The war in Iraq has hardly begun, and already there is an unpleasant exchange between the Department of Defense and its critics about the pace of the war (slower than the speed of light), our lack of success (almost two weeks and it’s not yet over), and casualties (a number greater than zero). There have been mistakes made, but to determine who made them, it is instructive to look briefly at how this war is being fought.
Repeatedly, Secretary Rumsfeld, General Myers, and General Franks have asserted that our war plan in Iraq is successful, will provide us with victory and was carefully constructed and unanimously approved by the military people who must execute it.
Naturally, the campaign’s success will be proven on the battlefield, but it is difficult to envision how we will lose, unless the National Command Authority permits us to lose. There is always the very remote possibility that the president will succumb to antiwar entreaties from such self-aggrandizing actors as France, Germany and Russia, all of whom have a monetary stake in Saddam Hussein and are mightily worried about American hegemony in an area they thought was exclusively theirs. Along those lines, it is worth noting that the M1A1 Abrams tanks that were disabled recently were attacked using Russian Kornet 2 antitank missiles. Saddam’s impregnable bunkers were constructed by a German firm, and we have already captured Iraqi military materiel provided by France. Last year, both France and Germany did more than $130 million each in banned business with Iraq.
The president may feel heat from the press and the public, from world opinion, and from domestic activists in and out of Congress, but he is a resolute sort and isn’t likely to bend. At the extreme, a pusillanimous Congress could, one supposes, eliminate funding for the military campaign, but it is a political campaign year, the public is behind the effort to rid the world of a dangerous infection, and it is hard to see anything reasonable that will motivate serious candidates to undermine the effort in the short run.
There are charges of malfeasance already leveled at the Defense Department. One revolves around the fact that the war is not yet over. With barely two weeks into the conflict, it is difficult to envision how it could evolve more rapidly. First, a brutal regime that has been permitted by a solicitous (and complicitous) United Nations to arm and to plan its defense is no cream puff. Except for North Korea, Iraq at the start of the war was, per capita, the most heavily armed nation on earth. Saddam Hussein’s army is well armed, and although it is being destroyed in place, it is capable of a robust defense on home turf, a defense made somewhat easier through a judicious use of terror squads who made civilian capitulation a dangerous option for the beleaguered Iraqi populace. And we have not yet seen the worst of it, perhaps: chemical and biological weapons.
Expectations were that Saddam Hussein could capitulate before the shooting began, and rumors that there were discussions with high-ranking Iraqis fuelled a natural proclivity to hope for the best. These unrealistic expectations were exacerbated by the farce that entertained us when Hans Blix’s small and inept team of novice inspectors returned to Iraq to be driven by Iraqi handlers to a succession of innocuous installations. The United States deserves some measure of blame for Blix, since we acquiesced is his appointment, championed, unsurprisingly by France, and we thought Resolution 1441 was a reasonable vehicle to disarm Iraq and mollify public opinion. How imprudent.
The Administration also did a rotten job of managing expectations of the press and public before the war began. Although there were occasional warnings that the conflict would not necessarily be a short one, they were only occasional, and the Defense Department did little to dilute the public perception that we had an infinite number of accurate weapons that would obviate the most odious characteristics of a war with Iraq. And whoever coined and advertised the term “shock and awe” has a great deal for which to answer.
Why did we engage in this informational foolishness? Undoubtedly because the Administration was too skittish about American resolve; it massively underestimated its citizens’ ability to recognize a just fight when it saw one and decided instead to build confidence where no building was required. Only now is Defense trying to manage expectations, but it is too late to negate the current skepticism that derives from the ill-advised campaign of confidence waged before the war.
A related charge is that the ground forces have halted and lost momentum, and this demonstrates that the war plan is in trouble. We hear from Rumsfeld, Myers and Franks that there is no halt, that we are prosecuting the battle vigorously. Well, here’s a rare case of being wrong for the right reasons. The truth is that we did halt, and any field general worth his salt would have done the same thing. With the rapid advance of the US 3rd Infantry Division along the west flank, our forces were very quickly within striking distance of Baghdad, and we have fixed the three Republican Guard divisions south of Baghdad, knocking them off with tactical air power. Only once these units are rendered combat ineffective does it make sense to advance further. Defense has done a substandard job of explaining this bit of battlefield technique to those, particularly among the press, who have had two weeks of exposure to military matters and now consider themselves to be experts on the tactics of land warfare.
The one incisive charge is that there are insufficient American forces in Iraq. Quite frankly, it is ludicrous in the extreme to have any confidence in a plan that calls for prosecuting a land war in Iraq with only two divisions abreast and one in reserve. We do have a massive advantage in air power, intelligence, weapons and training, but any soldier with combat experience will attest that there is no substitute for troops on the ground.
We can see the shortfall quite clearly. The 3rd Infantry Division is stretched along a 200-mile line of communications unprecedented in American military history, leaving its flanks and rear exposed to all manner of irritation. It is well-constructed doctrine that, if possible, you bypass pockets of resistance so that you can seize your objectives rapidly. But what has been ignored is the second part of this doctrine: you need follow-on forces to eliminate this bypassed resistance. Thus far, these vital forces are not in evidence.
Furthermore, there are no armored forces to exploit success, a crucial requirement in any land war. We were witnesses to the shoddy spectacle of the advance party of the 4th Infantry Division first going to Turkey, then not going to Turkey, then going to Turkey again. Units offloaded at Incirlik to wait for the geopolitical gears to grind out approval to launch a northern front, and the 4th is only now en route to the theater of operations. A commander of any intelligence would have insisted on sending the 4th immediately and, if Turkey ultimately gave approval for troop basing, sending the 1st Armored Division to open the second front. This dithering cost several weeks and has put the mission and the forces at undue risk.
Rumsfeld, Myers and Franks aver that the units committed are the ones always planned to be in Iraq, that Franks got exactly what he wanted, that the Secretary of Defense is not imposing his will to keep the troop structure at a minimum. Unfortunately, this is not credible to soldiers with experience. Using such a small, light force in Iraq may be successful, but why go light when you don’t have to? Why accept high risk when it is just as easy to err on the side of confidence? Experienced commanders want, and deserve, overwhelming combat power at the outset of the battle, even if it is to squash a flea. Of course, it’s always possible that there are large numbers of heavy troops, units we know nothing about, in Iraq, but if the Chairman and the Commander of CENTCOM think that the publicized unit deployment schedule is a good one, then they have learned little about land warfare.
There is another mistake we have made in Iraq, and one hopes that it has been rectified. An overarching concern about collateral damage and civilian casualties has made life unnecessarily difficult for the war effort. The unduly strict rules of engagement have resulted in ludicrous situations like the one about a week ago, when 30 Apaches were damaged (and one lost and its crew captured) because Iraqi soldiers fired on them from the rooftops of residential buildings in An Nasiriya. The fire was not returned because of the fear that civilians might be in the buildings. One British commander reported seeing four enemy vehicles in plain sight in Basra, but he was prevented from engaging them because they were in front of a mosque. And only after a suicide bombing have the rules for dealing with civilians been altered. We declined to take Iraqi TV off the air because we wanted to achieve a perfectly good, but clearly secondary, objective, and it was only yesterday that we struck the Ministry of Information decisively. One hopes fervently that Defense and CENTCOM recognize that the mission comes first, protection of the force is a close second, and all other considerations are a distant third. We do want to keep the Iraqi infrastructure as intact as possible, and we do not want to kill civilians, but achieving these goals are irrelevant if we do not win decisively.
From the outset of our confrontation with the Iraqi regime, there have been impediments to doing the right thing. In 1991, we had the opportunity to drive straight to Baghdad. Would that we had done so. Focusing its attention on more mundane matters, the Clinton administration did nothing when Iraqi intransigence caused the dismantling of the inspection process, but in 1998 there was still time to avert the mess that would ensue in 2003. We chose not to act decisively. We have permitted the United Nations to assert a sovereignty that it does not and should not possess, by acceding to the demands of members with historically catastrophic myopia and nefarious ulterior motives. And, extremely sensitive to the vagaries of public opinion, even this administration has been much too cautious, complicating its own good intentions with considerations that sound attractive but are antithetical to its own objectives.
Colonel Jack Jacobs is a Congressional Medal of Honor winner, commentator on the war for NBC and board member of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture (publisher of frontpagemag.com)