War Diary: Monday, Jan. 13, 2003

When To Begin Attack?


Monday, Jan. 13, was a day focused on time. There was the question of how much time the inspectors would need to complete their inspections. There was the question of when U.S. and British troops would be ready to launch a war. If you listened to the rumors, the timing for war was slipping.

Obviously, the rumors are not to be dismissed. Nor should we take them simply at face value. Nevertheless, the White House appeared to be signaling that war was not imminent following the Jan. 27 United Nations meeting. White House spokesman Ari Fleisher said, "The president thinks it remains important for the inspectors to do their job and have time to do their job. The president has not put an exact timetable on it." While this is far from an announced postponement, it does dovetail with British statements over the past few days.

There are two ways to read this, and both are plausible. On the one hand, with a new membership for the Security Council and about two weeks to go before the pivotal report of the inspectors to the United Nations, it makes good diplomatic sense to behave as if no decision has been made and that the United States and Britain are completely open and even eager to avoid war. That sets up being reluctantly forced to act very nicely.

On the other hand, there remain two serious issues. First, the Turks simply have not settled into their role. Although the Turkish army seems eager to permit basing of U.S. forces in Turkey, Turkish public opinion is opposed to a war and the new Islamic government is both reluctant to permit basing and to participate in a war. Turkey's ambivalence cannot be brushed off. While the main armored thrust is coming from Kuwait in the south, fighting the war on a single front is not what the United States wants to do. It wants to put substantial forces in the north and have Turkish forces participate. So long as the Turks remain unsettled, the clock is being strained, if not broken.

Second, there is a serious effort underway among Arab countries, with the Russians participating, to find a political solution in which Saddam Hussein accepts exile. A lot of countries that want to avoid a war and are important to the United States appear to be participating, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Russia. If the United States wants to have these countries in its coalition going forward, a strike before there is a definitive outcome to this initiative is not a good idea. In all likelihood, Hussein is not going into exile. Indeed, his probable read of the initiative is that the United States doesn't want war, and that's going to make him even more intransigent. The initiative doesn't ultimately change anything, but it obviously chews up time.

Also seeming to chew up time is the pace at which U.S. forces are deploying to Iraq. While there is a massive troop movement underway, most of the forces won't be in position until February, and will need some time in theater getting acclimated and marrying up with their equipment. That means that some of these forces won't be in place until mid-March. On the other hand, the closer you get to May, the closer you are to nearly unbearable weather. Whatever some commanders say, the United States does not want to fight in an Iraqi summer. This means that the war needs to be over by May 1 at the latest. It would seem that time is running out.

But the model that many people are working from is the Desert Storm model, in which all forces were in place before the bombing began. That may not be the model this time. The bombing can begin, followed by the first phases of the ground war, without all forces being in position. Normally this would be risky, because without all forces in place, the spearhead could find itself in trouble without supporting forces on the ground.

In this case it's a bit different. The United States has complete control of the air and sea lanes. The timetable is not likely to be upset by Iraqi counterattacks. Therefore, a unit expected to deploy at time Z will almost certainly deploy then. It is not necessary to have all forces ready to go when the war begins. In fact, since one theory is that the Iraqis will collapse on first contact, it may be that the follow on forces aren't even needed, and some scheduled to join the invasion will never be needed. At least this is one school of thought among U.S. planners.

Assume that the air war began on February 1. It would involve about a week's work to establish command of the air and smash Iraqi communications. It would then take twoto three weeks to attack Iraq's ground forces. Those attacks, against tens of thousands of troops and thousands of tanks, are time consuming. They involve, by their nature, a large number of sorties. That would mean that it would be about March 1 before air power was shifted from a strategic and operational role to a tactical role supporting ground forces.

The initial attack by ground forces in the south is constrained by the terrain -- what is called shoulder constraints. Only so much force can effectively advance at one time. That means that troops in theater could make the initial attack while follow on forces arrived, acclimatized, acquired weapons and moved into position. These forces would become available throughout March for deployment. In other words, the date at which all forces will be available for war will not necessarily determine the date at which war will begin. There will be a rolling delivery of forces.

That means that given the pressure to get this over with, we see it possible that the beginning of the air campaign might slip a few weeks into February or possibly to around March 1, but beyond that we see little slippage. Indeed, we still see the beginning of the air campaign in early February. The U.S. has too much invested at this point to let it slide much further.