last Friday, a story appeared in the press that detailed the Pentagon’s latest war plan for overthrowing Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator.

The plan, reported in The New York Times, envisages 250,000 US troops moving towards Baghdad from three directions. It features not just massive ground and air operations, but also special forces raids to neutralise Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Urban combat is expected, possibly involving chemical weapons attacks by Iraqi forces. Any casualty estimates, be they for US troops or Iraqi citizens, were not released, if indeed they exist at all. Nor were expectations about which allied forces, if any, might join the US in combat.

Reportedly given to George W. Bush, the US president, three weeks ago, the plan was leaked by an official who was frustrated by the US military’s apparent lack of creativity in designing a more nimble and innovative strategy for overthrowing Mr Hussein.

Apparently that anonymous official was not the only critic of this thinking. General Wayne Downing, who had been employed at the National Security Council by the Bush administration, recently announced his resignation, leading to speculation that he too was frustrated by Iraq policy. Getting tired of the administration’s all-talk, no-action approach, he was said to favour smaller, stealthier, more high-technology and more entrepreneurial strategies for driving Mr Hussein from power. Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defence, is believed to hold similar views.

Why are these advocates of a new form of blitzkrieg losing the battle for Mr Bush’s ear? In spite of the recent leak of the war plan, the Bush administration remains good at keeping its lips sealed. Even so, it is not hard to guess what some of the internal administration debates and Pentagon planning sessions involve.

Most of the Bush team probably realises that the Afghanistan model, in which US airpower and special forces teamed up with the local opposition to overthrow an oppressive regime, does not apply to Iraq. In Afghanistan, the US fought in alliance with a battle-hardened resistance against an enemy that did not understand the capabilities of US airpower. The Taliban and al-Qaeda deployed forces in open areas where precision-guided bombs were highly effective.

Iraq would be different. The opposition is much weaker relative to the Iraqi army. Mr Hussein’s elite forces would certainly be intelligent—and callous—enough to mount their defences in cities and forests, mingling armour and troops with civilians, mosques, schools, hospitals and apartments. Under such circumstances, US special forces could not easily and safely approach enemy positions to designate targets for airpower, and airpower could not always be used without running a high risk of civilian casualties.

The conscripts in the Iraqi army might well defect or give up at the first sign of fighting, but Mr Hussein’s elite forces might not be so quick to submit to their ethnic enemies, or to run the risk of the regime’s ruthless repression should they try to change sides. If these forces do hole up in Baghdad and other cities, the US would have to go after them.

It is possible to imagine easier victories against Mr Saddam. But hoping for such an outcome would run counter to the conservative instincts of Colin Powell, US secretary of state, who has been identified for more than a decade with the doctrine of overwhelming force. It would probably also run counter to the instincts of Dick Cheney, Mr Bush’s vice-president, who was the secretary of defence when in 1990 the US decided that 250,000 US troops would not suffice in Desert Storm, so doubled the deployment just to be sure. And it would almost certainly fall foul of the instincts of Donald Rumsfeld, the present secretary of defence, who has already come under fire for his mistaken decision to rely on just airpower and Afghans in the battle of Tora Bora last December, in which Osama bin Laden may have escaped.

This is a conservative administration, and conservatives sometimes live up to their name, particularly on matters of war and peace. If the US does fight Iraq, it will look for clever tactics and other ways to maximise the odds of rapid victory. But it will not rely on such a happy outcome, and it will have a back-up plan.

If this analysis is right, it means that Mr Bush has a momentous decision to make—and that he is beginning to realise just how stark his choices are. If he wants to depose Mr Hussein, he will have to prepare a full-scale invasion. He will have to do so in the context of a violent Israeli-Palestinian situation, little allied support and the knowledge that defeating Mr Hussein last time did not ensure George Bush senior’s re-election. The US would win, but possibly at the price of thousands of US casualties, not to mention a long-term occupation of the country. I wish the president well in his decision. It will be tougher than he may have once thought.