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Paper No. 496                                       19/07/2002

by Dr Subhash Kapila

General Background:

The Gulf War a decade ago brought Iraq into the gunsights of the United States.  The United States achieved its immediate war aim then of compelling Iraq to end it’s military occupation of Kuwait. The United States however could not achieve its other major war aim, namely ousting President Saddam Hussein from power.

Following the Gulf War, Iraq was also compelled to permit scores of United Nation arms inspectors (predominantly United States and Western countries) who scoured Iraq until 1998 for unearthing Iraq’s much publicized nuclear, biological and chemical warfare means.  Iraq got them out in 1998 on charges of espionage activities.

In the last decade, Iraq has been subjected to severe UN economic and military sanctions. In this period the United States and Britain imposed no-fly zones in Northern and Southern Iraq, so that Iraqi Air Force could not target Kurdish and Shia minorities who were being encouraged to rise against President Saddam, both being funded and provided weapons by the United States.  Despite all these steps, President Saddam Hussein has survived in power in Iraq.  While harsh repression to stay in power is a reason attributed by the West, but analytically this alone could not have ensured Saddam’s continuance for more than a decade.  It either has to do with his popularity with the Iraqi majority or an intense anti-American feeling in the Iraqis generated by the United States unwillingness to ease economic sanctions in UN deliberations. 

Within the last one month, Iraq has once again come into sharp focus in United States gunsights, having earlier been declared as an “axis of evil” along with Iran and North Korea in the global terrorism context.  The New York Times, last week, carried leaks, said to be from highly placed sources, indicating that the United States was seriously engaged in preparation of military plans for war against Iraq.  This has become a hot topic for discussion in the American electronic media. 

The United States, undoubtedly, is the predominant global military power and can impose its will on Iraq as has been done for a decade by now.  However, what merits analysis is whether the United States can effectively prosecute a war against Iraq in terms of its war aims, war plans, and more importantly in the context of the prevailing security environment in the Middle East and southwest Asia. 

United States War Aims:

The ostensible war aims of the United States against Iraq seem to rest on: (1) Destroy the nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) warfare potential of Iraq; (2) Remove and neutralize Iraq’s terrorism threat potential; and (3) Topple or eliminate President Saddam Hussein from power.  The last named war aim seems to acquire top most priority in American discussions. 

Iraq’s NBC potential has been under close American scrutiny for over a decade.  Any potent Iraqi NBC capability would have invited or merited immediate United States pre-emptive action as soon as firm evidence emerged.  If firm evidence has emerged now, it has not been spelt out publicly or shared. 

Iraqi terrorism threat potential cannot be ruled out in the Pan-Arabism context.  But in the pan-Islamic fundamentalist terrorism context, it is Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that would merit American counter terrorism priority action first.  Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have been first-league players of Islamic Jihad, as per firm evidence available to the United States.  Iraq may only be the second or third league player. 

The United States can be said to have a justifiable war aim in the toppling or elimination of President Saddam Hussein.  He can be said to be a threat to the United States national security interests in the region.  If his NBC capabilities are credible (for which the evidence has yet to surface) then Iraq can be said to possess significant military and political coercive power against United States allies in the region.  This context does provide adequate basis for the United States war intentions.

United States War Plans:

Leaks in the United States spell out American war plans in very general terms, as (1) Three pronged attack by the US Army, Air Force and Navy; (2) Attack would be from three directions; (3) US Air Force would be operating from bases in eight different countries; and (4) Use of US Special Forces and CIA teams to target Iraqi laboratories. 

Military analysis would however have to go deeper into the above generalities.  A three pronged attack from three different directions is an obvious military necessity to divide Iraqi military forces, their responses and armoured formations reserves earmarked for counter attacks against invading forces.  The United States has pre-positioned military hardware in the Gulf countries and hence does not require long preparation times. 

The US Navy should have a significant role in providing carrier task forces in terms of aerial attacks and launching of cruise missiles to pulverize Iraqi targets.  The carrier task forces would have to take up the shortfall in terms of reluctance of any allies to provide air bases to USA. 

The use of US Special Forces and CIA teams to take out Iraqi laboratories is misleading.  Iraqi laboratories engaged in NBC activities can be easily bombed.  Actual purpose of such teams would be to seek out and eliminate President Saddam, which is the obsessive war aim of the United States. 

The United States military preponderance added with those of its military allies impart a significant flexibility and freedom of actions to US military plans.  However, analytically, some points of caution need evaluation, which can stymie US military capabilities.  Three points need evaluation, namely (1) Iraq is not Afghanistan; (2) United States’ Arab allies are unsure and; (3) United States' strategic liabilities in the Middle East. 

Iraq is not Afghanistan:

The Unites States must not mistake Iraq for Afghanistan.  The United States could topple and displace the Taliban in Afghanistan because the people were disgusted with Taliban’s Islamic fundamentalism, medieval atrocities and suppression of women.  Afghanistan was a failed state in totality.  Comparatively, the same cannot be said of Iraq. 

American aerial firepower was effective in the virtual absence of air defence assets in the Taliban army.  The United States could not have displaced the Taliban but for the ground operations of the Northern Alliance military forces.  The Kurds, the Shias or whatever the semblance of Iraqi opposition can hardly provide the military muscle for US led ground operations against Iraq.  Iraqi military machine may have been defeated and chastened in the Gulf War but it is not down and out.  It could impose costs on American ground operations. 

United States' Arab Allies Unsure:

United States’ war against Iraq will perforce have to depend heavily on the political, military and infrastructure support of its Arab allies.  During the Gulf War, major Arab countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria provided all out military support to the United States besides UAE, Oman and Jordan. 

Today the picture is unsure.  The Arab league has outright rejected any war against Iraq.  Saudi Arabia’s support cannot be counted upon nor Syria’s.  Egypt could be a very reluctant participant.  Unlike the Gulf War, all these major Arab counties face the spectre of Islamic Jihadi terrorism within their boundaries.  The threat could become more active and intense should the United States friendly Arab countries join the war against Iraq. 

United States Strategic Liabilities:

The United States can ill ignore the strategic liabilities attendant in any war against Iraq at the current time.  America’s foremost strategic liability is the unfinished business in Afghanistan.  American war aims in Afghanistan stand partially achieved only.  Osama Bin Laden, America’s obsession second only to President Saddam remains elusive in Pakistan’s border areas.  United States would be militarily ill advised to prosecute two major wars in the contiguous regions in the Islamic heartland. 

America’s NATO allies seem not too eager to join it in its war against Iraq.  Britain and Turkey (reluctantly) could be the only two NATO allies who could join the United States war effort.  Turkey has developed a sizeable stake in Iraq’s oil refinery and pipeline projects, and this may create hesitation.  

Like the Gulf War, the United States may not permit Israel to participate directly in the war against Iraq.  The likelihood of Arab countries opening up a military front against Israel to divert United States war against Iraq is a possibility that cannot be ruled out.  

Any United States war against Iraq would also have to take into account the possibilities of enlarged Islamic jihadi terrorist attacks in the war zone, Europe and homeland USA.  This is the most potent weapon available against the United States in a war, which in the Arab and Muslim world is likely to be perceived in the civilizational context. 

United States Domestic Debate:

President Saddam stands highly demonized in the United States.  Hence there is virtually a bi-partisan demand that the Iraqi President should be displaced.  However, the domestic debate does throw up a number of concerns namely; (1) Dangers of United States getting bogged down in a long drawn out War in Iraq; (2) The problems of finding at least 200,000 troops for the war against Iraq; (3) Iraq’s political and military configuration in the post Saddam era. 

United States domestic debate also reflects concerns about Iraq’s NBC potential.  It is being argued that if Iraq does have NBC capabilities as claimed by the United States, then what would stop President Saddam unleashing NBC attacks against the United States military forces and the bases from which they would be operating, to ensure his survival?  When survival is at stake, irrationality cannot be ruled out and the United States cannot afford to be dismissive about it. 

United States – Can It Afford To Go Alone?

United States global military preponderance and its military capabilities do impart the capability to the United States to go it alone, if it is a short surgical strike.  However, the war against Iraq has the potential of a long drawn out war.  This combined with the imponderables discussed above would seriously impede any chances of the United States of going it alone. 

The lack of unreserved support for United States war aims against Iraq from its traditional allies, specifically NATO countries would be another restraining factor. 


The United States has every right to be convinced of its war aims against Iraq and its capabilities to prosecute them.  However, in today’s world when globalization is the order of the day, war itself stands globalized.  There is an interdependence in today’s military operations that cannot be ignored.  The United States will have to give due consideration to this aspect.  Also, in view of its economic recession, the United States needs to consider the financial cost of two simultaneous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Concluding, it can be said that the most significant consideration that would weigh heavily is the impact on the image of the United States as the global unipolar power, should it get bogged down in two simultaneous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  It may be a better option to finish its war in Afghanistan before embarking on a war against Iraq.  The concluding sentence in a just released book by American author, Sandra Mackey (The Reckoning: Iraq the legacy of Saddam Hussein 2002) sounds an appropriate caution: “In this new era of the American experience that began on September 11, 2001, the United States can no longer afford to be seduced by its own military power or by a naïve faith that foreign worlds can always be simplified and mastered.”