Last summer, planners for the Tampa-based U.S. Central Command (CentCom) devised a highly classified blueprint for an invasion of Iraq and the capture of Baghdad. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has persistently forced America's military hand ever since his 1990 invasion of Kuwait and defeat in the Persian Gulf war. Air strikes had failed to deter him. First he plotted to assassinate former President Bush in 1993. A year later, Iraqi troops amassed on Kuwait's border. And, then, in 1996, he launched an assault in northern Iraq to shatter a CIA-led operation. Perhaps most disquieting: Saddam has brazenly concealed his biological and chemical weapon arsenals from U.N. inspectors. The Pentagon wanted options.
As the United States and Iraq appear headed for a military showdown, many national security analysts are convinced the United States must adopt a policy aimed at toppling Saddam Hussein's regime. Economic sanctions backed by the threat of punitive air strikes, they say, have repeatedly failed to rein in the dictator.
From their hypothetical plans, the CentCom strategists already know some of the obstacles that such an endgame would face. Without an act of overt aggression by Iraq, Washington can't expect much support at home and abroad. And given that the U.S. military is a third smaller than it was during the Persian Gulf war, America won't be able to field the same size force of nine full divisions (two Army corps and a Marine Corps equivalent) as it did in 1991.
For CentCom officials, the recent military action in Somalia, from which U.S. forces withdrew after 16 Army Rangers were killed in a firefight while hunting a Somalia warlord, underscores the high risk of casualties in urban operations. And Baghdad would present an even greater challenge. "There's no question we could get the job done. But the downside of having a smaller force is that you can't attack from as many different directions as quickly, or with as much synergy, and that's what keeps casualties down," said a senior military officer familiar with the CentCom war plan and the region. "While we learned in 1991 that the Republican Guard is not 10 feet tall, they would also be fighting on their home ground this time."
The greatest perceived obstacles to today's war plan are the same that stayed the hand of President Bush in 1991. "Though I think the Gulf states will support us in air strikes, I think they would be very reluctant to back this extensive ground campaign," said the senior officer. "And even if they did support an invasion, you're left with the question: Who can you hand Baghdad off to after you've captured it?"
Aiming at Saddam
Despite these challenges, a number of policy experts say all options for ousting Saddam should be considered. At the very least, they say, the White House should abandon the strategy of "containing" Iraq with economic sanctions backed by the threat of military force. In this view, a long-term goal of eliminating the present Iraqi regime should be set. Anything less radical risks the United States being lured into ineffective, rope-a-dope air strikes that could leave Saddam still standing and an already fraying international coalition exhausted from sanctions fatigue.
"I don't think we should rule out the use of American ground forces against Iraq," said Paul D. Wolfowitz, dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, and the former Defense undersecretary for policy who helped craft the Bush Administration's anti-Saddam coalition. Wolfowitz says a large-scale bombing campaign wouldn't guarantee Iraqi compliance with U.N. weapons inspections: "We can't keep playing this game with a man who has proven time and again that he is a megalomaniac and war criminal."
It's anyone's guess what would happen the day after the United States stops bombing Iraq. Many experts say Saddam's game of "cheat and retreat" has strengthened his hand, while the United States' leverage has eroded over the years. Iraq has repeatedly flouted U.N. sanctions and the international coalition only to back down at the last moment. The few air strikes the United States has launched have been largely symbolic cruise missile attacks.
The showdown over Iraq's expulsion of American weapons inspectors last November revealed deep fissures in the international alliance to stop Iraqi weapons production. France and Russia are eager to lift sanctions and cut lucrative oil deals with Iraq.
America's Arab allies in the Persian Gulf, already disillusioned by the sluggish Arab-Israeli peace process, are concerned the sanctions against Baghdad are hurting the Iraqi people. "Our policy toward Iraq has been a dreadful failure," said Richard N. Perle, a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and a former official in the Reagan Pentagon. "The constituency behind sanctions will continue to weaken until we can't sustain it anymore, and then the trade flood gates will open and Saddam Hussein will be able to more or less claim complete victory."
According to Administration officials, no serious consideration has been given to sending in ground troops. Indeed, the Pentagon has deployed a task force of only 1,500 Army troops to the region.
But there's widespread recognition inside Administration circles that the present crisis is more critical than any other since the Persian Gulf war. To underscore that point, the White House dispatched Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright to the region to try to win support for any operation from allies such as Kuwait, Bahrain and especially Saudi Arabia. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen followed suit on Feb. 5.
Their key goal: securing base and overflight rights for 325 American warplanes in the region. That air force, which includes F-117 stealth fighters and B-1 and B-52 bombers, has been bolstered by an armada of 24 Navy warships, including two aircraft carriers. Albright reported that none of the six Arab leaders she consulted completely rejected the use of military might against Iraq. But State Department officials confirm she received a mixed reception. "There has been concern voiced in some corners of the region that `pinprick' air strikes will make matters worse, and if you're going to use military force, it would be better to get rid of Saddam Hussein altogether," a State Department official said.
Administration officials--trying to dispel suspicions the United States is contemplating a quick hit that could leave Saddam stronger if he survives--are sending out clear signals that any air strike will be sustained and hard-hitting. They say they're planning a blitz that is likely to last three days or longer and will be geared at seriously damaging the Iraqi war machine and its weapons complex.
"Our primary aim in this effort is twofold: One is to thwart Saddam Hussein's ability to develop and use weapons of mass destruction as he has in the past. And secondly, we want to diminish his ability to threaten his neighbors," an Administration national security expert said. "At the end of this process, he will ultimately comply with U.N. weapons inspections, or pay a very heavy price for his obstruction." A number of experts back the Administration's contention that robust air strikes could cripple Iraq's war machine. They also note that sanctions on oil exports since 1990 have deprived Saddam Hussein of an estimated $47 billion. "While the outcome of sustained air strikes could be ambiguous or even negative in the court of public opinion in the region, they are likely to exact a very high price from someone who perceives everything in terms of military strength," said Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East specialist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Weapons of Mass Destruction
National security officials are hotly contesting the outcome of air strikes. Military specialists note that the aircraft the United States has already dispatched to the Gulf are but a fraction of the battalion of 1,203 aircraft assembled for Desert Storm. The expected outcry in the region could also limit the air campaign to days or weeks at the most. Even after 43 days and more than 125,000 individual aircraft sorties, the Desert Storm bombardment failed to destroy much of Iraq's complex for developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Indeed, U.N. weapons inspectors say they have destroyed more of these weapons over the past seven years than did all the Desert Storm air strikes.
"There are some real challenges associated with these bombing strikes. You frequently start out with a very extensive target list," a CentCom expert explained. "As you get closer to launching, however, you start confronting issues of the likely political fallout, concerns about pilots being shot down, worries about the environmental impact of bombing biological or chemical weapons sites. Before you know it, the list gets whittled down to a very discreet target set. Ultimately, you have no way of ascertaining what percentage of the capability you've actually destroyed."
Despite the impression created during Desert Storm that the United States had an arsenal of laser-guided missiles with fly-through-the-window accuracy, air power experts know that trying to calibrate explosives and the desired outcomes is a notoriously capricious business.
Retired Air Force Gen. Charles (Chuck) Horner, the former air commander for Desert Storm, probably knows Iraq's military complex better than anyone. He says three likely target sets are being studied by planners: biological and chemical weapons production; storage and research facilities, including facilities dear to Saddam Hussein, such as palaces; and the Republican Guard, which is the solar plexus of Iraq's military.
"Of all those options, the only one I think has any real merit are the facilities and programs associated with weapons of mass destruction. If you know where they are and your goal is to destroy them, the military can do that," Horner said.
United Nations Special Committee (UNSCOM) officials say no one's more surprised than they to still be conducting weapons inspections in Iraq. UNSCOM was formed to monitor the U.N. resolutions in 1991, and officials naively assumed their work would be short-term, sources say.
"Unfortunately, Iraq didn't choose that path," a UNSCOM official said. "They continually lied about even having a biological weapons program, for instance, and now they admit to having had 8,500 liters of anthrax and 19,000 liters of botulism toxin. So Iraq's constant lies and refusal of access is what has kept us in business all these years."
Rather than using air strikes to force Saddam Hussein to comply with U.N. weapons inspectors, some experts now believe that any military action should be tailored to bring him down. "Though the U.N. inspections accomplished a lot, they were based on the premise that Saddam Hussein would be willing to give up his weapons of mass destruction in exchange for lifting the trade embargo and returning his country to normal. It's now abundantly clear that's a tradeoff he's not willing to make," said Robert Kagan, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "That brings us to a turning point."
Short of invading Iraq, Kagan and others suggest steps such as convincing the International War Crimes Tribunal to indict Saddam for war crimes; recognizing the dissident Iraqi National Congress as a legitimate government-in-exile and releasing Iraq's frozen assets to them; extending the "No Fly" zone to cover the entire country; and backing dissident groups inside Iraq with both air power and clandestine support.
"Even if they substantially weaken his regime, air strikes alone will not be enough," former CIA director R. James Woolsey said. "We need a sustained policy with the stated, long-term aim of bringing democracy to Iraq. That may sound unlikely, but so did our policy in support of Solidarity in Poland during the Cold War."