Op-Ed

Was the Strategy Brilliant?

Michael E. O’Hanlon

View the complete index of Brookings Daily War Reports.

Two weeks ago, when the U.S.-led campaign against Saddam Hussein’s regime seemed to be bogging down, Secretary Rumsfeld defended the coalition’s war
strategy. Though keeping some distance from it himself, describing it as
General Frank’s plan rather than his own, he described it as excellent.
General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went one step
further, calling the overall concept “brilliant.” Others who had seen it
admired its simplicity and its flexibility.

Three weeks into the war, with the conflict’s outcome increasingly clear, it
is a good time to ask if General Myers was right. Will war colleges around
the world be teaching the basic coalition strategy to their students
decades from now, or will the conflict be seen as a case in which
overwhelming military capability prevailed over a mediocre army from a
mid-sized developing country?

On balance, this victory will be primarily due to the men and women and
technology of today’s U.S. and U.K. armed forces. Our military is so good
that it probably could win this war even with a poor strategy—though
many more people on all sides might die in such a hypothetical case.

That said, there have been major elements of military creativity in Operation
Iraqi Freedom. Whether the overall concept deserves to be called brilliant is
debatable. But it does appear to have been clever in several specific ways,
most notably in the special operations campaign of the war’s early days and
in the recent battles for Basra, Baghdad, and other cities. Consider several
key elements of the plan in turn:

“Shock and Awe.”
This much ballyhooed idea for massive air strikes during
the war’s first 48 hours was a good one, but not as original as often
portrayed. 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 was well known that these forces are
much less loyal to Saddam than the Special Republican Guard, Republican
Guard, and fedayeen units. Striking hard in a war’s early hours is a good
idea when feasible, but airpower proponents have counseled that strategy for
decades. As it turned out, the shock and awe concept was not followed to the letter because we changed plans and tried to kill Saddam on March 19. But
given the degree to which Iraqi forces had become accustomed to coalition
bombing in the preceding decade, it is not clear that shock and awe stood
much of a chance of success in any event.

Special Operations raids.
These were actually more impressive than the
early air campaign. Even before the formal expiration of President Bush’s 48-hour deadline to Saddam, dozens of small special operations teams were
deploying throughout much of Iraq and beginning to attack key sites. They
disrupted Iraqi command and control, seized oil infrastructure, took hold of
airfields in western Iraq where SCUD missiles might have been
launched at Israel, and prepared the way for regular coalition forces.
Special operations and intelligence units have also provided intelligence on
the whereabouts of Iraqi leaders, permitting the attacks against Saddam and
“Chemical Ali.” These operations were brave, creative, and
effective. They also prevented some of the war’s worst nightmare scenarios
from coming to pass.

Bypassing southeastern cities while rushing to Baghdad.
The strategy
followed by the 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division, as well as the 1st Marine
Expeditionary Force and 101st Air Assault Division, became controversial when
critics wondered if we had enough boots and tanks on the ground to carry out
such a rapid move. In the war’s first seven to 10 days, it was not clear that we
could sufficiently protect our flanks in areas where roads ran through Iraq’s
southeastern cities that we preferred not to seize. This debate was a bit
overhyped; in a worst case, we could have waited a couple weeks for the 4th
Mechanized Infantry Division and other units to arrive with little harm done
to the broader strategy. Regardless, this approach was not so new. Ever
since the days of German blitzkrieg, modern armored forces have sought to
move quickly and prevent the enemy from having time to recover or regroup.
German generals did not make pit stops in Strasbourg or Luxembourg or the
towns of northeastern France; they honed directly on Paris. So while it was
probably a good idea to go straight for Baghdad, it cannot be considered brilliant.

Decimating air-ground attacks against the Republican Guard.
By the last
days of March and early days of April, U.S. forces were severely damaging
Iraqi Republican Guard forces deployed outside of Baghdad. Saddam 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.
Either way, his forces paid an enormous price. There were some tactical
innovations on the part of the coalition, such as the 3rd Mech’s “bump and
run” move to outflank part of the Medina division near Karbala. But
basically, what won that fight was sheer military excellence and a
devastating display of combined-arms warfare on the part of U.S. Army, Air
Force, and Navy personnel. The Marines and supporting airpower accomplished similar feats
further to the east. Again, it was less a matter of brilliance than sheer military dominance that
carried the day.

Related Books

The fights for Baghdad and Basra.
Here, there has been some genuine
cleverness and creativity on the part of war planners. Brilliance is in the
eye of the beholder, but speaking for myself at least, it has been a military
education to watch the coalition attack Saddam’s forces in Iraq’s two largest
cities. The extreme options of patience and immediate all-out attack would
not have been good ideas. To try to seize the cities quickly would
probably have produced high casualties on all sides. By contrast, to wait
patiently for the 4th Mech and other reinforcements would have given Saddam’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 Saddam’s forces, embolden the Iraqi
population to resist his regime, and selectively engage in firefights against
elite Iraqi forces turned out just right. In the last couple days,
British forces have set up encampments in Basra and U.S. forces have begun to
do so in Baghdad as well; this approach of gradually increasing assertiveness
seems to be succeeding.

None of this is to claim that the war is over just yet. And of course, victory is coming at a significant human cost; largely for that reason, the broader strategic benefits of this war may be less clear-cut than the battlefield successes. But
military historians are already getting ready to put pen to paper, especially
to discuss the role of coalition special forces as well as the coalition’s
urban-warfare techniques. On balance, Secretary Rumsfeld’s description of the overall war plan may be more judicious than General Myers. But it has indeed been a very good plan.