View Full Version : Both Gulf Wars Offer Lessons

05-04-03, 03:29 PM
Both Gulf Wars Offer Lessons

By Norman Friedman

Proceedings, May 2003

As this is written, the war for Iraq is entering its third week. At least some Iraqis are resisting—perhaps much more stubbornly than expected—because the stakes are high for them. They also are high for us, which is why their resistance most likely will not affect the outcome. Long ago, it was recognized that the most difficult kind of war is a fight to the death; if one side feels that defeat will mean its death, it has little reason to surrender. That is why armies generally treat prisoners well; if troops know that surrender simply means no more fighting, they will fight only until their cause seems hopeless. For some armies, that may be early in the proceedings.

In the case of Iraq, the problem is that the primary U.S. war aim is the destruction of the Iraqi government. Saddam Hussein clearly equates losing power with death, whether or not that is rational. Attempts to convince him to head off war by fleeing to exile were unsuccessful. The great question on the eve of war was whether many Iraqis would follow Saddam to their own deaths. The U.S. government tried hard to convince them that Iraqi military personnel, Baath Party members, and even secret policemen could expect to survive. They would, therefore, have no good reason to resist inevitable defeat. Of course, much depended on how inevitable they considered defeat. The aim of the initial "shock and awe" air strikes on Baghdad was to reinforce the prewar impression that U.S. forces were unstoppable.

One goal of the coalition is to ensure that industrialized countries will have access to oil and that the Iraqi people will reap the benefits of that trade instead of their dictator. U.S. forces seized the oil fields in southern Iraq at the outset of the war to prevent the widespread burning of wells that occured in 1991. In 2003, the Iraqis managed to set only a few ablaze.

One flaw in this theory was that many Iraqis in government probably doubted that the United States and its coalition partners would be able to save them from an enraged populace. Many Baath Party members, members of the Republican Guard, and Iraqi secret policemen have committed terrible crimes against the Iraqi population, particularly its Kurdish and Shia components in the north and the south of the country. Saddam loyalists certainly remember how both groups rose in rebellion in 1991 after the end of the Gulf War. Before the rebellions were put down, the rebels managed to massacre many of those who had tormented them over the previous decades. This time, the coalition hopes that the same populations will rise against their current masters. That hope inevitably leads those same masters to resist as strongly as possible, in the knowledge that failure will cause their own deaths. There probably is nothing the coalition could have done to convince them otherwise. Moreover, the choice to attack Iraq with relatively thin forces guarantees that little will be left over to ensure local security. How important will it be to save Iraqi secret policemen when the forces required for that mission are needed to secure Baghdad?

History affects the war in other ways as well. To our planners, the principal lesson of the 1991 Gulf War was that the Iraqi Army could not and would not fight. Given the poor quality of the Iraqi Army, the lengthy air preparation employed in 1991 had been unnecessary. Moreover, massive air attacks would kill many civilians, and one constraint on this war was a desire to demonstrate that the coalition was liberating rather than seizing the country. Any strategy that required massive devastation as a prerequisite to ground combat would seem to undermine that aim. Hence the United States decided to go "light and fast" rather than "heavy and slow." The first ten days of the war suggest that the U.S. perception was not too far off the mark. We expected mass surrenders, but that did not happen. On the other hand, major Iraqi Army units did not fight. Some columns did emerge to their destruction, but not many. Probably that means that Iraqi security units were able to keep units from surrendering en masse, but were not numerous enough or embedded enough in the Iraqi Army to inspire units to fight. Most of the fighting that was done fell to those same security forces, operating as irregular troops.

It also is possible that we have discounted a factor that might have loomed large in 1991: the Iraqi experience of a bloody war against Iran beginning in 1980. The Iraqi Army ended the Iran-Iraq War distinctly weary of war. At least one newspaper writer observed that, by about 1987, Iraqi units were noticeably unwilling to advance, so that the war was fought mostly with artillery. Many of those in Kuwait in 1991 probably had either experienced war during the previous decade, or been affected by those who had. The size of the war was so great that the whole military-age population had been involved. Those memories might have faded over the intervening decade. Intense bombardment can help revive them, or create their equivalent.

To Saddam Hussein, 1991 taught a very different lesson from the one we learned. As Iraqi forces were pushed out of Kuwait, Saddam apparently feared that the coalition would drive straight to Baghdad. He would have to negotiate for his continued existence, and he apparently made preparations for just such a situation. To his surprise, the coalition stopped when Kuwait had been liberated. The coalition did not even support those in the north and south who rebelled. The botched truce terms allowed Saddam to use helicopters in both areas. Republican Guard units that had been spared by the cease-fire were able to put down the rebellions. For Saddam, the lesson was that steadfastness would bring victory of a sort—because for him, the objective was simply to retain his power. Time would surely bring him the opportunity for another attempt to seize the whole Gulf.

Before the 2003 war began, a U.S. newspaper columnist reported that Saddam's favorite story from his childhood was of how he and his friends had tried to get rides by jumping on a moving truck. The merchant who owned the truck beat them off with a stick. Saddam found that if he was willing to take a beating, he could hang on and get the ride he sought. The pain, he said, wore off, but the pleasure of the forbidden ride lasted much longer. The lesson was that simply hanging on was worthwhile. Hanging on in the current context means sitting pat despite heavy precision attacks on Baghdad. It may mean sitting out a current U.S. strategy of causing collapse through quick attacks all over Iraq, in the expectation that the storm cannot last. Saddam's associates, on whom he depends to keep power, may not be so phlegmatic. Moreover, at some point so much of his support might have melted that we might be able to enter his last bunker and kill him or capture him. That will, however, be the result of a far longer war than we contemplated originally.

Saddam has a kind of cartoon image of the United States and our partners. He and many other observers imagine that the 1991 cease-fire was ordered because President George H. W. Bush was horrified by the destruction wrought by U.S. aircraft against thin-skinned Iraqi vehicles fleeing Kuwait along what was soon known as the "highway of death." The conclusion he drew was deeply cynical: forcing the coalition to kill large numbers of Iraqis would cause disgust that would end the war.

The reality was that President Bush probably never contemplated invading Iraq. To have done so would have brought about three unacceptable disasters. One would have been the creation of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq, which in turn would have acted as a rallying point for dissafected Kurds across the Iraqi border in, for example, Turkey. The Turks would have vetoed any such development. A second disaster, as then perceived, would have been a Shiite victory in southern Iraq, leading to strong Iranian influence, at a time when Iran was a hostile state. A third would have been the potential collapse of Arab partners, whose populations would have seen their governments as partners with the West in the destruction of an Arab regime. The impact, if any, of the "highway of death" was to help the President decide that he had done enough; he probably thought of the "highway of death" as a kind of final lesson for Saddam that U.S. air power was unstoppable if unleashed.

The thinking at the time was that, having learned that his army was essentially useless against the West, Saddam would have the sense to behave. Pressure would be exerted by intrusive weapons inspectors. Meanwhile, it was hoped that the truce terms, including no-fly zones, would leave the Kurds and Shiites free to enjoy some degree of autonomy, and possibly even to destroy the Iraqi dictatorship from the inside. At the least, Saddam would find it difficult to continue working on the weapons of mass destruction he might want to use for a second attempt to dominate the Gulf—and, with it, much of the world oil supply.


05-04-03, 03:30 PM
The lesson of the 1990s was that the measures taken in 1991 were ineffective. Probably the worst error was allowing the Iraqis to fly helicopters in the Kurdish and Shiite areas, because the helicopter-borne troops quickly put down the rebellions that U.S. strategists had hoped would clip Saddam's wings. Another error, apparently because of poor reporting of results from Iraq, was to stop short of destroying Republican Guard formations fleeing Kuwait. From the point of view of the current war, the disaster was that the Kurds and the Shi'ites lost any faith they had had that rebellion would succeed with U.S. and other foreign support. That idea had been nurtured during the 1991 war. Now it has to be revived.

What of the potential disasters? They are still there, but the context has changed. In 1991, the United States went to war to keep Saddam from overrunning friendly Gulf states, of which Saudi Arabia was the most important. A decade later, when Osama bin Laden ordered the 11 September 2001 attack on the United States, many Americans began to question the value of the Saudi alliance. Some went so far as to blame the Saudis themselves for the actions of bin Laden, an exiled ex-citizen. Others noticed that bin Laden seemed to embody the views of many still in Saudi Arabia. Now the question was whether to predicate U.S. policy in the Gulf on a requirement to preserve Saudi Arabia, when internal pressures inside the Kingdom may make that altogether impossible.

Moreover, despite the designation of Iran as a member of the "axis of evil," the country has a large democratic element interested in reviving ties with the United States. It is not clear that a victory for the Shiites in Iran would be a disaster for the West. As for the Kurds, they have managed a considerable degree of autonomy (under Western protection) for some years. That the Turks have refused to help the United States establish a northern front based in their territory considerably reduces their leverage to preclude a Kurdish victory in northern Iraq.

At the same time, U.S. interest in breaking the Iraqi state has increased. Through the late 1990s, it became clear that the policy of containing Iraq was failing. If Saddam could seize control of the Gulf, he could hold the West ransom because he would dominate the world's oil supply. Because Saddam had little need for a prosperous citizenry, he might well feel no need to sell that oil. It would be much more attractive as a means of blackmail leverage. Weapons of mass destruction, moreover, had another attraction. Without them, Saddam would have to rely on an offensively oriented military machine. Such machines have a way of taking over the states that build them, which is why Third World dictators like Saddam generally kill off effective offensive military leaders. The advantage of weapons of mass destruction is that they require many fewer personnel, perhaps few enough that their loyalty can be guaranteed more easily by secret police techniques. Quite aside from any terrifying effects they may impose, the possession of such weapons is attractive to a dictator such as Saddam because they are far more usable than a big army.

With the advent of such weapons, moreover, the world would have to face the considerable possibility that Saddam would use them against existing oil fields elsewhere in the Gulf simply to increase his own leverage. It is one thing to ask what happens if Iraqi oil is withdrawn from market, and quite another to ask the consequences of having all neighboring oil resources more or less permanently eliminated. In the light of such questions, this war is certainly about oil—but not in the way that opponents imagine. The goal of the coalition is not to take over the Iraqi fields, but to ensure that its countries can buy oil in the first place. The Iraqi government portrays this as theft, but in fact it is a matter of trade, and trade is two-sided. Oil is wealth not because it is inherently valuable, but because industrialized states need it and will pay for it with currency that can be turned around to buy other things of value. Trade is a kind of partnership, and the West is committed to it. So, presumably, are any Iraqis who benefit from their country's wealth.

Many had imagined that the embargo imposed before the Gulf War would starve Saddam of the means to develop weapons of mass destruction. The reality was that, like all embargoes, this one was somewhat leaky. It did not prevent Saddam from buying the material and the experts he needed. Inspectors found some, but hardly all, of what he was amassing. By the late 1990s, moreover, the embargo was squeezing the Iraqi population. That pressure in turn was generating fury in the wider Muslim world. By 2001, the two main embargo powers, the United States and Britain, faced the possibility that the embargo would collapse under public pressure. The votes in the United Nations late in 2002 and early in 2003 showed, moreover, that although other governments were willing to call for Iraqi disarmament, they were unwilling to back that call with any kind of action.

Access to oil, then, makes the war vital for the United States and, indeed, for the West. Probably the main disagreement between Americans and many Europeans is the Europeans' belief that Saddam will sell oil rather than try to cut off the supply. The U.S. view, driven by events such as the attacks of 11 September 2001 and the suicide bombings in Israel, is that the Arab Muslim world is awash in a kind of irrationality that might lead to the destruction of oil resources despite the suffering that would impose on so many Arabs. The Palestinians' absolute unwillingness to consider a compromise peace seems to be a case in point.

We should not have been nearly so surprised that so many other governments find the prospect of war absolutely terrifying. Until now, the general wisdom has been that any Western assault on an Arab government would be suicidal because the whole of the inherently unstable area would explode. That perception in turn protected Arab governments from their follies. It is, at heart, why the U.S. government of 1991 could not contemplate going to Baghdad. In effect, the United States, Britain, and other coalition partners are rewriting the rules in ways that rogue governments find frightening—as they should. At least some in Europe are appalled because they have been dealing with governments, such as that in Baghdad, that likely now will collapse. Our hope is that the successors will be more legitimate and will be better international citizens. Until 11 September 2001, the opposing argument was that the existing system seemed stable enough: why disturb it? After 11 September 2001, it seemed from Washington that such stability was at best a mirage. A military solution might not work, but it was almost inevitable that some sort of upheaval would occur, whether or not the United States fought.

Dr. Friedman's most recent book is the forthcoming Terrorism, Afghanistan, and America's New Way of War (Naval Institute Press, July 2003).