Was Vice President Dick Cheney right when he said Wednesday that Operation Iraqi Freedom would rank among history’s examples of brilliant military strategy?
Will war colleges around the world be teaching it to their students decades from now? Or will the conflict simply be seen as a case of overwhelming military capability prevailing over a mediocre army from a mid-sized developing country?
Will the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in downtown Baghdad be seen as a pivotal moment or merely a photogenic one?
With Baghdad increasingly in coalition hands, it is no longer too soon to begin to answer those questions.
Whether the war’s concept deserves to be called brilliant is debatable. On balance, our military performance has been so good and our military supremacy so overwhelming that we probably could have won this war without a brilliant, or even a very good, war plan.
That said, there have been major elements of military creativity in the Iraq campaign as well as some that were not new at all.
Consider several key elements:
* Shock and awe. Selectively hitting military targets while sparing civilian infrastructure is an idea that builds on the U.S. experience in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Desert Storm. Avoiding attacks against regular Iraqi military units was smart, but it did not take a genius to know that these forces were much less loyal to Hussein than are the Special Republican Guard, Republican Guard and Fedayeen units. Striking hard in a war’s early hours is a strategy that air power proponents have counseled for decades. In the end, the shock-and-awe concept was not really followed because plans apparently changed with the attempt to kill Hussein on March 19. Even so, given the degree to which Iraqi forces had become accustomed to coalition bombing in the preceding decade, there probably would not have been much shock or awe.
* Special operations raids. These were more impressive than the early air campaign. Dozens of small special operations teams disrupted Iraqi command and control, seized oil infrastructure, prevented dams from being demolished and took hold of airfields in regions where Scud missiles might have been launched at Israel. Special operations and intelligence units also provided information on the whereabouts of Iraqi leaders, permitting the attacks against Hussein and the notorious Gen. Ali Hassan Majid, known as “Chemical Ali.” These operations were brave, creative and effective. They also prevented some nightmare scenarios.
* Bypassing southeastern cities while rushing to Baghdad. In the war’s first 10 days, it was not clear that we could sufficiently protect our flanks in areas that we preferred not to seize. The ensuing debate was a bit hyped; in a worst case, we could have waited a couple of weeks for other units to arrive with little harm done to the broader strategy. Regardless, this approach, which placed a premium on speed and deep penetration, was not so new. German generals did not make pit stops in Strasbourg or Luxembourg or northeastern France; they homed in directly on Paris.
* Decimating air and ground attacks against the Republican Guard. By the last days of March and early days of April, U.S. forces were severely damaging Republican Guard forces deployed outside of Baghdad. Hussein made a major mistake in keeping them there, perhaps out of fear that they would turn against him if allowed into Baghdad or perhaps out of overconfidence that they could hide in the complex terrain of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. There were some good tactics on the part of the coalition, such as the 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division’s “bump and run” move to outflank part of the Medina Division near Karbala. But what won that fight was military excellence and a devastating display of combined-arms warfare. It was less brilliance than sheer dominance.
The fights for Baghdad and Basra. Here, there has been some genuine cleverness and creativity. To try to seize the cities quickly probably would have produced high casualties on all sides. By contrast, to wait patiently for the 4th Mech and other reinforcements would have given Hussein’s forces confidence as well as time to regroup and devise new tactics. So the middle ground—using increasingly assertive “reconnaissance in force” operations to gain information, disrupt Hussein’s forces, embolden the Iraqi population to resist and engage selectively in firefights against elite Iraqi forces—has been just right. British forces have set up encampments in Basra and U.S. forces have now done so impressively in Baghdad. This approach of gradually increasing assertiveness seems to be succeeding.
None of this is to say that the war has been painless. Nor is it to claim that it is over. But military historians already are getting ready to discuss the role of coalition special forces as well as the coalition’s urban warfare techniques.
It may be premature to describe Gen. Tommy Franks as a latter-day Sun Tzu, but he and his fellow planners have done a fine job.