War Diary: What Is Going On With This War?
Wednesday, March 26, 2003
Mar 27, 2003
The war in Iraq is now one week old. During the first week of operations, the coalition occupied, but did not completely secure, the southeastern portion of Iraq in the area of Basra. Coalition forces moved up the Euphrates to a point just south of Karbala. Two Iraqi divisions were splintered in this process, with only pockets of resistance continuing to fight. In the north, the United States inserted one infantry brigade and carried out operations there and in the west that are not altogether clear to us but appear significant. Casualties for the week were extraordinarily light, given the size of the battle force and the geographical scope of operations -- about 40 dead on the coalition side.
No decisive battle took place. Iraqi forces showed they are capable of mounting vigorous defenses in relatively static areas. They also showed that they are not able to mount substantial counteroffensives, nor are they able to threaten strategic lines of supply. Coalition forces have been unable to eradicate the resistance thus far and, in the course of the rapid advance, appear to have become dispersed along the line of march, forcing a period of reorganization. Coalition forces could not mount sustained operations north of Karbala. The first week of fighting has ended with what is, in effect, a pause in the battle.
The pause in U.S. operations in the south also continued today. The major news in that area was a rumored counterattack by Iraqi forces. The news emerged shortly before dark in Iraq, with reports that a 1,000-vehicle convoy was moving southeast out of Baghdad toward Al Kut. That is, of course, a very large convoy, and the thought of it moving on the flank of U.S. forces moving up the Euphrates was, of course, startling.
If the report had been true, it would have represented a massive shift in the Iraqi strategy. The Iraqi command has maintained a defensive posture, which, given their situation is entirely rational. Moving over to the offense would have represented either a serious failure on the part of U.S. forces to contain Iraqi forces, or a massive miscalculation on the part of the Iraqis -- since mobile operations in an area where the enemy holds complete air superiority are not a particularly good idea.
We struggled throughout the day -- Iraq's night -- to try to understand these mass movements on the battlefield, and we found ourselves incapable of doing so. By afternoon our time, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had cleared up our dilemma by reducing the 1,000-vehicle column to a few vehicles that might have been repositioning a small number of Iraqi defenders. Since that made a lot more sense to us than the Iraqis suddenly maneuvering divisional formations in a clear night, we tend to believe Myers' explanation. Now, local Iraqi counterattacks might well be possible, particularly by smaller formations, but this kind of mass movement is very unlikely.
Two things appear to be happening. First, there is an obsessive, general focus on the southern front, and particularly about the Basra and Euphrates operations. Second, when there is relative quiet on the battlefield, rumors become rapidly magnified into major stories and then deflate. The military does not seem to object at all to this process. It is systematically drawing all attention -- that of the world and the Iraqi command -- to this region. Even when the offensive has halted, attention is drawn there.
Relatively little attention is being focused on northern Iraq, however, so strange things are happening. Stratfor reported on March 26 that the 173rd Airborne Brigade had been inserted north of Kirkuk. Now we are told that about 1,000 troops from the 173rd parachuted into an airfield north of Kirkuk -- an airfield that U.S. forces had developed over recent months and which was held by friendly Kurdish forces. Why carry out a nighttime airborne operation to seize a field that is already held?
As all eyes are drawn to the south, we are becoming increasingly intrigued by the north, where nothing that makes a great deal of sense is happening, but where things are certainly taking place. Indeed, it is the other parts of Iraq -- the areas west of the Euphrates -- from which rumors continually emanate, never really adding up and yet never really going away.
The bottom line is this: The U.S. 3rd Infantry and the Marines are holding along the Euphrates. In the Basra area, adding the British and the uncommitted elements of the 101st and the 82nd, there are nearly two divisions doing nothing of strategic significance. The coalition forces currently engaging the Iraqi forces along the Euphrates are not capable of punching through to Baghdad, regardless of the headlines. Why hold nearly two divisions of forces that far south? What exactly is going on in the north? And what are the occasional sounds of movements from the west?
The more we look at this war, the less it appears to us that the Euphrates
front will be the decisive theater of operations. It just doesn't add up. What
is unfolding is completely unclear -- which is how the military planners want
it. But the fact that there are other processes under way would seem to us to
be the only explanation for what is going on.