Sunday 30 March 2003
KIFL, Iraq -- Ten days into the invasion of Iraq, the political imperative of waging a short and decisive campaign is increasingly at odds with the military necessity of preparing for a protracted, more violent and costly war, according to senior military officials.
Top Army officers in Iraq say they now believe that they effectively need to restart the war. Before launching a major ground attack on Iraq's Republican Guard, they want to secure their supply lines and build up their own combat power. Some timelines for the likely duration of the war now extend well into the summer, they say.
This revised view of the war plan, a major departure from the blitzkrieg approach developed over the past year, threatens to undercut early Bush administration hopes for a quick triumph over the government of President Saddam Hussein.
Wars often divide political and military leaders. But in the U.S. campaign in Iraq, that point of tension came surprisingly soon, after just a week of fighting, perhaps because an unusually lean launch helped the U.S. force advance so quickly.
Carrying out the original aim of a quick war with minimal civilian casualties would require taking chances that officers here now deem imprudent. In the past week, they found the Iraqi resistance tougher and more widespread than expected, and the planned charge to Baghdad stopped short of the city, with Hussein still in place.
The Army, which has little more than two divisions here, soon will have three brigades -- the rough equivalent of one division -- devoted just to the protection of the vulnerable supply lines from Kuwait to Najaf.
And Iraq's best troops -- the Republican Guard and the elite Special Republican Guard -- haven't yet been engaged in large numbers on the ground.
To some commanders in the field, that adds up to a need for longer timelines for the war. They are discussing a more conventional approach that would resemble the 1991 Persian Gulf War. It would mean several weeks of airstrikes aimed at Republican Guard units ringing Baghdad, and resuming major ground attacks after that.
At the same time, commanders say the first 10 days of fighting reaped many successes. An initial plan last year predicted that it would take 47 days for U.S. troops to get within 50 miles of the outskirts of Baghdad, noted a senior Army commander. Instead, the 3rd Infantry Division got that far in less than a week. By invading from the south and putting in smaller troop contingents in the west and north, U.S. forces reduced a military problem the size of California to one closer to the size of Connecticut.
In the process, Iraq's oil fields were not destroyed, and no missiles laden with chemical or biological weapons were fired. U.S. casualties, while painful, were light by the standards of modern military conquest.
"Look at the big picture," said Paul Van Riper, a retired Marine lieutenant general who helped review the war plan. "Three hundred miles, relatively few casualties, and almost no armored vehicles lost."
There also remains hope for a "silver bullet" outcome that could bring an abrupt change in fortunes. The possibilities are a coup, a bomb that kills Hussein or any one of several other scenarios that "tip the regime," as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has put it in White House meetings. "This could all turn around in a couple of weeks," said one retired U.S. general who served in the northern Iraq relief operation in 1991.
But when the U.S. ground attack resumes, it will probably look very different from the first week of fighting. "You adjust the plan," said an Army general in Iraq. "The initial strategy was to get to Baghdad as rapidly as you can, change the regime, bring in humanitarian aid and declare victory. Now it's going to take longer."
The next phase of the war is likely to have scaled-back ambitions, not in the eventual goal of removing Hussein, but in how that is achieved. Retired Army Col. Benjamin W. Covington said the administration's initial approach was unrealistic. "No country and no military force in recorded history has ever attempted to simultaneously fight and win a war, preserve the resources and infrastructure of the country, reduce noncombatant deaths to the absolute minimum within their capability and conduct a major humanitarian effort," he said.
The first tactical change is likely to be that ground forces will wait for airstrikes to pound their opponents. This phase was skipped this month in Iraq but was carried out for five weeks during the Gulf War, as many commanders here recall. "My concern is that we're trying to rush things," the Army source said. "If people would revise their thinking and say, 'Okay, we're going to spend a couple weeks' time getting positioned and letting the air campaign play out,' then the initiative can be recaptured."
Rumsfeld, in comments Friday, seemed to reject the notion of broadening the air campaign in a way that would cause more civilian deaths. "We do not need to kill thousands of innocent civilians to remove Saddam Hussein from power," he said at a Pentagon news conference. "At least, that's our belief."
At a meeting on the war at Camp David today, administration officials said Bush supported Rumsfeld's desire to press ahead with preparations for a ground offensive while reinforcements are still arriving.
Other officials in Washington were discussing reinterpreting the rules of engagement to place less emphasis on minimizing civilian casualties and more on destroying the enemy, even if Iraqi tanks and other heavy weapons are interspersed with civilians.
The tactics used by the U.S. forces are likely to be tougher, both on the ground and in the air. With siege warfare looming at Najaf and other cities, the U.S. military may soon find itself seeking to use tactics that carry political risks for the administration.
"We're not going to catapult diseased cattle into the city or anything like that," said one planner. "But there's a question of what you can do and what you should do."
He cited the example of knocking out electrical power, which the military can do. But, he added, "Do you want to see pictures on CNN of the baby who died because power to the incubator was cut off?"
When large-scale ground fighting does intensify, the geographical goals will change. Instead of a rush to Baghdad, several other tasks now face the U.S. military. First, Najaf will have to be taken, because commanders don't want to attack the Republican Guard south of Baghdad with a hostile force potentially at their rear. Capturing that town, where a suicide bombing killed four U.S. servicemen today, could take weeks, commanders say.
Then would come the attack on the Republican Guard, and finally, if the Iraqi government hasn't collapsed by then, a fighting entry into Baghdad. So, an Army source concluded, the war may last into summer or later.
Asked whether he feels pressure from his superiors to accelerate the fight, Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, the V Corps commander and the senior Army officer in Iraq, said in an interview that he speaks frequently with the American ground commander in the theater, Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan. "We're both products of the same institution, which says that the really cool plan we made isn't going to survive once we cross the LD," or "line of departure," into hostile territory, he said. Changed circumstances, particularly in terms of logistics and enemy resistance, will lead to modifications in the U.S. approach, he added.
One Army general in Iraq drew an analogy to the Union's initial "on to Richmond" strategy in the Civil War, which evolved into a strategy of "kill the enemy army first." The Civil War lasted four years -- during which President Abraham Lincoln searched among his commanders for one who would take the fight to the enemy.
"Transportation is the Achilles' heel of this operation right now," the Army source said. "We can't transport dismounted soldiers right now. When do we get to the point where we can easily move soldiers and supplies around? We can do it with helicopters, but you want to minimize landings in this dust." Additional trucks and other vehicles will not arrive in large numbers for several weeks.
But as time goes by, other factors could force the U.S. military to act sooner. In four to six weeks, "there could be real problems" with food supplies in major Iraqi cities, said Ken Bacon, the former Pentagon spokesman who is president of Refugees International.
A war that lasts months may also leave a vacuum that could encourage trouble elsewhere around the globe, some generals and strategists worry. If the Pentagon does deploy into Iraq all the troops currently scheduled to go, about half the combat power of both the Army and the Marine Corps will be in Iraq. One senior general at the Pentagon said he is especially concerned that North Korea, which has been locked in a confrontation with the United States over its nuclear program, will attempt to capitalize on the situation.
"Tote up the ground forces, naval forces and air assets in or en route to the war zone," said retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, now a professor of international relations at Boston University. "Could the U.S. respond to a second major contingency -- like Korea, for example?" His answer: The Pentagon may say it can, but he disagrees.
Getting bogged down for months could also cause trouble for the United States elsewhere in the Middle East, especially if the image of invincible U.S. military might diminishes. "It's one thing to reach a relatively quick, antiseptic victory," said retired Army Lt. Col. Andrew Krepinevich, an expert on global military strategy. "But the longer this goes on . . . then the more willing states in the region will be to challenge us." He worried especially that a long, drawn-out fight "winds up being a kind of heroic defeat for the Iraqis."
Finally, the longer the fighting lasts, the more difficult and expensive the postwar peacekeeping and rebuilding may be. The Bush administration has never disclosed how many troops it expects to have to assign to Iraq for peacekeeping duties, but at one point before the war the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff estimated that 45,000 to 60,000 U.S. and coalition troops would be needed.
Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, estimated in congressional testimony earlier this month that "several hundred thousand" troops would be required. Shinseki was publicly contradicted by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, who has played a central role in shaping the administration's Iraq policy. In his own congressional appearance, Wolfowitz rejected Shinseki's estimate as much too high.
The fighting in Iraq so far, and the talk by field commanders of a war of months, now makes Shinseki's view of a burdensome occupation appear more likely, some say. "This could wind up looking like Israel's foray into Lebanon," said Michael C. Desch, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky. "We will win this war militarily, no question about it," he said. "But we can lose it politically."
"There's no doubt in my mind," said retired Lt. Gen. Theodore G. Stroup Jr., a former chief of Army personnel. "If it is a more hostile environment, you may very well find a requirement for a much larger force" than the Bush administration had hoped to field. The size of the force, he said would depend on whether the Kurds wind up fighting the Turks in the north, and also on how much infrastructure is destroyed. Deploying two or three divisions to keep the peace for six months or a year would strain the Army, which has only 10 active-duty divisions.
Commanders in the field aren't yet worried about postwar scenarios or civil-military relations. "We're in a long war here, as I think you realize," one commander in Iraq told his subordinate officers a few days ago. "I want you to keep our guys from getting killed in large numbers. That's the bottom line."
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