Monday, September 24, 2012

A Cautious Victory - Desert Storm

Whether wars in the second half of the twentieth century have been more politicized than earlier conflicts depends, in part, which earlier conflicts one chooses for a comparison basis. In any case, the pattern established by the Korean and Vietnam wars – the pattern in which civilian leaders in Congress and in the White House made significant strategic and tactical decisions – was continued by the brief 1991 “Gulf War” which liberated Kuwait. Historians Lawrence Freedman and Efraim Karsh tell us that the Bush administration, leading an international coalition, was “obliged to follow a version of graduated response in order to develop a domestic and international consensus supporting direct military action.” Despite a self-conscious effort to avoid ‘another Vietnam’ – LBJ’s failure in the 1960’s

could be attributed to in part to the policy of graduated response, understood as a strategy of incremental pressure, with a series of restrictions on targets that were imposed by the politicians. At each stage, the opponent was to face a choice between compliance and further pressure until eventually its breaking point was reached. The critique of this strategy argues that these small steps merely provide the opponent with time to adjust and develop forms of counter-pressure.

Developing a command structure in which civilians had only enough information to gauge policy, but not enough to affect strategy, was part of avoiding ‘another Vietnam’ – in this structure,

to avoid charges of micro-management, civilian officials avoided amending the target list for the air campaign (which practice had been judged to be a particular fault of the Johnson administration), although the commanders were expected to show political sensitivity. It was reported that Bush was not informed of the detailed target set.

The noble intentions about keeping civilians out of the planning was compromised at certain points in time, however: “the commanders were expected to show political sensitivity” in selecting targets, and at one point, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney ordered the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, to review target lists, and remove soft targets which “might have contained large numbers of civilians.” Thus, despite a deliberate effort to avoid civilian political entanglements which could lead to ‘another Vietnam,’ precisely that type of influence entered military planning. Happily, although it could have caused ‘another Vietnam,’ it did not do so.

Looking at the war from the other side, Saddam’s goals in the war made Iraqi resistance to coalition forces less effective. Saddam’s goals skewed the range of tactical options available to Iraqi commanders: his foremost goal was his own political survival; other goals included damaging, vandalizing, and booby-trapping Kuwaiti oil fields, murdering Kuwaiti citizens, and possibly striking Israeli nuclear facilities. While Saddam’s politicization of war goals may have constrained Iraqi commanders, one issue which did not – surprisingly – cause their defeat was technology. Despite media coverage of the U.S.’s high-tech weaponry, e.g. guided missiles hitting targets within centimeters after hundreds of miles of flight, Freedman and Karsh contend that the Iraqi defeat “was mainly the outcome of more ‘traditional’ factors, such as poor combat performance along with incompetent politico-military leadership and war strategy.” It was, then, “Saddam’s personality” which was, in the final analysis, the cause of Iraq’s defeat. General Norman Schwarzkopf noted that Saddam was neither a strategist nor a soldier. Saddam may have been lulled into expecting an easy victory against Bush’s coalition because it had experienced victories over the Iranian army. But the Iranian army was “poorly-equipped and ill-trained,” and not a good comparison basis for the international coalition. Finally, the Iraqi army faced large-scale desertions during the brief war. War is never easy, but the Bush’s coalition attained a victory very quickly, and with “extraordinarily light” casualties.

Saddam Hussein’s strategy leading up to the war was first to prevent actual war – a form of extreme brinksmanship – and second, if actual hostilities began, to end them as quickly as possible. Such a strategy made sense, given a realistic assessment of Iraq’s military capabilities. In fact, the reason for which he invaded Kuwait was to try “to shore up his regime in the face of dire economic straits created by the Iran-Iraq War.” His economy and his army were not strong. Saddam made, however, two strategic mistakes which cost him dearly: first, he released hostages, hoping to buy goodwill, but instead merely giving Bush’s coalition the knowledge that it was no longer vulnerable in that way; second, he failed “to preempt by attacking coalition forces in Saudi Arabia,” a move which would have given him the operational initiative and possibly caught coalition forces by surprise. In anticipating a ground war, Saddam relied “on his defenses around Kuwait and the cost that could be imposed on coalition forces if they could be drawn into killing zones.” The enemy was to be drawn into these killing zones by forcing General Schwarzkopf to direct his forces according to “extensive fortifications along the Saudi-Kuwait border” which the Iraqis had constructed. This strategy failed, however, because the “fortifications could be outflanked by a desert attack through Iraq, so suffering the same fate as the Maginot Line.” Saddam’s forces were stretched thin, because they were deployed for “the protection of Iraq as a whole and not just the new Kuwaiti acquisition, and the threats involved did not come simply from the United States. Significant forces had to remain deployed along Iraq's borders with its Iranian, Turkish, and Syrian neighbors.” The Iraqis simply did not have “enough forces for a wide front.” Saddam’s best troops, “the Republican Guards were kept back as, at best, a strategic armored reserve,” and were so not ready to be effective at the actual point of contact when fighting started. Another weakness in the Iraqi military “was the lack of air support.” Although, on paper, “Iraq's air force was substantial,” it was ineffective because Saddam was reluctant to risk his air force, and he was timid to have it engage the enemy.

Saddam underestimated the coalition’s “precision-guided munitions,” smart bombs, and other high-tech munitions. He saw, however, his own “missiles as his most reliable means” of damaging the coalition’s forces. He hoped to direct them against Israel and against facilities in Saudi Arabia. Saddam hoped that his missile attacks on Israel would exacerbate “the prospective war's stresses and strains on the political cohesion of the coalition” by inflaming tensions between Israel and the various Arab states. In general, Iraq’s strategy relied “on deterring and if necessary rebuffing the central thrust of the enemy campaign, by” such political tensions. Saddam’s strategy was, therefore, as much political as military. He assumed that the U.S. had an “extreme sensitivity to casualties,” and would flinch in the face of actual land battles.

President Bush, meanwhile, continued his determination “not to repeat the mistake of the 1960s,” which meant “not to get trapped in an un-winnable war,” and “not allow civilians to impose artificial restrictions” on tactics and strategy. Bush kept the coalition focused on the “primary objective,” which “was to liberate Kuwait.” By maintaining focus on this goal, the U.S. could avoid ‘another Vietnam’ by avoiding the wrong goals, e.g., nation-building (‘Vietnamization’): “it would be extremely unwise to be seen to try to change the regime in Baghdad,” because it would arouse the suspicion of the Arab states and it would commit the U.S. to a long-term occupational force in the area.

Another “presumed lesson of Vietnam was that the public would be intolerant of high casualties.” Whether this assumption was true – and if true, to what extent – remained to be seen. Saddam hoped that the public would turn against the war, seeing even a small number of casualties. Coalition planners, therefore, worked cautiously and conservatively, to keep coalition casualties to a minimum. Working with a range of assumptions, planning for everything from best-case to worst-case scenarios, it turned out “extremely optimistic assumptions” would “in fact approximate the actual state of affairs.” Some planners wanted to “avoid a ground war” altogether, and thereby avoid casualties, and rely solely on air power. Among those who favored the air-only option, there were different scenarios about how such a war would go. But in the end, although the early phases of the war were primarily reliant on air power, it would not be an exclusively air war, and there would be major infantry and armored involvement. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, gave three reasons for rejecting the air-only option: first, it would give the Iraqis the operational initiative for any ground action; second, Powell saw this option as indecisive, in light of the fact that Saddam would sacrifice numerous Iraqi lives to absorb coalition bombing, and Powell probably saw it as not focused clearly on the coalition’s stated objective; third, by adding a ground element, Powell could force Saddam to fight a two-front war: air and land.

Powell rejected, however, any frontal assault or over-the-top type of ground attack. Ground action would follow extensive aerial bombardment, and more sophisticated ground strategies would minimize casualties.

Bush’s international coalition had several strategic advantages: access to ports, petroleum, and airfields; lack of harassment by Iraqi troops as Saddam held off in his strategy of waiting; time to prepare and organize as Saddam refused to begin the fight; and shortages of critical war material in Iraq during the embargo. The coalition faced two unknowns: although they knew that Iraq had not yet developed nuclear weapons, it was known that they had chemical weapons; would they use them? A second unknown whether Saddam’s missile force was as well-developed as he claimed. In sum, the coalition’s “priorities would be to achieve air superiority, eliminate missiles and Iraq's small fleet of fast patrol boats, interdict supply lines, and then engage in a fast and mobile desert campaign based on maneuver rather than attrition,” and to utilize “flanking maneuvers rather than direct assaults on Iraqi fortifications.”

The war began on January 17, 1991, with massive aerial bombardment by the coalition, and little reaction from Iraq – only a small amount of relatively ineffective anti-aircraft fire. Electronic countermeasures reduced Iraqi anti-aircraft fire further. The main tactical question at this time was targeting: “The dividing line between civilian and military targets was a thin one. There were clear rules on avoiding religious and cultural sites.” But the distinction was not always clear-cut, especially in Saddam’s fascist or totalitarian state. Bad weather, and Iraqi missile strikes against Israel and Saudi Arabia, stretched the planned air campaign from thirty to thirty-nine days. Iraq took a pounding, with little retaliation.

“To salvage his strategy Saddam would have had to draw the coalition into a premature ground offensive in Kuwait to bring the war into a quick end, even at the cost of many Iraqi lives,” but he did not orchestrate any provocative ground action. He did initiate one small raid, on the Saudi town of Khafji, which had already been evacuated. His raiding party was decisively defeated, but as Freedman and Karsh report, the coalition did not take the bait and “play into Saddam’s hands” by prematurely beginning a major ground offensive.

In the air war, there were few civilian casualties. Paradoxically, because there were so few civilian deaths, these fatalities received all the more media attention. An attack on Amiriya left a number of civilians dead in a command bunker, but the distinction between civilian and non-civilian was again blurry, inasmuch as these were employed in a military command station.

The air war having been so successful, the ground war which followed it lasted one hundred hours!

In sum, the coalition leaders – Powell, Schwarzkopf, and Bush – planned cautiously, while Saddam Hussein was rather unrealistic. The victory of Iraq was amazingly swift and decisive.