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This report by U. S. Army Col. (ret) Abrahamson, a member of the American Diplomacy Publishers board, brings into focus the strategic background to the preparation for possible war with Iraq—what he terms a tour of the military planning process—along with his comments on the political requirements.— Ed.

A Presentation to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Peace, War, and Defense Curriculum on 15 January 2003

“Even while U.S. actions remain well short of full-scale war, President Bush is using the various instruments or resources of grand strategy in his effort to coerce Saddam Hussein to comply with U.S.-UN demands.”

Let me begin by thanking Professor Richard Kohn for his kind invitation to present to students and faculty of the Peace, War, and Defense Curriculum my views on “The Coming War with Iraq.” As Americans consider the wisdom of such a step, it is entirely appropriate to consider what a war with Iraq might entail.

We can also gain perspective by considering—even in simplified form—the steps the armed forces might have taken in devising their plan for a war with Iraq, should one be ordered. So, bear with me please while I take you on a tour of the military planning process before, in the end, giving you my estimate of how the war seems likely to progress.

There are several reasons for proceeding in that manner. Even a cursory examination of the planning process will reveal the kinds of things that must be considered when either devising or assessing a war plan. As the planning process is not exclusively military, it can also be used with little modification to analyze a range of international problems and how they might be addressed, militarily or otherwise. Knowing the basis of my conclusions, those who question them can focus on my facts, assumptions, and reasoning, and we can have a fruitful exchange rather than a simple, perhaps superficial debate over personal opinions.

Grand Strategy
As the great Prussian theoretician of war Carl von Clausewitz observed two centuries ago, war is but politics carried on by other means—an observation that immediately transports the military planner into the realm of national or grand strategy. We must, therefore, begin our analysis of war plans with some observations about national strategy. For starters, what is it? Strategy is a combination of three things and is incomplete without each of them. They are objectives (missions, purposes, or goals) resources (means available to gain the objectives) + ways (concepts for how those resources might be used to accomplish the task).

At the national level those objectives are political in nature and the resources include all the diplomatic, economic, cultural, social, psychological, and military things that might be used in conjunction with each other to accomplish the nation’s purposes.

Defined in that way, the United States has been strategically engaged with Iraq for a long time. That engagement preceded the Gulf War as when the United States had to take a position on Iraq’s 1980-88 conflict with Iran. Regarding Iran as the greater threat, America helped Iraq in that war, sharing intelligence and advice. It even virtually ignored the attack of an Iraqi jet on an American destroyer in the Gulf in 1987, which killed thirty-seven sailors. Engaged in a different way following Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the United States initially hoped to convince Iraq to withdraw by isolating it politically by means of a UN resolution condemning its seizure of Kuwait (diplomatic strategy), blocking Iraq’s overseas trade (economic strategy), and building a coalition of nations willing to deploy troops to the Mideast (military and psychological strategies).

We know that coercion failed, and a U.S.-led coalition went to war. Even so U.S. strategic engagement with Iraq survived Desert Storm. For the last dozen years, U.S. grand strategy has focused on convincing Iraq to dispose of its weapons of mass destruction and stop its brutal treatment of at least the Kurdish and Shiite peoples that make up about eighty percent of its population. To those ends, the UN has tried inspections (abandoned for four years after 1998) and economic sanctions, and the UK and the United States have put aircraft over the Kurdish and Shiite areas of Iraq in an effort to ensure that Saddam Hussein did not repeat the mass murder—possibly several hundred thousand Shia and Kurds—that followed their earlier rebellions against his dictatorship. For some months now, President Bush has also been using a strategy of coercion, including a threat to use armed forces, to achieve destruction of Iraq’s chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs and, it would seem, drive Saddam Hussein from power.

The military contribution to American grand strategy has recently sought to add credibility to that threat to use force, if need be, by deploying U.S. forces to the Mideast, establishing a combat headquarters in Qatar, and conducting training exercises in Kuwait. The Congressional resolution authorizing President Bush to make war on Iraq, the UN resolution demanding the return of UN weapons inspectors, and Bush’s effort to build a “coalition of the willing” also lend strength to that threat and enhance the likelihood of successful coercion short of war.

The UN economic sanctions continue in place, and hardly a day passes that Iraq and the United States do not engage in a war of words designed to influence world opinion and especially domestic opinion in the United States and among leading Western powers. Though Iraqi public opinion, whatever it may be, is unlikely to cause Saddam Hussein to submit to UN demands, the Bush administration has from time to time sought to unsettle Iraq’s senior leadership, particularly its military leadership, with threats of war crimes trials if, for example, they comply with any order from Saddam Hussein to use chemical or biological weapons. There are also hints that America might not attack units of the Iraqi regular army so long as they keep to their barracks in the event of war. Recent meetings with the expatriate Iraqi opposition both make Bush’s intentions clear and increase the likelihood of domestic disruptions should war come.

All such efforts to convince Iraq to yield up its weapons of mass destructions (and put the country under humane leadership?) may not succeed. Even while U.S. actions remain well short of full-scale war, President Bush is using the various instruments or resources of grand strategy in his effort to coerce Saddam Hussein to comply with U.S.-UN demands.

Military Estimate of the Strategic Situation
Military planners must, of course, look beyond the mere coercive use of armed force. As they devise a contingency plan for war, should that be ordered, they will make use of an Estimate of the Strategic Situation, which contains four principal elements:

MISSION. The first part requires the planners to identify what the president might demand of them. Put another way, they must ask what are the political goals that must be converted to objectives that might be accomplished by the use of armed force—the ability to seize territory, destroy property, and kill people. That is a most difficult and delicate task, but it is fundamental to the use of violence as a means to achieve political ends. Looking to the coming war with Iraq, we must ask what we believe Bush will demand of the American military. My list includes the following

  • Regime change. A single bullet to Saddam Hussein’s head might seem the solution to that job, but the trick is to get the shooter close enough to the Iraqi leader to fire the gun. Sending a U.S. marshal to arrest him will not likely do the trick either. Nor does replacing Saddam in favor of one of his blood-thirsty sons suffice. To my mind the entire Baath Party leadership and its security apparatus must go, and the senior ranks of the military and the civil service must be politically cleansed. Can those things occur without a U.S. occupation of Iraq? Probably not.
  • Elimination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and programs for their production. A lot of bombing might help with this objective, but we will need to get on the ground to ensure that all weapons storage and production sites have been found and eliminated.
  • Terminating Iraq’s links to and support for terrorism. Any forthcoming campaign against Iraq would be after all but a part of the larger war on terror, to which Iraq is linked and to which it could make significant future contributions. Americans do not want one day to face terrorists armed with the latest Iraqi chemical or biological weapons or possibly even a small atomic bomb. If struck by such weapons, how could we find support for an attack on an Iraq that claimed it had not supplied them? Who might we threaten to counterattack in order to deter terrorists armed with such weapons?
  • Establishing an interim military government in Iraq. This would be the first and temporary step in providing Iraq with a decent and representative if not quite Jeffersonian democratic leadership. To undertake this task, while a U.S.-led military coalition maintained order, the UN might provide an appropriate supervisor—preferably a Muslim.

Those four objectives imply, of course, defeat or surrender of the Iraqi army. They do not, however, exhaust my list of what may be on the president’s mind. Here are two more objectives that may be important to him.

  • Facilitate economic recovery. This might be considered a restraint on the military rather than an objective, but protection of Iraq’s oil fields and ports does require positive military action, and prompt economic reconstruction is so important as to justify being considered an object of the war. Bush has every reason to avoid increasing the suffering of the Iraqi people who have no voice in how they are governed or the policies of their leaders. He is also surely looking to the postwar period and Iraq’s financing its own recovery from decades of Baathist Party dictatorship.
  • Middle Eastern political reform. A December presentation by Dr. Andrew J. Bacevich to the Triangle Institute for Strategic Studies and an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs also suggest that Bush may see the occupation of Iraq as a means to a sixth objective: promoting political reform elsewhere in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Egypt, and a settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which might be set in motion by democratization in Iraq and facilitated by maintaining a longer-term military presence at a base in Iraq.

You can add, subtract, or modify those objectives—that mission—as you prepare your own estimate. Just remember to change the resulting strategy as you do so. A different list might require a different sort of war.

THE SITUATION. The second part of a strategic estimate concerns the situation, which requires attention to both the theater of war and the relative combat power of the opposed military forces.

  • Area of Operations. Military planners will want to know everything possible about the theater of war—its topography, climate, weather, economy, and transportation (roads, railroads, air and sea ports) and communication systems. They will also want to learn a great deal about and the social and political systems of the country to be attacked. The military importance of most of those things is obvious, but maybe I should add a word or two about social and political systems. That Saddam Hussein is merely the chief brute of the brutal Baath Party that has ruled Iraq for almost forty years is of interest to the planner concerned to know the likely reaction of the Iraqi people to a U.S. invasion. Also of interest are the facts that Saddam Hussein is responsible for the deaths of about two million Iraqis, that he has driven about four million others to seek refuge abroad, and that the Shiites in the south (over 60% of the total population) and the Kurds in the north (another 20%) have every reason to want him dead and the Baathists exterminated.
  • Relative Combat Power. The relative combat power of the opposing forces is the second aspect of the situation needing assessment. In one sense, the two sides’ relative combat power is easy to measure. With the U.S. possessing the world’s largest economy, its most powerful air force, its only truly blue-water navy, and its most modern army as well as logistics systems and unrivaled communications and surveillance technology, the U.S. armed forces clearly outclass those of Iraq. On the other hand, the United States has global responsibilities that will probably permit bringing only a portion of its strength to bear. Military planners will nevertheless prefer a larger to a smaller force because, all other things being equal, overwhelming superiority usually achieves a quick and decisive victory with the fewest casualties, both U.S. and enemy. Sending just enough to do the job, though seemingly limiting the number put at risk, leaves little margin for error or for dealing with the unexpected and usually leads to long and costly struggles with less certainty as to a satisfactory conclusion of conflict.

Iraq’s Capabilities. That said, what has Iraq with which to resist a U.S. attack? It has an army of about 350,000 men organized into seven corps, the equivalent of about 26 divisions. The best troops are in the six Republican Guard divisions and 11 special brigades. That may sound formidable, and the Iraqi army should not be lightly dismissed. Still, it has important weaknesses: One hundred thousand of its soldiers are recalled reservists, its divisions are small (10,000), half are at eighty percent strength, and the rest at seventy percent or less. The army’s training is poor, and its equipment is old and badly maintained. The loyalty of the regular forces is also doubtful. During the Gulf War, their members were prone to surrender en masse, and they seem to have already been the target of U.S. psychological operations designed to weaken their resolve.

The Iraqi air force and navy are in worse shape. The former has only 20,000 men, six bombers, 130 ground attack planes, 180 fighters, and five reconnaissance craft. Of those numbers, only fifty-five percent are reckoned to be serviceable, and their pilots have limited flight time. In two or three days, coalition air forces should dispose of the Iraq’s air force and destroy its air defense capabilities. The two thousand men of the Iraqi navy have use of only three patrol boats and three mine layers. According to a recent Center of Defense Information interview of Rear Admiral (ret.) Stephen H. Baker, “What Next in Iraq and the War on Terror,” Iraq has chemical and biological weapons and a small number of SCUD missiles and rockets capable of delivering them on targets in Israel or in an attack on invading U.S. forces.

U.S. Capabilities and Vulnerabilities. Coalition forces, now principally from the U.S., are already deploying at sea and in Turkey, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Oman, Diego Garcia, and in East Africa. It seems likely that the Royal Navy, British Army, French navy, and forces from Australia and, probably, other Western allies and Turkey will reinforce U.S. forces in the region. My summary of those deployments will generally emphasize the American and UK elements, whose size in the theater increases weekly.

Coalition ground forces will most likely include at least three U.S. heavy (tank and mechanized) divisions, a light division (probably the 101st Airmobile), and a Marine division. One U.S. heavy brigade is already in Kuwait, the equipment for several more is already in the area, and two pre-positioning ships were unloading armored vehicles in late December. The men can be flown in later, and the late December estimate of those in position (75,000) or already alerted might bring the total to about 200,000 by the end of January. Though it is not yet certain, Britain will most likely provide an additional heavy (armored) division.

Kuwait also contains several squadrons of American transport helicopters and helicopter gun ships, the first to move light forces and the latter to engage Iraqi tanks. Small ground and special operations forces are already in northern Iraq (Kurdistan) raising a 5,000 man Kurdish militia as well as in southern Iraq and the western desert—the latter probably there to ensure that Iraq cannot move its SCUDs close enough to reach Israeli targets. At this writing, Turkey has 4,000 troops, including a tank battalion, in northern Iraq.

The coalition naval force will probably include at least four carrier battle groups and perhaps more; the Constellation, Abraham Lincoln, and Harry Truman are already in the area or en route. The Theodore Roosevelt and Kitty Hawk might be ordered soon to join them. The British will supply a task group led by the carrier Ark Royal, and in early January the news announced that France would also send an aircraft carrier. Each American carrier group not only includes strike fighters but also nuclear attack submarines and several ships capable of firing cruise missiles against programmed targets in Iraq. A four-carrier U.S. force could launch 700 sorties per day, versus 160 during Desert Storm, and the U.S. planes at least would be carrying far more smart weapons than in 1991.

Non-naval aviation units are already based throughout the region and, if we are going to war, more are likely to join by the end of this month. Fighter, reconnaissance, and refueling aircraft are located in Turkey and all around the Persian Gulf. Supplementing them, B-52s and possibly B-2s and B-1s might fly from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. One estimate, including the navy, is that the coalition air forces will have at least 1,500 aircraft able to employ smart—precision—weapons, missiles and guided bombs. The heavy bombers can deliver cruise missiles as well. Supported by better surveillance (target acquisition), battle management, and command and control aircraft than in 1991, that force should have ten times the aerial combat power of the Desert Storm air forces.

The various headquarters that will control all those ground, air, and sea forces are already established in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain. They lack only their full complement of troops, equipment, and supplies.

With the situation well in mind and relative combat power measured, the military planner would next identify possible courses of action—how both enemy and friendly troops might be employed—followed by an analysis and comparison of each enemy course of action compared with each U.S. option. For a major operation, this might include some war gaming and exercises designed to test concepts or prepare headquarters elements.

Iraqi Courses of Action. So, how might Iraq respond when invasion is imminent? Saddam, key members of the Baath Party, and their families might try to escape to retirement in someplace like Libya or Russia, hoping perhaps to return at a later date. If they reject flight, Iraq has several choices: Its army might try to meet coalition forces in the desert as they begin entering Iraqi territory or they might draw back to defend the cities, hoping to impose costly urban battles on the coalition. Iraq might also elect to employ the chemical and biological weapons it claims not to have.
Coalition Courses of Action. The U.S.-led coalition might begin with another long bombing campaign like the forty-two-day effort that preceded ground action in Desert Storm or the comparably long air attack on Serbia in regard to Kosovo. Such a campaign might aim to spark an uprising against Saddam or achieve an Iraqi surrender before committing coalition ground troops. (Should UN weapons inspections or debates postpone military action beyond March, a long air campaign might be a poor alternative to ground operations waged in desert heat with troops in heavy protective gear.) More likely the United States will seek to assemble and launch a major ground attack by the end of February. That ground attack might jump off from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia with the aim of securing Baghdad and defeating the Republican Guards en route to that objective. More likely the U.S.-led coalition will attack almost simultaneously from both the air and ground—and from several directions. Shortly after the commencement of the air attack, for example, ground forces might enter Iraq from Jordan, Turkey, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Kurdistan, and the Persian Gulf in an effort to overwhelm Iraq’s ability to make a controlled response to so many threats.

Analysis and Comparison. The planners would then analyze and compare all such enemy and friendly courses of action. After possible adjustments to resources, they would prepare to make a decision on an appropriate military strategy. Before doing so, however, the planners would apply three tests to their preferred course of action: Is it suitable; will gaining the military objectives likely secure the desired political outcomes? Is it feasible; can the forces available overcome possible enemy resistance? Is it acceptable; will the strategy achieve U.S. objectives at reasonable cost and in a manner likely to promote a lasting peace.

With a decision on a course of action—the estimate’s last element—the strategy would be complete: objectives, resources, and ways (courses of action) for using them. The planners would then assign missions to each of the coalition’s combat and supporting components, and they would begin the detailed planning for their forces.

The Coming War with Iraq
Assuming that Saddam and company will not flee to Libya, that strategic decision might lead to a war on Iraq that looks somewhat as follows:

  • Coalition air forces will immediately seek to destroy several targets:

    • Iraqi air forces and air defenses, with the object of gaining that degree of air superiority that allows aircraft to operate at will with minimal threat of attack from Iraq’s ground forces.
    • Presidential palaces, bunkers, and other locations possibly containing Saddam and key Baathist leaders, with the intention of decapitating a tyrannical regime and leaving Iraq’s armed forces leaderless and without coherent orders.
    • Command and control and other communications facilities, in order to make it difficult for survivors of the previous attacks to maneuver Iraqi military forces in response to coalition ground operations. o A few key Tigris and Euphrates bridges, whose loss would do little damage to the Iraqi economy but significantly impede movement of the Iraqi army.
    • Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard units, the headquarters of the Special Security Services and Revolutionary Command Council, and regional Baath Party offices, undermining the organizations that Saddam Hussein uses to control Iraq. That is another aspect of decapitating the Iraqi government, both preventing it from controlling its armed forces or responding to any uprising.
    • The Iraqi electrical grid, to the extent that the power can be cut off without permanent damage to power generation facilities.
  • Unless coalition ground forces are objects of attack by Iraqi regular forces, they will probably avoid aerial bombing.
  • The ground attack will probably commence almost simultaneously with the air assault and come from several directions:
    • Special and other light forces could push into Iraq’s western desert from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, or Kurdistan (northern Iraq) to keep Iraq’s SCUD ballistic missiles out of range of Israel.
    • Other light forces would seize air fields in the north that would facilitate the efforts of Kurdish militia and U.S. and Turkish forces gaining control of Mosul and Kirkuk oil fields, keys to Iraq’s speedy economic recovery.
    • Forces in the north may also seize control of the railroad that runs from Syria to Baghdad.
    • Marines or 101st Airborne might seize Basra—Iraq’s oil port—and other key cities south of Baghdad. If the risk seems acceptable, light and special operations forces might also be inserted directly into Baghdad in search of Saddam and in support of local opposition groups.
    • Heavy divisions attacking out of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia could reinforce any threatened coalition light forces but would principally aim to destroy Republican Guard units and limit the number of Iraqi forces that might take refuge in cities.
  • Ground units will probably operate in a dispersed manner—no fixed front line. They will attempt to isolate Baghdad, avoid urban combat, and take airfields with which to bring in more ground troops, aircraft, and supplies. Though the combat vehicles and personnel of the ground forces have protective gear, they will also protect themselves from Iraqi chemical or biological weapons by moving quickly.
  • Speed and extensive surveillance of any movement of Iraqi forces will be the keys to success. Coalition ground forces will wish to move so quickly that Iraqi forces cannot mass against small, dispersed units or organize effective resistance. Before senior Iraqi commanders can assess the fast moving situation, develop a response, and issue orders to their units, the highly ground and air mobile U.S.-led ground attack will have moved on, changing the situation the Iraqis were struggling to counter.
  • Psychological operations will be important parts of the air and land campaign, encouraging Iraqi military forces to abandon futile resistance and convincing the Iraqi people that the U.S.-led coalition comes to liberate them from decades of brutal oppression.
  • If the campaign goes as planned, it may be over in a very few weeks, with Saddam and most of his leading supporters dead, captured, or fled and the U.S.-led coalition in possession of Iraq and ready to maintain order during the transition to a new government and the purging of the Iraqi government of its principal Baathists. Thought the war will likely be brief, the occupation will surely last at least eighteen months.

Though able only to speculate about the nature and course of the coming war with Iraq, we can be more confident that a rapid conquest of the Iraqi armed forces should minimize injury to Iraqi civilians and damage to their nation’s economy. With the Baath Party removed from office, the military campaign should permit the coalition or the UN to begin the process of providing that long brutalized country with decent leadership and bring an end the Hussein regime’s relation to international terrorists. Occupying Iraq, coalition forces can uncover and complete destruction of Saddam Hussein’s stock of weapons of mass destruction and the means to manufacture more. Rebuilding Iraq is a challenge that may well require a long military occupation, but success should promote stability in the Mideast and enhanced security for the West. As was the case with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after Desert Storm, a short, successful military campaign might also push Mideast politics in a positive direction, one whose effects might on this occasion prove more lasting.

Even the most optimistic commentators recognize, of course, that a war with Iraq may bring serious problems and further trouble U.S. relations with the Arab world. Rather than take counsel of such fears, the Bush administration has chosen instead to emphasize the war’s possibly positive consequences. It is also no doubt keenly aware that ending this crisis with the Baath Party still in control in Iraq, even with Hussein gone, would be a severe blow to the prestige and security of the United States. It may well be that the potentially harmful consequences of a failure to insist on a full victory will pale in comparison to the evil that might flow from drawing back from achieving President Bush’s principal objectives—even if doing so requires leading the United States into a war on Iraq.


Following graduation from West Point (1959), James L. Abrahamson began a 27-year career in the US Army, during which he earned a master’s degree from the University of Geneva (1964) and a Ph.D. from Stanford University (1977). 


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