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The Emperor's new clothes
April 07, 2003
This is written as the Iraq war runs into its third week and the world watches its increasingly savage human consequences, and the incredible ineptitude and wooden-headedness of the leaders of history's militarily mightiest nation. The Anglo-American coalition has committed a number of strategic errors. It has suffered a series of military -- and more important, political -- setbacks which seriously weaken its credibility. There are growing disputes in Washington about the wisdom of the war strategy adopted. Global concerns are mounting over the indiscriminate killing of civilians and use of illegitimate weapons employing depleted uranium. This means that the main political objectives of the war stand badly compromised. The two stated objectives were to severely discipline 'deviant' Iraq -- by quickly disarming it of weapons of mass destruction, and removing President Saddam Hussein -- and to promote 'pluralist democracy' in the Middle East. Neither is likely to happen without bloodshed. The second may never happen.
This is the first time in human history that an unjust war has been so resolutely opposed by millions of people who know that the Emperor has no clothes. The US has committed naked aggression kicking world opinion in the teeth and heaping insult not only on the UN, but on the ideas of multilateralism and the rule of law itself. True, this isn't the first time that a superpower has invaded another state, or used force to promote a narrow objective. But it's the first time anyone has done this so brazenly, so 'in-your-face,' and without external crutches like Cold War ideological rivalry. Iraq is a case of pure, unadulterated, unrelieved, unremitting, aggression.
Yet, the core-strategy of the war, based on using devastating 'high-precision' weapons, and quickly overpowering a supposedly 'demoralised' regime, hasn't succeeded so far. The Iraqi people have put up an amazing level of resistance. Their government isn't in disarray. There have been no major defections from the army. Mr Hussein remains in command. Indeed, his defiance of the world's mightiest power has earned him the sobriquet of a 'modern-day Saladin' among millions of Arabs. 'Taking him out' will prove much longer and tougher than US war-planners imagined. By waging this war, the US will end up fomenting bitter opposition to itself the world over -- strengthening the force it hates the most: Islamic fundamentalism. No less than President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, the US's closest Arab ally, warns that the Iraq war will create '100 new Osama bin Ladens... When it's over, if it's over, this war will have horrible consequences.'
Despite its advance -- and its incomparably superior firepower -- the war coalition won't find it easy to take Baghdad. This will deny it the bloodless lightning triumph it sought, which alone could have bestowed ex post facto legitimacy on a war most of America's own allies consider unwarranted, unjust and illegal. Why did US war plans go awry? These were based upon four assumptions. First, the US's vast military superiority over Iraq would produce a quick, decisive victory through 'fourth-generation' weapons like Tomahawk missiles and laser-guided bombs. This would happen with less than 40 per cent of the troops deployed in the 1991 war. Just 100,000 combatants could overpower Iraq's 400,000 strong forces. (The rule-of-thumb would demand about one million Anglo-American troops.)
Second, a 'shock-and-awe' attack would instantly paralyse Iraq's army and break its will to fight. The regime would start disintegrating within a few days. Third, the Iraqi people would revolt against Mr Hussein and welcome Anglo-American soldiers as their 'liberators': 'the streets in Basra and Baghdad are sure to erupt in joy.' The southern Shias would stage an insurrection. And fourth, the US would have all auxiliary political, logistical, intelligence and information-related arrangements in place before war starts.
All four assumptions have proved flawed or gone awry. The March 20 'decapitating' strike failed to kill Mr Hussein: either the intelligence on his location was wrong, or the 'smart' bombs didn't work. The Iraqi regime has absorbed devastating hits without crumbling. Despite the April 2 attack on two divisions, two-thirds of the 30,000 strong Republican Guard remains. There is fierce, sustained resistance in every city in southern Iraq -- from regular troops, fidayeen, militias and citizens. For instance, Umm Qasr was to have fallen by March 21. It was declared 'taken' nine times before it was captured days later. Karbala and Najaf are resisting. All Iraqis -- Shia, Sunni, Kurd and Turkoman -- are fighting, not for Mr Hussein, but to defend their nation.
How did the US miscalculate so badly? CIA analysts have accused the Pentagon of ignoring their warnings about the Iraqi regime's relative strength and endurance. The Pentagon instead relied on the Iraqi National Congress. The INC is led by millionaires settled in the West, many of whom haven't even visited Iraq in 30 years. Themselves divided, the exiles have no worthwhile sources or intelligence 'assets' in Iraq.
The Anglo-American coalition also didn't handle the 'information war' with skill. US-UK military briefings have often been insubstantial, inadequate, misleading, inaccurate or downright false. Many stories had to be withdrawn. Examples: the Basra 'uprising' by the Shias; the report of a 1,000-vehicle strong Republican Guard column moving southwards from Baghdad; 'discovery' of a chemical weapons factory at Najaf; 'execution' of two British sappers; and the capture of an Iraqi 'general.' Equally dubious and baseless were the war coalition's claims about whether the 'real' Saddam had appeared on television. Some of the 750 'embedded' reporters turned out to be poor propaganda tools for the coalition to the extent they filed independent critical reports.
Responsible for the military mess are topmost US officials. It now emerges that Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld repeatedly rejected advice from Pentagon planners on the number of troops necessary for a successful war in Iraq. Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reveals in The New Yorker that Mr Rumsfeld insisted at least six times before the conflict that the ground troops be sharply reduced to well below one-half of the originally proposed 400,000. (In 1991, the US-led coalition deployed 700,000 troops.) 'He thought he knew better. He was the decision-maker at every turn,' the article quoted a Pentagon planner. 'This is the mess Rummy put himself in.'
Hersh claims that Mr Rumsfeld underestimated the likely Iraqi resistance and overruled advice to delay the invasion until troops denied access through Turkey could be brought in by another route. The US finally rushed 120,000 troops to reinforce its two attack divisions (and the UK's one) against the Republican Guard's equivalent of five divisions and the regular army's 17. Iraqi fighters have proved far tougher than expected. Thus, Lt Gen William Wallace said: 'The enemy we're fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against.' Differences have cropped up between the Republican Party and the Right-wing triumvirate advising Mr Bush, comprising Messrs Cheney, Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. The 'blame game' shows policy disarray.
The real test will come soon, when the invaders enter Baghdad -- to a hostile reception. Taking Baghdad street by street will be incomparably tougher than fighting around the peripheries of Iraq's southern cities, which hasn't been easy. Faced with urban warfare, the war coalition may fall back upon conventional military doctrine which prescribes flattening cities -- and massively killing non-combatant civilians. Already, excessive force is being used -- witness the recent attacks on hospitals and markets in Baghdad, and the butchery of two dozen innocent civilians near Najaf and Nasiriya.
Take the Najaf case. According to The Washington Post, the victims were travelling in a van. US forces were late in warning them. As the van approached a checkpost, they fired heavy-calibre munitions first into the radiator and then the passenger cabin. Such incidents are likely to multiply as US forces panic fearing ambushes and suicide attacks. Close-combat urban warfare holds the potential for an Iraqi My Lai, which could turn global opinion massively against this increasingly inhumane war.
This combat is increasingly following all wars' dread logic: killing and maiming innocent people, devastating homes, inflicting horrible suffering. What makes it especially loathsome is that it's being fought in the name of the very people it is turning into a mass of bleeding bodies and severed limbs. If civilians are overtly targeted, the war will become even more unpopular and the anti-war movement more assertive. The demand to bring back US-UK troops will turn into a roar.
Yet, this war has opened our eyes to a new reality. As poet Sudeep Banerjee says the world has become a frighteningly new place full of daring possibilities. For a decade, it seemed no major alternative agendas were left; decent radical people could only tinker at the margins. Suddenly, we wake up to find that the world is not all that anaemic and inert; there are choices to be made even in our drab lives. This makes the world once again a very political place. As Yeats said, 'a terrible beauty is born' again into our lives. A great manifestation of this is the peace movement through which ordinary citizens have asserted themselves and redefined democracy as popular control over security policies too; these are too precious to be left to generals and 'experts' alone.
The Gulf War, II