Home > News > Columnists > Colonel (retd) Anil Athale
Dawn of a new imperial era
May 15, 2003
Last week US President George W Bush declared the war in Iraq over. It is too early for comprehensive analysis as much of the information is still classified, so this is only an attempt to delineate some pointers for further inquiry.
The much advertised 'shock and awe' did not take place at all. This concept is not new: an opening artillery barrage has been a tactic since the 15th century and was used in India by Babar in 1526. The shock effect of the initial air strikes failed primarily because the American bombing was selective. Despite all criticism about civilian casualties, Iraqis in Baghdad and elsewhere felt safe as long as they were not close to military targets. The Americans thus lost the element of fear and uncertainty that is necessary to create awe.
Compared to the Second World War bombing of Hamburg or Tokyo, the air attack on Iraq was 'humane'. Then how does one explain the lack of resistance?
The obvious explanation for this is that Saddam Hussein and his supporters have simply melted away into the population and may soon start an Algerian-type guerrilla war against the occupying American forces. The tactics would be to use individual snipers, landmines, and ambushes. The targets would be individual soldiers, one at a time.
Such tactics, carried out over a long period, can cripple the invader by instilling fear and forcing the soldiers to their bunkers. The first sniper attack has already taken place in Baghdad. It would be wise not to write the obituary of Saddam Hussein prematurely.
Gulf War I saw an air campaign that lasted close to a month. This time around, the ground offensive began almost simultaneously. But comparing the two can be misleading because under the UN sanctions and 'no-fly zones', the American and British air forces have been pounding the Iraqi air defences for years. That made a long air campaign superfluous. Still the air supremacy, not just superiority, achieved by the Americans was breathtaking. Not a single Iraqi aircraft took to the air throughout this war. The air defences in Baghdad went silent quite quickly. It is as yet unknown what weapons the Americans used to achieve this.
Such was the American domination of air and space that ground fighting became a virtual adjunct to the air campaign. This means in any future war the Americans would be confident that they would be operating under conditions of total control of airspace. No nation at this moment can challenge the Americans in this field.
This is in a way a throwback to 1898, when, under General Kitchener, the British reconquered the Sudan at a cost of 500 of its soldiers while the Mahdi lost 20,000. The valiant Arab horsemen had no answer to the machine-guns of the British. A new imperial era seems to have dawned with airpower playing the role of the machine-guns of yesteryear.
Apparently the infantry weapons used by the coalition forces this time were the good old machine-guns and rifles, not very different from the ones used in the first Gulf War. The sensors and detection devices used were quite advanced and were openly flaunted on TV. But any soldier worth his salt knows sensors can only give an edge, not the kind of decisive superiority witnessed here. So did the Americans have emp (electromagnetic pulse) or beam weapons? It was noticeable that all the TV pictures of war by 'embedded' journalists were long shots and avoided showing either the Bradley fighting vehicles or tanks in any detail.
Gulf War II can be called a truly landmark event, a revolution in military affairs rather than in military technology, for the single reason that this was the first time a war was fought in such close co-ordination with the 'special forces' or plain spies.
Even the opening act of war, the air attack to kill Saddam Hussein, was directed by the CIA. The special forces not only gathered intelligence, but actually controlled the direction and momentum of the air and ground offensive. Communication devices with global reach, detectors and sensors, personal protection gear, all played their part. In earlier wars, the special forces acted in support of the main army; here, the main force was acting in support of the special forces.
But the penetration of special forces would not have been possible without local support, which puts a question mark on the possible Iraqi strategy of launching an Algerian-style insurrection.
The breach between Europe and America seems to have opened a transatlantic chasm. Incidents like the French company Vivendi selling its assets in the US are grim pointers in that direction. The blunt assertion by the French defence minister in New Delhi recently that India should be wary of the American embrace was unprecedented. The Russians too seem to have stirred themselves, launching no less than 10 military satellites this week. A marriage of French electronics with Russian space prowess could well create the second military 'pole' in the current unipolar world.
I am aware that I have raised more questions with no answers. As the Americans would say, the jury is still out and the long-term effects of this war will only show up in due course. But one thing is certain. With the major role of special forces in this and coming wars, internal cohesion and security have become vital even for external defence.