Baghdad: Strategic Importance
Apr 03, 2003
From the beginning of the war-planning process, Baghdad posed the greatest challenge. The United States does not want to fight an urban battle, but the conquest of Iraq cannot be complete without the fall of Baghdad. The initial U.S. action -- trying to kill Saddam Hussein -- was designed to trigger a political capitulation that would make a battle for Baghdad unnecessary; it didn't. Iraqi resistance may collapse simply out from attacks and internal weakness. But if this doesn't happen, three war-fighting models will be available. One is the fall of Paris in 1944 -- the favored U.S. strategy. The second is the siege of Budapest in 1944-45 -- six weeks of encirclement and bombardment, with civilian casualties. The third is the fall of Berlin in 1945, with the attackers losing almost 80,000 men in three days. Berlin is out of the question. Paris is the model the United States wants, but the danger is that it will slip into a Budapest mode.
Any discussion of the war in Iraq has always turned on the conquest of Baghdad. The capital city is the heart of Iraq. It is the country's political, administrative and structural center. The fall of Baghdad does not necessarily mean that all resistance will immediately end in the rest of Iraq. However, without the fall of Baghdad, this war cannot end. The fall of Baghdad has always been the central challenge facing U.S. war planners.
Baghdad is a world-class city in terms of size and population, with more than 5 million people. The U.S. Army has never taken a city of this size in the face of significant opposition. Few armies have done so. In direct assault, capturing a large city against resistance tends to cause large casualties among the attacking forces. In 1945, the Red Army had Berlin completely surrounded; it had complete air superiority and massed artillery. The city was held by the defeated remnants of the German army, including large contingents of young boys and old men poorly armed and ill-trained. The Soviets were battle-hardened veterans. Moreover, the Soviets had no compunctions about nor political liabilities attached to causing massive casualties among the civilian population. They controlled the pattern and tempo of the offensive. Nevertheless, in the direct assault on Berlin, the experienced Soviet forces suffered nearly 80,000 dead and close to a quarter-million wounded in about three days of fighting.
There are other strategies for subduing large cities. In 1944-45, the Red Army surrounded Budapest for six weeks, pounding it with artillery fire and aerial bombardment, before entering the city. By the time Soviet forces entered the heart of the city, resistance had collapsed. The siege took weeks and cost countless civilian lives, but Soviet losses were relatively light, compared to other battles fought.
Other battles for cities ended poorly for the attacker: The Germans failed to take either Leningrad or Stalingrad after investing heavily in both battles. The point is that urban warfare is one of the most difficult exercises in warfare, and most armies avoid direct assaults on cities, since these are risky operations and almost invariably carry high casualty rates. This is particularly true in large cities. Moreover, in a war in which civilian casualties represent a significant political consideration, an assault on a city is generally to be avoided.
The United States did take one world-class city in its history: Paris in 1944. It took the city with very light casualties to either its forces or to the civilian population, despite the fact that German troops had garrisoned the city. The key was political, not military. The German high command had ordered that troops resist and that they carry out a scorched-earth policy, in which defeat would mean the catastrophic destruction of the city. The local German commanders neither resisted nor carried out the order. Rather, they capitulated. The United States was able to occupy the city without assaulting it. Indeed, if an assault had been necessary, Eisenhower would have insisted on bypassing Paris. He was not about to engage in high-intensity conflict in a city the size of Paris.
Paris was as much about politics as about warfare. The German commanders in Paris command were disaffected with the German political leadership. They were certain that the war was lost. Neither the commanders nor the troops were eager to die for a hopeless cause, and the commanders were aware that not only would the Allies hold them accountable for the destruction of Paris, but that a peaceful capitulation of Paris would put them in an excellent position in a postwar world dominated by the United States and its allies. The negotiations that occurred took place not between the Allied high command and the German commanders, but between resistance leaders in Paris and the garrison commander. However, the key decision was made autonomously by the local German command: Officers calculated their own interests and decided not to resist. The negotiations were more about the script of surrender than the surrender itself.
Gen. Tommy Franks is no more eager to go into Baghdad than Eisenhower was to go into Paris in 1944. Like Eisenhower, he does not want to put his forces into a potential urban meat-grinder. Like Eisenhower, he is under heavy political pressure to solve the problem without massive civilian casualties or the destruction of the city. Like Eisenhower, he has no appealing choices: Direct combat, starving the city to surrender, unlimited bombardment or a combination of the three are all unacceptable options.
For the United States, the ideal solution in Baghdad would be for Iraqi troops to choose not to resist. Thus far, Iraqi forces have demonstrated minimal competence. They have not been completely incompetent, as some had forecast, nor have they been highly competent. They have executed no effective counterattacks by cutting supply lines or isolating U.S. forces. They have not once taken the strategic or operational initiative away from the coalition. What they have done is demonstrated that, under certain circumstances, some units -- particularly in urban settings -- will hold their positions and return fire. In urban warfare, this minimal competence is sufficient to pose serious challenges to taking and pacifying a city like Baghdad.
This is why the United States has been obsessed from the beginning with reaching a political solution. For Washington, avoiding resistance in Baghdad has always been a primary consideration. The decapitation strike against Saddam Hussein on the first night of the war was intended to trigger a political evolution in which the Iraqis would choose not to fight anywhere, but in particular would choose not to fight in Baghdad. The attempt failed but was certainly worth making, given what is now at stake.
The United States is facing the very real possibility that there will be resistance in Baghdad. Given that the troops in Baghdad -- the Special Republican Guard -- are reputed to be highly motivated and that they are being joined by other army and Republican Guard units, a direct assault on Baghdad would appear to violate just about every requirement in the U.S. war goals:
1. It could result in heavy coalition casualties.
2. It could result in massive civilian casualties.
3. It could result in massive damage to Baghdad's infrastructure, up to and including rendering the city uninhabitable for a period of time.
None of these are acceptable outcomes, given what appear to be the parameters that have been laid down for the war.
For the United States, therefore, the Paris solution remains the most attractive option -- if it is available. The problem is that Paris was hundreds of miles from Berlin, and the local commanders were not collocated with the political leadership. Baghdad is more like Berlin than Paris: The ability of regional commanders to decide not to fight is limited by the power of the political personalities that are located only a few miles away from them. The simple geography of power makes the Paris option difficult to execute, even if Iraqi commanders wanted to try it.
If there is any hope of the Paris strategy working, it is essential that the direct commanders of Iraqi divisions and brigades -- and their troops -- conclude that defeat is certain. So long as they retain anywhere in their minds the idea that the United States will, in the end, negotiate a cease-fire with the existing regime, no Paris solution is conceivable. Every commander will know that holding back would mean his own death. The commanders must believe that their choice is between certain defeat and death, and managed defeat and life.
It becomes even more difficult: It is essential that the commanders reach this conclusion by themselves, without an internal conspiracy or communications with the coalition. Hussein's counterintelligence and security apparatus appears to be functioning extremely well. Any commander will have to assume that all conspiracies will be penetrated. In Paris, what little negotiation that occurred went on with the local resistance. More important, some Gestapo officials in Paris had reached the same conclusion as the military commanders and also were trying to find exit strategies. With the security apparatus in the hands of Hussein's son, however, that is unlikely to happen in Baghdad.
The possibility that the Iraqi president is dead appears to be irrelevant. If he is alive, he remains a dangerous figure to those around him. If he is dead, his son has taken over and is in effective control. Therefore, in order for capitulation without resistance to occur, it is essential that the security apparatus be dismantled. That is obviously being tried, with the air assault focusing on this apparatus -- but as we have learned, the Iraqi infrastructure is more robust and resilient than it was in 1991.
At this moment, there is no reason to believe that there will be no resistance in Baghdad. Undoubtedly, CENCTOM and the CIA are working intensely to cripple the security apparatus and to provide military commanders enough room to maneuver so that they might save themselves. But it is not clear that this will work -- and it is not clear that if it does work, the field commanders would opt for a Paris solution.
One of the factors on the U.S. side is time. From a military standpoint -- and really from a political standpoint as well now -- the United States is not under heavy pressure to end the conflict quickly. The coalition has time to bring up forces, continue to attack Baghdad's infrastructure and to create the sense of doom and inevitability that was the foundation of the capitulation of Paris. Whatever the mood is in Baghdad now, it will evolve.
However, the United States must be careful not to slip from a Paris strategy to a Budapest strategy. Siege and bombardment achieved a Soviet victory, but it was in an environment in which the political consequences of massive civilian casualties and massive infrastructure damage were not a consideration. If U.S. commanders slide into a Budapest strategy, they will, at the very least, have to accept a humanitarian disaster. A Budapest strategy is a slippery slope that could even slide into the ultimate unacceptable outcome: a Berlin strategy.
Now, it is possible that the Iraqis are so delicately balanced that a sudden attack by airborne, airmobile and armored groups -- coupled with actions by covert forces already in Baghdad -- will bring the regime and the military crashing down. However, unless there is some unique intelligence in Washington pointing to underlying weakness in Baghdad, a "Hail Mary" pass designed to bring the war to a rapid conclusion is something for which CENTCOM at least has no real appetite. It could result in the airborne forces being chewed up along with now-revealed covert forces, while armor is blocked. The risk would be worth it if time were not on the coalition's side, but since it is, there is no need.
Therefore, although coalition forces are certainly on the doorstep of Baghdad, it is a pretty high step. At the very least, the coalition will want to lay the groundwork for any offensive into Baghdad. In fact, the last thing that the coalition wants is such an offensive: One look at the British forces in Basra will reveal coalition feelings about urban fighting, even in a much smaller city.
The United States therefore has a difficult problem. In order to create a sense of inevitable doom, it must convince elements in Baghdad that the coalition is prepared to go to any lengths to secure victory. At the very least, it must completely surround and cut Baghdad off from the world. On the other hand, it cannot impose a Budapest-type blockade and choke off the city. It is not clear how the United States will balance between appearing to be utterly ferocious without creating a humanitarian crisis. And without that humanitarian crisis, it is not clear how it will convince Iraqi field commanders that managed capitulation will not be signing their own death warrants.
The United States badly wants Paris and not Berlin to be the model in Baghdad's fall. The military might have a way to assault and subdue Baghdad that does not pose the risk of bogging down in urban warfare and does not require the political cooperation of Iraqi commanders. Several ways are possible, but all assume that the appetite within the Iraqi army for resistance is minimal -- and that is simply no longer an assumption on which an operation can be based.
We therefore expect prudence and caution from the coalition around Baghdad. The rush to Baghdad was well-executed and involved well-calculated and carefully thought out risks. The war to date has been an interesting combination of audacity and prudence, with Franks picking the time for each. In Baghdad, the same combination will be needed. Franks needs to know whether and how intensely the Iraqis will resist and he, as a prudent general, must begin by working from the worst-case scenario: intense resistance.
U.S. forces will probe the edges of Baghdad, trying to get a sense of Iraqi intentions and capabilities. If weakness is discovered, U.S. forces will advance -- never irrevocably, never taking the chance of being trapped inside a hostile urban environment. If resistance appears too vigorous, Franks has time to execute at least a modified Budapest maneuver, surrounding the city and pressuring it. The crisis will come when the city is balanced between humanitarian disaster and the option of massive bombardment. The Russians chose bombardment of Budapest from the beginning. Carrying out an assault on a major city -- constrained by rules requiring that massive civilian casualties be avoided -- will be an enormous challenge to Franks.
From his point of view, Paris is a much better place to be than Budapest.