Why Iraq isn't Afghanistan


The cliché is that generals are always doomed to fight the last war. The reality on the ground in Iraq sure makes it look like the generals have been doomed by their political leadership to fight the last battle.

The ease and manner with which the Taliban were kicked out of Afghanistan seems to have given the Bush war planners a false impression of how things would unfold in Iraq. The two situations were and are radically different.

In Afghanistan the U.S. could use Northern Alliance troops bogged down in a stalemate with Taliban troops as proxies for U.S. forces. Once Special Forces operators showed up to dial in some pillbox-plinking air support the Taliban was on its heels. The only proxy forces in the field in Iraq, the Kurds, do not offer the same potential.

The Kurds hate Saddam, but they have no interest in marching on Baghdad. Their concerns are Kirkuk, its nearby oil fields in Northern Iraq, and keeping one step ahead of the Turks. Southern Iraq features nothing like an organized, indigenous anti-Saddam effort. Consequently, coalition forces will continue to do the nasty job of taking out every Saddam loyalist by themselves.

This task is made more difficult by apparent shortcomings in some of the "force multipliers" the U.S. counted on. More significant than the two Apache helicopters that were downed in Southern Iraq is the fact that the other 30 in the attacking force were perforated by small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire. Iraqi fighters took cover in built-up areas in a manner more consistent with the U.S. experience in Somalia than in Afghanistan.

Should the Apaches not be able to regroup and inflict some serious damage on Iraqi forces—and they'll not be able to do that until fierce sandstorms abate—maybe the whole idea of an attack helicopter should be rethought. "Attack helicopter" is something of a misnomer anyway, since these craft were conceived as a way to counterattack Soviet tanks rolling through the Fulda Gap and into West Germany. The Apaches never left their base after being deployed to the Balkans out of fear they'd get shot down; now they've been bloodied in their initial foray in Iraq. They are down to their last strike.

The reason coalition forces have to depend on elements like the Apaches to clear out opposition is perhaps the biggest carry-over from the Afghan experience: The belief that the U.S. could go into battle with a relatively light but fast mix of forces. Relatively light because, although there are hundreds of Abrams main battle tanks and their very capable partner, the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, these are clustered at the tip of advancing columns.

Up front, of course, is where you want them. But that has left the coalition's long supply lines to be protected by thin-skinned light fighting vehicles that the civilian side of the Bush Pentagon has fallen in love with thanks to their mobility and transportability. The problem is these vehicles can be taken out with a rocket-propelled grenade. This is exactly what the Iraqis have done and accounts for the bulk of U.S. casualties thus far.

Ideally, an armored brigade would be available to range up and down the supply lines, taking out any menacing hot spots. Such an arrangement may come to pass once the 4th Infantry Division, which was intended to march in via Turkey, finally makes its way around Arabia and into the fight. If it does function in this kind of role it would be a tacit admission that the forces that went into Southern Iraq were, in fact, too light.

Another parallel with Afghanistan that will shortly unfold is the use of tactical aircraft as supersonic artillery. Carrier-based planes in the Persian Gulf have just been given the word that their missions will switch from decapitation of the Iraqi leadership to ground support of coalition troops.

There is no reason why this approach shouldn't be as effective as it was in Afghanistan, but it comes with a price. Iraq isn't one big sheep and goat farm like Afghanistan. If Iraqi forces opt to hold out in urban or residential areas, air strikes, as precise as they may be, will still have to fall on these locations. This would run counter to the official Bush strategy of keeping the conflict far away from Iraqi infrastructure and civilians.

The lighter-is-better approach may soon pan out once tactical airstrikes are brought to bear and Saddam haters across the country finally see Baghdad under siege. On the other hand, an urgent call for more armor from the uniformed military would not be a surprise either.

Finally, one big change from the Afghan conflict shouldn't be overlooked: At no point were U.S. forces wondering if the Taliban were going to drop chemical shells on their heads.