TCS Daily

Operation 'Setbacks'?

By Dale Franks - March 26, 2003 12:00 AM

In their coverage of the current military campaign against Iraq, the media seems to have given in to the impulse to endow every event with some sort of transcendent significance. The minor Iraqi attacks of the last few days have been played up as if they are "setbacks" to the operation. In fact, they are tiny hiccups in what has been a dramatically successful campaign thus far.

To a reporter embedded in a company of marines, and who is facing enemy fire for the first time in his life, a firefight probably seems like a quite significant event indeed. It probably seems that way to the 18 year-old marines he accompanies, too. It is, however, a tiny slice of a vastly larger campaign.

A Reuters story about a U.S. Apache gunship making a forced landing in Iraqi-held territory began with the sentence, "U.S. military prowess suffered another setback in Iraq on Monday and another omen that bullets rather than liberators' garlands may await the invasion force when it finally reaches Baghdad." Now, that's a lot of omen finding for one helicopter crash. Helicopters are, after all, slow, low flying, and not extremely maneuverable. The Apache is certainly a nice chopper, and a pretty fast and maneuverable one as far as helicopters go, but it's still just a helicopter. It's not like it smokes along 150 feet in the air at Mach 1.5, or pulls 5-gee Immelmann turns when threatened.

As the first week of fighting in Iraq nears a close, the BBC is pointedly observing that the fighting in the 1991 Gulf War only lasted four days. By the end of the day Sunday, reporters were already broaching the "quagmire" question to U.S. military officials. That beats the previous record for media doomsaying, which was set during the fighting against Afghanistan's Taliban government, when three weeks passed before the "quagmire" question came up.

Comparisons to the Gulf War, however, are mostly invalid, because the tactical and strategic conditions of this campaign are vastly different.

In 1991, the Iraq Army and Republican guard were placed in fixed positions in Kuwait and Southern Iraq. Their defense was aligned to the south, as if expecting a direct frontal assault from coalition forces stationed in eastern Saudi Arabia. Instead, coalition forces were arrayed far out into the western desert. When the war began, these forces swept north and east, moving behind the Iraqi forces into their rear, threatening to cut off their lines of supply and communication, encircle their forces, and prevent their retreat. In such a situation, the only practical options were to remain where they were and face annihilation through either coalition attacks or starvation, or to retreat to a defensive line north of our sweeping movement in order to keep their supply line intact. They chose the latter, which necessarily meant moving out of Kuwait.

By fighting the ground campaign in that way, the allies achieved complete tactical and strategic surprise and forced the Iraqis to fight a war of maneuver rather than one of attrition. Moreover, our ground offensive was preceded by several weeks of aerial bombardment that destroyed their ability to mount offensive mobile operations of any size. At the same time, allies displayed an entire marine division off the coast of Kuwait, threatening the Iraqis with a direct amphibious assault, which induced them into sitting tight in their forward positions while the real assault, which was directed behind them, was prepared.

No such plan was available this time. The Iraqis designed a defense based upon what is called a "strategy of interior lines". Rather than being deployed far forward, the Iraqis set up a defense centered on Baghdad. This type of strategy allows a fighting force to secure their line of supply by ensuring that even if they are defeated, their retreat shortens their line of supply at the same time it extends the enemy's. This prevents the enemy from fighting a war of maneuver, because it denies them the ability to make an indirect approach to the target. Such a strategy also prevents an enemy from cutting off the line of supply, since it is never exposed.

Because Baghdad is the central political target of the war, it becomes the central military one as well. The Iraqis can allow coalition forces to maneuver in the desert as much as they desire, because such movement doesn't bring the allies any closer to victory. The allies must take Baghdad. They know it. We know it. This greatly reduces the chances for either strategic or tactical surprise.

Given the Iraqi strategy, the opportunity for a quick, 96-hour campaign of maneuver like there was in 1991 simply doesn't exist. So, this will require longer, more methodical operations to batter our way through the Republican Guard forces surrounding Baghdad. Much fighting remains, but the superiority of our weapons, training, and moral will likely produce large casualties for the Republican Guard, and relatively small ones for the coalition forces.

What is important to remember, however, is what's been accomplished so far is extraordinary.

While George Patton's 400-mile mad dash across Europe took two months to accomplish, our troops have moved 200 miles in four days. While hundreds of allied soldiers died on D-Day in 1944, fewer than 50 have been killed this week, and several of them were lost in non-combat accidents. Indeed, in the vast majority of firefights, allied forces have destroyed the enemy without taking a single casualty.

The Iraqi Army has essentially disappeared as a fighting force. Some 3,000 or so have been captured. The remainder has simply slipped away and gone home, leaving Iraq's defense almost entirely to the Republican Guard, and small bands of Fedayeen militia.

At the same time, coalition forces have fought this campaign with an almost painful attention to reducing civilian casualties. This has reduced the speed of the campaign by forcing them to deal with enemy resistance in a much more methodical and patient way, rather than responding to attacks by unleashing massive amounts of firepower on anything that remotely resembles a target.

And we've still advanced to the gates of Baghdad in four days.

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