Monday, March 2, 2009

The second war against Iraq

SHOULD it come to a fight, the second Persian Gulf War will prove if the United States has reached a sophistication capable of achieving the perfection of military strategy: Attaining victory with a minimum of fighting.

Washington's strident saber-rattling; the pre-positioning of its armed forces in the theater of conflict, its stepped up aerial attacks on Iraq's anti-air defenses and a not too stealthy campaign to remove Saddam by "other means" (such as a bullet in his brain) appear to me as more indicative of its intent to win victory with the least fighting than as imminent preparations for a lightning war.

The United States seems bent on frightening Saddam into submission by threatening his life and promising the overwhelming destruction of his armed forces, which is the foundation of his power. Saddam's surrender without the need of combat would achieve the United States' military aim of overthrowing him and dealing a serious blow against international terrorism.

That would be the best result possible for a world alarmed by the economic disaster that might result from a prolonged war against Iraq. It might also be the world's best in win-win solutions.

Should Washington's campaign to unseat Saddam without resorting to war fail, however, the Allies should be able to destroy the Iraqi army in about a week, according to Western analysts. Former US president Bill Clinton has said that he'd be surprised if the Iraqi army lasted more than three days.

No pushover
But war plans rarely go according to plan in war and the Iraqi armed forces might not be the pushover it appears on paper. And, of course, there is the threat of Iraq's still invisible WMD (weapons of mass destruction) that determined UN weapons inspectors have been unable to uncover despite a month of intense effort.

Although suggesting that wars are fought to minimize fighting appears astounding (or totally absurd), this view does hew to military logic and does have historical precedents. The perfection of strategy, as the noted British military thinker Sir Basil Liddell Hart pointed out in his famous body of work about warfare, " to produce a decision without any serious fighting."

The aim of (the) strategy, he said, "...must be to bring about this battle under the most advantageous circumstances. And the more advantageous the circumstances, the less, proportionately, will be the fighting.

"The perfection of strategy would be, therefore, to produce a decision without serious fighting. History...provides examples where strategy, helped by favorable conditions, has virtually produced such a result."

Decisive example
A decisive example of the perfection of strategy was the German Army's blitzkrieg against France and the Low Countries from May to June 1940. The Wehrmacht's six-week campaign led to the conquest of western Europe at extremely low cost: 60,000 casualties against an Allied loss of more than one million men.

I cited this example with no intention of drawing parallels between Nazi Germany's campaign to dominate Europe and Washington's current effort to unseat a maniacal dictator. What I sought to emphasize was that clever strategy can achieve decisive battlefield victories no matter who its originator.

Liddell Hart was an apostle of this perfection of strategy, which he termed the "strategy of the indirect approach." It is a strategy that uses political, psychological and physical means to attain victory with a minimum of fighting.

In looking at the options available to Washington, it is apparent that the most favorable outcome for the Allies would be Saddam's removal before any war takes place. The second most favorable outcome would be the rapid defeat of the Iraqi armed forces, if possible, through the strategy of the indirect approach.

A cursory look at the map, however, shows the immense problems faced by Allied planners. The only invasion route into Iraq available now is by Kuwait, which lies southeast of Iraq.

Grim prospect
The Iraq-Kuwait border is just over a hundred miles in length, making any Allied attack on Iraq a frontal one. Without Saudi Arabia agreeing to the use of its territory to launch flank attacks on Iraq, the Allies are faced with the grim prospect of assaulting prepared Iraqi defensive positions along the most obvious invasion routes. Should Iraq decide to make a determined stand on its border, the battle to ram into Iraq might prove too bloody despite Allied superiority in armor and advanced weaponry.

Once clear of the border, however, the Allies will have free rein into Iraq. An early stand by the Iraqi army at the border will only lead to its early destruction.

Iraq, on the other hand, appears to favor a strategy of trading space for time, much like the Russians did against the Germans in World War 2. It might give up territory to conserve its military strength and try to inflict as many casualties on the Allies as possible. Winning against the Allies is out of the question.

Iraq will seek to prolong its battlefield resistance to further weaken the United States and world economy and to inflame the morale of Muslim radicals around the globe. That Iraqi media has made much of defending Baghdad and other strategic centers indicate this might be the most profitable strategy for Saddam.

The Allies lost some 1,000 men and women in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, popularly known as Operation Desert Storm. Doubtless that Saddam is eager to increase the Allies' bill for conquering Iraq a second time.

Of course, my armchair generalship might be 360 degrees off the mark, but the reality of terrain as it now stands seems to favor a head-on assault by the Allies. The spring of 2003 has been bandied about as the most favorable time for any attack but that now seems unreasonable since UN weapons inspectors will remain in Iraq until early 2003.

With the loss of the favorable campaign season, the Allies are left with the difficult choice of either isolating Iraq until late 2003 or early 2004 or fighting in the intense summer heat next year. The UN attacked Iraq on Jan. 16, 1991 and forced an Iraqi surrender 100 days later.

The indirect approach, however, remains possible. In what form and where it must take place is up to Allied planners. It would be comforting to hope that Washington's top leadership will take into account that the true aim of the strategist "is not so much to seek battle as to seek a strategic situation so advantageous that if it does not of itself produce a decision, its continuation by a battle is sure to achieve this. In other words, dislocation is the aim of strategy; its sequel may be either the enemy's dissolution or his easier disruption in battle."

But then, a few bullets in Baghdad might end this war before it begins.