War Stories

Are We Winning Yet?

Speed bumps on the road to Baghdad.

As U.S. tanks sit poised on the outskirts of Baghdad, the question arises: What’s next? Officials had assumed—or at least hoped—that, by the time the 3rd Infantry Division and 1st Marine Expeditionary Force dashed through the desert and neared the capital, Saddam Hussein’s regime would be teetering, if not toppled.

But what if it isn’t? What if the Republican Guards around Baghdad are vanquished, or retreat back into the city, yet Saddam remains alive and in power? What is Plan B? Do our troops enter the city? How do they fend off the thousands of Saddam’s Fedayeen militia, much less the redeployed and scattered Republican Guards, who will no doubt take to the alleys and rooftops, armed with RPGs and Kalashnikovs? Are we really prepared and willing to engage in street combat, which, whatever its outcome, will take a brutal toll on all concerned, not least Iraqi civilians, whom the U.S. airstrikes have gone out of their way to avoid harming?

The history of urban warfare tells a consistently grim story. The battle of Stalingrad, in 1942-43, lasted six months and left 1.5 million people dead. At the end of World War II, the Soviets took two weeks to capture Berlin, at a cost of over 10,000 lives, even though many Germans were fed up with Hitler, who had taken to his bunker on the verge of defeat. Even in Manila, a Japanese naval commander and his poorly armed men put up such fierce resistance to the U.S. occupation that much of the city ended up destroyed in the conflict. In the Korean War, the recapture of Seoul cost the lives of over 2,000 U.S. Marines. In 1967, the Israeli army suffered several hundred casualties in the seizure of East Jerusalem. In 1968, the battle of Hue, the South Vietnamese city captured by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers, resulted in 5,000 deaths, including 400 U.S. Marines. In 1973, Israel lost over 100 soldiers while trying to capture Suez City before a U.N. cease-fire.

Of course, it’s still too soon to gauge the progress of this war. It’s been going on for just six days, even if round-the-clock TV coverage has made it seem six weeks. There have been remarkable successes and failures. One key miscalculation has been how easily Saddam would be toppled. In the war’s first few days, President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld insisted that Saddam was losing control of his armed forces, that his reign could be measured in days if not hours. The whole point of “shock and awe” was to throw the Iraqi regime off balance, isolate them from their levers of power, and thus to sire rebellion—perhaps even to kill the leaders directly (hence the “decapitation” strike of Wednesday night). So far, none of this seems to have happened. The “smart bombs” have hit all the right targets. But destroying targets doesn’t by itself mean winning the war.

Another shortfall—how severe cannot yet be assessed—is the failure, so far, to secure the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr or the nearby city of Basra. Both are vital for political, psychological, and military reasons. They are the entry points for military reinforcements and humanitarian supplies. Before the war, President Bush was assured that Iraqi civilians would welcome American troops with thanks and flowers. The million residents of Basra, mainly Shiite Muslims who hate Saddam Hussein, were seen as the surest test of this prediction. Its early capture, therefore, would have boosted Anglo-American morale and spurred wider uprisings. Yet a spattering of snipers—believed to be a mix of Republican Guards and Fedayeen irregulars—holed up most of the U.S. 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit for two days. (A Marine told the BBC this morning that the unit was originally expected to stay there for four to eight hours.) In the meantime, the people of Basra are short on food, water, electricity, and patience. The British royal marines are said to have now secured Umm Qasr. However, intense fighting rages in Basra, mainly between British troops and this same mix of Iraqi elite forces. According to reports this afternoon, the Brits have been joined by an uprising from the city’s residents. If true (and specifics are still spotty), this would be very good news for the U.S.-British forces. Once they take Umm Qasr and Basra, Iraqi hearts and minds may follow. Saddam and his followers certainly know this, which is why they have put up such fierce resistance and why they are likely to harass the area for as long as they can.

In all the sage forecasts of how this war might go, I don’t recall reading any that warned Iraqis might wage guerrilla warfare, yet this has been their strongest suit so far. Republican Guards and Fedayeen have pretended to surrender, then fired on the troops receiving them; they roam the desert in trucks, dressed like civilians, then launch rocket-propelled grenades when they run into U.S. targets of opportunity. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke, have complained bitterly that the Iraqis aren’t fighting fair—Rumsfeld today noted Iraq’s “acts of treachery on the battlefield”—which suggests that they didn’t expect guerrilla warfare, either.

Anonymous officials and retired officers have started lobbing their own fusillades on the administration’s tactical decisions. Some complain that Rumsfeld sent in too few forces, especially too few tanks, to do the job right. The 4th Infantry Division was originally going to form a northern front through Turkey; when the Turks denied permission, the equipment stayed on the ship and moved south to Kuwait; but Bush started the war before waiting for it to land. The 1st Armor Division, which was also supposed to take part in the war, hasn’t arrived in the region.

Rumsfeld and his top advisers have been enamored by theories of “transformative” warfare, in which advanced technology allows wars to be won more through speed and agility than through mass and muscle. There’s something to these theories—they worked in Afghanistan and have roots as far back as Sun Tzu—but there will soon be great debate over the right mix of maneuver and firepower, of high tech and raw force. Maybe the U.S. troops in Iraq are strong enough to dash toward Baghdad and engage Iraqi forces there, but some of the battalions have dashed past Baath Party strongholds and then come under attack by Fedayeen militia from the flanks or the rear. It would have been nice to leave behind some heavily armed forces for extra protection. Float like a butterfly, yes—but also sting like a bee, a swarm of bees.

The war is still young, the balance of military power is lopsided to the U.S. coalition, the possibility of uprisings still strong. But it is not yet clear how this war ends if the regime survives the explosions.