This is the summer of the phony war against Iraq; expect much smoke but very
little fire. But come the autumn, expect it to get real.
During the past few weeks newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic have revealed
in breathless terms the latest plan to invade Iraq. They have described massive
thrusts by armour from all sides; airborne attacks to take out Baghdad; vast seaborne
raids. Saddam Hussein, according to one version, will be removed by dissidents
inserted into Iraq backed by US Special Forces. Alternatively, Saddam will be
taken out in a precision strike.
Civilian officials in the Bush administration have huffed and puffed about
the 'leaks', to the amusement of the intelligence and military professionals.
'One thing you can say with an awful lot of certainty,' one told The Observer
last week, 'is that there is going to be an awful lot of deception going on over
the next few months.'
Deception is one of the oldest of the military's black arts. In the Second
World War, the British persuaded the Germans that the Allied invasion plan for
the Continent would be through Italy by dumping the body of a bogus officer in
the sea carrying false plans for the Germans to find. With the modern media, there
is no need for The Man Who Never Was: 'leaks' and 'secrets' are compulsive to
But the fact of the existence of deception operations is important in itself.
It is, in the terminology of these things, a 'combat indicator' - one of the clues
that suggest things are fast on the road to getting bloody.
And not all of it is necessarily deception. The military - like all complex
organizations - is prone to the same rivalries and disagreements over tactics.
Leaking can be lobbying by other means.
There have been other signs and indicators suggestive of the timing of a campaign
against Iraq. Manufacturers of cruise missiles and precision-guided munitions
in the US have been working overtime to replace the weapons expended in Afghanistan.
The American military transport fleet of trucks has been ordered in for rapid
servicing. In Chicago last week a freight train loaded with military trucks, painted
for desert service, passed through the city. Most tellingly, discreet inquiries
have already been made about the availability of tankers to transport the fuel
required for war.
Elsewhere, US fighting vehicles in Kuwait have been taken out of the mothballs
in which they were left at the end of the Gulf war, while planning cells have
been discreetly established in the US, Britain and Germany.
Most curious of all is the apparent lack of activity where you would expect
it most. The Pentagon car park, which during the last Gulf war was packed at weekends,
is noticeably empty. Senior British officers, including key brigade commanders,
are either on leave or about to take it. Cobra, the Downing Street emergency committee,
which meets to preside in any war or major crisis, has not yet been staffed up.
The optimistic slant on this is that nothing much is happening. The alternative
- as explained to The Observer - is that everyone has been told to take their
holidays in August because they might not be able to go later in the year.
The question now appears to be not whether there will be a war, but when. The
answer is that in war, as other matters, timing is all. For President George W.
Bush that timing will be dictated by the demands of a domestic political agenda.
With the economy in the middle of what now looks like a double-dip recession -
and his room for maneuver on the economic front hobbled by his tax-cut commitments
- Bush has been left with only two policies he can sell as a success: the war
against terrorism and the war against Saddam.
The war against terrorism is a problematic one. Afghanistan remains a mess.
Osama bin Laden and many of his senior lieutenants remain unaccounted for. It
is also a war fought in the shadows. Declaring victory would not only be precipitate
but dangerous. Which leaves Saddam.
But when to act? Current thinking on both sides of the Atlantic is that Bush
will not want to risk a war that does not begin until well into next year, as
that would bring him too close to the time when he wants to be engaged in his
campaign for re-election. That leaves this winter.
Analysts in Washington are also fast coming to the view that Bush will announce
his decision to go to war in good time to allow the Republican candidates for
the mid-term elections in November to campaign wrapped in the flag of war. Indeed,
some Democratic campaign managers have so convinced themselves of the logic of
this timing, and the inevitability of their candidate's defeat, that they are
said to have all but given up hope in this election cycle.
And, if anything, it appears that history may look back and judge that it was
Saddam last week who set the clock ticking towards war in hinting at a return
for the UN weapons inspectors to Iraq.
Conventional wisdom from past confrontations with Saddam has already portrayed
his latest 'offer of an offer' as an attempt to buy time. But, far from being
dismayed, US and British officials from the pro-war camp are painting Iraq's offer
as a serious tactical blunder.
According to this logic, it opens the way for a new inspection crisis and the
possibility of a new UN mandate. That mandate, proponents of regime change believe,
would inevitably be framed in such humiliating terms that Saddam could not agree
to them. It would, they argue, establish the pretext for the coming war.
Finally, there remains the question of what form the war might take. For all
the deception and lobbying - for all the boldness of the plans which say the Bush
administration may try to do it with a tiny force - the likelihood is that any
US-led war against Iraq will be much more traditional than some reports suggest.
The key determinants will be guided by the personalities of those involved and
a political desire to avoid unnecessary US casualties that could turn public opinion
against the war and the Bush administration.
The key is likely to be found in the dogged personality of General Tommy R.
Franks, head of US Central Command, US military headquarters for the Middle East,
the Gulf and Afghanistan. Those pushing for a more innovative military approach,
involving fewer and more mobile troops, have expressed frustration with Franks
and his command, which is insisting that any war should be fought in the most
careful and conventional ways.
Confronted with each new piece of blue-sky thinking, say insiders, Franks has
insisted that the absolute minimum force requirement must be three heavy armored
divisions plus an air assault division. A likely force size, say experts, is 100,000
to 120,000 troops, many perhaps held in reserve, probably launched from Kuwait
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002