Skeptics of an attack on Iraq include British and U.S. veterans of the first Gulf War
IGNORING THE LESSONS OF THE PAST?
Skeptics of an attack on Iraq include British and U.S. veterans of the first Gulf War
TO GEORGE W. BUSH and Tony Blair, it must have seemed like a promising rhetorical device. So, this past week, they shifted gears, claiming that their thirst for speed in securing a military solution in Iraq is morally correct, since it would deliver the Iraqi people from their tyrannical dictator. War, they both implied, was really in the best interests of freedom-loving Iraqis. Critics pounced. Far from Churchillian, Bush’s and Blair’s logic falls flat, they claimed, tripped up by truth. “The argument is simply nonsensical,” says Iqbal Sacranie, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, the country’s largest Muslim organization and one of its most moderate. “The sanctions maintained by our governments are responsible for much of the Iraqi peoples’ suffering, and this war is going to bring about more death and destruction. Where’s the morality in that?”
Sacranie’s group supports the disarmament of Saddam Hussein’s regime by peaceful means: UN weapons inspectors must be given more time. In a sharply worded letter to Downing Street in January, Sacranie cautioned Blair that war in Iraq would cause “bitterness and conflict for generations to come” and “lasting damage” to relations between the Muslim world and the West. Attitudes within Britain have already hardened against the western cause: seven out of 10 British Muslims, according to a recent poll, believe the Bush administration’s war against terror is, in fact, a war on Islam.
Last week’s historic vote in the House of Commons hammered home to the Blair government that such anxieties cross all lines of culture, religion—and political allegiance. The Labour rebels’ message was twofold: that the case for war has not yet been made, and that British policy must not be
dictated by the U.S. timetable. And while the President may not have felt the earth move, no one on this side of the Atlantic could miss noticing that the vote has opened a chasm between the two leading proponents of military action. While Washington might prefer a second UN resolution authorizing the use of force, London now crucially needs one. And not just to protect Blair’s grasp on power—thrown into question for the first time since Labour swept Westminster in 1997—but for British troops in the Gulf.
Retired Maj.-Gen. Patrick Cordingley, who in the 1991 Gulf War commanded Britain’s 7th Armoured Brigade—the descendants of Montgomery’s fabled Desert Rats—told Maclean’s: “I think there is a genuine British problem if we went alone with the Americans now, and the lads out there on the ground knew that the British public was not behind them.” Cordingley has made headlines in Britain for making the soldier’s case against rash and gratuitous use of force in such a sensitive region. “I actually think that containment has worked,” he says. “If you can contain the Soviet Union for 50 years, then you can contain Iraq for 100 years. From a soldier’s point of view, is the use of power to resolve this sort of problem the best way to proceed? You’re not defending your nation—this is a bigger argument about gaining stability in the Middle East. But the way you may have to get that is to use overwhelming force. You may have to ask your forces to kill a lot of people.”
Like all responsible commanders, Cordingley is mindful of encountering the unexpected. However effective the Pentagon’s war plan might appear now, things can go terribly wrong. “If there’s a prolonged air campaign, if it’s not just a quick initial bombardment,” he says, “firstly, you run out of
targets, as happened in Desert Fox in 1998 [the last large-scale bombing of Iraq]. If the bombing continues, we can be reasonably certain that a lot of babies and women will be killed, because Saddam will make certain they are. Then you have a major issue with the international community.”
The consequences of a bloodbath prey on the minds not just of veterans like Cordingley, but of commanders taking the field right now. Especially U.S. commanders, however brash and reckless the language from political masters like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld might seem. Men like
Colin Powell know that huge life-and-death mistakes can be made—because he’s made them, in the Gulf. Prior to launching the ground war phase of Desert Storm in February 1991, Powell, then head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said of Saddam’s Republican Guard: “Our strategy to go after this army is very, very simple. First we’re going to cut it off, and then we’re going to kill it.” Yet the CIA later estimated that 70 per cent of Republican Guard troops and half their
tanks and other armour escaped Kuwait, enabling the dictator to cruelly crush internal rebellions. Tens of thousands of Iraqis were slaughtered, mainly southern Shias and Kurds in the north, who had heeded George Bush Sr.’s call to unseat Saddam.
What went wrong? Three things, military analysts agree: Bush Sr.’s decision to call a ceasefire after just 100 hours of ground combat, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s failure to seal the Iraqis’ escape routes out of northern Kuwait, and old-fashioned confusion in the U.S. chain of command. Put simply, the Powell doctrine of overwhelming force
had not been matched by disciplined, decisive political leadership. The U.S. had fumbled the football on the goal line.
“When Norm Schwarzkopf went to meet with the other side, he had very little direction from anybody, whether from the President’s advisers or the State Department, as to what he was supposed to do.” So states Gen. Calvin Waller, who was Schwarzkopf’s deputy during the 1991 conflict. In an interview telecast in January by The History Channel in the U.S., both Waller and Lt.-Gen. Buster Glosson, who planned the air campaign in Desert Storm, revealed the extent—
and consequences—of the lack of communication that plagued the ceasefire process. Glosson pointed to Schwarzkopf’s consent to a request made by defeated Iraqi generals at the Safwan truce conference to keep their helicopters. As a result, Saddam’s gunships and transports were free to fly in postwar Iraq. “Everybody says well, that’s 20/20 hindsight,” Glosson continued. “Well, permitting the helicopters is not 20/20 hindsight to an airman. Had I been sitting at Safwan, I would never have agreed to that.”
On a larger scale, history has judged the aftermath of Desert Storm in even harsher terms. U.S. politicians and generals, in their
rush to exit the region, stumbled into their —and our—worst nightmare: leaving Iraq a smouldering, bloody, open-ended conflict. Could a U.S. commander-in-chief and his armies again storm in, claim victory, then foul up? A look at Afghanistan, one year after Gen. Tommy Franks’s routing of the Taliban, offers grim testament to the current administration’s lack of staying power.
Only this week, President Hamid Karzai, appearing before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned that
Afghanistan could again become a haven for terrorists should the U.S. abandon the cause of improving security. The UN’s undersecretary general for peacekeeping echoed that, calling for assistance to the crippled nation. Jean-Marie Guehenno told the Security Council that “the national army needs to be built, factional armies need to be dissolved, and assistance needs to be provided to help ex-combatants reintegrate into civilian life.”
Care International is one of many respected aid agencies that have called for the international peacekeeping force to expand operations beyond Kabul. The International Narcotics Control Board, too, says that real peace cannot be achieved unless the resurgent crisis of illegal drugs is addressed (Afghanistan regained, last year, its ranking as the world’s top opium producer). The INCB, Care, Karzai and the UN—they constitute a united front, but a disappointed one. Washington shows no sign of responding to the cries for help, whether to stem the rampant lawlessness plaguing the countryside, or to decisively counter the regrouping of fugitive al-Qaeda and Taliban forces.
Consequently, reconstruction has stalled and much of Afghanistan is wracked by misery. The World Health Organization notes that the maternal mortality rate remains one of the highest in the world: in some provinces, up to seven per cent of mothers die in childbirth. Fourteen of every 100 children are likely to die before the age of five. As with his inability to confront and disarm unruly regional warlords, Karzai is virtually powerless: 70 per cent ofwhat little health care is available is provided by foreign aid agencies, not by his own administration.
U.S. munitions continue to kill civilians. According to the U.S. agency Human Rights Watch, U.S. warplanes dropped 1,228 cluster bombs, containing a total of a quartermillion sub-munitions or bomblets. Roughly five per cent, or 1,200 bomblets, failed to explode on impact. Since then, accidental detonations have killed or wounded at least 127 people—69 per cent of them children.
War in Iraq would almost certainly bring much more carnage: at least 60 times as many cluster bombs and rockets were fired by U.S. forces in the 1991 Gulf War as in the Afghan campaign. Would 50 times the bombardment in Iraq produce 50 times as many civilian dead as in Afghanistan? No one knows. But the decision by the White
ON THE BRINK-OR MAYBE NOT
Last week, the U.S. continued its offensive to persuade the UN Security Council to back a second, harsher resolution that Saddam Hussein has missed his “final opportunity” to avoid war. But France, Germany and Russia dug in their heels on giving weapons inspectors more timeperhaps several more months-to carry out their examination of Iraq’s weapons programs. Other developments:
■ In a move dismissed as bluff by the Bush administration, Baghdad said it would start destroying its outlawed al-Samoud 2 missiles by the Saturday, March 1 deadline set by the United Nations. The missiles are capable of travelling farther than the 150-km range that has been allowed.
■ The Turkish government said it was prepared to allow more than 60,000 U.S. soldiers into
the country for a possible war. Turkey would receive nearly US$6 billion in U.S. aid and deployment costs. The country’s parliament must still vote on the plan.
■ U.S. military planners engaged in a public squabble about how many troops might be necessary to maintain order in a post-war Iraq. Gen. Eric Shinseki, army chief of staff, set the number at several hundred thousand soldiers. But earlier Pentagon estimates have been closer to 100,000.
■ George W. Bush said that toppling Saddam Hussein would stabilize the Middle East and help bring about a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace and a “truly democratic” Palestinian state. Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders reacted skeptically.
■ Ina foretaste of war’s dangers, four U.S. soldiers were killed during a training mission in Kuwait when their helicopter crashed during a sandstorm.
House, this past week, to go public with its plans for humanitarian assistance to Iraq was clearly a response to worldwide fears of the human costs of a desert blitzkrieg.
Strangely, and shamefully, in the view of one aid specialist, the White House is talking in tens, not hundreds of millions of dollars, for post-war Iraqi reconstruction. A veteran of UN and non-governmental aid services in Afghanistan, he says that “$70 or $80 million will be a drop in the desert sand. That money would be burned up just rebuilding bridges over the Tigris and Euphrates. What the White House isn’t telling anyone is how much it’ll cost to feed and heal 24 million Iraqi civilians after the infrastructure goes up in smoke. It’ll be the Marshall Plan, Take Two. Billions of tax dollars— and we’ll be at it for years, not months.” Hardly surprising that some old soldiers see the trail of destruction of a U.S.-led juggernaut as something best avoided. Former Desert Rats commander Cordingley, however, is resigned both to the war and its ominous aftermath. “Having lived there [the Middle East] for five years,” he says, “I can tell you the Americans are hated, and the Brits are not far behind. This war can only aggravate the problem. Still, talking to my Arab friends, they say that since it’s inevitable—the Americans have made their mind up—it’s probably better to get on with it than draw the whole thing out and make it more complicated for everybody. I just, like them, wish it wasn’t inevitable.”
Not so fast, says Sacranie—and at least one quarter of Tony Blair’s Labour caucus. “What the international community decided is that inspectors should go in and search Iraq,” he says. “The inspectors have made it very clear they need more time. Let the will of the international community prevail. What is all the rush? If giving more time, even a year, will result in a peaceful disarmament, this is what we should do.”
All of that and a fistful of Iraqi dinars will buy you a cup of coffee in Washington. Much sooner than a year from now there’ll be only one fit topic for debate in the U.S. capital: the 2004 election. The engineers driving George W. Bush’s campaign machine won’t want to compete with the noise of jet exhaust, tanks and bombs going off on TV. The time for war, they counsel, is now. The time for containment is gone.
Pity peace, and everything too unwieldy for the U.S. political process. fll
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