War Against Saddam’s Regime: Winnable but No Cakewalk

Michael E. O’Hanlon

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.

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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 av