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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Military Strategy in the Fog of War

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In his classic book "On War," Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz wrote: "War is the realm of uncertainty; three-quarters of the factors on which action is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty."

I will nonetheless attempt to offer an assessment of the current military campaign in Iraq, using the 1991 Desert Storm operation as a point of comparison.

In the build-up to the war, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld frequently urged that the U.S. military not use Desert Storm as a frame of reference in planning for the Shock and Awe phase. Indeed, the current military campaign has little in common with the war 12 years ago. This has led many Russian commentators, politicians and military leaders to conclude that the U.S. operation is not going as planned.

Their assessment seems convincing at first glance. During the first three days of the land war in 1991, allied troops took some 30,000 Iraqi soldiers prisoner. The first three days of Operation Iraqi Freedom netted just 4,000 prisoners.

In 1991, the U.S.-led coalition accomplished all of its objectives in the land war in less than four days. Allied forces in Desert Storm destroyed 4,000 Iraqi tanks out of a total of 4,230. They obliterated 2,140 of 3,110 pieces of artillery, along with 1,856 of 2,870 armored personnel carriers and 240 of 800 combat aircraft.

In contrast, during the same war, the allies lost just four of their 3,360 tanks, only one piece of artillery out of 3,633, nine armored personnel carriers out of the total 4,050, and 44 of 2,600 planes.

According to conservative estimates, Iraq lost 25,000 to 50,000 soldiers in Desert Storm; some estimates even go as high as 100,000. Meanwhile, of 737,000 soldiers deployed by the U.S.-led coalition, only 148 died, including 89 Americans.

Iraqi losses are incomparably lower this time around, even by the U.S. count -- several hundred men so far. Iraq admits to losing only 14 tanks near Basra.

Does this mean that Operation Iraqi Freedom has run into complications, as most Russian experts confidently conclude? Are allied assertions that the operation is going as planned nothing more than a whitewash?

Von Clausewitz argued that politics determine the goals of war. The allies' political motivations, and their military objectives, in 2003 are clearly different than they were in 1991. The goal of Desert Storm was to liberate Kuwait even if that meant annihilating all Iraqi forces in the region.

The goal of Operation Iraqi Freedom is to oust Saddam Hussein and to disarm Iraq. Disarmament, according to von Clausewitz, means to destroy a country's armed forces, conquer its territory and break its will to resist. With these three goals in mind, the atypical progress of the current war begins to make sense.

Von Clausewitz defines the destruction of a country's armed forces not as their physical extermination, but as "reducing them to a state in which they can no longer fight." The United States has not given up on the idea of inciting the Iraqi army to remove Hussein from power. U.S. commanders have therefore ordered few airstrikes on regular Iraqi army units.

This strategy largely explains the limited Iraqi losses of men and materiel. Hussein, for his part, is in no rush to send his regular army troops into battle, clearly fearing that they will prefer capture to almost certain death in combat. The Americans have also gone easy on the regular Iraqi army so as not to force them to hide behind "human shields" in the cities.

Hussein, on the other hand, would rather concentrate the army in the cities, where they could be forced to make a defensive stand under the "supervision" of loyal Republican Guards and Baath Party operatives. This is why coalition forces are focusing their bombs and missiles on Iraq's military and government installations, Baath Party offices and the Fedayeen, units of irregulars loyal to Saddam Hussein's elder son, Uday.

The U.S.-led coalition is also making steady progress in the occupation of Iraq. Keep in mind that Iraq is a large country, 1 1/2 times the size of Italy. Its 27 million people are concentrated in the cities, such as Baghdad (5 million), Basra (1.3 million) and Nasiriyah and its suburbs (600,000).

U.S. and British forces are presently unprepared to assume the burden of providing essential food and services to the residents of these cities. As a first step, the allies are therefore putting in place the infrastructure that will allow the occupation force to assume full control of Iraq. They seized Iraq's only deep-water port, Umm Qasr, with its facilities for loading oil tankers, and immediately began sweeping the harbor for mines. They also seized Iraq's major oil fields and refineries before Hussein could sabotage or destroy them. Oil exports will finance the purchase of food and medicine for the Iraqi people once the Hussein regime is overthrown. The coalition has also secured a number of strategic bridges across the Euphrates River as well as the Tallil airfield outside Nasiriyah.

The coalition's third and perhaps most difficult objective is to break the Iraqis' will to resist, or put simply, to prevent Iraq from becoming another Palestine. Without an appreciation for the importance and difficulty of this task it is impossible to understand the nature of this military campaign. U.S. and British forces are doing everything they can to avoid civilian casualties, even at the risk of incurring heavier casualties themselves. Rockets fall on the markets of Baghdad from time to time, of course, but the Americans have not tried to justify these mistakes as military necessities.

What's more, civilian losses are roughly equivalent to allied losses from friendly fire. Statistics show that friendly fire deaths are common in any major armed conflict. During World War II, some 20 percent of all American casualties resulted from friendly fire. In Vietnam, that figure rose to 40 percent. As reports of the current military operation make clear, friendly fire has accounted for most allied casualties, while Iraqi troops have inflicted only minor losses.

This could mean that coalition forces have been slowed not by Hussein's forces, but by other, less obvious factors. Perhaps they are trying to lure the Republican Guard into the open country outside Baghdad with the objective of routing them before they can take cover in the capital. It's also possible that the Americans are shoring up the rear in preparation for a decisive attack on Baghdad. Other scenarios are also possible.

U.S. and British forces will have little trouble defeating Hussein's army. They hold an overwhelming military advantage, and they will dictate the pace and the terms of further military engagements. The only way that Saddam Hussein could "have his say" in this scenario would be to use weapons of mass destruction, which he almost certainly has at his disposal. That would definitely be his final word, however. And I am confident that coalition forces are prepared for this possibility.

Vitaly Shlykov is a former defense minister and a member of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.