War Stories

The Battle Plan for Baghdad?

A secret Pentagon report sketches seven scenarios.

A view of the city

As three U.S. combat divisions and assorted forces bear down on Baghdad, the big question of the war now is, how will U.S. troops take the Iraqi capital? This is a matter U.S. war planners pondered long before President Bush launched the war. Last summer, a secret team of high-level military officers and senior civilian Pentagon officials designed a tactical playbook for presentation to the Joint Chiefs of Staff “war-fighting group,” a Pentagon outfit that oversees war plans. Titled “Joint Urban Operations,” the report was developed by the team to study and enhance U.S. combat abilities in an urban environment. But a classified summary PowerPoint presentation of the study—made available to us by a source with access to the document—focused exclusively on one particular urban area: Baghdad. And this summary shows the various ways U.S. military planners considered conquering the city.

The band of military officers and civilian analysts who conducted this study was led by Gen. William F. “Buck” Kernan, a well-known, highly respected, and combat-tested officer. At the time, he headed the U.S. military’s Joint Forces Command, which is responsible for developing and testing new combat doctrines and techniques. According to the PowerPoint presentation, these U.S. military planners believed Baghdad could be stormed and pacified by four divisions of U.S. troops—about the size of the all the forces currently present north of Karbala.

In the briefing, Kernan cautioned his fellow commanders that “our opponents are wily and will force us into the urban environment in order to escape our technological edge”—an accurate reflection of the challenges now faced by the 3rd Infantry Division, the 101st Airborne Division, and the Marines as they close in on Baghdad.

The presentation contained detailed population, ethnic, and geographic grids of Baghdad—noting expected weaknesses in the Iraqi defenses and pointing out vulnerabilities in specific ethnic and low-population neighborhoods. (Presumably, U.S. forces could move more quickly through neighborhoods with fewer residents.) It detailed the urban environment of Baghdad and presented maps of high-rise buildings, “sub-surface” assets (tunnels, sewage pipes, and electrical conduits), electrical grids, and railroads. It identified roads that invading U.S. forces could use and infrastructure components that they would need to capture. (For obvious reasons, we won’t name these spots.) The presentation also mapped civilian “attitudes,” and it laid out the likely defensive perimeters to be established by the Republican Guard. In the version we reviewed, we saw no mention of paramilitary or irregular units such as the now-infamous Fedayeen. The briefing also included a slide titled “Anti-Leadership Operation Model”—but that portion of the presentation was unfinished.

The briefing did not project results, nor did it state any preferences. It offered options, but no best choice. And there were seven.

1) “Isolation Siege.” In this scenario, U.S. and coalition forces would cut Baghdad off from the rest of Iraq and slowly degrade its communications and military infrastructure with airstrikes and limited ground-level assaults. Success would depend on the demoralization of those holding the city. It was apparently the least costly option for U.S. forces but very costly for the civilian population. The scenario would “definitely include turning off the lights,” according to a note attached to the presentation.

2) “Remote Strike (Rubblizing).” This is a violent scenario that relies on overwhelming airpower. The presentation does not mention the costs to the civilian population. But under this option, a robust air attack would hit most sections of the city—and be designed to break the back of any and all resistance in Baghdad. The briefing did not note whether U.S. and coalition forces would employ precision or pinpoint bombing or employ a more general urban bombardment.

3) “Ground Assault, Frontal.” The briefing was far more specific about this scenario than any other, perhaps because this alternative requires the most logistical coordination, much of which is detailed in the PowerPoint presentation. It notes the number of troops that might be needed and how they ought to be deployed. We’re not going to share these details, out of concern that could lead to troops being put in harm’s way. But the name of this option said it all: U.S. forces would enter the city, identify strongholds of military resistance, and assault them in block-by-block and house-to-house fighting. This would entail “a linear sweep across the city.” Clearly, this would be the most costly to U.S. troops and the most difficult course of action, but the briefing did not address that or the collateral damage that might ensue. Neither did it specify the kind of units U.S. and coalition forces might be facing—or the likely level of resistance that those forces would offer.

4) “Nodal Isolation.” Under this option, mainly air forces (and maybe some ground troops) would “isolate” communications and command nodes in the city by destroying them. The goal would be to make resistance in Baghdad virtually useless by separating the assets of Saddam Hussein’s regime from the civilian population. The planners did not envision the use of large amounts of combat troops for this scenario. But they apparently did not factor in the possible presence of Saddam’s irregular units and the paramilitaries’ ability to maintain and enforce the regime’s authority.

5) “Nodal Capture.” Instead of blasting apart the communications and command nodes, U.S. forces would try to secure these points. That would leave the government infrastructure intact, presumably to save it for use in a post-Saddam era. The scenario did not detail the types of combat units to be used in carrying out this difficult mission, but they likely would include U.S. Rangers, Delta, special forces, and British SAS teams.

6) “Segment and Capture.” In this modified version of an overland, frontal assault, specific neighborhoods and areas of Baghdad would be identified and assaulted by air and ground operations. The briefing contains explicit ethnic and demographic details of Baghdad’s neighborhoods, apparently to help commanders decide which sections to attack first and which parts would most likely welcome U.S. and coalition troops. But picking off one area at a time could be a long, drawn-out endeavor, not all that unlike the siege option.

7) “Softpoint Capture and Expansion.” This would involve seizing “unprotected city segments” where military opposition is thought to be weak. The aim would be to “expand” those bridgeheads into more contested parts of the “urban area.” The briefing identified several areas that could be captured relatively easily by U.S. troops.

No doubt, the military ordered up other how-to-invade-Baghdad studies. President Bush long ago put the military’s top generals on notice that this difficult task would probably end up on their to-do list. Nevertheless, over the past few months, anyone reading the various news accounts about the Pentagon’s war preparations and listening to the analysis of talking-head generals would have good reason to conclude that the U.S. military plans for a war on Iraq were more detailed about the initial assault—we take Basra on Day 1 and head toward Baghdad—and less specific about what happens once U.S. troops reach the capital. The Pentagon, as the PowerPoint presentation notes, had developed options, none of them a cakewalk. In the hours and days ahead, we will see which one of these—if any—morphed into the current plan (which the Pentagon might even still be rewriting at this moment).