U.S. officials are painting an upbeat picture of U.S. and British progress in the Iraq war, despite mounting casualties and other setbacks. RFE/RL takes a look at the military strategy, which bears all the hallmarks of the "revolution in military affairs" sought by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Washington, 25 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. officials are calling the war in Iraq a battle unlike any other in history. In the first few days of fighting, U.S.-led forces sought to eliminate key Iraqi leadership targets in Baghdad and elsewhere. The tactic followed a months-long psychological-warfare campaign aimed at persuading Iraqi officers to surrender without a fight.
For a moment at least, observers speculated that the war could be brief and virtually bloodless, especially if initial reports that U.S. bombing had killed or injured Iraqi President Saddam Hussein proved true.
On 22 March, U.S. General Tommy Franks boasted during a briefing at his base in Qatar that the United States was waging a brand new kind of war. "This will be a campaign unlike any other in history -- a campaign characterized by shock, by surprise, by flexibility, by the employment of precise munitions on a scale never before seen, and by the application of overwhelming force," Franks said.
But expectations of a quick, mostly "clean" war culminating in a swift surrender by Iraq appeared to vanish by the next day, when allied forces suffered their worst losses of the brief campaign, and the novel U.S. military strategy was suddenly being tested against mounting casualties and stiff resistance from Iraqi forces.
The loss of at least 12 U.S. troops in fighting in southern Iraq -- with another 12 listed as missing -- raised questions about a military strategy that has targeted the Iraqi regime in an effort to minimize civilian casualties and spare infrastructure that will be needed for postwar reconstruction.
Analysts say the strategy bears all the hallmarks of U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's bid to revolutionize U.S. military capabilities through "new thinking" on the battlefield, such as coupling the latest high-tech weaponry with psychological warfare and traditional means of fighting.
Radek Sikorski, a former deputy defense minister and foreign minister of Poland, is an analyst at Washington's American Enterprise Institute. He said the current U.S. strategy, so different from the initial massive bombing of the first Gulf War, is mostly the brainchild of Rumsfeld. "I think it's been as flexible as the technology allows, which seems to defy the old saying that 'generals always fight the previous war.' In this case, the 'revolution in military affairs' that Donald Rumsfeld went to the Pentagon to enforce has actually happened," Sikorski said.
Indeed, to achieve their goals, coalition forces have used precision bombing of Iraqi military and government targets, coupled with a ground attack from Kuwait in the south that has brought them less than 100 kilometers from Baghdad.
Robert Hutchinson is a founder and spokesman for the British defense publication "Jane's Defence Weekly." He said Rumsfeld's approach is, indeed, novel and that the defense secretary's plans have prevailed at the Pentagon over those of senior military officers who argued for sending in far greater numbers of ground troops.
Rumsfeld's strategy contrasts sharply with the "Powell Doctrine" -- named after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell -- which states that Washington should never go to war unless it uses "overwhelming force" to achieve its goals. Hutchinson describes the difference between that idea and Rumsfeld's approach. "I think the U.S. defense secretary believes more in light forces, making surgical strikes, than the heavy-armored offensive across a broad front. But behind it all probably lies a desire by the U.S. and the British to give the Iraqis time to depose Saddam themselves, rather than the coalition forces doing it by force of arms," Hutchinson said.
Yet widespread Iraqi surrenders have so far not panned out as military planners had hoped, especially in the Shi'ite south, where there is strong anti-Hussein sentiment. The result is that the coalition faces potentially prolonged and costly battles for the control of key cities, such as Basra and Nassiriya.
If that happens, analysts say allied forces could be tested further, since they are tethered to a potentially vulnerable single line of supplies coming in from Kuwait. And Iraqi civilians could pay a higher price if coalition forces have to widen their bombing targets in a bid to take control of the cities.
Meanwhile, there are warnings that a humanitarian crisis is looming in the south, where fighting has delayed entry of much-needed aid.
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for urgent action to get water to Basra's residents. The city's main water-treatment plant has been disabled because of a power outage. Washington is promising to deliver aid as soon as it secures Iraq's ports, supply routes, and population centers that were bypassed by invading forces.
Finally, there's Baghdad.
Hussein's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz told a news conference that the Iraqi leadership is in good shape despite five days of heavy bombing. He said that Hussein, shown twice on Iraqi television yesterday, is "in full control of the army and the country" and that his enemies had underestimated his popularity.
With no sign of Iraq's leadership capitulating in the capital, U.S. and British forces struck Iraqi Republican Guards defending the approach to Baghdad yesterday. Some analysts warn the battle for Baghdad may prove to be prolonged and bloody.
But U.S. and British military officials were generally upbeat. Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke told a briefing yesterday: "We're on the fourth day of these operations. We are on the time line -- if not slightly ahead -- that General [Tommy] Franks [in charge of the U.S. Central Command] and his team have set. We have made considerable progress toward our objectives that they have spelled out. We're securing the oil fields for the benefit of the Iraqi people. We have quite a bit of dominance from the air. We continue to make good progress heading toward Baghdad."
That may be the case. But even supporters of Rumsfeld's new vision of warfare, the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), caution that the war is still far from won.
Jeffrey Ranney is a military expert with Federal Resources, a defense consultancy in northern Virginia outside Washington. Ranney, an expert on RMA, told RFE/RL that he believes the single most innovative aspect of the coalition strategy is its clear intent to use a variety of means -- psychological and military -- to achieve an "effect," in this case, the capitulation of large parts of the Iraqi regime.
Coupled with real-time communications in all aspects of the battle, Ranney said the Iraq war appears to be a step toward Rumsfeld's vision of what the battlefield of the future may look like. But he insisted it's still far too early to predict an outcome. "We're only into the fifth day here," he said. "We don't know if we've won. We don't know [if] this strategy of the one long line from the coast up to Baghdad -- whether that supply line will hold or not. If it turns out it doesn't hold, then we're all going to be saying what a terrible strategy that was. So I would hold judgment as to whether this is the better strategy because we don't know yet. It's too early."
Last night, the Pentagon said all the pieces are falling into place for the impending battle for Baghdad.