In two attacks this week, American warplanes struck an Iraqi missile site near the southern city of Basra. But this was not the commonplace engagement with another antiaircraft missile battery or targeting radar. This time our fly-guys took out a surface-to-surface missile battery being positioned to strike coalition troops gathering in northern Kuwait. Had the missiles not been destroyed, Saddam might have been able to inflict dozens or even hundreds of casualties with the chemical or biological weapons the missiles can carry. While we prepare for war, so does Saddam. And while the French-German-Belgian Axis of Weasels delays our action, the cost in blood and treasure we will pay to remove Saddam may be rising. The buildup of coalition forces has proceeded at a diplomatic pace. It’s time to accelerate it, and begin the campaign the instant our forces are ready.
There is nothing that the Iraqis can do that will change the ultimate outcome of the conflict. They will lose, and Saddam will fall, unless one of two things happens. We could listen to faux-allies such as France, Germany, and Saudi Arabia — as we did in 1991 — and choose again to not finish the job. Second, Saddam believes — falsely — that if he can kill enough Americans, we’ll lose heart and quit. At this point, only a Frenchman could fail to understand that we are going downtown this time. But between now and when the campaign begins, our forces are probably more vulnerable than they will be once the action starts. What Saddam tried with the Basra missiles is only one of 1,000 such attempts he will make. And in the meantime, he will not lose a day trying to make the task of removing him harder and more costly in the lives of our soldiers.
The 1991 war taught Saddam a lot about how America fights. In the first hours of the air war, most of his ability to command and communicate with his forces was the first thing he lost. Because his command and control systems were conventional and aboveground, we were able to listen in on much of the Iraqi communications before the battle, and our air forces were able to knock them out almost immediately. Over the past three years, the Chinese have worked hard to convert Iraq’s old systems to new fiberoptic communication systems which are much harder to locate, listen to, or destroy. He saw how our ground forces move at considerable speed, so he is planning obstructions to impede their advance. Because coalition air forces destroyed anything they could find on the surface, Saddam has dispersed and concealed much, and buried whatever he could..
The most important lesson Saddam and our other adversaries learned in1991 is something that should have been obvious before it: very few nations can even hope to hold their ground in a symmetrical war with America, and Iraq just ain’t one of them. The Iraqis tried (well, those not surrendering to CNN camera crews tried) to fight us man-to-man, tank-to-tank, and aircraft-to-aircraft in 1991, and they lost decisively and quickly. It is only by asymmetric war — by anonymous terrorism or by using weapons of mass destruction — do enemies such as Iraq have any hope of preventing America from achieving its goal.
Air Force General Chuck Horner, who headed up air operations in Gulf War 1, and other experts have made this point repeatedly. Saddam will use his chemical and biological weapons against our forces if he gets the chance. The troops are more vulnerable now while they are relatively stationary than when they begin to move rapidly across the Euphrates River toward Baghdad. The longer we wait to begin our campaign, the longer vulnerability to those weapons continues. And the more time Saddam has to reposition other such weapons to use them once the battle begins. He has already mined some or all of the bridges across the river for destruction as soon as our advance begins. Our special forces will have the dangerous job of capturing and holding the bridges for the tanks to cross. If they fail, and the bridges are blown, Gen. Franks and his tanks may sit on the West Bank of the Euphrates all summer long.
While we wait for the U.N. and NATO to demonstrate their irrelevance conclusively, Saddam will use the time to turn Iraqi civilians into human shields for his weapons and troops. He is moving military equipment — everything from artillery and missiles to tanks — to positions next to mosques, schools, and hospitals. Against their will, Iraqi civilians will be herded close into these sites. When the shooting begins, and Coalition forces return fire at the forces hiding behind the civilians, there may be many civilian casualties. And Saddam — and his sympathizers — will blame America for the carnage. The longer we wait to begin the action, the more of these people will be put at risk.
Saddam’s Special Republican Guard — the unit responsible for both using and concealing weapons of mass destruction — has been ordered to set explosives in place to set Iraq’s oil fields afire. Our ability to stop them from doing so is much in doubt. If those fires are set, they could burn for months. In 1991, when Iraqis withdrew from Kuwait, the fires they set were put out in a few weeks, because there were relatively few, and the wells were farther apart. In Iraq, long-burning fires could cause environmental damage far beyond the nation’s borders. If the oil fields burn, the post-Saddam regime will have little or no economic power to jumpstart democracy. Once again, speeding up preparations and commencement of the campaign is the best way to prevent this.
The longer we wait to remove Saddam, the higher the cost will be in blood and treasure. Our troops will perform with skill and courage, and will prevail. Their creed has always been, “spend my life if you have to, but don’t waste it.” We have to keep faith with them and their creed. To do so, we cannot delay a moment longer than is necessary for military — not political — purposes. The president should tell General Franks to speed up his preparations, and be ready to go not later than March 1. And the moment the general is ready, the president should order the action begun. Saddam delendus est.
— Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration. He is the author of the novel, Legacy of Valor, and often appears as a war commentator on the Fox News Channel and MSNBC.