Sat, 29 Mar 2003

Time is of the essence in U.S.-led war on Iraq

Juwono Sudarsono, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Indonesia, Jakarta

The first casualty of the war in Iraq was not truth nor the appropriateness of broadcasting the war on "reality TV". It was not the credibility of the Bush administration's motives for wanting to "take out" Saddam Hussein; nor was it the cynicism of the French, German and Russian governments in their commitment to the United Nations (UN) inspection process as a viable alternative to war.

The first casualty was also not the disarray of the UN nor the fracturing of the NATO alliance; nor was it the incapacity of the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Conference or the Non- Aligned Movement to make any significant effort to prevent or to halt the war.

The first real casualty, in fact, was the credibility of the think tanks that worked with Pentagon planners who had been enthused by the vaunted "transformation" of the American military.

Flushed with optimism about the advances in military technology that the American defense industries had developed since the 1991 Gulf War, the think tanks, like their management consultancy cousins, thought up new buzz words to apply to the impending war against Iraq.

There was the "shock and awe" strategy conceived at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies. There was talk about advances in precision-guided weapons and munitions which would be so accurate as to "immediately demoralize" the enemy force's "will to fight".

There was enthusiasm for "surgical strikes" even more devastating than the Afghan campaign against the Taliban in late 2001. Laser-guided weapons with geo-positioning satellite tracking would enable units to strike enemy formations with precision and efficiency.

It would be a "cake walk" of a war, with a "rolling start" attack that would lead to the "immediate implosion" of the Iraqi regime after the first "decisive" land battle. There would be mass surrender across the country as the Baghdad government lost command and control, and the war would culminate with liberated Iraqi citizens celebrating and greeting American troops entering the streets of Baghdad.

One of the more enduring phrases that the American think tanks will particularly regret making public prior to March 20, was that the war in Iraq would be "swift, short and decisive." Based on their assessment of the Iraqi military's depleted defense equipment and weaponry, these think-tank enthusiasts were sold on the idea that the Iraqi campaign would be somewhat similar to the six-day Israeli-Arab war in June 1967.

Yet, after a week of hostilities across Iraqi territory, the war has not turned out to be swift, short nor decisive.

What went wrong? The immediate evidence so far is that the Americans miscalculated the shifting weight of Iraqi political power on the ground. The Iraqi army and its irregular forces put up a stiff fight.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi population do not share a common platform against the purported level of repression by the Iraqi government.

There may have been differing levels of perceptions of revulsion, hostility and fear about the Iraqi leadership, which can be broken down into four segments: Saddam Hussein's family, the Revolutionary Command Council, the Baath Party, and the all- important Army, itself divided along divisional and factional interests.

However, the attack by American, British and Australian forces provided an important propagandistic dimension not lost on the Iraqi leadership: The trials and tribulations of the underdog.

Baghdad skillfully appealed over the heads of the Arab League governments to individual constituents of "Arab Street" across the Middle East. Arab pride was at stake, irrespective of feelings about Saddam Hussein. Most tellingly, Baghdad castigated the pathetic Kofi Annan for preparing a post-conflict UN humanitarian assistance program, on the implicit assumption that American-led coalition forces would have immediate control over Iraq.

To the greater developing world in Africa and Asia, the American-British forces were cleverly depicted as colonial, imperialistic mercenaries.

The longer the Iraqi leadership sustains its hold on and around Baghdad, the less likely it is that the war will be swift, short and decisive. Even assuming that these psychological concepts and tactics could be stretched from a week to two weeks, the American public would be less willing to maintain their current level of support for President George W. Bush and for their forces on the ground.

A prolonged and bloody battle for Baghdad, or even a "humanitarian" approach to a protracted siege of the city, would painfully test the patience of the general public of the coalition nations.

In guerrilla warfare parlance, the longer the Iraqi government survives, the greater its political triumph. Conversely, the longer it takes the coalition forces to overcome and gain final control over Baghdad, the more bitter their military victory.

For protagonists on both sides of the divide, time is of the essence.

The writer is a former defense minister.