War Stories

Updated: How To Tell If We’re Winning in Iraq

A score card for the first few days.

With war under way and TV networks starting to broadcast round-the-clock streams of real-time war images, viewers shouldn’t feel ashamed to find themselves wishing for a program guide to help them follow the play-by-play. (Most news anchors, accustomed to covering elections, will encourage this inclination.) So, here are some notes on what to watch for—some indicators, especially in the first few days of the battle, of whether the war is going well, badly, or somewhere in between.

First, ignore all first-night (and most first-morning-after) commentary. On the first night of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Wolf Blitzer, then CNN’s Pentagon correspondent, broke in to proclaim that the American bombing raids had “decimated” Iraq’s Republican Guard. Of course, this was wrong; more than that, it was stupid. The bombing had been going on for only a few hours; it was still nighttime; no official could possibly have conducted any “bomb-damage-assessment”; nobody could have had the slightest idea about the airstrikes’ effects. This time around, U.S. sensors and satellites are better and faster, but they still can’t see much in the dark. More than 12 hours after Wednesday night’s cruise-missile attacks on “targets of opportunity,” we still don’t know precisely what the targets were, whether they were hit, or whether any military asset was destroyed or any Iraqi leader was killed.

Fireworks will fill the skies overBaghdad, but what about Tel Aviv? If Saddam Hussein still has working Scud missiles, he can be expected to fire them at Tel Aviv as soon as the war gets under way. He’ll do this for the same reason he did in ‘91: to try to incite Israeli retaliation, which would enflame the Arab world, widen the war, complicate postwar politics—in short, to bring the world down with him. The missiles may be tipped with chemical warheads. Saddam chose not to go chemical in ‘91 (though he could have), mainly because the first President Bush suggested we might retaliate with nukes. This time, knowing that defeat means his own death, Saddam might fire the CWs, if he has any; it’s hard to deter a man with nothing to lose. If he does launch missiles, chemical or otherwise, he’ll probably do so early because waiting is not an option. In military jargon, he’s in a “use them or lose them” situation. After the U.S. air strikes around Baghdad Wednesday night, Iraqi troops fired a half-dozen or so Scuds into Kuwait. At least one was reportedly downed by a Patriot air-defense missile; the others missed. (Scuds are wildly inaccurate missiles.) The fact that Israel so far remains unscathed may indicate that Saddam does not have, or could not deploy, Scuds in the western desert near the Jordanian border, from where they must be launched to be in firing range of Israel. American fighter-bombers would no doubt try to knock out Scud sites in the first wave of an attack. Maybe they got some last night. Or maybe U.S. special forces, who are known to be operating in western Iraq, neutralized some. Or maybe the Iraqi arsenal of Scuds is very small; maybe they’re rusted. It may be significant, as well, that the Scuds fired on Kuwait do not appear to have been loaded with chemical warheads. Maybe they don’t have any. Whatever is going on here (and we may not know for a while), Scud-hunting is a very tough task. The missiles are thin, mobile, and easily camouflaged from aerial surveillance or targeting. In 1991, U.S. and allied aircraft launched a few hundred air strikes on what were thought to be Scud launchers, but intelligence officials concluded after the war that the attacks destroyed only a few Scuds, perhaps no Scuds at all.

The battle of Basra. What happens in the southern Iraqi city of Basra may be a key indicator of success, in political and psychological terms anyway. The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force may capture Basra early, in part to secure its port and oil wells, in part to send images of triumph to the world. President Bush’s advisers have assured him that Iraqis will welcome American troops with cheers and flowers. Basra is where this vision has the highest chance of coming true. Its million people are Shiite Muslims, who no doubt hate Saddam Hussein and would likely welcome liberation—from anybody. The troops (who are likely to include some Brits as well as Americans) are reportedly well-armed with candy for smiling Shiite children, which is bound to inspire memories of GIs giving Hershey bars to Berlin tykes in ‘45. This would be a huge morale booster, for our troops and for Bush and Tony Blair. So, the big question is: Will we see such images? If we do, this won’t necessarily foretell what might happen further north. But if we don’t, if things in Basra are grim, this may forebode deep unpleasantries ahead.

A related question is whether Iraqi soldiers around Basra will put up any serious resistance. Most of these soldiers are regular army units, the majority of them Shiites who have been ill-treated by their Sunni officers and who do not want to die for Saddam Hussein. British intelligence is reportedly seeing 10 percent to 15 percent of frontline troops deserting before a shot’s been fired. Once the bombs start booming, the ranks are likely to thin dramatically. (Mass surrenders took place in ‘91; in some cases, hundreds of Iraqi soldiers surrendered to a handful of American soldiers.) U.S. commanders are counting on virtually no resistance. If the Iraqis put up quite a bit of resistance, it’s a bad sign.

Another question about Basra is whether or not Iraqi soldiers will fire chemical and biological weapons. Saddam has put Lt. Gen. Ali Hasan in charge of Iraq’s southern military districts. Hasan earned the nickname “Chemical Ali” for his chemical-weapons assaults in 1988, which killed thousands of Kurds. If U.S. and British troops don’t face “weapons of mass destruction” here, it’s a good sign.

Are Iraqi planes going up? Are U.S. aircraft going down? The first wave of the U.S. air assault will include devastating attacks on Iraqi airfields. HARMs, or High-speed Anti-Radiation Missiles, will also home in on Iraqi air-defense radars. In Desert Storm, U.S. and allied air forces enjoyed complete control of the skies. Not a single Iraqi combat plane got in the air, except for the few that were flown to Iran just before the war started. (The Iranians kept the jets afterward.) Iraq continued to fire anti-aircraft weapons but haphazardly and, for the most part, with artillery, not surface-to-air missiles. Iraq still has thousands of air-defense guns and missiles, but they have not been modernized or possibly even maintained. They didn’t come close to hitting any U.S. planes last night. In any event, they can’t hit anything flying higher than 10,000 feet, and almost all U.S. combat planes will be able to hit targets from altitudes well out of Iraqi range. In ‘91, there were limits to how well such high-flying planes could operate. Only 9 percent of the bombs dropped were “smart bombs,” and they were guided by lasers, which were often blocked or defracted by dust, smoke, or clouds. This time, 80 percent of the bombs will be “smart,” and almost all of them will be guided by GPS satellites. If the bombardier knows the target’s coordinates, he can drop the ordnance, and it will fall or glide to ground zero, regardless of the environment. However, in this war U.S. drones will also be flying through Iraqi skies, many of them at lower altitudes, taking pictures and streaming them back to headquarters in Qatar or Saudi Arabia. Drones did this in Afghanistan and greatly accelerated the process of spotting targets, assigning planes to hit those targets, then dropping the bombs. (This process took three days in Desert Storm, 19 minutes in Afghanistan.) Will Iraq be able to shoot down a lot of these drones? And if they do, will this slow our offensive? (By the way, beware Iraqi claims that they’ve shot down stealth fighters; in the battle for Kosovo, the Serbs made many such boasts, when in fact—except for one case, when they really did shoot down a stealth—they’d knocked down only drones.)

When is the ground war starting? In 1991, the U.S. and allied forces mounted airstrikes for 39 days (from Jan. 17 to Feb. 24) before launching a ground invasion. News reports indicate this time the air campaign will last only two or three days before troops cross the border. It’s more likely the case—certainly other news reports have suggested—that the air and ground attacks will start simultaneously.Keep an eye on Ted Koppel, who is embedded with the 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division. These are the armored troops who are going to dash 300 miles up the desert from Kuwait to Baghdad—and no, not up the highway, which can be easily blocked, but more likely through the finely surfaced desert to the west, ideal territory for tanks. (Look at these maps, from Globalsecurity.org.) Reporters embedded with troops have said they will not be censored, though they will be subjected to blackouts. If you don’t see Koppel for a couple days after the bombing begins, the ground war will likely have already begun.

Where’s Saddam? Some U.S. officials have said that capturing Saddam isn’t important as long as he’s cut off from the controls of power, but this is clearly nonsense—pre-emptive CYA in case he slips through the noose like Osama Bin Laden. Others say privately that it’s supremely important to kill the big guy, preferably Mussolini-style, hanging from his heels with lots of locals celebrating around the corpse. The big hope is and always has been that, once the bombs start falling, some of Saddam’s henchmen—knowing that they’re doomed if they stay with the boss—will kill him, then surrender and plead for mercy. This might happen. It might not; the loyalists might stay loyal.

As of midday Thursday, we still don’t know whether the “decapitation strike” on Baghdad managed to kill Saddam (or any other leader). Commentators and anonymous officials have engaged in fascinating speculation on whether the man who gave a speech on Iraqi television shortly after the attack really was Saddam, and whether the speech was live or taped in advance. We’ve attempted such assassinations-by-cruise-missile before—against Saddam in ‘91, Slobodan Milosevic in ‘99, Osama Bin Laden several times. They rarely work. Part of the problem is that intelligence of this sort (no matter how good) has a very short shelf-life (Wednesday night’s retargeting was very fast by historical standards, but people can move away faster still). Another problem is that even if bombs hit the right target, they don’t necessarily kill everybody inside.

Nor is it clear that airstrikes alone will accomplish even the officially stated aim of cutting Saddam off from his power levers. In Desert Storm, several hundred bombs were dropped on “command and control” targets. Yet the U.S. Air Force’s official analysis of the war concluded that the Iraqi military command never lost contact with its troops. Despite “the lethality and precision of the attacks,” the study concluded, the Iraqi “system turned out to be more redundant and more able to reconstitute itself than first thought. Fiber-optic networks and computerized switching systems proved particularly tough to put out of action.”

The U.S. commanders’ biggest fear is that Saddam will stay holed up in Baghdad, a city of 5 million people, forcing our troops to go door to door, blasting through multiple rings of Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard divisions, then fending off snipers and suicide bombers once inside the city. Airstrikes can help knock off the Republican Guard; they can’t help much at all in urban street fights, at least not without killing thousands of Iraqi civilians—which may be Saddam’s hope, the better to bloody America’s hands.

Unless Saddam is murdered by his own men, the war will probably go on for weeks, maybe months. In the scheme of history, that’s a short war. But under the scrutiny of 24-hour-a-day, live newscasts, it could seem an eternity. A mere 12 hours after the surprise cruise-missile attack, some newscasters are already expressing impatience for the “real war” to begin. Few doubt the United States will ultimately win. We may even win quickly. But in the exchanges between Peter and Tony, and Larry and Wolf, expect many moments of anguish.