“The enemy we’re fighting against is different from the one we’d war-gamed against. We knew they were here, but we did not know how they would fight.”
    Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, U.S. Commander, V Corps

In its pre-emptive war on Iraq, the United States has made several strategic and tactical mistakes, but the Iraqis look poised to make some tactical mistakes of their own. Only time will tell if the U.S. war effort can recover from such early mistakes.

U.S. Strategic and Tactical Errors

  • The United States is trying to open a second front in the north. An airborne brigade has been parachuted in to keep the Turks and Kurds from fighting, guard the northern Iraqi oil fields, and prepare the way for landing more troops. But unless the U.S. military commits to a massive, inefficient airlift of armor, the forces in the north will be light and won’t make that much of a difference in the conflict. Turkish denial of air and ground bases really undercut the U.S. It is now very difficult to bring heavy forces to the north — thus allowing the United States to effectively attack Baghdad from both the north and south. So the only effective attack that the U.S. can muster will be on the southern front. Attacking another Islamic nation without provocation and without international support has its price — governments of Islamic countries take domestic risks in supporting the United States. Turkey, for example, was unwilling to take those risks.

  • The Fourth Infantry Division (Mechanized) will take some time to get to the battlefield. The United States will probably have to wait to attack Baghdad proper until it gets there. If U.S. forces insist on pushing ahead in Baghdad before additional troops arrive, they may face another Stalingrad. In fact, they may face another Stalingrad even if they do bring in additional forces. In Basra, the British have been held at bay by remnants of a military unit and small numbers of guerillas. Baghdad is larger, heavily defended by elite forces, and is the capital city. Even larger U.S. forces could be stymied by fierce resistance.

  • Not intending to Monday-morning quarterback, it was apparent months ago to this author and other military analysts that the military plan would not put enough forces on the ground to do the job. The Bush administration made the same mistake twice in Afghanistan. Although understandably seeking to “win on the cheap” and “limit casualties” — this outlook of U.S. political leaders usually reflects weak public support for wars not at all vital to U.S. national security. And, when casualties start occurring (e.g., Lebanon, Somalia, and Vietnam), public support quickly evaporates. This “win on the cheap” strategy usually incurs far more casualties, rather than fewer as missions predictably fail.

  • To be effective in its war, the U.S. “shock and awe” strategy should not just have included air power. The United States should have built up larger ground forces and unleashed them all at once. The Iraqi regime would have been more likely to capitulate. If they didnÔt want to use all of the heavy forces, they should have at least had them in the theater — that is, waiting on the Iraqi border. The 1st Armored, 1st Cavalry, and 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment will now take months to get to the battlefield. Even the 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized) will take a while to get in position for an assault on Baghdad. The U.S. civilian leadership did not take time to build up U.S. ground forces because they were overconfident of an easy victory without much of a fight, and U.S. officials did not want to further delay launching their pre-emptive war as the trend of world opinion was rapidly escalating against them.

  • The military should not have compromised with Secretary Rumsfeld and lowered the ground force totals. The United States did not send enough troops in order to attack Baghdad, adequately guard its supply lines, and feed and manage the Iraqi people in the cities. Failing to guard an army’s supply lines and flanks is an elementary military mistake. Throughout military history, governments have preferred to attack supplies in the enemy’s vulnerable rear area. Why fight a heavily armored force and try to destroy its tanks when it is much easier to attack its ammunition and fuel supplies; the effect is the same — an ineffective armored force?

  • The worst thing that forces can do in battle is to underestimate their opponents. This underestimation has happened throughout military history and it has happened to the United States before. In Vietnam, it resulted in a defeat. In Kosovo, the U.S. started bombing and expected that Milosevic would capitulate immediately. When that did not happen, there was no “Plan B.” It seems now from anonymous sources at the Pentagon that there again has been no “Plan B” in the event that the Iraqis did not fold up and surrender rapidly.

  • As implemented, the poorly scheduled U.S. invasion has resulted in the U.S. experiencing severe weather problems.

  • How can the observation that the United States needed to start its invasion earlier (if they insisted on the dubious undertaking in the first place) be squared with the assertion that they had not build up enough forces? The United States should have simply admitted that it was planning to attack Baghdad no matter what the U.N. inspections showed, and dispensed with the U.S.’s phony support for resuming inspections. This would have allowed more build-up time before the weather turned bad. (Better still would have been not to attack Iraq at all or to at least allow the inspections to continue for another nine months to see what could be uncovered and until the weather was optimal). The administration has been planning this war for at least a year. (Of course, Saddam Hussein has been planning it for 12 years.)

  • Even in the wake of problems in Kosovo, Rumsfeld expected too much from air power. When constrained by urban terrain and attempting to reduce killings of civilians, it becomes a much tougher air war than plinking tanks on the open desert a la Desert Storm in 1991. The United States is learning the constraints of air power in this totally different kind of war, and this kind of war may not be the U.S.’s strong suit.

  • Most importantly, the Bush administration should have thought twice about the costs of invading a nation and forcing its people and regime to fight for their lives and homeland. The key to this whole campaign is the reaction of Shiite children to the invaders. The people who should be the friendliest to U.S. soldiers threw rocks at them. This means that the United States may have misjudged the reaction of the Iraqi people. Many seem to merely regard the United States not as a liberator, but as a hostile foreign invader. This adverse public reaction will make the war longer and harder and make U.S. occupation much more difficult. It is possible that guerilla activity could take place long after the war is over.

Potential Iraqi Tactical Errors

  • Iraqi irregular forces executed a masterful tactical stroke by waiting until U.S. forces passed and then attacking their supply lines. Those analysts that say that the U.S. made one of the most rapid advances in history ignore the fact that resistance did not take the form of blocking units, but irregulars attacking U.S. supply lines. The U.S. did not spend enough time and effort guarding the supply lines. Perhaps the United States would have been better advised to proceed a little more slowly. That rapid advance is now worth little if the assault on Baghdad has to be slowed to go back and ensure the security of the supply lines.

  • That said, Iraq seems to be making a mistake by moving its Republican Guard divisions in directions other than toward Baghdad. They are still seeking cover, but they would be better served offering some resistance and then retreating to lure U.S. forces back and into Baghdad. Maybe they will still stage this devious withdrawal, but the Baghdad division’s movement toward U.S. forces may be a bad move on their part. On the other hand, Saddam may have placed the Medina division at Karbala (roughly 50 miles south of Baghdad) for an important reason. Karbala is the Shiite holy site where the prophet Mohammed’s grandsons and many of the Shiites were killed by the Sunnis. By defending the Shiite holy site against foreign invaders, Saddam — a Sunni — may be trying to keep the Shiites unified with the Sunnis in the defense of Iraq against a foreign invader. Having the Shiite south — where extensive guerrilla activity is occurring that depends on the support of the population — support opposition to the invasion may be worth sacrificing a division of the Republican Guard. Attacking the Medina division at Karbala may inflame a Shiite population that has already been unenthusiastic about the U.S. invasion. Fighting has already occurred at Najaf, another Shiite holy site, which may have the same effect on the Shiite population.

Possible Outcomes

  • But even if the United States takes out the southern most divisions of the Republican Guard (RG) — the Baghdad and Medina divisions — it still does not mean that the regime will crumble. Given the regime’s control of information, it is not certain that the other RG and Special RG divisions nearer to or in Baghdad would even find out about the extent of the destruction. Even if they did, they may have no choice but to defend the Iraqi homeland and the regime. After all, the U.S. made the mistake of vaguely talking about war crimes and not limiting it to the Hussein family. Thus, these divisions, which have terrorized the Iraqi people, are like cornered snakes with nowhere to go. In short, it is possible that the United States is headed for a battle in Baghdad that resembles the horrific battle for Stalingrad in World War II or Grozny more recently in Chechnya.

  • The second Chechen war may be particularly instructive because long after the main battles have been over, guerrilla resistance has continued. The United States, as with the Russians in Chechnya, may be forced into an indefinite occupation of that land to keep the lid on the insurgency. The United States may be seen as an infidel occupying an Islamic land (like the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan). Already fighters are being recruited from across the globe to fight the United States in Iraq. Some of those fighters may commit terrorist attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq or on other U.S. targets around the world.

  • There is even the possibility that the U.S. could lose the war. I think the Iraqis would like to wear out U.S. public opinion by dragging out the war — as the North Vietnamese did. That is a somewhat less likely possibility given the terrain in Iraq, but one that does exist. But, of course, Syria and even Iran could provide a cross border safe haven for anti-U.S. guerrillas. At minimum, guerrillas could even commit acts of terrorism in urban areas and force the U.S. to become exhausted — as Britain did in Palestine.

War is unpredictable, but the U.S. should have been prepared for the worst and it wasn’t. It seems now that the United States made crucial mistakes by underestimating its opponent and the strength of Iraqi citizens’ support for resistance against the United States. The civilian leadership at the Pentagon was too overconfident. Maybe the United States can recover from these early stumbles. Only time will tell.