Iraq Won't Fall As Easily As Taliban
26 September 2002 By Stentor Danielson
The debate over the new war with Iraq has been couched in terms of past wars. Hawks have not been shy about drawing the comparison between Saddam Hussein and Hitler in order to rally the public to action (and recently Germany's justice minister allegedly turned things around and announced that President Bush is the one wearing Der Fuehrer's moustache). Congress, meanwhile, is likely to restrict the broad mandate for war that Bush requested, due in no small part to chanting "Gulf of Tonkin" all week.
The most significant war shaping the administration's thinking about the Iraq invasion, however, is the recently completed campaign in Afghanistan. Though it's not often invoked in the rhetoric, the outlines of the Iraq plan bear a strong resemblance to Operation Enduring Freedom. But basing the Iraq campaign on the Afghan war could set US forces up for problems.
It goes back to critics' attempts to frame Afghanistan as another Vietnam. While hawks claimed that ousting the Taliban and al-Qaida would be as easy as Desert Storm, others (and I'll admit I was one of them) solemnly warned that fighting in the remote mountains of Central Asia would be a never-ending quagmire for the US armed forces. When the Taliban collapsed, the hawks erupted in a chorus of "I told you so." However, the victory has led many to believe that Operation Enduring Freedom was a better blueprint for success than it actually was.
The successes of the Afghanistan campaign were based on factors that will not necessarily apply in Iraq. The collapse of the Taliban seemed to many to be a demonstration of the US's military might. Our daisy-cutters laid waste to Tora Bora while our missile guidance systems were so sophisticated that many Americans seriously expected a war without civilian casualties.
But the political history of Afghanistan provides an additional factor that goes a long way toward explaining the sudden fall of the Taliban. Though many Afghans follow a conservative brand of Islam, there was little public support for the Taliban's project of creating an extreme fundamentalist state. Mullah Mohammed Omar gained power not because of his stance on the burqa issue, but because the Taliban offered Afghans the prospect of peace.
Afghanistan had been wracked by years of infighting between warlords, and the people were desperate for someone to keep the peace. By throwing their support behind the Taliban, they got what they bargained for -- and more. And they held on in the face of the early part of the US bombing, as Uncle Sam had allied himself with the very warlords that the people had been trying to get rid of. But eventually the Northern Alliance got the upper hand, and suddenly there was no reason to back the Taliban. They had failed to provide peace, and their anti-music platform hadn't won them any friends, so their base crumbled.
Many people would like to think the same thing will happen in Iraq. They want to see Hussein as a dictator maintaining his perch through sheer oppression, a dark master that Iraqis will be only too happy to throw off. All the US has to do is to take out the top of the Iraqi government, and the whole regime will fall.
The reality is not so convenient. Since the Gulf War, Hussein has ratcheted up his efforts to win public support. Posters that once pictured him firing a rifle into the air now show him praying, appealing to citizens who see American culture as godless and immoral.
Hussein's control of the media has allowed him to do a spin job on the issue of US sanctions that would make Ari Fleischer proud. The point of the sanctions was that the Iraqi people would rise up against the leader whose policies motivated the imposition of trade restrictions. But Saddam has gotten the Iraqi people to see the US as the culprit in the sanctions, using the deprivation they cause to stoke anti-American sentiment.
This means that much of the Iraqi population doesn't particularly want to be saved by the US. They've come to see the US as the imperialist oppressor, an image not helped by Bush's recently released National Security Strategy, which reads like a manifesto for American world domination.
Further, the US can't rely on an ally like the Northern Alliance when it takes on Baghdad. The Northern Alliance had pretensions to power over the whole nation, as did the Pashtun leaders whose help was enlisted later in the war. They were more than happy to kick out the Taliban. But neither of Iraq's biggest opposition groups -- the Kurds in the north and the Shias in the south, want to take Baghdad. One of the quirks of Afghanistan is that, though it is inhabited by a mixture of often-warring Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and others, they have a shared identity as Afghans. The Kurds, on the other hand, would just as soon have their own state and leave the south to its own devices.
Second, the US reliance on the Northern Alliance was one of the failures of Operation Enduring Freedom. Gen. Tommy Franks, who will likely command the Iraq strike as well, depended on Afghan units to do most of the legwork in Afghanistan, sending in US ground forces only at critical points and to coordinate Afghan operations. But because the Northern Alliance's goals didn't match up with the US's, this strategy led to the escape of many Taliban and Qaida members, quite possibly including Omar and bin Laden, across the border into Pakistan.
In Iraq, none of the native forces can be counted on to make securing and disabling weapons of mass destruction a priority. Factions could easily stash some weapons for later use, or sell them on the black market for cash. Russia should serve as a cautionary example. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the new regimes have been unable to keep tabs on all of the USSR's weapons, and there are fears that cash-strapped nuclear scientists could sell their services to terrorists. The rebels in Chechnya are using weapons they bought from the Russian soldiers sent to subdue them, because the army's paychecks have been so thin. To prevent Iraq's weapons from disappearing into a similar power vacuum, the US will need to do more than just take out Baghdad's elite.
The Millennium Challenge, a huge war game staged last month by the US military, aptly illustrates the excessive optimism that Operation Enduring Freedom and Desert Storm have given military planners. The Blue team, representing the US, was quickly brought to its knees by the Red team, representing an unnamed Middle Eastern nation. Blue then took measures that crossed the line to cheating -- refloating a sunk fleet, ordering Red to use communications that could be intercepted, and even countermanding the Red commander's orders -- to guarantee that the US strategy would emerge victorious. Unfortunately, Hussein is not very likely to play by our rules in the real war.
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