Op-Ed

And Now, the Good News

Michael E. O’Hanlon

Last week’s euphoria over a quick start to the invasion of Iraq has now been almost entirely overtaken by gloom. Pentagon officials are on the defensive when discussing their war plan; images of sandstorms and black-masked Iraqi irregulars and American prisoners of war fill TV screens here and abroad; the looming battle for Baghdad has made many feel a deep sense of foreboding.

Perhaps the Bush administration deserves it. It did not begin to emphasize the potential for a difficult war until hostilities began. Pentagon advisers like Richard Perle and Kenneth Adelman have been promising a cakewalk to Baghdad for 18 months; in the late 1990’s, Paul Wolfowitz, now the deputy defense secretary, argued that a small American force fighting in conjunction with the Iraqi opposition could quickly overthrow Saddam Hussein.

But despite this week’s proof that war is not always easy, the invasion is not going badly. As President Bush said at his news conference yesterday, “Coalition forces are advancing day by day in steady progress against the enemy.” Here’s why things are going well and why they will soon go even better:

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The battle of Baghdad will be quick. That’s because coalition forces will probably not enter Baghdad until they have destroyed half the Republican Guard stationed on the city’s outskirts. Mr. Hussein made a mistake putting several of his divisions outside the capital. That mistake helps the coalition, giving it more leeway militarily by reducing the potential for civilian casualties. The guard’s Medina Division and other forces south of Baghdad have resisted Apache helicopter attacks, but they will not be able to fend off the combination of ground forces and helicopters and combat jets.

The coalition won’t enter Baghdad in a plodding fashion and then take it block by block. Instead, it will gradually learn where Iraqi forces have set up provisional headquarters and strong points, and then destroy or seize them in a nighttime operation akin to an urban blitzkrieg. There will probably be bloody street fighting, but with Iraq’s command centers fractured, the opposition forces will be piecemeal and isolated.

Crucial troops are on the way. Perhaps it was a mistake to begin the war without the Fourth Infantry Division or even the 101st Airborne Division fully in place, but it is a mistake from which the coalition will soon recover. The delays imposed by sandstorms and fedayeen militia resistance in the southeast may be a blessing in disguise, giving the Fourth, which had been waiting in the vain hope it could enter Iraq via Turkey, time to arrive in Kuwait.

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Saddam Hussein can’t cause lasting problems in the south. He can intimidate populations with his fedayeen, but that group is limited in size and ability, and it will not be able to convince most Iraqis to fight with it. Sustained resistance has come only from the elite forces and fedayeen, not Iraq’s conscript army, which constitutes three-quarters of the country’s total military strength. As for Basra, in a worst case it could pose a challenge similar to Baghdad, but it would be on a far smaller scale.

There tends to be a period of public impatience in modern wars, with Kosovo and Afghanistan being recent examples. Now we are going through our period of impatience, if not downright pessimism, during this operation. But the main elements of the strategy are sound, and the enemy is still basically weak. This war will cost a price in lives, and the administration should have done a better job to prepare the country for that sober fact. But it will be won, and won decisively.