Patience: The Main Thing Remains The Main Thing

Mackubin T. Owens

March 1, 2003

The war is only a week old, and already the second guessing has begun. The press, having for all intents and purposes claimed victory after the first two days of the conflict, seemed ready to surrender to the Iraqis after the setbacks of Sunday. You’d think it was 1861 or early 1942, dark periods indeed in American military history.

I suppose we should look at the bright side. Compared to Abraham Lincoln, George Bush has it easy. Our current president only has to contend with editorial writers from papers that often didn’t support the war in the first place and the army of retired generals and admirals that has found employment with the 24-hour news stations. It is true that Lincoln had to worry about editors such as Horace Greeley too, but he also faced scrutiny by Congress’s Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, an organization dominated by Radical Republicans, which, in the words of one Civil War historian, "produced little good and some harm, polarizing politicians against professional soldiers, limiting strategic options, and inflating the reputations of military incompetents." But who knows — by the end of this week, maybe President Bush will face a joint committee of his own. On Tuesday, Secretary Rumsfeld faced pointed questions from reporters who criticized the administration for raising expectations that the war would be short and relatively bloodless. There is no evidence to support the claim that any high-ranking official predicted a cakewalk. But there is lots of evidence to suggest that reporters inferred — illegitimately — such an outcome. Whose fault is that?

What we have been seeing over the past few days is an attempt by every party with a dog in the fight to vindicate their respective positions. Thus, those who opposed the war are using the setbacks to argue "we told you so." Air-power advocates are claiming that the air campaign was too constrained. Land-power advocates on the contrary are arguing that planners placed too much faith in the efficacy of air power. "Shock and awe" did not lead to the collapse of the regime as many had hoped.

One of my favorite commentators, retired U.S. Army Major General Robert Scales, provided a little perspective a couple of days ago. As the second guessing was beginning and everyone was rushing to suggest that we would have to "revise the strategy," Gen. Scales said "the main thing in war is to make sure that ’the main thing’ remains the main thing." He was simply pointing out that in war, we must keep out eye on the objective. The effect of diverting resources from the main effort against the objective — "the main thing" — is to lose momentum and perhaps fail to achieve the objective.

The coalition objective is the destruction of Saddam’s Baathist regime. The center of gravity of the effort to destroy Saddam is Baghdad. From the very beginning of the campaign, the "main thing" has been to close with Baghdad as quickly as possible. The center of gravity for Iraq is public opinion, both U.S. and world. The regime’s best chance for success is to drag out the war and maximize U.S. military casualties and Iraqi civilian casualties. Since Iraqi forces, even the so-called "elite" Republican Guard, are not likely to be confused with the Wehrmacht, the regime has resorted to guerilla warfare, attempting to interdict allied supply lines and to invite coalition forces to kill Iraqi civilians by means of the various ruses reported over the last couple of days. If the coalition allows it attention to be diverted from taking Baghdad, it will play into Iraqi hands.

A more legitimate criticism comes from another of my favorite commentators, retired Army General Barry McCaffrey, who argues that the coalition ground force moving on Baghdad is too small. "In my judgment," said Gen. McCaffrey, "there should have been a minimum of two heavy divisions and an armored cavalry regiment on the ground." There is merit in what Gen. McCaffrey, who commanded the 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized) during Desert Storm says here, but Central Command apparently believed that the risks of waiting for additional forces outweighed the risks associated with launching the attack when it did. As a former mechanized division commander, he probably underestimates the combat power of the First Marine Expeditionary Force and the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), as well as the increased contribution of air power.

Yes, the 350-mile supply line from Kuwait to Baghdad is vulnerable. But the allies are discovering ways to minimize this vulnerability by adapting and adopting new tactics to deal with guerillas.

But it is important to remember that the Iraqis lack the capability to threaten coalition lines of communication with any sort of a major force. Guerillas alone cannot do the job. In the past, guerillas have been most effective when cooperating with conventional forces that are able to maneuver — something the Iraqi forces are not able to do.

I am reminded of the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. During the early phases, critics were beginning to claim that Afghanistan had become a quagmire, that U.S. troops would suffer the same fate as the British and Russians before them. A week later the Taliban collapsed.

Of course, the current conflict is a different war in a different place. There are still plenty of things that can go wrong. We can expect further setbacks. But the Iraqis seem to be incapable of anything beyond a static defense and guerillas operations by the Iraqi equivalent of the Gestapo and SS. Patience is a virtue at all times, but especially in time of war.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.