Many observers of the war with Iraq are focused on the looming battle for Baghdad in anticipation that it will be the culminating event of the conflict, and it may in the end be so from an American perspective. But in the view of the Iraqi leadership, it may be only the end of a first stage in a greater Iraqi plan.
George Patton said that the only way to truly get to know an enemy is to fight him. We have been fighting for nearly two weeks now, and some patterns have been emerging that indicate the Iraqi game plan may differ from the American worldview. A conflict with Iraq has been war-gamed countless time, in many venues in the past 12 years. The potential Iraqi use of asymmetric "dirty tricks" has been a feature of virtually every game I have been associated with. These tactical actions should have come as no surprise to anyone. The question is how to turn asymmetric tactics into a coherent strategy. The assumption that Saddam Hussein is looking at the Battle of Baghdad as a glorious last stand is totally inconsistent with his character. There is likely a greater game afoot, and it is becoming clearer.
Let's look at what we know. Hussein is an admirer of Ho Chi Minh. He has also studied the American debacles in Lebanon and Somalia. He and his staff have had 12 years to think about how to fight. What follows is how I think he has thought about it.
Begin with a desired strategic end state. I believe that he views the war as an opportunity not only to defeat the Americans but also to hijack leadership of the anti-Western wing of the Arab and Muslim world from Islamic fundamentalists such as Osama bin Laden. To do that against overwhelming American and British conventional military superiority, Hussein must develop a three-pronged strategic approach.
Phase I assumes eventual defeat in a conventional war. If defeat is inevitable, he must make the most of it. Anwar Sadat of Egypt reclaimed a measure of Arab pride in 1973 in a war that, while lost tactically and operationally, was fought with enough skill to regain an Arab sense of honor and pride lost in 1967. The next precept is to make the conventional phase last as long as possible and be as bloody as possible for the American-British coalition. The final sub-phase will be to attempt to turn Baghdad into an Arab Alamo and make "Remember Baghdad" a battle cry, not just for future generations but also for the rest of this war. At this point Hussein would go into hiding or exile, portraying himself as having led a glorious struggle against imperialism and vowing to continue. If he uses chemical weapons, I am wrong. There will be no sanctuary.
The second phase would be a protracted guerrilla war against the "occupation," which the American-British coalition bills as liberation. It is now obvious that the Baath Party has seeded the urban and semi-urban population centers of the country with cadres designed to lead such a guerrilla movement; this is not a last-minute act of desperation or an afterthought. Americans have overrun facilities that have been in place for some time. The war would be waged as an attritional struggle against the occupying forces and any Iraqi interim government. Attempts at free elections would be subverted and portrayed as a sham. The strategic objective of this phase would be to have the Americans and British tire of the effort and turn it over to the United Nations.
Phase III would then be to amass enough semi-conventional power to overwhelm the U.N. and interim government mechanisms. In other words, the concept would be to stage a combination of "Black Hawk Down" and the 1975 North Vietnamese offensive that crushed South Vietnam. A success here would transform Hussein from a regional pariah into a darling of the Arab world. This is a high-risk strategy, but Saddam Hussein is a high-risk kind of guy.
My reason for writing this is not to postulate a gloom-and-doom scenario but to suggest that we be prepared to react to an enemy game plan that may be different from our own. This plan is not devoid of significant dangers from an Iraqi perspective. First, it would be hard for Baath Party operatives to make the transition from the role of Sheriff of Nottingham to that of Robin Hood. But it would not be impossible.
Such a transition is not unprecedented. Vlad the Impaler, a noted tyrant, became a Romanian folk hero in the face of a Turkish invasion. If Dracula could make the transition, it's not inconceivable that Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party leadership could do the same. But that transition is not yet complete. The Baath cadres can be rooted out and hunted down early if we make doing so a priority. We know how to fight a guerrilla war, but we need to act quickly before these cadres become indigenous to the local terrain. We need to ship copies of the old Marine Corps Small Wars Manual to the battlefront if we have not already done so.
In Iraq we are fighting an adaptive and asymmetric foe. To paraphrase actor George Hamilton in one of his most memorable roles (in "Zorro, the Gay Blade"), "There is no shame in fighting an asymmetric war; the only shame is fighting one badly."
The writer is a retired Marine Corps colonel who served in Somalia and Lebanon.