Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Ghost of Vietnam & Recent US Military Conflict

[The following is something I wrote back in fall 2002 to practice for a midterm written exam in my Strategy and War class at SFSU. This was a highly demanding class in the International Relations department that required us to study 60 conflicts through history and 4 hour closed-note essay questions. Professor Hanami taught me to analyze war not from the lens of a hippish anti-war activist, but on tactical and strategic grounds. This hippie got an A-.

This was written during the lead up to the current Iraqi invasion and occupation, so many of the observations I had back then were somewhat prophetic. Knowing what was known then, a reasonable person could forsee problems and know that this war and how it was executed would be a mistake. Keep in mind that this essay is not exhaustive as it was designed to be handwritten in a blue-book within 4 hour time limit where this was not the only essay question. ]

When you look at the Persian Gulf War, Vietnam, and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, you see different ways the US has approached War. They differ in causes and foes faced. The Persian Gulf was informed by the experiences and mistakes of the Vietnam War. It seems that only a decade later the lessons of Vietnam have become lost in the Operation Enduring Freedom.

The Persian Gulf War

The Persian Gulf War was a conflict between the United States with Coalition forces against Iraq. This conflict occured between January and February 1991. The Coalition forces were made up of 34 countries including Britain, Saudi Arabia, and France. This was the first conflict where the United States was the lone superpower after the fall of the Soviet Union. I rely on course readings, lecture, and frontline interviews from Trainor and Atkinson, both authors if books about the Persian Gulf War.

Unlike US conflicts in Grenada and Libya, the US faced the fourth largest army in the world in Iraq. The Iraqi Armed Forces had been built up during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s with help from the United States. In the Iraq-Iraq war, Iraq was seen by the United States as the lesser of two evils against Iranian Fundamentalism that had held our people hostage. The United States supported Iraq knowing they were harboring and supporting Palestinian terrorists, using Chemical weapons on the Kurds, and were purchasing materials that strongly suggested development of a nuclear program. In face of this Iraqi behavior, the Reagan-Bush and Bush Sr.'s administration made the call to look the other way. Clearly, Saddam Hussein was a thug, but he was seen as our thug that could be controlled while countering the influence of Iranian power.

Causes of the Persian Gulf War

There are two answers to the question of what caused the Persian Gulf War -- the short answer and the long answer. The short answer was that on August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded or "annexed" Kuwait - it's neighbor. The long answer is that Saddam Hussein had felt slighted by Kuwait and his other Persian Gulf neighbors. He accused Kuwait of overproduction of oil which ended up costing Iraq 14 million dollars and pumping illegally from the Rumaila oil field. After fighting the Persians for the Arabs in the region, Saddam had reasoned that he should get more priveledge and respect.

When Saddam was making noises and threats toward Kuwait, the US viewed it as merely saber-rattling. US intelligence saw something completely different in the build up of troops along the Iraqi-Kuwait border.

In July 1990, the US State Department sent Iraqi ambassador, April Glaspie, to meet Saddam Hussein. April Glaspie's message to Saddam was that the US did not have direct interest in border disputes in the region including one between Iraq and Kuwait. Glaspie concluded the meeting without advising any stronger actions against Iraq to warn them away from taking the disputed territory between Iraq and Kuwait. It can be argued that this gave Saddam a green light to take what he could move into Kuwait without any US intervention to stop him.

Why didn't the Bush administration not use stronger language during the July meeting or why didn't they forward project their naval forces in the region to send a clear message not to cross the Kuwaiti border? Was it because the Bush Sr. administration was distracted by the events of the fall of the Soviet Union? Was it that the Bush administration simply failed to come to terms that Iraq couldn't be controlled by a series of carrots when sticks were necessary? Was it because Bush's relationship with Saddam was personal and he couldn't imagine that Saddam would betray him.

It took three days after the invasion before Bush declared that the invasion "could not stand." King Fahde asked US troops to station themselves in his country for protection. US planes and troops arrived to guard the oil reserves.

On November 29th, the UN Security Council voted on a resolution that called for Iraqi withdrawal by any means and set a January 15th deadline. From November 29th to January, US troops were forward positioned for the conflict to come.

Objectives of the Persian Gulf War

US objectives were the immediate, complete, and unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait. The secondary objectives were the re-establishment of the legitimate rulers of Kuwait and the safety of Americans. To this end, they had the following military objectives:

- isolate and incapcitate the Iraqi command structure

- win air superiority

-destroy all nuclear, chemical, and biological capabilities

- Eliminate Iraqi offensive

-Eject Iraqis from Kuwait

The Persian Gulf War commensed on January 18, 1991 under the command of Army General Norman Schwartzkopf. Operations were in four parts: 1. Strategic air campaign; 2. Suppression of enemy air defense; 3. Air attacks on ground forces; 4. Ground operations as needed.

The tactic of the air campaign in 1991 was to destroy Iraqi air denfenses to the point where Coalition pilots felt confident. If a pilot doesn't have to worry about Iraqi air defenses of anti aircraft weapons, the pilots can concentrate on strategic targeting or offensive strikes.

The US fired a total of 291 TCIBM or tactically-launched cruise missles from two submarines in the Red Sea which were focused on the command bunkers.

The air campaign showed that Saddam was using economy of force with his air force. At most, Saddam was thought to have 700 air planes, but in the first nights of the campaign, only 50 went up, flew around and landed. Saddam sent about 122 aircraft to Iran which stayed there throughout the war. He lost about 90 aircraft to Coalition forces. It was suspected that Iraqis decided that in the face of overwhelming strength and numbers of Coalition forces, it was better to hold back and wait out the Coalition -- saving their air force to fight another day. At the very best, Iraqi aircraft were mediocre by US standards.

On February 23rd, Coalition forces commensed the ground force attack. US forces feigned an amphibious attack through Kuwait as the Iraqis suspected they would. This was merely a diversion or cover for the land attack about 40 miles West and North of Kuwait. While Iraqis were responding to the mock amphibious attack, the bulk of the force could encircle the Iraqi forces. Encircling is squeezing enemy forces between your two flanks.

Iraqis were forced to try to escape toward the Eurphrates River. Since US forces knocked out the railroad bridges, they were forced onto exposed highways which made them vulnerable.

In 100 hours, US forces had successfully repelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait by using deception and encirclement after a successful air campaign. The decision was made not to go onto Bagdad to unseat Saddam. Bush received much criticism for this. The argument for not going in was that the UN had not sanctioned more than expelling of Iraqi troops from Kuwait, and that going beyond that mandate would have broke the Coalition especially Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egyptian support.

Flaws of the Persian Gulf War

Twelve years since, the Persian Gulf War was seen as a decisive victory to be celebrated by the United States. This notion has been contested by those who believe that anything less than total victory, defined by Clauswitz as the total defeat of your enemy and its forces, makes the Persian Gulf War less decisive than conventional wisdom would have it. Saddam and over 100 Republican Guard Elite were allowed to remain in power. The fear after the conflict that someday we would end up fighting two wars in Iraq instead of one to resolve the Iraqi question once and for all.

Another flaw of the Persian Gulf War was the heavy reliance of Electronic Warfare (EW) which is known to flakey and prone to some close calls. For example, a satellite mistook our B-52s as SCUDS. Fortunately, AWACSwas able to correct the error just in time. EW also failed in damage assessment which made for duplication in bomb sorties to knock out targets that has already been destroyed.

Despite these flaws, the Gulf War was a vast improvement over the Vietnam conflict. In fact, it was the ghost of Vietnam that informed tactics and strategy of the Gulf War. There was a desperate need on the part of the generals not to replicate mistakes made in Vietnam.

There are many contrasts between the Gulf War and Vietnam. The most obvious was the differences in the battlefield itself. The Gulf War was a desert which was mostly flat lands, whereas Vietnam was a literal jungle with triple canopies where the enemy could hide and easily conduct guerilla tactics. Air power was vital in the Gulf War since it softened up conditions on the ground prior to ground operations. Air power in Vietnam was rendered ineddectual against guerilla operations by the Vietcong. In the Gulf War, there was never more than a two hour break in Air Stikes to great effect, whereas in Vietnam, there were infrequent strikes with minor effectiveness. The Gulf War had much more logistical concerns than Vietnam. In the desert, water was scarce and had to be brought in, in Vietnam water and rice was available.

A major differece between wars is that there was a centralized command off all forces, but decentralized control of troop targeting and when to target. In Vietnam, over all command was decentralized between the branches of the armed forces, yet targets would be picked thousands of miles away in Washington DC. This practice would rear its ugly head in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

In Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan it seems all that had been learned in the Persian Gulf War and the conflict that informed that operation was lost. Just as the Ghost of Vietnam was put to rest in our Persian Gulf War victory, it was reawakened in Afghanistan.

Operartion enduring Freedom was in response to the events of 9/11. Unlike the Gulf War, this conflict was organized by the CIA and took sometime to get off the ground. Instead of using this time to forward position an overwhelming force, what eventually was mustered was paltry. The tactic was to rely on the Northern Alliance, Pakastani troops, and payoffs to the warlords. This is reminicient of the Vietnam War where we relied on the South Vietnamese. The Northern Alliance and the Pakistanis proved to be unrealiable allowing US Special Forces to be ambushed and allowing the enemy escape.

Similar to Vietnam, bombing in Afghanistan was unable to penetrate enemy natural fortifications. In Vietnam, bombing was unable to bring down the system of underground tunnels, whereas in Afghanistan we were unable to collapse the system of caves and paths that allowed Al Queda and Taliban fighters to move around with impugnity. As of this writing, only 1/3 of the Al Queda leadership has been eliminated.

Despite declarations of success and progress in Afghanistan, it seems that US Troops are still involved in the region and Al Queda is still a threat. They have been unable to capture Bin Laden and Afghanistan is still quite unstable. Instead of a quick and decisive campaign, we may have the potential re-emergence of the Taliban and an ongoing conflict similar to Vietnam on our hands.

It is essential that we look at what went right and wrong in the Persian Gulf War, Vietnam, and Afghanistan -- given we are on the eve of another major conflict in Iraq. It is essential that we avoid the dangers that could lie ahead.

We may have won the Persian Gulf War, but often the victors learn less than the losers of the conflict. If we go into Iraq once more, we may find that there will be a different result. This time we will not be repelling an army from a neighboring country, but be facing an enemy with the advantage of being a native defender against an invading force and defender that has learned from its own mistakes.

It may have been necessary to repel Iraq from Kuwait back in 1991. On the other hand, it may have been easily averted by stronger language, pre-emptive diplomacy to resolve issues between Kuwait and Iraq, and forward positioning to warn Iraq of our serious objections to encroaching on Kuwaiti territory. Once we got UN sanction and support from a wide coalition that includes Middle Eastern Actors, we went in and we went in with an exit strategy based upon the Powell Doctrine, which was informed by the Ghost of Vietnam.

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