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Unlike most military commentators, I do not think the war in Iraq is over. On the contrary, the real war is just beginning. America destroyed not merely Saddam’s government but the Iraqi state, and a vast array of non-state actors are filling the vacuum with Fourth Generation war. Thus far, American efforts to re-create a state in Iraq have fallen flat.
But even other observers who believe the war is still on think that Saddam is a goner. Here, I am going to go out on a limb. I am not sure that is the case. On the contrary, I think there is a possibility that Saddam has adopted a breathtakingly bold strategy that holds fair promise of success.
Before I go on, please note that I said “possibility.” I cannot know. If anyone has the information sources to know (other than Saddam himself), I certainly don’t. But the possibility is sufficiently intriguing to be worth exploring.
First, this possibility assumes that Saddam, or at least one of his sons, is still alive. Lacking evidence to the contrary, we should assume that is the case.
Second, it assumes that Saddam realized, once American forces reached Baghdad, that they would eventually take the city. It is a general rule of sieges that the besieged party’s situation is hopeless, absent a relieving force, and none was in prospect. Saddam, like Hitler, was not a military idiot, and this rule is centuries old. Let us assume that he knew it.
Third, we can add, not a certain fact , but at least press reports, both British and American, that part of the reason the Republican Guard did not fight for Baghdad is that it was ordered to go home. Clearly, some Republican Guard soldiers made this decision on their own. Some, perhaps many, were abandoned by their leaders, which takes the fight out of any army. But if some went home because they were ordered to do so, it raises the question of who gave the order and why?
Here, then, is the thesis: Saddam, realizing that a siege of Baghdad would inevitably end with the city falling and him killed or captured (and Saddam is very much a survivor), made a daring strategic choice. Rather than fight for Baghdad, he decided to preserve himself and his most loyal military forces as a “force in being” and, rather than attempting to hold on to the country, let the Americans take it, then re-take it from them through guerilla warfare. Though his Republican Guard troops went home, they still have weapons , he can communicate with them (though slowly and with difficulty), and some of them will still obey his orders. In fact, some of them are already initiating guerilla warfare in accordance with his strategy. The Baath Party, which the Americans have banned and thus driven underground, provides the infrastructure for the guerillas.
American commanders in Iraq are openly saying that “remnants” of Saddam’s forces are fighting. The Americans are blaming them for at least some of the continuing disorder that makes establishing a new Iraqi state so difficult. The Americans generals seem to believe that these “remnants” will be mopped up, sooner or later. But what if time and momentum are now on their side?
Here, Saddam’s advantage lies in a growing perception among Iraqis — also reported in our press — that life under Saddam was on the whole better than life under the Americans. True, they had no freedom. But they had food (the rations issued by Saddam’s government just before the war started run out in June), clean water, electricity, medicine, domestic order, jobs and incomes. All of these disappeared with Saddam. The Americans are trying to restore them, but the continuing disorder makes that difficult or impossible. And Saddam’s guerillas are doing their best to guarantee that the disorder continues, grows and spreads.
It is not a bad strategy. In fact, if it works, it will go down in military history as a brilliant strategy. Could it enable Saddam to win, in what would be one of history’s most dramatic comebacks?
I think it could succeed in driving the U.S. out. This kind of war cannot be fought with fighter aircraft and tanks. It requires that American soldiers put their bodies on the line, every day. That means a steadily growing American casualty count, in a war that the American people have been told is already over and won. Here, the ghost of the Vietnam war looms large. It was just such claims of American victory, followed by repeated demands for more American troops and rising American casualties, that destroyed popular support for that war in the United States.
From Saddam’s perspective, there is one great difference from the Vietnam situation. If Saddam were to drive out the Americans, he would then face a vast Iraqi civil war, against the Shiites, the Kurds, and a wide array of Fourth Generation forces. My guess is that he would lose that war, with the Shiites the probable victors, and the outcome the Islamic Republic of Iraq. Or the result might just be endless chaos in a stateless Mesopotamia. Either way, the Americans would find themselves pining for the good old days of Saddam and Baath.
Remember, all this is no more than a possibility. It is a thesis, not a reality, nor a prediction. But it is one of those possibilities that, from the standpoint of military analysis, is much too interesting to ignore.
WILLIAM S. LIND is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation.