Friday, July 12, 2002

Iraq

The question of the day of course is Iraq. The decision to topple Saddam is based on real threats as well as some basic level of sympathy for the people who live under his despotism. The main questions are how do we end his career and what do we do with Iraq after?

Some have called for the "Northern Alliance solution" with the Kurds standing in as our proxy and shield for special operations forces to call in withering fire on the Iraqi army and Republican Guards. Decimated from the air, Iraqi ground forces will be helpless to stop a Kurdish march on Baghdad. Possibly, the Iraqi military will depose Saddam on their own to forestall a Kurdish occupation of the capital.

This is unlikely. The Iraqis are better armed than the Taliban and in 1996, struck the Kurds rather than suffer their plans to be a springboard for revolt. We shouldn't count on stopping the Iraqi army in its tracks if it marches into the rugged Kurdish regions again. Without a solid shield on the ground, our special forces spotters will not be able to call in the kind of systematic aerial assault that is necessary to destroy the Iraqi army. Although we are far better than we were in 1999, I suspect an air campaign against Iraq would fail to crush the Iraqi army just as Allied Force failed to crush the Serb army in Kosovo. An aerial only campaign will also undercut our campaign to gain allies who will see failure to provide a ground option as a failure of commitment.

Lack of Saudi air space and facilities will add to the complications of an air campaign. Perhaps even Kuwait will balk. What then, a campaign from Turkey and carriers in the Gulf? Sure, we can command the force from the new headquarters in Qatar, but this will be far from ideal circumstances to wage an air warl. What if the Turks decline to cooperate? Will it be a carrier war bolstered by flights from Diego Garcia and CONUS? Time is our enemy in such a war. Unlike the Taliban, Iraq actually has air defenses so we will probably lose some aircraft and pilots. We'l certainly have to be very cautious to minimize losses. If Saddam can hunker down and absorb the casualties, filmed for al Jazeera and CNN of course, he will gain stature even as he is pummeled again. I do not wish to inflate the Moslem "street" but it would be better to do this fast rather than slow. The sheer time required to execute such a plan will deter skittish allies from cooperating even if they believe we will carry it out to its conclusion.

Invasion seems the only practical method. So, how much and from where? Invasion from Kuwait is surely the best method. The north is controlled by the Kurds and minimal forces would be necessary to bolster the Kurds given that the Iraqis would be busy fending off the southern option. A Turkish corps advancing south with America's 10th Mountain Division pushing south closer to the Iranian border would lock that region down, keep the Iranians out, and reassure the Turks that an independent Kurdish state was not being born.

In the south, two Army heavy divisions and the 101st Airborne (air assault) would suffice to drive all the way to Baghdad. An armored cavalry regiment plus a British heavy brigade to screen the western flank would help; and a Marine Expeditionary Force to capture or preferably just invest Basra and assist in the capture of Baghdad later, would be necessary. Allied infantry to help garrison the south and keep the Basra region from falling into Iran's orbit or breaking a way would minimize complications. A strategic reserve in the form of the 82nd Airborne Division could help out in Baghdad if resistance is heavy, as could elements of 10th Mountain Division. Jordan has reportedly agreed to help. Basing Patriot missiles to shoot down SCUDs and special forces and aircraft to hunt missile sites in western Iraq would be useful as would the ability to base search and rescue forces there. Apparently, the Jordanians have decided not to make the wrong choice again by siding with Iraq.

It is a major problem if Kuwait does not cooperate. We have two options: invade from Turkey to drive on Baghdad from the north; or come over the narrow Gulf front with the Marines, carve a beach head, and drive on Baghdad from the south. Could Army paratroopers drop in deeper to seize airheads? Dang, that's starting to look like D-Day. Looking at the latter option first, I initially discounted it. Opposed landings are tough and we haven't solved the problem of clearing mines quickly and thoroughly. Logistics would likely be quite the challenge too since the port infrastructure needed to ship in supplies and reinforcements would be fairly wrecked. Parachute assaults are risky too. Besides, we'd probably need to occupy Kuwait's Bubiyan Island for the duration, so some level of Kuwaiti cooperation would be necessary. If we can get that minimal cooperation, perhaps the Marine invasion will provide Kuwait the ability to deny they've helped us while quietly letting us ship supplies and reinforcements through Kuwait up the highway into Iraq.

Although I think we could do the job from the south without Kuwait, from practical as well as moral reasons, we should not unduly risk our paratroopers' and Marines' lives to allow Kuwaiti rulers the luxury of hedging their bets over siding with us. We have to make them side with us. If we have to make every foreign bank account they own suddenly disappear for a couple minutes to show them we mean business, so be it. I'd rather gain their willing cooperation, but this is too serious to allow them the option of saying no. I doubt we would need to go that far. Saudi cooperation is unlikely. At least as far as basing goes. We can operate without them. Others will give us the bases we need. Knowing we are serious and hoping for some leverage in post-Saddam Iraq, I guess the Saudis will lean our way. At the least we will be allowed to use their air space. We may be able to use their ports and airfields for logistics. We may even get to use bases for aerial tanker and support missions. The line will be drawn before allowing combat missions but that will not be a critical handicap.

One important reason that Kuwaiti and Saudi will cooperate is the prospect of an Iran-inspired revolt in the Basra region. This will give the ruling family of Kuwait the willies. The Saudis too would be darned displeased to see Shiites breaking away from Iraq to form their own state (surely, the large number of sometimes rioting Shiites in their own oil provinces loom large in their thinking. Bad precedent to let it happen in Iraq) or to request annexation by Iran. They claim they don't want that outcome. Let them back it with action. Given that Iranians seem to like us and despise their theocratic dictatorship, I no longer worry about a Shiite uprising too much. I imagine Iran will be in the win column due to Iranian actions all by themselves.
Still, I bet the Kuwaitis will cooperate. Despite the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the public waffling, the Kuwaitis are with us. We have reinforced our troops in Kuwait and the Kuwaitis have not forgiven the Palestinians for siding with Saddam in 1990. And Iraq did try to extingiush Kuwait... All in all, once it is clear we are going to Baghdad, I bet the odds are pretty good we will go in from the south with Kuwait fully cooperative and Saudi Arabia sufficiently cooperative. Other Gulf states will provide critical bases. But if not, the north will work too. It may be annoying that the Kuwaitis don't opendly side with us now, but they do have legitimate reasons for staying quiet until we move.

An invasion risks bloody combat but it also increases the likelihood of dramatic victory. At worst, we take the country and depose Saddam after destroying the Iraqi army. An invasion may actually make a revolt more likely. Who in Iraq will stick his neck out in the face of Saddam's proven ruthlessness and cruelty to even suspected opposition? Were I an Iraqi division or brigade commander, I would only surrender or defect when I could see the American Abrams coming down the road. Saddam is way too vicious to take a leap of faith at this point. Saddam Hussein has killed for mere suspicion or whim and the fear ingrained in his subordinates is too deeply embedded to overcome easily.

So, would a force based around a core force of an Army corps of 2 heavy, 1 air mobile, and 1 mountain division, and 1 Marine Expeditionary Force do the trick? In 1991, it took seven-plus Army divisions and more than two divisions' worth of Marines to win (with militarily significant allied help limited to the British division and small French division). The Iraqi army is 40% of its Desert Storm size. Eleven years of poor maintenance, purges for real and imagined plots, and numbing sanctions have surely taken their toll on equipment and morale. If the remaining 40% are half as effective as their 1991 brethren, I will be shocked. America in turn would go to war with an Army better than in 1991 technologically speaking. Training standards are not as high as they were when we trained to beat the Red Army while outnumbered, rather than indulging in our casualty-free peacekeeping mentality encouraged in the post-Cold War decade. Morale would certainly be better as the cause will be one clearly worth fighting for and dying for. Saving Kuwait and its oil were a national interest but not exactly high minded. (Ending slavery and not preserving the Union inspired the Northern soldiers to advance through deadly Confederate killing zones; even though preserving the Union was a good cause too.) Hopefully, our training has regained a sense of warfighting urgency since September 11. To be conservative I guess we are equivalent to our 1991 Army brethren overall. Our Navy remains uncontested and our Air Force is a quantum leap ahead of 1991. Indeed, it is far better than the Air Force that fought over Kosovo in 1999. Although I remain a firm believer in the vital role of ground power in focusing and maximizing the impact of air power--and exploiting its power while the enemy is still reeling--I would be remiss not to note that airpower is amazingly better and will increase the effectiveness of a ground invasion tremendously. Even without airpower tilting the balance our way, I estimate (and these are all back of the envelope estimates, not quantitative analysis) that a single United States Army heavy brigade could, unaided, crush a regular Iraqi army tank division; and even beat a Republican Guard heavy division. Airpower factored in will rout them. I cannot forget the ability of our 1991 heavy Army divisions, assisted by airpower, to plow through Iraqi Republican Guards in a frontal assault with barely a scratch to show for their efforts to stop us. The rank and file infantry divisions will be speed bumps and will cause us more problems as POWs than as actively fighting formations.

This is our kind of war. Five-plus American Army and Marine divisions backed by our tremendous air power may well be equal to the 1991 force of ten division-equivalents of America troops. So, we went halfway to Baghdad while defeating the best Iraq had in 1991. In 2003, an American force equivalent in power to the 1991 force will need to go all the way to Baghdad against an Iraqi force 20% as effective as its 1991 version. Yeah, we can do it. I would never assume it will be a cake walk, but we can't rule that out either. There are a lot of factors and I can't even count out defeat if the whole region went up in flames. All the more reason to do it fast.

The only potential battlefield problems are city combat in Baghdad and chemical weapons. With his regime at stake, die hards may well pull a Berlin bunker strategy and Saddam may figure he has nothing to lose by going chemical. For the problem of city fighting, remember the 82nd Airborne should be on call to aid in this. Hopefully some defectors will aid too and lead their own Iraqi troops into the city. In any case, we will need to drive on and bounce the city rather than besiege it and give the defenders time to fortify their nerves and buildings. Better some losses early than a dragged out bloody fight in that sprawling city with the accompanying CNN risk of starvation and disease plaguing the civilians. As to chemical weapons, every trigger puller in the Iraqi army and air force who might get the order to launch a chemical weapon at us must know they are dead. We don't need to retaliate with nukes or chemicals, but thermobaric bombs will probably do nicely. Of course, our threat to prosecute or kill the trigger pullers will pale in comparison to Saddam's threat to kill and torture the trigger puller and his entire extended family if he doesn't fire the chemical weapons. We shouldn't expect a lot from threatening the chemical guys. Threats must be coupled with speed of advance to give chemical troops the opportunity to stall for time and get overrun by American troops. Our threats will stall use, not deter it. We're just not as ruthless as Saddam. At worst, we are better prepared to face chemicals on the battlefield than anybody else; and against well trained and protected troops, chemical weapons are more nuisance than mass casualty inducing weapons.

Although on paper we'd still have about half of our military engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan with another half ready for another major theater war, it would be prudent to mobilize the National Guard and other reserves on a Desert Storm level of a quarter million personnel (we're at about a third of that level of mobilization now). They need not be sent to war but they should be available for contingencies until the Iraq campaign is over and the troops return to the US and recover. Some of the reservists might be appropriate to send to post-war Iraq as a stabilization force until we can get allies for that role.

One way or the other, then, we will make it to Baghdad and throw the bums out. Although some Americans must remain in a multi-national force to solidify the victory with a successful peace, we will need to withdraw much of the heavy armor to be prepared to deal with an aggressive North Korea or some unanticipated threat. A democratic, rule of law-based, decentralized Iraq will be our ultimate objective. Once again, as in Afghanistan, throngs of cheering Moslems not at all put out by their liberation from tyranny will stifle the chorus of panic from our continental European allies and certain "solidarity" organizations that will protest our "evil" for doing what is necessary.

And we will do what was necessary. We began rolling in the aisle of Flight 93 over the skies of Pennsylvania. We will roll into Baghdad in due course. I would not be shocked at all if we had an old fashioned declaration of war by Congress. Some say the invasion is scheduled for the fall. Maybe. I'd guess the new year if I had to bet now. But the fall is possible too. Giving Saddam less time to prepare is certainly a motivation to go earlier rather than later. And our time is limited. We should not be confused about that.