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The middle path advantage

March 17, 2003

If, like me, you were anywhere in London one-and-a-half weeks ago, you would have seen how the war clouds over Iraq were building up there. That the balloon would go up any time was only a matter of when, not if. The public and parliamentary debate and dissent and street protests were intense as was the media focus on the imminence of war.

This is in sharp contrast to the total absence of debate in our country last year during the 10-month long military confrontation with Pakistan or even during Kargil in 1999. The manner in which coercive diplomacy and force are being applied and new pressure points created to ensure Saddam Hussein's early compliance -- or capitulation -- is a lesson in escalation control.

But then it is much easier for the world's only superpower to coerce a third world country. Never before has a war been so deeply discussed and its operational facets so closely dissected that the only unknown is D-Day. Even that can be safely put at between March 18 and 25.

The imponderables are three: level of resistance by the Iraqi military; use of chemical and biological weapons and whether Iraq would Scud Israel and the fate of Saddam Hussein. Would he do an Osama bin Laden?

Never has the world been so divided over a war as now. The Arab and Islamic world, especially. Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called Colonel Gaddafi of Libya a liar while ministers from Iraq and Kuwait traded abuses and curses.

Europe is divided by the Gang of Three -- France Germany and Russia; the UN is split and you have to make a choice whether you are with the US or with France. The US is determined to go for Saddam with or without a second UN resolution. It is Tony Blair whose future is in the balance.

The threat of a catastrophic incident from a terrorist dirty bomb is to be simulated in London on March 23 to test the capabilities of the 7,000-strong Civil Contingency Reactionary Force. This may also help in making the threat more real and bring more people around on the side of Tony Blair. A new national emergency nerve centre called Cobra and a new cabinet subcommittee for disaster management have been formed.

Twenty million doses of smallpox vaccine are available to deal with a bio attack. Fire services, health and civil police are on high alert. The big picture of the new war against terrorism and weapons of mass destruction has been made outside London, in America and in the UN by Kofi Annan's deputy, the Canadian, Louise Frechette.

The post-Saddam blueprint envisages a UN plan for self government -- like in Afghanistan -- under UNAMI (United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq). Under this plan, three months after the war -- and it could be earlier -- US Lieutenant General (retired) Jay Garner, head of the UN Office on Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction, is to be appointed Governor of Iraq along with a UN Special Representative, probably Lakhdar Brahimi or Barbara Bodine. There is also a government in waiting of Iraqi exiles and US advisers to assist UNAMI. Full Iraqi ownership of its strategic assets, notably oil, and restructuring Iraq is the desired end result.

Protecting Turkey and Israel requires hunting for Iraqi Scuds. A combination of Patriot and the new Arrow anti missiles with Aegis radars have been deployed. There is a strategic basket of war objectives: regime change and creating a new order, neutralising WMD and terrorist links with Al Qaeda and control over oil. There is Plan A and Plan B to liberate Iraq: Plan B is without Turkey but may be with a new prime minister there, a second vote might allow US troops to develop a northern thrust.

Plan B is in three phases. Phase One is establishing air superiority; Phase Two: Us Airborne Divisions, Army Rangers and Special Forces will airlift from Kuwait and Cyprus into northern airfields and capture oilfields Kirkuk and Mosul. Simultaneously UK forces take Basra and Rumalia oil fields. Phase Three is seizure of Baghdad and link up with the North.

Further, there are two options on fighting this war. First is prolonged air action, minimum use of coalition forces and maximum reliance on local fighters a la Afghanistan. The second is a short and sharp engagement with simultaneous air and ground action to seize Baghdad. Elimination of Saddam would hasten operations.

The likely choice will be a short bombing campaign followed by swift ground action to end the war quickly. The most optimistic timeframe for the war is between three days and three weeks. The 1990-91 Gulf war lasted 42 days with 38 days of air campaign and four of ground action. In Bosnia, 1995, it was 17 days or air bombing. Similarly in Kosovo (1999) it took 78 days of air bombing and no ground action. Afghanistan took 76 days with 65 days of air bombing. This time around, 700 targets will be struck on the first day by 3,000 precision guided munitions, mostly 5,000 pounds each, ten times more precise and deadly than in 1990-91.

If the US military potential has quadrupled since 1991, Iraq's operational capacity has declined by one third due to 12 years of sanctions. Even so, the biggest fear of the US planners is fighting in builtup areas and a chemical or biological attack. American and British troops are not adequately trained for streetfighting and if the Iraqis decide to fight, body bags and time could go in a spiral.

An allied force of 300,000 combatants -- 260,000 US and 40,000 UK -- has been assembled to defeat a similar number in Iraq. The British are fielding nearly half their army of 100,000. They are reportedly inadequately equipped without proper communications for their tanks, desert vehicles and desert boots.

Almost one third of the army can't read or write and worse, motivation and morale levels are not particularly high. An elaborate psywar campaign has been launched against Iraq to undermine Saddam and degrade the will of his military commanders to fight.

Radio, the Internet and mobile phones are being used to contact Iraqi commanders using threats of war crimes and assorted inducements.

The US fixation with Iraq is seen as a strategic opportunity. The oil rush is part of a strategic package to establish its unchallenged control and to marginalise France and Russia who have strategic stakes in the region. The US has a known strategic petroleum reserve of 600 million barrels which is 300 days of imports. With the strike in Venezuela ended, threat of one in Nigeria averted and despite a harsh winter the oil price instability of the past could be averted unless the war drags on beyond three weeks.

Anything below $30 a barrel is considered a stable price. In August 1990, oil prices shot up from $21 to $41 a barrel and after the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq to $56. The oil market stabilised only after the air campaign had started in 1991. The reaction in the oil market this time will also depend on how much and how many of the oil fields are destroyed.

Unlike now, after 9/11 the entire world community was behind the war in Afghanistan. The air campaign dragged on due to lack of synchronisation between military operations and the interim political arrangement. Around 7 to 10 days from now, both the military and the political wings of the war will be ready. No one seriously doubted the inevitability of war in Iraq. The current showdown in the UN is over US unilateralism. With US forces deployed from Central Asia through South Asia to the Philippines, the US will soon have a foothold in West Asia and the Middle East ostensibly to clean up the region.

One can only hope the war will be clean and over quickly. And despite the feared dirty battlefield, cause minimum collateral damage. India pulled back from the brink of war last year mainly in deference to US interests. India's best bet will be to try and find a prominent place in the reconstruction of Iraq as it has in Afghanistan and not take the offensive against the war like France. It is in our national interest to steer a middle path.


Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

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