War Against Saddam’s Regime: Winnable but No Cakewalk

Thank you Mr. Chairman, Mr. Ranking Member, and other members of the Armed Services Committee for the opportunity to testify today on the critical issue of future U.S. policy towards Iraq, particularly its military dimensions. I will summarize my thoughts briefly in the first pages of my prepared statement and opening remarks, and include more detailed analysis in the following pages of my statement. Among the main subjects I examine in this testimony are postwar challenges after a possible invasion of Iraq, estimates of U.S. and Iraqi casualties during combat itself, and the military feasibility of overthrowing Saddam while continuing the war against al Qaeda.

I support the strategy laid out in the president’s September 12 U.N. speech. By that strategy, Saddam is to be presented with a final, tough, multilateral ultimatum on the need to accept U.N. inspectors and disarm; only if he refuses the ultimatum or fails to comply with his disarmament obligations would war then be undertaken. The historical track record suggests strongly that such a policy of containment would protect American national security interests. However, it is a strategy that Congress needs to remind the administration to sustain, since both Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld have appeared to question its basic conceptual underpinnings over the past two months, and since the administration’s proposal for a Congressional resolution authorizing force did not reiterate the basic 9/12 approach. It is also a strategy that requires straight talk to the American people about what war against Iraq could be like. Much of the public debate of the last year has been driven by those who believe such a war would surely be easy. I believe such talk is not only unfortunate, but irresponsible, especially since much of it has been carried out by members of the quasi-official Defense Policy Board.

The broad themes of my remarks include the following:

  • There is no plausible way by which, militarily speaking, Iraqi forces can prevent the United States from quickly seizing control of the country away from Saddam Hussein’s Tikrit-based/Ba’ath Party regime.

  • That said, such an operation would surely require well over 100,000 U.S. troops and probably twice that number or more, given the difficulties of fighting in cities and the desirability of intimidating and quickly overwhelming Iraqi forces so that their resistance is as limited as possible. Although such an operation would be demanding, and place strains on certain military capabilities such as special operations forces and intelligence assets, there is no military reason it cannot be done even as we continue operations against al Qaeda.

  • If they fight hard, Iraqi Republican Guard forces in particular could make the military operation difficult and rather lethal. U.S. combat losses could exceed 1,000, and perhaps even approach 5,000, in contrast to Desert Storm losses in the low hundreds.

  • A greater strategic threat to U.S. forces is the likelihood that large numbers of Iraqi civilians could perish in the fighting, given the nature of urban combat and perhaps also the deliberate actions of Saddam Hussein. This possible outcome, shown graphically on television around the region and the world, could put considerable pressure on the United States and any coalition partners to curtail combat operations prematurely.

  • Iraqi use of chemical or biological agents on the battlefield could cause additional casualties. Even more worrisome, perhaps, it could slow and complicate U.S. operations. Historical data and combat simulations suggest that casualties could mount anywhere from 10 percent to 50 percent as a result, broadly speaking.

  • Civilian casualties in Iraqi Kurdistan, Kuwait, Israel, the United States, or elsewhere from Iraqi use of weapons of mass destruction could reach into the hundreds and perhaps even the thousands. Such attacks would probably be most serious if conducted by Iraqi special agents or Iraqi-aided terrorists, as opposed to SCUD missiles or airplanes.

The remainder of my testimony is organized into six main parts, essentially in reverse chronological order for when they would occur. I begin by examining several of the challenges in any postwar occupation effort. I then estimate U.S. and Iraqi casualties during an urban war to overthrow Saddam. The next sections deal with the question of whether we can invade Iraq while also fighting al Qaeda, and with the likely size and scale of any invasion effort. Finally, I ask two other questions: can inspections work inside Iraq, and can deterrence work?


As my colleagues Philip Gordon and Martin Indyk and I have recently argued in the journal Survival, in an article from which much of this section is derived, removing Saddam from power represents only the first step in the effort to remake Iraq as a non-threatening factor in the Middle East. In the aftermath of Saddam’s overthrow, ethnic and communal rivalries could well erupt into internal conflicts. The Sunnis in central Iraq will be very concerned that their interests will be subordinated to Kurdish and Shia demands. The Kurds in the north will not easily accept a diminution of the substantial autonomy they have enjoyed in the last decade. And the Shias, representing the largest of the ethnic groupings, will insist on a degree of power hitherto denied them under Sunni regimes. These tensions could easily undermine the interim government and generate considerable instability. Neighbors would be tempted then to meddle for fear of the consequences or because Iraq is such a rich prize. The region that Iraq inhabits is so critical to U.S. interests that we cannot just go in, remove Saddam, and leave the clean-up to others. So a large stability mission led by the United States would be needed, with the overall force most likely requiring up to 100,000 personnel if not twice that number, at least at first. This would not be a short-term commitment.

The United States has not traditionally proven very good at making long-term commitments to regional reconstruction. America did it with enormous success in Europe and Japan after World War II, using large forces during the occupations of Germany and Japan, but its more recent track record is to want to use its powerful military forces for combat and then leave the reconstruction job to others. U.S. staying power and willingness to remain on the ground is being tested right now in the Balkans and Afghanistan, and the Bush administration’s inclination is to reduce U.S. engagement as soon as possible in both places. But no one should underestimate the difficulty of putting a stable regime in place in Iraq once Saddam Hussein is gone, especially at a time when U.S. attention and resources will already be burdened by nation-building efforts in these other places (and possibly Palestine as well). And to fail to meet that challenge would not only be irresponsible but could lead to the same sort of instability and hatred of the United States that produced the Taliban. If President Bush starts the job of transforming Iraq, he will owe it to America’s strategic interests to finish it as well.

The first challenge is to prepare the ground for a post-Saddam government in Baghdad. Trying to organize the Iraqi opposition-in-exile into a credible government-in-waiting is proving as daunting to the Bush administration as it was to the Clinton administration. The Iraqi dissidents who have gathered in London over the past decade have lost touch with the Iraqi people and cannot agree amongst themselves. And Saddam has made sure to execute any potential rivals who stayed in Iraq. The Iraqi military is likely to be quick to put forward a candidate and any generals who have turned against Saddam and helped the American effort to remove him will naturally be first in line. Arab leaders are also likely to support a Sunni general as the candidate for Saddam’s replacement fearing the consequences of greater Shiite and Kurdish representation in Baghdad as well as the potential influence on their own authoritarian systems of a more pluralistic government in one of the most important regional capitals.

The United States will need to resist these pressures while distinguishing between self-promoters and leaders with genuine credibility among the Iraqi people. By definition these leaders will not be identifiable in advance, since anyone courageous enough to stand up under Saddam’s regime would have been immediately eliminated. But the United States can take a number of other steps in advance: to articulate a clear vision of a democratic Iraq that will ensure fair representation for all ethnic/religious groups, autonomy for the Iraqi Kurds, respect for the rule of law and protection of civil rights, including women’s rights; to support the drawing up by Iraqis of a new constitution; and to train a cadre of Iraqi professionals who can work with the U.S. Army to lay the groundwork for a functioning interim administration.

This is a complicated undertaking but by no means impossible. Unlike much of the Arab world, Iraqis are secular and have an educated middle class that has suffered greatly under Saddam and sanctions. Iraq also has considerable economic resources, a consequence of its abundant oil reserves, which would make a large-scale donors’ effort unnecessary. There is good reason to believe the Iraqi people would welcome the lifting of Saddam’s oppressive yoke if it also resulted in an improvement in their material conditions and their personal security.

An American-led peacekeeping force will be an essential element in providing that personal security because without it there will be considerable risk of ethnic, religious or tribal strife in the wake of the collapse of a totalitarian regime that has ruled the country with an iron fist for so long. Some neighboring governments will want to participate in this endeavor the better to influence the outcome of the internal struggle for power. Although Arab and Turkish peacekeepers will help legitimize the operation, this advantage must be weighed against the dangers of creating opportunities for meddling. The Iraqi people are likely to want to jealously guard their newfound independence and, like the Afghan people, will probably prefer American peacekeepers to those from neighboring countries.

Why does such a peacekeeping force have to be large, and why must it be led by Americans? After all, the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan has neither of these characteristics.

There are several reasons. First, ISAF is not going very well in Afghanistan, so this is a poor model for comparison. Indeed, the Bush administration admits as much at present, but still imprudently hopes that other countries will simply volunteer to beef up and expand the mission. Second, Iraq’s Kurds in particular might well be tempted to try to secede absent a strong unifying national security force. Third, Iraq is in a region where cross-border aggression is more common than is the case for Afghanistan. Iraq’s neighbors might well make trouble in a destabilized Iraq. Fourth, Iraq has a much larger army than did the Taliban, and the United States hopes to spare much of it in any future war, partly to avoid creation of the very type of security vacuum just noted. But we do not know who within that army is dependable and who may be bent on seeking vengeance against U.S. forces or internal foes. Weeding out bad actors, while also improving training and discipline, within the Iraqi military will take time and effort. Fifth, and relatedly, the overall importance of the Persian Gulf region may exceed that of Afghanistan (though that is open to some debate, to the extent that Afghanistan could again become a sanctuary for Islamic extremists). Helping create a stable, democratic Iraq could have immense benefits for U.S. interests in general, justifying a substantial effort.

How many forces would be needed to occupy Iraq? Various studies have been done, based on military history and the population, military capabilities, territorial size, and other characteristics of the country to be occupied. For example, work done by the Army’s Center of Military History suggests that 100,000 occupying forces could be needed. Indeed, if anything that estimate seems low: NATO’s stabilization mission in Bosnia, a country less than one-fifth the size of Iraq by population or territorial size (and also a country with three main ethnic groups), began with 50,000 forces and is still about 20,000-strong. Simply scaling those numbers for a bigger country, the standard practice when estimating policing and occupying needs, suggests that an initial force might have to number more than 200,000 and that a residual force seven years later might still total 100,000.

Assume for the sake of planning a force that is composed 100,000 to 250,000 occupying forces in its first year, and then 50,000 to 125,000 troops by its fifth year. Assume further that 15 percent to 25 percent of the total strength is American. Those estimates translate into possible U.S. requirements of roughly 15,000 to 60,000 troops the first year and anywhere from 7,500 to about 30,000 U.S. troops half a decade later. The gradual drawdown would presumably continue thereafter, and the mission might last a decade or so once all was said and done.

How could such a large U.S. effort be sustained? For a military of 1.4 million, that may not appear difficult, but as the Armed Services Committee knows well, today’s military is already working very hard to maintain more than 250,000 personnel abroad, including more than 100,000 at a time deployed away from permanent bases and families. Given rotation base issues, moreover, sustaining a deployment of say 20,000 troops tends to require about 100,000 in the force structure.

To be sure, some rather drastic measures could be adopted to ease the problem. For example, U.S. troops might leave Bosnia, and reduce their presence on Okinawa—two other places where forces deploy away from families—in order to facilitate a deployment in postwar Iraq. But it would be hard to free up more than 10,000 personnel in that way. This added demand would be onerous. It could require a combination of sustained reserve activation and even more difficult work for active-duty U.S. personnel, leading to poor quality of life and renewed problems with recruiting and retention (just after those problems have been largely solved by the work of the Congress and the last two administrations over the past half decade). It would not require a draft. But it could require other creative approaches, such as an alternative approach to joining the military involving shorter enlistments for those willing to put in 18 to 24 months of service (as suggested by Charles Moskos and others). In short, this mission could require some unusual and potentially rather expensive policy options. Annual costs could plausibly range from $5 billion to $20 billion.

I should not dwell only on the negatives. Occupying Iraq would be hard, but could have real benefits. Even the possibility of a U.S.-Iraq alliance, or a collective security structure involving the region’s democratically inclined countries, could be given serious attention. This is not the place for an elaborate discussion, but suffice it to say that the process could remake the region’s basic security dynamics as much as the aftermath of World War II and the Korean War reshaped Europe and East Asia. Such a possibility is a definite and major plus in favor of the argument for overthrowing Saddam—provided, of course, that the long-term work to stabilize and rebuild the country follows the military victory. Nation building would be needed, plain and simple.


How many casualties might result if the United States and any coalition partners invade Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime? How important is this issue for policymaking purposes over the coming weeks and months? Prior to Operation Desert Storm, several military experts estimaed that U.S. losses might wind up in the range of 5,000 to 10,000, and the Pentagon expected even higher numbers of killed. In contrast, actual American losses were just under 400 (of whom about 150 were killed by direct enemy action, the others being lost in accidents or friendly-fire episodes). Is it possible to make more accurate predictions this time around?

The following develops two central themes. First, the likely numbers of U.S. military personnel killed in a future war to overthrow Saddam could plausibly range from roughly 100 to 5,000, with total numbers of wounded about three to four times as great. This range is wide. But it is important to recognize that, based on available methodologies for predicting combat outcomes, anything in this range is plausible. Those in the public policy debate who insist that any war would be a walkover have the onus on them to explain why. At the same time, there would appear to be little chance of any war against Iraq bogging down into the type of quagmire in which combat could last years and entail many many thousands of American deaths. Invading Iraq would not be another Korea or Vietnam.

The second main theme is that Iraqi civilian casualties could be substantial in such a war, given the assumption that it would unfold largely in Iraq’s cities. In approximate terms, casualties might be ten times as great as those of the U.S. military, if not more. This fact could pose pressures and problems for any Arab governments supporting the United States in such a war. Among its other implications, this is a strong argument for trying to defeat Iraq rapidly and with overwhelming force, so that the pressure of the “Arab street” can be contained. Civilian casualties due to clandestine or terrorist attacks are also possible in places such as Kuwait, Israel, and the United States, with plausible mortality ranges in the high hundreds of individuals.

The War Scenario

Consistent with military and strategic logic, and with leaked Pentagon war plans from the summer of 2002, I assume that a war to overthrow Saddam would involve about 250,000 American forces. The Afghanistan model of warfare, in which small numbers of U.S. special forces and American airpower work with indigenous opposition groups to fight government forces, would almost surely not work in Iraq, as discussed further below. That is due to relative weakness of the Iraqi opposition as well as the Iraqi military’s ability to hole up in cities, where American airpower is far less effective than in open terrain. Modest-sized operations, involving perhaps 50,000 to 75,000 U.S. troops, are somewhat more promising. But they would run the risk of encountering serious difficulties in the urban centers of Iraq. Relatedly, Iraqi forces would be less likely to capitulate quickly if they sensed they had a chance to prevail, increasing the chances of a prolonged urban battle under such circumstances.

This is not to say that a larger operation would have to mirror Desert Storm in its basic concept. The invasion might involve rapid airborne or commando strikes against Iraqi command and control assets as well as weapons of mass destruction sites in the earliest hours of combat, even as main invasion forces march more slowly through Iraq towards Baghdad and other cities. It might also use relatively small teams of American ground forces—perhaps brigade-sized units of several thousand troops each—to try to lure Iraqi forces out of the cities into regions where they would be more vulnerable to American airpower (and to lure out defectors to join U.S. forces). These sorts of “inside-out” tactics would try to avoid the delays inherent in a mechanized march from Kuwait and other neighboring countries to Baghdad. But they would be gambles, and the United States would need backup forces in place in case the gambles did not pay off.

Forecasting Casualties in Infantry and Urban Combat

Operation Desert Storm and, more recently, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan probably do not provide much insight into the likely nature of a future war in Iraq. Saddam seems unlikely to place many of its forces in the open in a future war. Because Iraq knows its weaknesses against the U.S. military in open settings, and because it is Saddam Hussein’s regime and weapons of mass destruction capabilities that would be at issue in a future war, one has to assume that the combat would be primarily urban.

This fact immediately changes the calculus of a future war by comparison with Desert Storm. To begin, airpower would be much more difficult to employ against Iraqi forces that could intersperse themselves with civilian vehicles and populations. This type of tactic was employed near Basra during Desert Storm, and has been employed in the subsequent eleven years as Iraqis have sought to place valued military assets near civilian populations to make it harder for the United States to bomb them. Iraqi forces have much better cover within cities, or even forested regions, than in open desert. As one further demonstration of this rather obvious fact, recall that even after eight years of further modernization after Desert Storm, NATO airpower was of quite limited effectiveness against small groups of Serb forces operating within forests, towns, and civilian populations in the Kosovo war. If U.S.-led forces tried to fly low to find enemy forces against this complex backdrop, they would have to contend with an Iraqi air defense network consisting, among other things, of some 6,000 air defense guns and 1,500 surface-to-air missile launchers (including man-portable SAMs).

Nothing about new technology and new warfighting concepts associated with the so-called revolution in military affairs seems likely to radically change the challenge of urban warfare anytime soon. For example, recent Marine Corps experiments incorporating such new concepts suggested that U.S. troops could still suffer quite high casualties in urban combat.

Historical Parallels

Two recent conflicts may provide better indicators of the likely nature of a future U.S.-Iraq war: the 1989 invasion of Panama and the 1993 U.S. experience in Mogadishu, Somalia. In December, 1989, U.S. forces overthrew Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega and defeated his armed forces. About 22,500 American personnel participated. The operation involved simultaneous nighttime airborne operations against 27 objectives throughout the country. Special forces infiltrated key sites shortly before the airborne assaults to take down Panamanian communications and oppose any attempts by Panama to reinforce its forces under attack. The massive, simultaneous assault against Panama’s 4,400-strong defense forces and its paramilitary forces of several thousand more personnel overwhelmed the latter, surprising them with its ferocity and coordination in the opening hours of battle. Twenty-three Americans died, as did about 125 Panamanian military personnel. Perhaps 200 to 600 Panamanian civilians died as well.

In the Somalia experience, U.S. forces faced ragtag militia opposition. Somali fighters had access to plentiful automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades, and mines, but not much more than that, and they were not trained in combined-arms or coordinated military operations. As is well known, the United States had 18 soldiers killed in action on the night of October 3-4, 1993 in the course of a raid on a building where leaders of the Aideed faction were meeting. The tragedy occurred when two helicopters were shot down by rocket-propelled grenades; additional American casualties were suffered in the effort to rescue any of the crew members that might have survived those crashes. Only about 2,000 U.S. forces were deployed for conducting and supporting such raids at the time they occurred; only 160 participated in the October raid. Estimates of Somali militia strength were in the many thousands, with losses on October 3-4 alone estimated at 300 or more combatants. Often forgotten is that a number of other American troops died in Somalia. In fact, total losses reached 29 from hostile action and 14 from “nonhostile” action such as accidents.

What do past cases tell us about how a future war conducted largely in the streets of Baghdad might play out? As discussed in the link, two useful parallels are the U.S. experience in Mogadishu in 1993 and the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989. Iraqi forces are almost surely better armed and better trained than the military or paramilitary organizations we fought in those cases. Thankfully, they are probably also far less motivated.

That said, it is important to remember that the Iraqi Republican Guard forces fought reasonably hard in Desert Storm. They also enjoy a number of benefits from Saddam’s regime—and they are rather heavily implicated in his rule. They would probably fear retribution from an alternative regime or from western occupying forces much more than they would fear Iraqi opposition forces and American airpower on the battlefield. How much they would fear American invasion forces, and thus when they would choose to surrender, is difficult to determine. Whether they could be convinced to desert Saddam by an amnesty offer or a promise of protection and inclusion in a post-Saddam regime is an open question. Whether Saddam’s commanders could be deterred from using weapons of mass destruction by threatening to hold them personally responsible should they do so is also unclear.

Simply scaling the results of Panama for the size of the Iraqi military leads to an estimate of about 2,000 killed Americans, more than 10,000 dead Iraqi military personnel, and tens of thousands of dead Iraqi citizens. If however it is only the elite Iraqi forces that fight hard, numbering somewhat more than 100,000 Republican Guard, Special Republican Guard, and palace guard forces, extrapolation from the Panama case suggests that losses on all sides might be only one-fourth as great.

The Somalia analogy is also worth invoking. The firefight on the night of October 3-4 can be used as a way to generate pessimistic estimates of how war in Baghdad might go. As noted, that operation involved about 160 Americans against a single objective, together with roughly a dozen ground vehicles, and more than a dozen helicopters. Overall operations in Baghdad might be 50 to 100 times as large, in any initial assault wave to secure key facilities (recall that 27 objectives were attacked in much-smaller Panama). With comparable casualty rates on a per person basis, U.S. losses could number 1,000 or more just in this phase of the fighting.

The Likely Implications of Weapons of Mass Destruction

One major wild card remains: the likely consequences of any Iraqi use of weapons of mass destruction. Consider first SCUD attacks against Iraq’s neighbors. Even if using chemical or biological agent, they seem a relatively minor threat, given the general difficulty of delivering such agents via missile and the specific limitations of the SCUD. Iraq may still have up to two dozen such missiles. But it often broke up in flight during Desert Storm and has clearly not benefited from extensive flight testing to improve its performance since then. Delivering chemical or biological agent is best done at a steady altitude by an aircraft that spreads the agent over a large area, not by a rapidly descending ballistic missile that may disperse the agent too soon or too late—and in any case, probably in far too concentrated a dose in one place. Should that one place be a sports stadium or other congregating place, results could be disastrous. But given the SCUD’s inaccuracy, that would require extreme luck on the part of Iraq.

Second, Iraqi attacks against civilian populations in places such as the United States could be serious, especially if they involved biological agents, in which case plausible casualties could reach into the hundreds or even the thousands. Iraqi special forces have not focused on preparing for such attacks in the past; they have reportedly been devoted to efforts to acquire technologies for producing weapons of mass destruction. It is also unlikely that Iraq has access to the most dangerous pathogens such as smallpox. On the other hand, Saddam may be willing to provide such agents to Hezbollah or al Qaeda operatives under certain circumstances. On balance, the threat from such weapons is rather finite—but also quite real.

Third, Iraq could increase casualty levels of coalition forces by using WMD against them, particularly its thousands of chemical-filled artillery shells and rockets. But it would probably increase casualties by no more than 10 to 20 percent, given historical precedent in conflicts such as the Iran-Iraq war; indeed, U.S. forces are much better equipped to protect themselves from such attacks than most militaries have been in the past. However, Iraq might gain some advantages nonetheless, if at a huge cost to its own civilian populations (and perhaps to its own troops, should winds shift). It could oblige coalition forces to fight in protective gear, slowing operations and generally complicating the mission. If the effects of fighting in such gear were comparable to those of fighting in bad weather or difficult terrain, for example, the pace of coalition fighting and the effectiveness of coalition forces might decline 25 to 50 percent, and casualties might mount by a comparable percentage.


The United States and coalition partners would win any future war to overthrow Saddam Hussein in a rapid and decisive fashion. This would not be another Vietnam or another Korea. But casualties could be significantly greater to all concerned parties than in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The best analogy for what such combat could involve would not be Desert Storm, but instead the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama—and on a much larger scale.

In rough terms, U.S.-led forces might suffer 100 to 5,000 forces killed in action in such a future war. The lower half of that range is perhaps the most plausible. But there is a very real possibility that American deaths could exceed 1,000 in number, and several thousand deaths cannot be ruled out.

By the methodologies employed here, Iraqi troop losses might be expected to roughly 2,000 to 50,000. And civilian deaths could number in the tens of thousands as well. Casualties in countries such as Israel and the United States, not so much from SCUD missiles or other military delivery vehicles as from action by Iraqi-supported terrorists or special forces, could number in the thousands if Saddam provided them with weapons of mass destruction. But such losses might also be trivial in size.

As such, those who feel strongly that a future war against Iraq would be either a cakewalk or a debacle should be challenged to explain why. Historical data and combat models put the onus squarely on those who would make such confident predictions. A quagmire in Iraq seems extremely unlikely. But on the other hand, to count on easy victory, as many American proponents of war seem to do, is not only unsupportable by the available evidence and by the methodologies of combat prediction. It is also irresponsible as a basis on which to plan U.S. military strategy in any future war against Saddam Hussein.


Iraq, unlike Afghanistan, is located in the heartland of Arabia, a region whose stability is a critical U.S. interest. A prolonged war there could undermine regional stability, put enormous pressure on friendly Arab regimes and Turkey, increase the terrorist threat against the United States, and wreak havoc on oil markets. Accordingly, if Saddam’s regime is to be removed militarily, the action must be quick and decisive, and order must be subsequently maintained for as long as it takes to generate a stable and unthreatening replacement government. In addition, to minimize the chances of concerted Iraqi resistance, the U.S. force should be as intimidating and overwhelming as possible. These requirements mean that the United States must be prepared to deploy a large invasion force—at least 200,000 troops, backed by some 1,000 aircraft—and to keep many of them in the region for some time.

Why the Afghanistan Model Won’t Work

Why not overthrow Saddam on the cheap, Afghan-style, as some of the most prominent proponents of overthrow seem to call for? First, relying on insurgency operations based on Kurdish and Shia forces would have a very high probability of failure because of the disparity of power between Saddam’s forces and anything that can be deployed by these surrogates. In Afghanistan opposition forces were half as large and at least as well armed as were the Taliban, whereas in Iraq Saddam’s army is five times as big as the fractious opposition groups all put together. And air power alone would not be sufficient to tip that balance, especially in urban environments.

Significant U.S. ground forces would also be needed because war planners cannot assume that the Iraqi army will adopt counterproductive tactics. Iraqi forces are unlikely to deploy their armor in the open desert (like Iraq had to do after attacking Kuwait) or to fire from static positions and becoming sitting ducks for airpower (like the Taliban did in Afghanistan). They are more likely to hunker down in the major cities, especially Baghdad, where Saddam is likely to hole up. Many of their weapons will be placed near apartment buildings, hospitals, schools, and mosques—as Iraq has already learned to do during a decade of constant bombardment by the United States and United Kingdom in the southern and northern no-fly zones. Knowing that his only hope once an invasion began might be to ensure that enough civilians were killed to provoke unrest or revolution in other Arab capitals or major protest movements in the West, Saddam would probably seek to create an “al Jazeera” effect by forcing the United States to hit large numbers of civilians if it chose to attack certain military targets.

Trends in military technology development and recent American battlefield victories suggest to some that the United States’ high-technology edge will make the deployment of a large invasion force unnecessary. Indeed, laser- and satellite-guided bombs, as well as new reconnaissance and communications systems like JSTARS aircraft and Predator and Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles demonstrated enormous potential in the Gulf War, Bosnia and Afghanistan. But two other conflicts from recent history also need to be kept in mind: the U.S. military campaign in Somalia in 1992-1993 and the war against Serbia over Kosovo in 1999. In both cases, difficult battlefield terrain and conditions—the urban setting of Mogadishu, the forested settings of Kosovo—limited enormously what high technology could do.

The Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) weapon that was so effective against the entrenched Taliban forces would be difficult to use against Iraqi armor deployed in urban settings, since it could cause so much collateral damage to civilians that its use might be severely limited. Laser-guided bombs could be more effective, at least in good weather, but they require forward target designators and even they could not be used against individual soldiers carrying small arms. If U.S. aircraft tried to spot targets on their own, they would have to fly low over Iraqi cities, risking losses from Iraq’s anti-aircraft artillery and shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles. When coalition aircraft flew low in the first three days of Desert Storm, the result was 27 aircraft damaged or destroyed—one-third of their losses for the entire war.

The Need for “Desert Storm II”

U.S. ground forces, on the other hand, would make a decisive difference in a war to unseat the butcher of Baghdad. Indeed, many Iraqi units might well change sides and move against Saddam if they saw a massive army coming to get them. At the moment many of the commanders of these units are loyal to Saddam only out of fear for their lives. But if they come to understand that their survival depends on distancing themselves from Saddam, their brittle loyalty to him could well crack. It is unlikely to crack in the face of opposition forces alone, led by rival ethnic groups who would likely exact retribution on Saddam’s commanders if they were somehow able to prevail on the battlefield.

Under these circumstances, the United States and any willing military partners would need a force large enough to defeat Iraq’s military unit by unit if necessary, while eventually also establishing order throughout Baghdad and perhaps other cities as well. Military targets would include command and control infrastructure needed to maintain control of the country, other major military assets such as bases, marshaling yards, and equipment depots, major public buildings, utilities, and of course Saddam himself as well as his palace guard. They would also have to include the main military forces of the Iraqi state, which could otherwise mount counterattacks against U.S.-led troops even after the invading armies had wrested control of the country from the ruling regime.

In the initial phase, American forces would target Saddam’s Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard, together about 100,000 strong, while trying to convince Saddam’s other 300,000 forces and 650,000 military reservists not to resist. If such a strategy were successful, only a few tens of thousands of American forces might ultimately see combat; in the best case scenario, Iraqi resistance might quickly crumble even in the ranks of the Republican and Special Republican guards. But the United States could not size its forces or develop its war plans based on that assumption, since Iraqi forces will only collapse if they are convinced of the inevitability of their defeat.

What Bases Would Be Needed?

This type of operation could not be done without substantial access to foreign military bases. Some have suggested otherwise, claiming for example that the United States could mount an operation by flying forces directly into western Iraq. However, this idea makes little military sense. U.S. airlift could deploy and sustain at most two divisions and their direct support, or perhaps 50,000 to 75,000 troops in all—and neither of these divisions could be particularly heavy with armor (U.S. airlift would only be adequate to deploy and sustain about one heavy division in this way). The fact remains that the only way to confidently defeat Saddam is by deploying a large armored force to the region by sealift and then mounting an operation that would in many ways resemble Desert Storm.

The United States would require significant base access to carry out this type of operation. Indispensable would be facilities in Kuwait and Turkey—the former to provide air bases and permit deployment of the main armored forces for their northward march on Baghdad, the latter for enough airfields to help protect Kurdish populations and forces during the war. Ideally, Bahrain would also allow the United States to continue to use its 5th fleet headquarters based there. But the requirements would also include air bases in at least one or two other Gulf sheikdoms.

More air bases would be needed due to the need to field up to 1,000 combat jets in the region (the Kosovo war, by way of comparison, required nearly that many against a much smaller country and enemy military). In rough terms, fielding 1,000 combat jets, plus associated support aircraft such as refueling and electronic warfare planes, as well as airlifters, would require at least 15 airfields and quite possibly 20 or more.

Were Saudi Arabia to provide its facilities, the problem would be essentially solved. Absent Saudi access, however, the United States would have to find that number of airfields in Turkey, Kuwait, other small Gulf countries, and its own aircraft carriers. Even if the United States used 4 to 6 carriers, and even factoring in two to three bases in both Kuwait and Turkey, the United States would still need at least half a dozen other facilities and perhaps a dozen. Most of the smaller Gulf states have two to four long, paved runways, though the United Arab Emirates possesses eight (for comparison’s sake, Saudi Arabia owns 31). So if Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates each provided two airfields, or if a subset of those countries each provided three to four, the problem should be solvable—especially if Saudi Arabia would permit overflights of its territory, since otherwise bottlenecks in air traffic could occur at the northern end of the Persian Gulf. But the operation would still be difficult, since most of these bases are not nearly as well developed or stocked with fuel, munitions, and spare parts as are Saudi facilities.

Clearly, Riyadh’s active support for an invasion of Iraq, while not absolutely indispensable, would be enormously desirable on both political and military grounds. This is one more reason why the president’s 9/12 strategy of working through the United Nations if possible is so sound, since it vastly improves the odds of Saudi assistance should we have to go to war.


An important policy question in regard to a possible war to overthrow Saddam Hussein concerns the timing of any such effort. Some suggest that, while they might be willing to support an invasion of Iraq under certain conditions, now is not the time given the urgent priority of defeating the terrorist organization that attacked the United States on September 11. There may be international political reasons not to go to war against Iraq anytime soon. For example, countries unhappy about a war against Iraq may reduce intelligence cooperation with the United States for the war on terror. However, in military terms at least, I do not believe that the U.S. military would have great difficulty in waging both wars at once.

The U.S. military, we have been told for a decade, is sized and structured to fight two major wars at once. Each conflict has been expected to require up to 500,000 American troops. The Bush administration has recently determined such a goal may have been impractical, but still claims the capability to wage one such all-out war and a second major operation perhaps half as big. In all, that could involve about 750,000 U.S. troops in combat.

By comparison, today’s demands are modest, and they would remain well within our capabilities even if we went to war against Saddam. Operations in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf together now require about 60,000 American personnel; the ongoing commitments in the Balkans involve another 10,000; smaller missions of various types in the Philippines, Georgia, Yemen and the Sinai add fewer than another 10,000. Post-9/11 security measures at military bases around the world might involve 50,000 more troops. Adding in 250,000 GIs to overthrow Saddam, all war-related deployments combined would involve about 400,000 troops—a substantial number, to be sure, but only about half the total we are supposed to be able to deploy at once. A more detailed military analysis leads to the same conclusion. Consider:

Main Combat Forces

We have enough to deploy 250,000 troops, including four to five ground combat divisions and 12 to 15 air combat wings, to the Persian Gulf. Today’s U.S. military has 13 active-duty divisions (10 in the Army, three in the Marine Corps). Less than one full division is presently involved in the Afghanistan campaign; less than one is in the Balkans; small pieces of other divisions are deployed elsewhere. That leaves more than 10 divisions available. Even after excluding the Army’s Second Infantry Division in South Korea, the Korea-oriented 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii, and the Pacific-oriented Third Marine Force in Okinawa, we would have more than ample ground troops to overthrow Saddam and occupy Iraq.

A similar conclusion holds for air power. There are 20 tactical fighter wings in the Air Force, 11 in the Navy, and three in the Marine Corps. Of that grand total, only about 10 would be unavailable based on existing commitments in the Western Pacific and Afghanistan. And the dozen bombers that have typically flown over Afghanistan constitute just 10 percent of total U.S. capability.

Key Support Forces

Certain critical forces, ranging from aerial tankers to transport aircraft to special operations units to unmanned aerial vehicles, have been heavily used in Afghanistan. But even at its peak, Afghanistan did not place higher demands on most of these support capabilities than would a so-called major theater war. And today the tempo of operations is less than half what it once was, while allied combat forces are providing considerable help in the ongoing search for Taliban and al Qaeda fighters.

The U.S. military today owns some 600 refueling aircraft, of which more than 400 are airworthy at present. They have been heavily used in Afghanistan. But they are presently flying fewer than 50 sorties a day in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Most would be available should the bell toll for Saddam.


Much has also been made of the depleted inventories of precision munitions in the aftermath of last fall’s intensive aerial operations, including satellite-guided joint direct attack munitions, or JDAM. But this concern is easily exaggerated when considering the feasibility of a war against Saddam. Stocks of most other ordnance, including Maverick and Hellfire missiles, appear ample based on unclassified estimates. Inventories of laser-guided bombs may not be full, but are surely considerable given how many were used in Afghanistan.

We did not even have JDAM the last time we fought Iraq. And we might not be able to make much use of it in urban combat anyway since it typically misses its targets by 10 yards or so (meaning that a bomb aimed at Iraqi troops might hit a hospital instead). But we are producing more quickly, and inventories will be substantially larger by the end of the year—the soonest we would plausibly fight Iraq, given that months of preparations needed before any conflict.


Finally, what about getting to the fight? Most U.S. sealift has hardly been used in Afghanistan and would be quickly available for a war against Iraq. That fleet is by far its strongest ever; a largely unsung accomplishment of the Clinton administration and the Congress in the 1990s was the construction of almost 20 large roll-on/roll-off ships for rapid transport of equipment. Airlift has been much more heavily used in Afghanistan. But current operations there involve a quarter of the total U.S. capability, at most.

None of this is to suggest that war against Saddam is a good idea or a necessary option. Nor does it solve the diplomatic problem of gaining wartime access to bases in the Persian Gulf. But American adversaries should have no doubt about our ability to mount a large-scale military operation, and to do it soon if necessary.


How can inspections accomplish their purpose of verifying the disarmament of Iraq from its chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile capabilities? The track record on inspections in Iraq is mixed. Rather than argue over whether they have been mostly good or mostly poor, we should recognize what inspections do well, and take advantage of those positives. To its credit, despite taking a dismissive attitude about inspections during the summer (particularly in the cases of Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld), the Bush administration appears to be pursuing improved inspections in its effort to craft a new U.N. Security Council resolution on Iraq.

The following elements should be included in any new inspections concept. If properly applied, they should force Saddam to make irreversible reductions in his WMD capabilities in the next few months, while the threat of U.S. military action should he fail to comply is most credible. They should also provide rather high confidence that he will not make major progress towards a nuclear weapons capability. That is the one major WMD capability he does not now possess, and it is the type that could probably cause the most damage to western interests if he did possess it. Hence, an inspections regime that reliably prevented Iraq from obtaining a nuclear capability would in my judgment be acceptable, even if it could not absolutely guarantee elimination of all of his chemical and biological weapons.

  • Iraq must come into compliance with all U.N. disarmament demands and other requirements imposed on it after the Persian Gulf War, including but hardly limited to the immediate return of U.N. inspectors.

  • Those inspectors must not be impeded from visiting any potential weapons sites in Iraq, including presidential palaces and compounds, at any time and without notice. Nor can they be impeded from access to any Iraqis they choose to converse with, or from determining the composition of their inspection teams as they see fit.

  • The United Nations must have the power to immediately grant asylum to any Iraqi weapons experts as well as their families, should such experts provide information to the United Nations that could put their lives at risk.

  • Iraq must account for, display, and allow U.N. destruction of stocks of chemical and biological weapons and munitions that we know it possesses, and do so within a short, specific time period.

  • Iraq must agree to intrusive, long-term monitoring of its weapons capabilities that would include no-notice inspections.

  • And even if Iraq were to comply fully with all these requirements, its future oil revenues would still have to be escrowed to control its purchases of dual-use equipment.

One additional but essential component of the ultimatum concerns Iraq’s neighbors. Since they would all prefer to avoid a U.S. invasion of Iraq, they need to agree to stop their illicit trade with Iraq—by which oil comes out, and many goods including weapons and dual-use technology go into that country. This would require detailed negotiations with Jordan, Turkey, Syria, and perhaps even Iran, including some combination of economic incentives and strong pressure that would depend in its details on the country in question. Without tighter sanctions, weapons disarmament and inspections efforts will be far less effective.

There is a chance Saddam will accept this ultimatum and allow the return of the inspectors, if the clear alternative is his demise, despite his recent insistence that he will not comply with any new U.N. resolution. Some would prefer that he comply, others that he refuse and, in doing so, provide undeniable justification for war. The key point, however, is that either outcome would be better than the current alternatives: allowing Saddam to keep his weapons and his power, or unilaterally waging war.


Is Saddam Hussein deterrable, and does containment thus provide an alternative to war, especially if rigorous weapons inspections and disarmament can again be conducted within Iraq? Some say no, noting his aggressiveness in attacking Iran and Kuwait as well as his own civilian populations. But even aggressive, evil rulers such as Joseph Stalin and Kim Il-Sung, the former North Korean leader, can often be deterred when faced with a credible threat that any aggression they attempt will meet a firm response. Moreover, those who argue that Saddam is not deterrable should remember Ambassador April Glaspie’s famous statement to him before the invasion of Kuwait—that the United States did not take a position on his border disputes with neighboring countries. The United States did not exactly give him a green light to invade Kuwait, but it gave him little more than a yellow light. Its failure to oppose that aggression before the fact ranks with Acheson’s famous 1949 statement that Korea was outside the zone of U.S. security interests as among the worst examples of deterrence failure in American history. And once Saddam had already taken Kuwait, it was no great surprise that he refused to vacate it in the face of American threats. Political scientists have recognized for decades that compellence, or getting a country to undo an action already taken, is much harder than deterrence, or persuading it not to do something it may be contemplating.

Today, there is no such ambiguity in American willingness to respond to any aggression by Saddam. The only small uncertainty relates to what we would do if he again attacked his own populations, notably the Kurds in the north and Shia in the south. But even there, Saddam now knows he would be taking huge risks.

As threatening and dangerous as Saddam Hussein may be, the recent track record suggests that he can be dissuaded from undertaking actions that he believes would likely lead to his overthrow. During the Gulf War, he desisted from using the weapons of mass destruction we now know he had, realizing (following explicit threats from U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney) that to do so would almost surely lead to his downfall. He moved brigades southward towards Kuwait again in 1994, only to pull back once the Clinton administration mounted Operation “Vigilant Warrior,” a deployment of tens of thousands of troops). He interfered with the work of foreign weapons inspectors frequently, and ultimately expelled them, but never killed or harmed them. He brutally attacked Shia resistance forces in southern Iraq in 1991, after it became clear that the first Bush administration would not interfere to stop such operations, but generally avoided brutality against Kurds in the north once the United States made clear its commitment to their security. In 1996, he did direct an incursion into Kurdish parts of Iraq—but only after internecine warfare among Kurds, and an explicit invitation to him to intervene by one of the Kurdish factions, made it unlikely that the United States would be in a position to oppose him.

There is counterevidence. Saddam tried to kill former President George Bush in 1993, an action that, if successful, might very well have led to a U.S. operation to assassinate him. Saddam might also think he could assist al Qaeda or a similar organization, providing it with biological agents or other material support, and not be caught doing so. But he also knows that we have a proven ability to track meetings between his agents and potential terrorists and that we can often trace the origins of chemical or biological agents based on their genetic content, particle size, chemical coating, or other attributes. Thus while there is a chance his cooperation with terrorists could succeed in escaping detection, there is a better chance that we would figure out what he was up to. For a person like Saddam who cherishes his hold on power, the odds would probably not seem favorable. And as for the attempted assassination, now that Saddam recognizes our intelligence capabilities, he appears to have thought better of his vendetta against the former American president, and has not again tried to have him or any other American heroes from the 1991 Gulf War killed.

Deterrence could fail in the future nonetheless, at least in a limited way. In particular, if Saddam had a nuclear weapon, he would still almost surely be deterred from directly attacking the United States or its NATO allies. But he might take greater risks in the Middle East and Persian Gulf in the belief that his new weapon effectively guaranteed his regime’s survival, making U.S.-led intervention to thwart his regional ambitions less likely except in the most extreme of circumstances.

What might Saddam do under such circumstances? Perhaps he would seize the oil field on his border with Kuwait that was the purported original cause of the 1990 Iraq-Kuwait crisis. Or he might violate the safe haven in his country’s Kurd region and seek to reestablish brutal Ba’ath party rule over that minority population. He might escalate his support for anti-Israeli terrorism, stoking radicals and suicide bombers and trying to provoke Israel into an overreaction. Given his propensity for miscalculation, he might think he could get away with actions that we would in fact find unacceptable, causing a failure of deterrence and a much greater risk of war. In a worst case, on his deathbed he might decide to attack Israel with nuclear weapons for purposes of simple vengeance, and to ensure his mark upon Arab history books.

This situation would be at least somewhat risky, even if not mortally perilous to the United States, so the case for preventing Saddam from getting nuclear weapons is strong. But the argument that he can be deterred, and has been deterred, from taking most types of dangerous actions is also strong. That situation could clearly change in the event of a war targeting his regime, however.