Washington's Hubris Invites
a Fatal Iraqi Misjudgment
For 12 years, the potential Iraqi ability to resist outside invasion has consistently been underestimated by America's leaders. Further misinterpreted was the depth of loyalty, if not to Saddam, then to the fundamental principles of state sovereignty and homeland defense. Now, this utter negligence – a direct result of arrogant, unbridled hubris – is coming back to haunt them.
Three Flawed Assumptions
Naïvely, Washington believed that given a choice between a reviled tyrant with whom they were familiar (Saddam) and an allegedly benevolent but culturally alien intercessor with whom they were not (America), the Iraqis would go for the latter every time. This has turned out to be wrong. As the Middle East Newsline stated this week:
"…the Pentagon was sold on the idea that the war would be a piece of cake because everybody hated Saddam so much that once we entered, his military would collapse and all of the opposition forces would come out of the woodwork," one source, who closely monitors the battle situation in Iraq, said. "The assumption was completely wrong and now the administration is trying to figure out what to do."
What the Pentagon will do, of course, is not in doubt. The declaration that an entire city – Basra – is now a "military target" has set an extremely ominous precedent for the rest of this war. The fact that the Marines can't get results unless they shoot at everything that moves shows that this invasion is becoming sheer, indiscriminate slaughter, with a large-scale humanitarian disaster not far off.
Second of all, the simplistic belief that Saddam the Evil Dictator runs the country single-handedly belies the fact that many, many people help to shore up his rule. It is extremely fanciful to imagine that one man makes every decision for the country, while the rest of the people cower in fear. Through payment in cash, goods, guns and power, Saddam has made it known that it is in the interest of a great many people that he remain in power. As we will see with the example of the Iraqi tribesman below, Saddam's support network is far wider than the US had imagined.
The third unfortunate assumption was that the devastation wrought by economic sanctions would mean a complete inability to fight. Any resistance, the thinking went, would quickly crumble. Shoeless, malnourished fighters should have been weak, their armaments rusted and useless. Instead, its population is armed to the hilt and full of fire. The weaker and more desperate the people, it seems, the stronger their opposition. This is something that the Americans, who are not fighting for their lives and homeland, will never understand.
No Red Carpet for the 'Liberators'
Indeed, there is no cheering in Basra. Despite UK-generated rumors of a "Shiite revolt" against Saddam in that city, reporters in Basra deny that any such revolt is taking place. Instead, the prevailing anti-American attitude is now even reflected by top Shiite cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim. In short, American aggression means that "the Marines," as the Guardian put it, "are losing the battle for hearts and minds." Reports James Meek:
"…the Iraqis are aggrieved at the marines. A 50-year-old businessman and farmer, Said Yahir, was driving up to the main body of the reconnaissance unit, stationed under the bridge. He wanted to know why the marines had come to his house and taken his son Nathen, his Kalashnikov rifle, and his 3m dinars (about £500).
"What did I do?" he said. "This is your freedom that you're talking about? This is my life savings."
And that is exactly how things have gone down. The Iraqis do not take kindly to invasion. It has shocked the Americans, but the Iraqi government is holding firm, and they are defending their sovereignty to the last. The more and more civilians that are killed, the more and more wanton and mindless destruction that the US inflicts, the more resentment will harden. The average man on the street is not going to say, "oh, well, these bombings are not so bad since they are going to bring us democracy and depose Saddam – so what if they killed my entire family!"
Actually, what the brutal bombing of Iraq has done is to galvanize support for Saddam and to provoke Iraqi opposition to what is, in effect, a massive and aggressive breach of their sovereignty, not to mention an absolute violation of the Geneva Conventions. Bush has indeed proven to be just as "reckless" and "criminal" as Saddam averred. With the outrageously illegal invasion of Iraq, he has also created a cult of Saddam. Before, there was merely forced veneration. The US is now paying the price for this error in judgment.
An Unanticipated Mobilization
Yet the Iraqis themselves are even a little surprised about their newfound valor. Even the relatively subdued battle for Umm Qasr was "extraordinary," averred Baghdad University political science professor Wamidh Namidhi:
"…It is a surprise what is happening, it is something quite extraordinary… usually in the Arab wars when the armies bypass the areas of fighting then the defending soldiers see no point in continuing the defence. To see people fighting while the Anglo-American troops have gone beyond them, it becomes a matter of honour, which raises the morale very much."
The morale should be raised much further in days to come, as increasingly horrific attacks on civilians incite anti-American hatred in those who might otherwise have supported them. The Jordanian border, it seems, has become the staging-ground for a new wave of volunteers. Ironically enough, they are all exiles, returning just to defend their homeland:
"…Jordanian records show that 5,284 Iraqis have crossed the desert border overland into Iraq since March 16, Col Ahmad al-Hazaymeh, director of Jordan's al Karama border post, said yesterday.
Iraq's consular office in Amman said yesterday it issued at least 3,000 temporary passports for exiled Iraqis in the past three days. Of those, half have already returned to Iraq, spokesman Jawad al-Ali said. "They all said they wanted to take part in the fight against the Americans," Mr al-Ali said."
More of the 'Black Hawk Down' Syndrome
Everyone who has seen the film Black Hawk Down (about the botched American raid on Mogadishu, Somalia), I hope, came away with the same understanding as I did: that fighting in urban areas is nearly impossible without heavy casualties.
We should assume that military planners are smart, experienced and capable people. So how did they fail to think of a contingency plan, should the political presupposition (that Iraq would welcome its "liberators") have failed? Were they just hoping to avoid urban fighting, if worse came to worst? Or did they aspire to mere mastery of the swirling sands?
However, as Basra and Umm Qasr have already shown, it's coming down to urban warfare after all, where already compromised helicopters will be less useful. Yet even in the desert, the troops can find no relief. As a recent embedded dispatch from Reuters reveals, the combination of howling sandstorms and elusive, almost invisible assailants have created a mood of exhaustion and paranoia:
"…danger now looms everywhere, not just in obvious armed formations. Troops are on edge and are taking no chances – but that brings its own risk. Fear and nerves might wear them down, depriving them of sleep and dulling their responses."
Never Underestimate the Defense
As in Kosovo, the Americans seem to have overlooked the fact that human ingenuity and cleverness can often outwit the most sophisticated of military technology – as the Yugoslav Army proved time and time again in 1999.
In that war, the only way that NATO could finally "win" was by killing civilians and destroying infrastructure such as oil refineries, power grids and Radio Television Serbia. The Americans will have to do the same in order to "defeat" Iraq. As they have shown, civilian casualties are of absolutely no significance to them. Having ignored diplomacy, the Administration has no fear of pressure from the rest of the world. If millions of innocent Iraqis need to be murdered, maimed and immolated along the way, well, that's just their tough luck.
The Iraqi military has learned a lot in the last decade, both from their mistakes in Gulf War I and from observing Serbian craftiness in Kosovo. They have learned to avoid large-scale open confrontation, to employ subterfuge and lay traps. According to un-imbedded Serbian journalist Miroslav Lazanski – a former top military advisor – trenches full of water, gas and even napalm, all charged with electric currents, currently encircle cities like Basra. It should prove to be a literally shocking experience for American troops trying to storm the Iraqi cities.
Besides, along with such jury-rigged weaponry, Saddam still has some pretty healthy infrastructure left over from the time of one of the cleverest strategists of them all, Josip Broz Tito. In exchange for oil, Tito in the 1970's built the Iraqis dozens of bunkers comparable to his own (the Yugoslavs were the masters; Tito had an entire airport buried deep under a mountain in Bosnia). As a recent interview with former Yugoslav Army Lieutenant Colonel Resad Fazlic confirms, Saddam's Yugoslav-built bunkers are nearly impossible to destroy. According to Fazlic,
"…these bunkers can resist a direct hit of a 20 kilotonne-strong bomb or atomic bomb impact and keep those inside independent of the outside world for six months… even if you only had to penetrate the main bunker with a missile it would have to impact it at the angle of 90 degrees, otherwise it would ricochet off its rounded surface."
However, that's not all:
"…before that, it would have to go through protective layers… and to calculate all the right angles (to) impact and fire several successful hits in a line is almost impossible."
Saddam's 'Secret Weapon'
Washington anticipated that the only effective Iraqi resistance would come from a relatively small troop – Saddam's "crack" Republic Guard. The rest were supposed to be too tired, underfed or dispirited to fight. Yet the Pentagon estimations of Iraq's military strength seem to have been flawed; after all, they failed to consider the number or the potency of the unofficial army – the tribesmen of central Iraq.
In the aftermath of the Gulf War, Saddam courted powerful clan and tribe leaders. He "fostered reconciliation" with the chiefs in 1992, winning them over with food, resources, money and, best of all, power:
"…the tribes were able to run their areas like fiefdoms, all the while working as cogs of the state. They were given authority over security, police forces, the justice system and tax collection and the scope to operate beyond their traditional areas of control into major cities including Baghdad."
Tribesmen were exempted from military service, but used by Saddam to "crush any domestic unrest." If Saddam goes, they may also lose out:
"…the ties binding the tribes to Saddam Hussein and their willingness to protect the status quo that operates in their favor are among the factors leading the tribes to oppose the current US-British invasion.
Aware that they could represent a secret weapon against the Americans, Saddam on Monday called on all Iraqis and the tribes in particular to continue to resist the enemy and congratulated them on their success in slowing the coalition advance."
Yesterday, Saddam once again urged Iraqi tribesmen to rise up and fight against US and British forces – "without waiting for further orders." Declared Hussein on state television, "the enemy has violated your lands and now they are violating your tribes and families."
The fact that American forces are in serious trouble before even encountering the real Iraqi army shows that underestimating Saddam's "secret weapon" was a big mistake. Yet however quickly they massacre the Republican Guard, the Pentagon will be disheartened to know that reinforcements are on the way – 15,000 from Indonesia alone. In a masterstroke for Osama bin Laden and others of his ilk, the US has completely changed – literally overnight – the fundamentalists' disdain for secular Saddam. This catastrophic error will have repercussions for the decades of terrorism to come.
Don't Say You Weren't Warned, Secretary Rumsfeld
Perhaps the worst American misjudgment was the failure to take Iraqi statements at face value. Ever since Saddam promised "the mother of all battles" – and failed to deliver – the Western media has treated all of his government's bombastic threats with a mocking disdain that could almost seem like pity, were there any outside sympathy at all for the man.
Iraqi rhetoric has been drummed up considerably since this current war began. According to them, the Americans are "entering a trap from which they will never escape." Pentagon planners, arrogantly dismissing this as more of the usual bunk, failed to understand that this time the Iraqis were serious. They failed to really consider the implications of the statement, to calculate how many ways in which they could be sabotaged, ambushed, trapped, deceived and otherwise terrified.
Not that they won't win in the end – after all, no one can hold out against the world's most powerful military machine forever. Inevitably, inexorably America will crush Iraq – even if it has to kill millions in the process.
Asleep at the Wheel
Yet we may still ask why exactly was the Iraqi mentality so completely misunderstood, and why its forces were so underestimated. As a recent Christian Science Monitor report showed, Americans are hopelessly out of touch with the way the rest of the world perceives them. Although this is not a very flattering charge, the average American occupied with work and family can't be expected to follow everything going on in the outside world. However, the failure of elected officials and their appointed advisors to make wise foreign policy decisions borders on the criminal.
Lamentably, it's a willful criminality that we're seeing now. It seems that the Neocons, the chickenhawks and Imperialist stooges – they're all one and the same – have started to believe their own self-congratulatory blabber about the forced extension of America's "benevolent empire." Cozily sheltered in an endless array of Beltway lobby groups, policy seminars, pro-war think tanks and "foreign affairs" institutes, they exist in a happy little world where America is always loved and lauded for its righteous crusade to bring the world democracy and human rights.
Unfortunately, beyond the bubble of Washington, things are perceived a little bit differently. We can only hope that, when this whole mess is over, the war's power-crazed partisans will be held responsible for their reckless, treasonous actions.
Previous articles by Christopher Deliso on Antiwar.com
Christopher Deliso is a freelance writer and Balkan correspondent for Antiwar.com, UPI, and private European analysis firms. He has lived and traveled widely in the Balkans, southeastern Europe and Turkey, and holds a master's degree with distinction in Byzantine Studies from Oxford University. In the past year, he has reported from many countries, including Serbia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Hungary, Greece, the Republic of Georgia and the Turkey-Iraq border. Mr. Deliso currently lives in Macedonia, and is involved with projects to generate international interest and tourism there.
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