Cover Story

War inside the red zone

Week 2 pause brought out the naysayers-as U.S. commanders insisted the war was proceeding according to plan. Judgment of the quality of that plan would have to wait, but last week the core of the Rumsfeld/Franks ground strategy became clear: a light, fast, flexible force would depend heavily upon technology to make on-the-fly adjustments

Issue: "War inside the red zone," April 12, 2003

Blood, oil, and water. Despite all the high-tech weaponry and computer-assisted wizardry of the U.S. Central Command, viewed from ground-level, Operation Iraqi Freedom looked considerably more elemental: Blood flowed. Oil burned. And water became the focus of modern warfare, the difference between life and death in the parched southern desert.

As the war in Iraq reached the end of Week 2, coalition forces were regrouped and resupplied, and ready to advance inside what war planners call the "red zone"-after a remarkably quick push through 300 miles of hostile terrain. But even as the front held, the rear presented a host of unexpected problems. Civilians in the south, mostly Shiite villagers, proved restive. After getting burned in a failed uprising during the first Gulf War, they were wary of supporting American troops this time around. A lack of humanitarian aid didn't help: Land mines, bureaucratic snafus, and ongoing firefights slowed crucial supplies of food and water, and that fueled local mistrust of Americans who'd hoped to be seen as liberators.

Then there were the military problems. Long supply lines from the Kuwaiti border made a tempting target for Saddam's forces, and Iraqi guerrilla units in southern cities managed to pin down American manpower needed at the front. A suicide bombing rattled nerves among coalition troops, and officials in Baghdad promised further acts of terror. In the heightened state of alert that ensued, a vanload of Iraqi women and children was shot and killed by jittery American soldiers, further straining relations with the civilian population. After 12 days, 8,000 precision-guided bombs, and untold bullets and mortars, coalition forces still could not claim complete control of a single Iraqi city between Baghdad and Kuwait.

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The surprisingly tough resistance in the south gave rise to some not-so-surprising criticism at home. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld found himself on the defensive, countering unnamed sources in reports that he had vetoed his field commanders' initial requests for additional soldiers. Both Mr. Rumsfeld in Washington and Gen. Tommy Franks in Qatar didn't shrink from the questions and were stout in insisting that the war was going according to plan; their openness stood in contrast to the daily propaganda briefings from Saddam's information minister and an extraordinary interview on Iraqi TV by Western journalist Peter Arnett, who called the American war blueprint a "failure" (see article on page 21). He was quickly sacked by his bosses at NBC and National Geographic, an unlamented loss in a war that seemed certain to produce many more noble casualties in the days ahead.

It wasn't only the bad guys raising questions, however. Going strictly by the map, critics pointed to seven days of fighting that produced little new real estate for coalition forces, until April 1, when they surrounded and sealed off the Shiite holy city of Karbala, the last major population center before Baghdad itself. On the same day they secured a key dam that could have been used to flood the approach to the capital, as well as an important bridge over the Tigris River, near the city of Kut. Military officials indicated that the campaign for Baghdad had begun.

Still, the lull that led up to the new advance gave critics-including some on the right-an opening to question the Pentagon's war strategy. William S. Lind of the conservative Free Congress Foundation in Washington characterized the battle plan as "a campaign that looks like a balloon on a string, with a single Army division (about 3,500 combat troops) deep in Iraq and a slender thread of a supply line connecting it to its food, water, fuel, and ammunition.... No classical strategist can see the picture without his hair standing on end."

A calmer evaluation comes from Dan Henk, a professor at the U.S. Air War College. The strategy pits "the traditional military experts, who say in order to win this war you have to have certain kinds of elements in place, traditional warfighting elements ... against the new philosophy, which says that technology has so enhanced our skills that you don't have to have all the traditional elements in place [because you can call them in at a moment's notice]. That is the Rumsfeldian view," he said. "We won't know which is the right answer until this is over."

Mr. Henk told WORLD: "I caution you to be very careful of criticism at this point. I may believe that we have gone in too light in some ways. I think we should have had more on the ground. But our ability to adjust is great and that is always happening; we should not second-guess."

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