The US-Iraq war is entering its fourth week. Coalition forces are in Baghdad and it appears the war has now entered its final phase. It is, of course, too early to draw any lessons from the action so far. But a couple of universal truths about warfare have already been established.
The first is that few wars go according to any plan. Wars are unpredictable and this one has proved to be no exception. Secondly, even fewer wars achieve what they set out to achieve. None of the things the allies said they would do have been done in Afghanistan. News is that the warlords are back in power and that the Taliban are beginning to re-emerge from oblivion.
Iraq too will soon be one more statistic while the coalition nations and others fight for the spoils of war. When the war began three weeks ago, everything was expected to go according to the script which the coalition forces and their propaganda machines had prepared. Iraqis, oppressed under over twenty years of Saddam's brutal regime, were supposed to offer little resistance. They were expected to greet their 'liberators' with open arms. Saddam Hussein was expected to play his role as a paper tiger and flee the country once the fighting began.
Apparently, someone forgot to hand over the script to the opposition. In the Iraq play, the actor playing the villain has suddenly decided to play the hero's part. Saddam Hussein and his subjects have refused to roll over and play dead. The coalition forces met with stiff resistance in Basra and other Iraqi towns from the irregulars and remnants of the Iraqi army. There have been suicide attacks and mounting casualties. Far from being greeted as liberators the Allies have met resistance, sullen faces and non-cooperation.
All this has resulted in the coalition supply lines becoming stretched and vulnerable and more troops have had to be inducted which were not considered necessary at the start of the campaign. The entire timetable has had to be changed and the allied forces have had to have a rethink about entering and controlling towns and cities.
Far from running away, Saddam Hussein and his colleagues have stood firm. They have been appearing on television right up to the very end. The Iraqi information minister still continues to brief the press even as the Allies claim to have advanced to the centre of Baghdad.
What lies ahead is still unclear. So far all the talk of the Iraqi army putting up a stiff resistance has proved to be just talk. The so-called elite Republican Guards have proved to be a mirage and melted away. One still does not know what Saddam has up his sleeve. Possibly the Allies are in for Palestine-style urban guerrilla warfare in the days ahead.
More important than the campaign has been the end result. What will be the final achievements of this costly and avoidable war? Even before the war started the US and its allies succeeded in undermining the authority of the United Nations. NATO unity, forged over 50 years, appears to be an illusion. France, Germany and Russia have been alienated.
Temporarily no doubt, the US will gain control over Iraq and put in place a MacArthur type governor to rule the country. Many American companies have already been given the contract to 'reconstruct' Iraq, put out the oil fires and start operations.
Others like France, Germany and Russia who opposed the war also want their share of the cake and are already making conciliatory gestures.
But what of the long run? Just a few months ago Saddam Hussein was a despised figure both at home and within the Arab world. The United States was a highly respected nation, known for its democratic values, concern for human rights and generous helpings of aid to nations in distress.
No more. Saddam Hussein has suddenly emerged as a hero. A leader who had the guts to stand up to the West. Whatever happens to him, the US has already made a martyr out of him. He will no doubt be the future role model for Arab youth like Gamal Nasser before him. The coalition forces will no doubt remove his omnipresent portraits, tear down his statues and obliterate his writings. But they have succeeded in implanting him permanently in Arab hearts and it will be difficult to dislodge him from there.
By their action, the United States and Great Britain have emerged as new bullies on the block. People around the world who always admired America for its principles, for its record of human rights have been disillusioned. America's moral strength has diminished and it will take a long time for it to be restored. In retrospect it may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory.
The United States invaded Iraq for the ostensible reason of 'freeing' the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein's despotic rule, to rid the Middle East of terrorism and to bring peace to the region. With their overwhelming military superiority they are well on their way to achieving the first. But it is now highly doubtful whether the overthrow of Saddam will bring any peace to the region or even see the end of terrorism.
Saddam Hussein was believed to have a stockpile of Weapons of Mass Destruction although none have been found so far. Eventually, a few canisters of chemicals will certainly be found. Even if they are the genuine stuff, does the US still expect the world to believe that they constituted a threat to it?
The Iraq war could see the resurgence of nationalism in the Middle East. In fact, the war would be the right fillip for the fundamentalist forces which were lying low after their initial success in the eighties. One should not be surprised to see the spread of militancy and fundamentalism in the Gulf in the next two or three years. The remnants of the Ba'ath party will still be active in Iraq and will be supported by sister organisations in neighbouring Syria and Lebanon. Any puppet regime put in place by the US in Iraq will not only be unpopular but is likely to be overthrown after a couple of years.
The combined US/UK action has dissipated whatever goodwill these countries had in the Gulf. The action has created a crescent of hatred for the West in general and for the United States in particular. Years of respect and credibility have been destroyed to grab a few barrels of oil. Even in moderate and so-far friendly countries like Jordan and Egypt, public opinion may force the regimes to distance themselves from the United States and the Western world.
If Saddam still succeeds in escaping and joining hands with Osama bin Laden they can make things quite tough for the Western world. It would be ironic if the war brings about the very thing which the US wanted to avoid.