Politics & Policy

Geography Matters

Previewing the Iraqi offensive.

Winston Churchill once remarked that he preferred the old days when Iran and Iraq were known as Persia and Mesopotamia because then he could remember which was which. When it comes to examining the impact of physical geography on the approaching war, the old name tells us more than the current one.

Mesopotamia is Greek for the region “between the rivers” — the Tigris and Euphrates. While the western half of Iraq is desert, the hydro-geography created by these two rivers will have a great impact on the ground component of a war with Iraq.

Both rivers essentially flow through Iraq from northwest to southwest. The Euphrates, the southernmost of the two, originates in Syria, and crosses into Iraq at al Saybah. It passes about 20 miles southwest of Baghdad and then flows into the Shatt al Arab, which then empties into the upper Persian Gulf.

The Tigris originates in the mountains along the Turkish border, flows south through Mosul and Tikrit and on to Baghdad, where it bisects the city, then southeast to al Kut and Al Amarah. It continues southeast to Basrah and empties into the Shatt al Arab.

Other hydrographic features of Iraq include a large lake system to the west of Baghdad and the Nahr Diyala River, which forms in the mountains along Iraq’s border with Iran and flows southwestward to Baghdad where it joins the Tigris.

In “Doing It Without Turkey”, I pointed out the geographic factors — the absence of multiple armor-capable roads in mountainous terrain and substantial logistical challenges — that made an attack from the north, even with Turkey’s acquiescence, unlikely to be the main thrust against Saddam. The main allied ground attack will probably come from Kuwait, most likely consisting of two axes of advance: the first force moving northwest toward Baghdad (with an auxiliary attack directly north to seize Basrah); and the second swinging northwest through the desert in an attempt to reach the trans-Euphrates bridges close to Baghdad.

An attack along the first axis would be launched from the 35-mile-long northern part of the border between Kuwait and Iraq. Oil fields dominate the western portion of this frontier and marshes the eastern portion. In the event that Saddam torches these southern oil fields, ground operations and air support will be degraded. To the east, bridges, and roads might be mined.

News reports indicate that an important part of the ground war plan is to develop signals that Iraqi units can use after the outbreak of hostilities to convey their intent to surrender. This would reduce some of the problems. But even if such signals work, the management of POWs could create difficulties. And, if Saddam does not seek to defend this area, allied forces could still be slowed because of congestion resulting from high population density and other riverine obstacles, especially if there is a problem in crossing the Euphrates.

An attack along the second axis in the south would probably be launched from the western portion of the Kuwait-Iraq border. This frontier is about 75 miles long and opens into the sort of uninhabited desert terrain that is tailor-made for armored operations. Given the terrain, this axis of advance is the one that will probably close on Baghdad first.

But once this allied ground force crosses the Euphrates and approaches Baghdad, it, too, will encounter riverine obstacles. The plain between the Tigris and Euphrates southeast of Baghdad is broken up by many streams and canals. Such obstacles are even more numerous to the west between the city and the Euphrates. Combat engineers are going to have their work cut out for them.

The location of oil fields is another important aspect of Iraq’s geography. As mentioned above, if Saddam ignites the oil fields, the thick black smoke will obscure the vision of the attackers and limit the use of laser-guided weapons (though weapons such as Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAM, that are guided by GPS will not be affected). Iraq’s three major oil fields are: 1) the previously mentioned Basrah system, located directly north of Kuwait and extending about 60 miles to the Euphrates; 2) Mosul; and 3) Kirkuk. Significantly, however, sabotage of these oil fields will not affect operations around Baghdad.

The final geographical factor is weather. The average high temperature will be rising for the next few months, from the low 70s in March to the low 80s in April, and the mid-90s in May. Precipitation is infrequent and humidity is low. Some have claimed that the “window of opportunity” is closing because of rising temperatures, but heat does not foreclose war. The problems associated with heat will be exacerbated if troops have to operate in protective suits and masks, but they are not insurmountable.

The same holds for problems created by desert winds. It is now the period of the sharqui, an east wind that is capable of generating violent sandstorms and sending dust thousands of feet into the air. It normally peaks in April. Such storms can, like smoke from oil fires, degrade some precision-guided weapons. It can also cause serious problems for helicopter and tank engines.

But we should remember that our soldiers and Marines are not unfamiliar with problems associated with operations in the desert. The Army trains at Fort Irwin and the Marines at Twentynine Palms, both located in California’s Mojave Desert, where heat and sandstorms are par for the course.

There is no question that the allies will face more daunting and complex problems than those they faced during Desert Storm. The objectives of the approaching war are different from those of the previous conflict and this fact, combined with a more complicated physical environment, will create real challenges for allied forces.

But the allies have the means to surmount these obstacles. Contrary to the claims of some military commentators in recent years, technology has not negated the effect of geography on military operations; but, embedded in sound operational concepts, technology does create ways of overcoming geographical challenges. The optimists who predict victory in a matter of days may be wrong, but they are probably closer to the truth than the pessimists.

— Mackubin Thomas Owens, an NRO contributing editor, is on leave from the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., to write a history of U.S. civil-military relations.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.


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