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Wednesday | February 12, 2003

One war scenario

There are many ways war can unfold in Iraq. This is my guess on the matter, and assumes the US cannot win UN Security Council approval for the invasion.

Iraq has six neighbors -- Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey. Syria and Iran are automatically out of the conflict (though Iran can always raise mischief in southern Iraq). Jordan has taken delivery of Patriot missiles batteries, but is noncommittal to use as staging grounds for an invasion. Saudi Arabia and Turkey have made guarded promises premised on Security Council backing for the war. Turkey's cooperation will be purchased by the US ("upgrades" of existing military facilities). Saudi Arabia may be persuaded to allow combat sorties originating at Prince Sultan airbase, but without UN approval, ground troops is iffy.

So for the air war, the US will likely have access to bases in Turkey, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia (a big "maybe"), and five or six aircraft carriers. B-1 and B-52 sorties will be flown from Diego Garcia (a Brittish island in the middle of the Indian Ocean), while B-2 bombers may fly sorties from Missouri.

The US initial goal is to pummel Iraq with as much air and missile ordinance as possible, in order to sap the Iraqi defenders' morale. This tactic works great with exposed troop concentrations in the desert, but with defenders holed up in urban areas, it will get ugly. Lots of civilian casualties, lots of rubble, but the Iraqi defenders should remain relatively unscathed.

Given the timetable the US is under ("hurry up before it gets hot!"), the air war should be brief. Airborne troops (either the 82nd, or the 101st, or both) will attempt to take the Iraqi oil fields near Basra. Taking the fields will be the easy part, and with Kuwait nearby, ressuply of those troops should pose no major logistical problems. The big question will be whether the troops can prevent Iraqi defenders from destroying and setting ablaze the fields. And if Saddam is going to use chemical weapons, this would be a good time -- with US troop concentrations exposed in the open desert.

Now this is where things get complicated -- the US would have to physically occupy Basra, Baghdad, and perhaps Kirkuk (and every town in between in order to protect its supply lines) in order to silence Iraqi opposition. To take Baghdad, US forces would have to essentially move north from Kuwait -- the only obvious staging ground for US ground troops at the moment. Turkey is a possibility, but the Kurdish problem is a big one. At last report, Iraqi Kurds were still eager to maintain the status quo rather than risk yet another US betrayal. Initial US efforts to use Kurds in the campaign as a proxy army (a la Northern Alliance) met stiff opposition from Ankara, which is paranoid of any Kurdish state on its borders. Troop movements in northern Iraq may spur a Kurdish-Turkey war, rathern than help the US establish a second logistical line.

There's no doubt that Kuwait is sufficient for staging purposes, but having a single supply line is problematic. Not only is it exposed to dehabilitating guerilla attacks, but Saddam could hamper the entire resupply operation by either detonating a nuke (if he has one) or contaminating wide swaths of the logistical lines with chemical and/or biological weapons. Air resupply operations are woefully inefficient, providing only a fraction of the tonnage possible with ground transport. And modern armies are voracious eaters -- my 9-launcher missile battery (MLRS) required 15-20 big trucks to keep properly supplied. And that was only for 160 soldiers. Imagine what a 350,000 man army requires.

Then there's the bloody part of the conflict -- door-to-door urban warfare. Air power is next to useless in these conditions, where $30 million helicopter gunships suddenly become vulnerable to $200 RPGs (rocket propelled grenades). Remember that missile barage that was supposed to break Iraqi morale? Well, it turned each city into rubble giving snipers myriad ambush points. The Russians found this out the hard way in Grozny.

Urban warfare is the great equalizer. There is little technology can do at this point -- it's M-16 vs. AK-47. And the defender always has a masive advantage -- it can make use of prepared defensive positions, it can funnel invading armies into ambush zones, it can move freely throughout the city via sewers and obscure back alleys. It can fire from rooftops, building windows, the ground floor and underground providing a multi-dimensional killing zone.

Soldiers can be cut off from supply lines, making them easy prey as they run out of water or ammo (or both). Urban battlefields are brutal on the wounded -- where evacuation is difficult or impossible. And the inevitable barrage of civilian deaths will be a public relations nightmare for the US on the world stage.

Will the US prevail? Probably. But at what cost? Saddam will undoubtedly escape (as did OBL and Mullah Omar), and the US will face a costly occupation facing a newly energized and radicalized guerilla opposition. Far from eradicating the al Qaeda network -- our most immediate and dangerous enemy today -- we will be helping drive the Iraqi people (the most secular in the Muslim world) into the arms of militant radicals. The US will be multiplying rather than eradicating its terrorist enemies.

The US military is under no illusions that an urban war will be casualty free -- but that's exactly what Bush has been selling the public. If there was a shred of honesty somewhere inside that man, he would be frank with Americans, telling them that coming battle could be bloody, and that casualties could mount into the thousands. (Remember, nearly 400 allied troops died in Gulf War I -- and that was a veritable cakewalk compared to what we face today.)

But the word "sacrifice" never leaves his lips. And that includes sacrifice in blood, in treasure, in international prestige, in wounding international institutions, etc. So Americans, accustomed to Serbia and Afghanistan have a skewed sense of what the word "war" really means.

I've never been a pacifist -- I am an Army vet with strong respect for our military and a great interest in military history and tactics. But there is such a thing as a "just war", a "necessary war", and this ain't it. Not by a long shot.


Posted February 12, 2003 09:08 AM | Comments (117)


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