Thomas L. Knapp

Tom Knapp is the publisher of Rational Review.


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Thinking the unthinkable
by Thomas L. Knapp

Is it possible for Iraq to secure military victory over the American, Australian and British forces arrayed against it?

No, really, I'm serious.

The conventional wisdom -- which I fully bought accept -- says that what I'll hereafter refer to as the "coalition" forces are the most technologically advanced and militarily powerful expedition ever put onto the field of combat.

In any conceivable general, force-on-force, conventional confrontation, the coalition forces are the inevitable victors. They possess the most advanced weapons and plenty of them. Their soldiers are well-trained, well-fed, well-equipped, and motivated. They are prepared to deal with most unconventional weapons that might be deployed against them, and possess the means to retaliate in kind for the use of the weapons. They enjoy air supremacy and substantial immunity from missile attack.

They are not, however, invincible -- and the available evidence indicates that either General Norman Schwarzkopf was wrong about Saddam Hussein, or that Iraq's leader has spent the intervening years studying hard:

"As far as Saddam Hussein being a great military strategist, he is neither a strategist, nor is he schooled in the operational arts, nor is he a tactician, nor is he a general, nor is he a soldier. Other than that, he’s a great military man. I want you to know that."

The coalition's strategy -- or at least the public perception of that strategy, a perception which was allowed to flourish, and even encouraged, until the troops were in action -- was predicated on a "Desert Storm II" model: Application of overwhelming force, bringing on a collapse of Iraqi resistance. While the objectives ("regime change" and occupation -- any others were simply diplomatic camouflage) differed from those of the 1991 war (removal of Iraq's occupational forces from Kuwait), it was not necessarily apparent that those differences would substantially affect the battlefield situation.

In 1991, a conscript Iraqi army was ordered to hold onto annexed territory. In 2003, the entire population of Iraq is mobilized to defend its homeland.

In 1991, another coalition could claim victory once the last Iraqi soldier shook the dust of Kuwait from his feet. In 2003, the coalition forces must occupy the entire country, destroy its regime and force allegiance (or at least obedience) to a new authority.

These differences of objective, on both sides, make all the difference in the world.

In 1991, overwhelming force engendered immediate collapse. In 2003, it engenders substantial resistance.

In 1991, the Iraqi forces were, of necessity, consolidated in and around Kuwait, disposed to hold on to that country and forced to confront another coalition's assault head-on. In 2003, while certain "hard core" units are consolidated for the defense of Baghdad, the Iraqi defense is in-depth, dispersed over a large area, and substantially able to choose upon what terms it will engage its enemy.

For the coalition, it's all or nothing. Anything short of total victory is not victory at all.

For Iraq, anything short of coalition victory is Iraqi victory -- and time is the decisive element. The longer it takes for coalition forces to invest Baghdad and either occupy it or wipe it from the face of the earth, the longer Iraq has to mobilize world opinion against the invaders and seek diplomatic, and even military, intervention on its behalf; even, possibly, to await another conflict which would supersede or impede this one, as on the Korean peninsula.

Any modern military organization is divided -- somewhat roughly, but divided nonetheless -- into elements of "tooth" and "tail."

The "teeth" of the coalition forces are sharp indeed. Iraqi forces cannot hope to go head-to-head with the "steel wave" or with the parallel U.S. Marine Corps advance approaching Baghdad from the south. At best, they can delay and harass -- engaging these "teeth" at river crossings and in house-to-house combat in the cities where numerical and technological superiority are minimized, slowing down the advance and buying time for Baghdad.

The "tail" is a different story entirely. The coalition forces cannot "live off the land" as the armies of the past did. They require a constant supply of food, water, ammunition and fuel, and the closer they get to Baghdad, the more difficult it becomes to ferry those essentials to them.

Nor can forces the size of the coalition spearheads be adequately supported by air. There's too much materiel and not enough planes -- and, while the ability of the Iraqis to shoot down a fast, high-flying F-18 has been substantially destroyed, a slow, heavy C-130 that has to land or at least circle to drop cargo is a different story.

The coalition strategy, once again, seems to have been predicated on enemy collapse and quick advance. Neither of these proven out. The weather (some might even say Allah) has taken the side of Iraq, and the "tail" is hanging there behind the "tooth," open to constant interdiction and, under the right circumstances, complete closure.

Among the few military advantages enjoyed by Saddam is what military folks call "interior lines" around Baghdad. His "teeth" are physically co-located with his "tail." The Baghdad forces can easily reinforce one another, moving in a direct line across friendly territory; out in the greater expanses of Iraq, his forces can "live off the land." Those forces seem to remain under the command and control of the Iraqi government -- the simultaneous deployment of forces south from Baghdad and Basra is probably neither coincidental nor pre-planned.

The coalition's "tail" trails its "teeth" across hundreds of miles of unfriendly territory, and the Iraqis are exploiting this. Whether they are capable of shutting it down at all, or for any significant period of time, is questionable -- but every bite out of the "tail" translates into a delay, or else a degradation of combat power, for the "teeth" of the coalition.

Every minute that can be wrung out of these tactics is another minute which Iraq can use to seek allies and UN intervention, or await an unforeseen event that might change the balance. And the clock is ticking.

What was inconceivable a week ago -- that the coalition's war machine might be ground to a halt and, ultimately, find itself ordered back to Kuwait and onto waiting ships for the trip home -- is a possibility that becomes more and more real with each passing sandstorm.