Wednesday, April 09, 2003

Well, against my expectations, and a lot of other peoples', the vaunted Republican Guard around Baghdad did put up less of a fight than the Iraqi regular army in the south; as of this morning, all reports are that Saddam's Baath regime in Iraq has collapsed.

So, what does this mean for the critics?

First off, there's one critique which seems, at this point, to be mostly right: that army troops aren't trained to deliver aid and restore order, don't like to do it, and aren't much good at it. The case is presented in detail by Jeanne D'Arc, but you can see a precis of it in some of the news stories -- the ones featuring widespread looting, amid general indifference from the troops, and shortages of critical supplies, including water. The British troops in Basra even refused a request to defend the hospital from looters, from a doctor who has been trying to protect it since the conflict began -- and remember, the Brits are supposed to be better at this sort of thing than the Americans, due to their experience in Northern Ireland. A sudden victory is what coalition forces were planning for; I would have hoped they'd have been better prepared to deal with it.

Just as clearly, another critique was mostly wrong -- the conflict was not doomed to turn the cities into meat-grinder urban battlefields, à la Stalingrad. The post-mortems on that will be interesting reads.

Which leaves the questions that time has yet to settle.

First, there's the question of what sort of government will be set up -- will it be Iraq for the Americans, or for the Iraqis? At his press conference in Ireland, Dubya was emphatic that the Iraqis would choose their own government, and the US wouldn't be putting anyone in particular in power. And yet, we also have stories about Americans awarding contracts to operate Iraqi infrastructure, Americans designing a new currency, American congressmen debating their cell phone standards, "Wolfowitz of Arabia" trying to get his favorite people into their government, and an American satrap in waiting in Kuwait, with experience as a defense contractor and ties to Israel.

Clearly, there needs to be some kind of a American administration of the territory in the short run, because the American armed forces are the only authority in most of the country. But if it looks like we're trying to set up a colonial regime and stay a while, rather than set the country back on its feet and get out, that will be trouble, inside Iraq (with the Shia majority, whose leaders have already been vocal on this point), and with the larger Arab world. This will have to play out over months, though there will be some early soundings -- the cell phone bill is just a disgrace.

That, in turn, plays into the reaction from the Arabs and the larger Muslim world. Already, Tom Ridge is talking about lowering the terrorist alert level, as if the major terrorist organizations were agents of Saddam, without command structures of their own. Terrorist response will play out, not over months, but over years. Bin Laden wanted this war badly -- not as a trigger for operations, but as a recruiting tool. Recruits need to be trained. They need to be organized. They need to be infiltrated into their target communities. All that takes time -- after which, they will act. The terrorist response to Gulf War I came after -- years after.

Of course, it makes a difference what we do, or don't do, in the meantime, to keep them motivated -- events in Iraq and elsewhere in the middle east will be critical here.

And one last note, on the criticism of the war plan. In the end, it succeeded, and that will be taken by some as vindication. But it was a closer-run thing than it needed to be. Consider, for instance, the pause, about a week in, in the rush towards Baghdad. The third division had to pause -- it was low on supplies, and its troops were exhausted. If this war had been fought according to standard Army doctrine, as I understand it, there would have been another force coming up behind them, fresh, and ready to keep up the fight. Instead, the American ground forces were just stuck in the desert, immobilized by exhaustion, unable to take advantage of their own successes by pressing the battle further to the enemy, or to vigorously defend their own supply lines.

And in the end, none of this mattered, because their opposition was literally the gang that couldn't shoot straight -- the headline on this reporter's diary is "Thank God the Iraqis can't aim". Which, you'll recall, is why the hawks wanted to go for Baghdad first, as opposed to, say, North Korea -- they were perceived as a pushover. And the last army that was defeated by Rumsfeldesque strategy was the Taliban, an even worse trained force that we conquered, to a great extent, by bribing their army out from under them. (Or did we? They'rrre baaaack...) If the neocons continue on their plan for conquest, we won't always be so lucky in our choice of opponents... witness this report of an encounter with much better trained Egyptian and Syrian forces, who suckered Marines into a costly ambush, and fought to the death.

In short, Barry McCaffery still looks to me like a more informed, more cogent and incisive commentator on this battle plan than Steven den Beste.

But, like most war opponents, I wasn't opposed because I feared defeat, but because I feared the price of victory -- the literal price in terms of the cost of rebuilding, and the diplomatic cost in friction regarding other problems in the world, expected an unexpected, some more urgent than Iraq. Time will tell.

Late addition: Oh yes, one more thing. I almost forgot. Weapons of mass destruction. The failure of Saddam's regime to use whatever it had in its own defense, even in extremis, has got to count against American claims that they were anything like an imminent threat. And I doubt anyone will shed terribly many tears for Saddam's regime in any event. But if we can't build a credible case, even with full control of the country, that will be an embarassment at the very least...

Yet more: For a more sanguine, and perhaps less sanguinary, whack at a post-mortem on the military strategy, from a retired professional military officer to boot, see Bruce Rolston's (except his permalinks are busted as I write, so go here and scroll down). He winds up praising the plan a lot more than I do, but also regards the Americans as being fortunate in their choice of their opponent. As does John Keegan, who, drawing on his vast, magisterial knowledge of military history, gives Saddam's war plan a kind of military Golden Turkey award as "one of the most inept ever designed"...


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