How we might be knocking Saddam off balance.

How we might be knocking Saddam off balance.

How we might be knocking Saddam off balance.

Military analysis.
March 20 2003 3:35 PM

Head-Job

How we might be knocking Saddam off balance.

The war is on for real. The sign comes not from the 40-some cruise missiles fired last night at Saddam and other "leadership" targets, but rather from the report, just minutes ago, that the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force has crossed the border from Kuwait into southern Iraq. Are they heading toward Basra to occupy the port city or moving on farther north? We'll soon know. Mike Cerre, with the Marines for ABC News, is reporting massive surrenders from Iraq's army regulars, as was expected—these are much-abused Shiite draftees, with no desire to fight and die for Saddam Hussein. (It's hard to say whether the Army's 3rd Infantry Division has as yet started their drive to Baghdad. Ted Koppel, who's embedded with the division, hadn't been seen for quite a while, which suggested that those troops too were on the move. Just now, at 3:15 p.m. EST, Koppel showed up to talk with Peter Jennings, but he was shown in a green circle, indicating a nightscope that was deliberately limited in vision, so we can't tell where he is.)  At the same time, all the newscasts are showing explosions in Baghdad—not yet a massive light-show but indicating precise airstrikes on several of the capital's government and military buildings, some of which seem to be ablaze.

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So, what happens next? If the Iraqi army puts up scant resistance and launches a few (if any) more Scuds, we might draw one of two inferences: a) Saddam has decided not to waste his limited resources on the south, but rather to concentrate everything around Baghdad; or b) that the initial U.S. airstrikes have successfully disrupted the Iraqi military's command-control network—in other words, that Saddam has indeed been cut off from his armed forces—and possibly killed some of the Iraqi leadership. Conceivably, both of these possibilities are true.

Whatever the physical damage done to these targets so far, the psychological damage might well be immense. The head-job started last night. Even if the "decapitation" attack did not kill Saddam, he and the people around him must have been spooked that U.S. targeteers a) knew where he was; and b) could aim the war machine quickly enough to fire directly at him.

This is what the much-misunderstood phrase "shock and awe" is all about. It refers not just to the shock of awesomely massive explosions (though that, too, will soon be part of the campaign) but also to the goal of keeping Saddam and his lieutenants constantly surprised, disoriented, and off-balance—a strategy as old as Sun Tzu, but with technology providing a degree of speed and lethality unimaginable even a decade, much less centuries, ago.

What may be happening also puts a subtle slant on Gen. Tommy Franks' comment several weeks ago that, once the air war starts, there would be no safe places in Baghdad. By that, he didn't mean Baghdad would be "carpet-bombed" (as one anti-war leaflet I saw claimed) but rather that Saddam and his henchmen will have no safe harbor, because we will find them wherever they try to hide. This is not to suggest that this will be an antiseptic war. Any time cities are bombed, with whatever level of precision, some houses will fall inside the damage circle, some bombs will go astray, and some targets will be misidentified—in short, some, possibly many, civilians will die.

The war has been building for days now. In Operation Desert Storm in '91, troops were in motion for quite a while before the ground war began—special forces, SEALs, and commandos making covert forays across the border for surveillance, artillery-spotting, "softening the battlefield." If the reports are true that U.S. ships and submarines fired 42 cruise missiles last night, they surely hit a lot more than simply "leadership" targets. They must have gone after troop concentrations, air-defense radars, and weapons depots as well. In the hours before the cruise-missile strikes, fighter-bombers reportedly dropped precision-guided munitions on communication sites; mobile, early-warning radar; an air-defense command center; air-traffic-control radar; and long-range artillery.

The tempo and destruction will only intensify from this point on. The big question is what the Iraqis will do—and can do—in response.