TCS Daily

Do Not Enter?

By Melana Zyla Vickers - March 24, 2003 12:00 AM

As U.S. troops thunder through the "Baghdad 500," a stark choice is quickly taking shape at the finish line: Should they enter Baghdad as soon as they get there, or besiege it while waiting for reinforcements and letting the air force pound targets within?

On Monday less than 60 miles separated the Iraqi capital from the 20,000 troops of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force were expected to catch up to them. Meanwhile, bombers and missiles continued to strike leadership targets from the air. But neither the historically unprecedented speed of the advance and the surrender of two Iraqi divisions, nor the successful strikes of the precise air war, could pull the public focus away from the fact that there are already 25 U.S. dead, 12 missing, and 5 POWs.

Urban warfare is blamed for many of the casualties, as troops take wrong turns into enemy nests, or are ambushed by irregular soldiers who use the illegal ruse of civilian garb and false surrender.

Barring the total collapse of Saddam's regime, there's reason to expect more such urban-warfare casualties once troops enter Baghdad. And there's reason to expect that the knee-jerk parallels with Vietnam and the stoking of the "quagmire" argument will rise apace. But sobering though the expectation of greater casualties is, it should not discourage U.S. war planners from pressing the battle in the capital. While there may be good reasons to lay siege and wait, public fears stemming from this war's early casualties should not be one of them.

Among the more legitimate reasons to wait may be the need to further soften up Baghdad targets. As long as the coalition has intel that the bombing of Baghdad is breaking the back of Saddam's regime, there's reason to hold back on a dangerous ground invasion of the city - and to wait instead for the government to collapse of its own accord. War planners have expected that the collapse of the regime in Baghdad would cause the regime's tentacles in peripheral cities to die off as well.

Another reason might be genuine need for reinforcements. If the war planners expect fierce resistance from Saddam's paramilitaries, the 15,000-strong Special Republican Guard, and his Special Security Organization, then the 3rd Infantry Division and the Marines might do well to wait for other troops still based in Texas or Germany to bolster their strength. At the same time the 101st Airborne Division, now in Kuwait and Iraq, could block off any exit routes from Baghdad's north.

But there's risk in waiting for reinforcements, too. It could take weeks for the troops at Fort Hood, Texas and the 1st Armored Division in Germany to arrive in the region, get married up with their equipment, which is already en route to the Gulf on ships, and then complete the Baghdad 500. During those weeks, cities where the fall of Saddam's apparatus of government had fallen would be in dire need of humanitarian and security assistance, whether to feed the locals or to prevent the banditry that goes hand-in-hand with such a vacuum.

There's another risk as well. While the bombing campaign has been successful in striking its targets, there is no historical precedent for ousting a regime quickly with bombing alone. Slobodan Milosevic was toppled only after the Serb people rose up - bolstered by the 78-day NATO campaign - and removed him. Similarly, it took ground forces to kick the Taliban out of Kabul, Afghanistan. Waiting for air power to topple Saddam could be not only a long wait, but also an indefinite one.

While the risks of a siege and wait are many, the risks of boldly entering Baghdad are greater still: There's the potential of high casualties to the U.S., and of unsoldierly tactics such as the ambushes that have already taken place.

Nonetheless, fortune favors the brave. If the moment is right, U.S. war planners will be wise to command their advancing troops right into the city when they arrive there later in the week. As long as the heavy armored forces are properly equipped and supported - not least by rules of engagement that recognize the Iraqi trickery of masquerading as civilians and surrendering soldiers - then taking the city is an essential, urgent goal.

In the Clausewitzian way of war, the enemy's center of gravity must be destroyed. Saddam's center of gravity is clearly in Baghdad, and the tragic loss of life and the seizing of POWs should not distract U.S. forces from going after it. The public will handle the sad mourning of lost U.S. lives - meanwhile, the war planners must get on with the business of victory.

TCS Daily Archives