Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Deep Penetration or Deep Plan?

This New York Times article argues that the military perhaps should not have driven on Baghdad so quickly in 2003 during the Iraq War while the fedayeen nipped at our supply lines:

From the first days of the invasion in March 2003, American forces had tangled with fanatical Saddam Fedayeen paramilitary fighters. Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, who was leading the Army's V Corps toward Baghdad, had told two reporters that his soldiers needed to delay their advance on the Iraqi capital to suppress the Fedayeen threat in the rear.

Soon after, General Franks phoned Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan, the commander of allied land forces, to warn that he might relieve General Wallace.

The firing was averted after General McKiernan flew to meet General Franks. But the episode revealed the deep disagreements within the United States high command about the Iraqi military threat and what would be required to defeat it.

The dispute, related by military officers in interviews, had lasting consequences. The unexpected tenacity of the Fedayeen in the battles for Nasiriya, Samawa, Najaf and other towns on the road to Baghdad was an early indication that the adversary was not merely Saddam Hussein's vaunted Republican Guard.

The paramilitary Fedayeen were numerous, well-armed, dispersed throughout the country, and seemingly determined to fight to the death. But while many officers in the field assessed the Fedayeen as a dogged foe, General Franks and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld saw them as little more than speed bumps on the way to Baghdad. Three years later, Iraq has yet to be subdued. Many of the issues that have haunted the Bush administration about the war — the failure to foresee a potential insurgency and to send sufficient troops to stabilize the country after Saddam Hussein's government was toppled — were foreshadowed early in the conflict. How some of the crucial decisions were made, the behind-the-scenes debate about them and early cautions about a sustained threat have not been previously known.

These forces, it is argued, should have been defeated and not bypassed to prevent the insurgency that developed after the war.

But this argument is undercut by the same authors in a story the previous day that argues that Saddam never expected we'd go all the way to Baghdad and that the fedayeen were not viewed by Saddam as the core of an insurgency to fight our occupation but as regime enforcers who could keep the Shia down until regular Iraqi forces could intervene:

As American warplanes streaked overhead two weeks after the invasion began, Lt. Gen. Raad Majid al-Hamdani drove to Baghdad for a crucial meeting with Iraqi leaders. He pleaded for reinforcements to stiffen the capital's defenses and permission to blow up the Euphrates River bridge south of the city to block the
American advance.

But Saddam Hussein and his small circle of aides had their own ideas of how to fight the war. Convinced that the main danger to his government came from within, Mr. Hussein had sought to keep Iraq's bridges intact so he could rush troops south if the Shiites got out of line.

General Hamdani got little in the way of additional soldiers, and the grudging permission to blow up the bridge came too late. The Iraqis damaged only one of the two spans, and American soldiers soon began to stream across.

The episode was just one of many incidents, described in a classified United States military report, other documents and in interviews, that demonstrate how Mr. Hussein was so preoccupied about the threat from within his country that he crippled his military in fighting the threat from without.

Only one of his defenses — the Saddam Fedayeen — proved potent against the invaders. They later joined the insurgency still roiling Iraq, but that was largely by default, not design.

That is, Saddam was refighting his last war--trying to prevent a repeat of 1991 when the vacuum led to a Shia uprising after Desert Storm and the Iraqi military had to bloodily suppress it.

This was no deep plan by Saddam to suck us into an insurgency. I've long thought that this was a ridiculous argument. Nobody plans on getting their butts whipped. Saddam hoped to survive in his Baghdad palaces long after we tired of the struggle and went home, protected by French and Russian greed and American fear of casualties.

Let me repeat what I've long believed was Saddam's strategy. This is different from my summer 2002 Red Team analysis of what I thought Iraq's apparent strategy should be with hindsight tossed in. From October 2004:

Saddam first of all did not think we’d invade. He expected another round of air strikes, perhaps a little tougher than Desert Fox in 1998 but no worse than Kosovo in 1999 where a ruler of sterner stuff and destined for greatness (like Saddam) would have withstood the barrage.

If we did invade, he figured that we’d march out of Jordan and Kuwait (he couldn’t ignore our troops there) to hit him from the west. With Saddam’s troops deployed to the east and north, they’d be largely safe from such an invasion axis of advance and thus preserved for the post-crisis security mission. Our troops would advance into the Baghdad area where Saddam’s more loyal troops would fight us at the red line, if necessary pulling into the cities as a last ditch defense where soft Americans would not pursue him. By sending important people and material to Syria prior to the invasion reaching the Baghdad area, Saddam would negate the advantage to us
that American control of the west of Iraq would normally mean in terms of cutting Saddam off from his Syrian friends.

With Americans stalled outside Baghdad out of fear of inflicting civilian casualties and enduring American casualties, the imported Islamists supplemented by loyal Baathists using arms caches scattered around the country would harass American and British forces. The Baathists would have plenty of money, too, thanks to the UN and some of our so-called friends. And speaking of the international community, in the UN the bought French and Russians and Chinese would push for a ceasefire to halt the humanitarian crisis amply broadcast by al Jazeera, CBS, CNN, and all the other gullible, hostile, or docile (to stay in Iraq) news media.

So yeah, guerrilla warfare was pre-planned. But it seems to be only a component of a layered plan to win the war. Saddam did not willingly plan to give up his palaces for a hole in the ground in some brilliant plan to trap America in an insurgency. Saddam just isn’t that good a strategist, people. And I don’t think that would work anyway. People advancing this thought are looking at the past and assuming cleverness in creating it. Saddam had multiple defenses that he thought would hold at some point and keep him in power. Saddam was wrong and now he is up for trial by a free Iraq. That was quite the diabolical plot, eh?

I think my analysis holds up well enough but I underestimated Saddam's optimism. According to the latest Times articles, Saddam didn't expect the fedayeen to wage a long insurgency so much as he expected them to hold out and emerge when we pulled out to keep the Shias down until the safely stashed away rabble infantry divisions could move south in strength.

And what if we had slowed down to try and completely destroy the fedayeen before driving on Baghdad? Given that we still fight them, Saddam would still control the Sunni heartland and sit in Baghdad three years later as we try to hunt them down. Can critics of ignoring the fedayeen in the advance really be arguing that the persistent counter-insurgency in Iraq we have fought these last nearly three years could have been short-circuited by fighting a tough counter-insurgency in the south while Saddam supplied them from his sanctuary?

Indeed, the fedayeen didn't seem to follow Saddam's plan at all. Instead of being held as the Baathist enforcing arm after we withdrew from Iraq or even laying low to fight as insurgents as some in the West assume was the plan now, the fedayeen launched suicidal human wave assaults on our supply and combat columns. The fedayeen were gunned down in numerous desperate charges in all manner of conditions, including night and dust storms when they falsely thought we could not see them. And, in fact, we did hold off a bit before 3rd ID made its final drive on Baghdad to give airborne troops from 101st AB and 82nd AB a chance to secure cities infested with fedayeen along our main supply line. So again, what exactly is the criticism? That we didn't completely eliminate them before taking Baghdad? What rot.

Indeed, in the light of the latest Times articles it is no wonder we did not anticipate the fedayeen would be used to wage insurgency and terror--any intelligence we might have gained about how Saddam planned to use them would have made the fedayeen seem irrelevant since we planned on overthrowing the Saddam regime and not just poke our heads into southern Iraq for a few weeks and then leave when the French and Russians said to get out.

We were absolutely right to drive on Baghdad as fast as we could before the Iraqis could regroup and fall back into Baghdad to raise the cost of capturing the city. Had Saddam realized his plan was failing, if we had given him time he might have decided to pull his troops into Baghdad for a final stand. I argued before and during the campaign that we needed to drive fast on Baghdad. Speed was my mantra. I still hold that view. Speed is life, as pilots like to say.

There was no deep Saddam plan to suck us into an Iraqi quagmire. Saddam guessed wrong and got his butt stomped; and now he sits in an Iraqi court on trial for his crimes. Great plan, eh?

It seriously amuses me that critics of the war can deny we are doing anything successful in Iraq and constantly cry that we had no plan; yet they look at Saddam getting his regime changed and see a great plan in his clear defeat. Amazing.