There have been copious “told you sos” in the wake of the fall of Baghdad, mainly directed at pundits who might have known better, had they taken the time to read a few books about warfare. I won’t pile on for two reasons: first, I never took those people seriously in the first place so why honor them with my time now; and second, others who monitor these issues full time (also see NRO’s “Hall of Shame”) are doing a dynamite job at dishing out the crow. Analysts in the Arab media are also working overtime, trying to find an explanation why the al Jazeera view of events was so out of synch with reality. One story is already out, carried on Abu Dhabi television, that Saddam Hussein was in fact working with the U.S., and the defense of Baghdad collapsed after he, his sons and 19 of his ministers were whisked off to safety. Just to put the views of U.S. commentators in perspective, though for all I know they might start saying the same thing.
Among the people saying they knew all along that the Iraqi army was a paper tiger is Osama bin Laden, or someone claiming to be him. A series of articles appeared on the al Qaeda-sanctioned Alneda website giving daily analyses of the battle as it unfolded. Al Qaeda’s take: “[that] the Crusader forces entered the heart of the capital without resistance … surprised no one who examined the events according to military parameters.”
While the terrorists were surprised at the swiftness of the collapse in the city center, they did not doubt the outcome of the larger defense by Iraqi regular forces. The problem with Saddam’s strategy was its reliance on symmetrical warfare, that is, trying to take on the Coalition force on force, matching strength with strength. However, this only works when you have strength, which the Iraqis did not. They were seriously outmatched by Coalition arms, particularly air power, and had no hope of overcoming the technological disadvantages they faced. The better way to take up the challenge would have been through terrorism and guerrilla warfare, “the most effective method for the materially weak against the strong.” It is an old tune for al Qaeda; the thesis is spelled out in detail in their 1996 Declaration of War, and has shaped the network’s planning at every level of the conflict spectrum. They cite its track record — “with guerrilla warfare, the Americans were defeated in Vietnam and the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan.” In the past, they have also noted Beirut and Mogadishu. The recent posts are silent however on Operation Enduring Freedom, in which the Taliban chose to fight positionally, and the Coalition used unconventional methods.
To be fair, the Iraqis never believed that their conventional forces would be victorious either. Iraq had threatened Chechen-style urban guerrilla warfare. “Baghdad will be surrounded but will not fall,” the information minister promised, saying that the streets of the city would become a maze of death for the invaders. And both sides had prepared for this type of warfare — urban combat in Grozny has been thoroughly studied by the U.S. services for years. But two things are worth pointing out (noted here last August) that might have given the Iraqi planners pause:
Urban defense has not worked since Stalingrad. Cities are defensible tactically, street to street, but operationally, taken as a whole, urban defenders cannot prevail against greatly superior forces. Of course, using the techniques advocated by al Qaeda, inflicting casualties in the street battle is the primary objective, so technically the city does not have to be held. But this leads to a second point —
Urban guerrilla defense results in extraordinary casualties among the guerrillas as well, and they cannot afford them. The city becomes a trap for the defenders, and while dealing out casualties, they take them in return many more times, and without the medical infrastructure to save their critically wounded. The Battle of Hue City is a good example, in which VC and NVA troops were wiped out. The Chechens also took extraordinary casualties in both battles of Grozny, ultimately losing the city twice. Furthermore, wishing “a million Mogadishus” on our troops is also tantamount to calling for genocide of the Iraqi people, given the casualties the Somalis took in that battle.
There was no reason to expect that the Iraqis would be motivated enough to make the sacrifices necessary to fight this way. The regime, like the statue of Saddam Hussein that toppled in Baghdad, was hollow. Those who believed there would be a fight to the death assumed that anyone in Iraq thought Saddam’s police state was worth dying for. (Leftists frequently underrate people in the developing world by ascribing all manner of irrational impulses to them, like loving the totalitarian regimes that oppress them.) The foreign Arab volunteers were an exception, they fought determinedly and some are still in action. They have motivation, but lack the training to be effective. As one Marine commander who came up against foreign Mujahedin said, after his troops engaged in hand to hand fighting with them in the swamps southeast of Baghdad, “It just comes down to killing them.”
So al Qaeda is correct to fault Saddam’s execution of his defensive plan, but cannot reprove him for misunderstanding the strategic situation. Saddam knew that a stand in the city was his only chance. Didn’t he say last summer, cribbing from Churchill, “We will fight them on the streets, from the rooftops, from house to house. We will never surrender”? The problem was, not everybody signed on to that last part. You cannot expect the kind of heroic sacrifices necessary for urban guerrilla warfare when the alternative is peace, freedom, looting, and MREs.