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The Beginnings of War

U.S. troops are better equipped and trained than their foes, and this should help them in combat.

March 20, 2003

"On my orders, coalition forces have begun striking selected targets of military importance," President Bush told the nation and the world Wednesday evening from the White House Oval Office. The United States is at war to oust Saddam Hussein and his regime.

U.S. officials said cruise missiles and bombs were aimed at a "target of opportunity," a site near Baghdad where Iraqi leaders were thought to have gathered -- including, early reports suggested, Hussein himself.

The limited early strikes contrasted sharply with what had been expected after Pentagon officers spoke of beginning the war with massive airstrikes designed to "shock and awe" or overwhelm Iraq. But the military axiom holds that the best plans change with the first shot and the "fog of war" forces commanders to think on their feet. The nation's soldiers, sailors and air crews are better equipped and trained than their foes, and this fact should benefit the Americans as they go in harm's way.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld took office two years ago with plans to transform the military, making it able to respond more quickly with fewer troops to crises. Afghanistan was a test that merged tactics from different centuries: Soldiers rode on horses and jumped from helicopters to search out Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Osama bin Laden escaped, but the Taliban government collapsed, in large part because of precision bombing. Guidance and tracking systems in bombs and satellites make today's weapons dramatically more effective than those of the Gulf War a dozen years ago. Sophisticated weaponry is one reason this gulf war will have about half the allied troops of the first one. More than 250,000 U.S. troops and nearly 50,000 Britons are involved in this conflict.

Another reason for fewer troops is the weakened state of the Iraqi army, thought to have about 40% of its 1991 manpower and bereft of the bombs, satellites and aircraft of the U.S. coalition forces. Although the coalition has about the same number of countries as in the 1991 war, fewer are supplying troops: Only Britain is expected to have substantial forces fighting alongside the Americans.

The stakes and the risk in this war are higher than in 1991. Then, backed by the United Nations, Washington limited its goal to evicting Iraqi troops from Kuwait, the neighbor Iraq had invaded. President George H.W. Bush declined to send the troops on to Baghdad. This time the goal is getting rid of Hussein and taking control of all of Iraq. Iraqi soldiers may fight more fiercely to defend their homeland. Hussein may use chemical or biological weapons in an attempt to save himself or to punish the invaders if he believes all is lost.

The "gee whiz" effect of the most modern armaments should not cloak their result: death and destruction. The targets will be military and government installations; Pentagon planners say they have tried to minimize civilian casualties. But war brings carnage.

U.S. troops should try to ease the suffering of Iraqis forced from their homes and left without food, water and shelter. President Bush said Wednesday that U.S. forces would make "every effort to spare innocent civilians from harm." International aid agencies said Washington did not start thinking about the needs of refugees until late in the war planning. As soon as it is safe, aid groups should be encouraged to help Iraqis forced across borders into Jordan or Turkey or herded into refugee camps inside Iraq.

A special concern will be the Kurdish population in northern Iraq, which has enjoyed a relative degree of autonomy for the last decade after being gassed by Hussein's forces in 1988 and treated brutally after the first Gulf War. Turkey, which has oppressed Kurds there, has vowed to send troops into the Kurdish area of Iraq, ostensibly to guard oil fields. But the Turks are especially concerned about Kurds in Iraq and in Turkey joining forces and trying to establish an independent nation.

Bush's special envoy to Iraqi nationals who have fled Iraq said the United States would take responsibility for securing the main oil-rich cities in the north, Kirkuk and Mosul. The United States should warn Turkey against any attempts to seize the cities. After the 1991 Gulf War, the long-oppressed Kurds were convinced that the United States would support their uprising against Hussein. Instead, motivated by wider geopolitical interests, the U.S. looked the other way as what was left of the Iraqi army attacked, driving the Kurds it didn't slaughter into the area British and U.S. planes protect as a no-fly zone. The U.S. must not betray the Kurds again. But it should also make clear that it wants to preserve Iraq as one nation and not let the Kurds establish their own state, which would greatly destabilize an already volatile region.

The common wisdom as the war began was that it would be short and the more difficult phase would be the next one, occupying and rebuilding Iraq. But the generals and admirals rightly warned against being overconfident and underestimating any enemy, and Bush on Wednesday acknowledged that a campaign on the harsh terrain of Iraq, a country as large as California, "could be longer and more difficult than some predict."

In the end, for Bush, this war of choice is rooted in 9/11: "We will meet that threat now with our Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and Marines, so that we do not have to meet it later with armies of firefighters and police and doctors on the streets of our cities."

As this nation enters war, we trust that the U.S. and British armed forces will be able to take advantage of their vastly superior training and technology to end the conflict soon with minimal casualties.

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