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Nightmare in Baghdad

Seizing the city could prove to be a big challenge even for the high-tech U.S. Army.

January 30, 2003|George Friedman | George Friedman is co-author of "The Future of War" (St. Martin's Press, 1998). Web site: Stratfor.com.

All war plans are built on certain assumptions. Using the Iraqi army's performance in Kuwait 12 years ago, the fundamental assumption of U.S. war planning is that Saddam Hussein's forces are incapable of putting up a sustained defense -- that they will crumble under American attack.

In fact, the Iraqi army is not uniformly bad. Though none of its units is as good as average American forces, the elite of the Republican Guard are competent and motivated. They have benefited from Hussein's regime, and his defeat would cost them personally. They have reason to fight and some sense that it is not hopeless.

The Republican Guard may not have satellites in space, but they are well armed with the basic weapons of urban warfare: rifles, machine guns, hand grenades, antitank weapons and, most important, familiarity with the battlefield. They also have chemical weapons and might be prepared to use them -- even in Baghdad.

Iraq too has a fundamental assumption: The United States is unable or unwilling to sustain casualties. Pointing to the examples of U.S. forces in Lebanon, Somalia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, the Iraqis believe that, faced with serious casualties, the U.S. might forgo complete victory and accept an early cease-fire again.

Hussein knows his troops have no hope in open terrain because of the Americans' vast superiority in technology and maneuverability. He needs the main battle to take place in Baghdad, where his best and most motivated troops will be deployed and where U.S. technology will be least effective.

The U.S. Army has never captured a heavily defended and vast city the size of Baghdad, which has a population in the millions. The brutal battles for cities such as Berlin or Kharkov took enormous numbers of lives on all sides, and Americans still remember grim fighting for much smaller cities, such as Hue or Vicksburg.

In Baghdad's sprawl, with its densely packed low houses on narrow crooked lanes, maneuverability and communications are not critical. Runners can provide what little communication is needed. Every house is a mystery and a potential strong point.

Even with great technology, you cannot see a sniper inside a building from the air. Spotting snipers from the ground is possible, but they can spot you just as easily. High-tech solutions are not very effective in this case.

Tanks can be hit by antitank weapons in ambushes or they can be allowed to pass, with ambushes focusing on the thin-skinned fuel and supply vehicles coming behind them.

Using just one or two of his divisions to hold Baghdad, Hussein could turn the battle into a war of attrition if his troops put up a merely competent fight. In a worst-case scenario, this could lead to thousands of American casualties.

For instance, if U.S. troops try to avoid resistance by moving directly into the city center, they could find themselves allowed in and then cut off and isolated from supply. If they proceed methodically, they could be drawn into one of the nightmares of warfare: house-to-house fighting in a vast city. And should Hussein prove ruthless enough to use chemical weapons in his own capital, the fight could turn into a horror.

The proper military response for the United States -- withdraw and starve out the enemy or pound the city into rubble -- would create a huge political problem. If there is resistance, it will be tough either way.

Of course, the American assumption about the capabilities of the Iraqi army could turn out to be completely correct. The key is for the U.S. to replicate the events of 1991, using about half the forces it had available for the liberation of Kuwait. And those forces will have to conquer a much broader area containing a large city. It is certainly within the capacity of the U.S. to achieve this.

Washington assumes that advances in technology will compensate for smaller U.S. forces. It might be right. But the gap between probably and certainly is the domain of military disaster.

This is not an argument against the war. It is an argument that, at all levels -- military, political, public -- we need to hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

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