February 15, 1991

Bush goes to war

Print edition : February 06, 2015

AT 2-50 a.m. Iraq time on January 17, the five-and-a-half month Operation Desert Shield literally became Desert Storm, the code name for the ostensible campaign to liberate Kuwait. The active participants were as follows: Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship versus the United States of America, Britain, Saudi Arabia and a few remnants of the Kuwait armed forces. Another unusual active participant but not bearing arms: the Cable News Network (CNN), based in Atlanta, U.S.

Passive participants contributing in some way were about two dozen Western, Arab and a handful of Islamic countries’ forces, the Arab masses, Israel and a host of usually well-informed media outfits which suddenly became usually misinformed sources with their wings clipped by the censors. The most silent passive participant was an organisation called the United Nations.

By the midnight of January 15, the deadline for an Iraqi pullout from Kuwait, all mediation efforts for a negotiated settlement had come to nought.

As evidence now emerges of the military preparations on both sides, it appears the world was being taken for a tortuous roller-coaster ride by two men who had already decided they would go to war. Therefore, on the night of the deadline, George Bush sounded the trumpets and on the first “available night of opportunity after the expiry of the deadline, the dogs of war were unleashed. The generals were asked to do what the politicians and the diplomats could not. The three-and-a-half hours of the first night showed that so far as the air war was concerned it was an unequal fight. The Iraqis based their defence on what the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell described as having an integrated air defence and early warning system.” Not all Third World countries of this size can afford either to develop or purchase such capability. But these were clearly no match in strictly technological terms with what the coalition forces marshalled.

Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, overall commander of the coalition forces, had at his disposal not just the microchip-based U.S. air and naval firepower. In his closet he had a vast array of aircraft, land and carrier-based, sea-launched cruise missiles and a fully tested reconnaissance and battle management fleet in the sky, not to mention petrol stations in the sky. Contributions from various Western or U.S.-supplied air and naval forces dealt Schwarzkopf a full hand. The major challenge was to harness this mishmash under a central command and control structure. Numerically and qualitatively the Iraqis were never in a position to outgun the enemy. The question was how well they would withstand the coalition onslaught.

The first job of the anti-Iraq coalition was to neutralise the air defence envelope to allow a planned air-predominant campaign to engage primary targets on the following days. Concurrently some primary targets had to be taken out on the first night itself. These included Iraq’s suspected nuclear, chemical and biological manufacturing facilities. And, one more: the Soviet-made Scud Iraqi-modified fixed surface-to-surface missile sites. This last task was of greater political than military importance because Iraq could easily try and expand the war to include Israel with these weapons thereby jeopardising the political environment surrounding the conflict. In short, apart from suppressing the surface-to-surface missile capability, Schwarzkopf’s initial priority was to establish mastery of the skies.

Saddam Hussein waited out the night-and-day bombings of Baghdad and the rest of Iraq for two days and one night. On the night of January 17, he played one of the stronger cards in a relatively weak hand. He showered Israel with eight Scud missiles and sent one into the Saudi Eastern Province as well. The plan was clear and not unexpected: to expand the war into an Arab-Israeli one. The timing was designed to attract an Israeli retribution and inflame Arab masses on the Muslim holiday on Friday. That did not happen after Israel came under great pressure from its foster parent to restrain itself. Israel continued to maintain that it reserved the right to hit back at the time of its choice by whatever means it chose, but clearly it had to stay its hand.

The next day Saddam Hussein struck at Israel again, hoping that an attack on the Sabbath would inflame Jewish opinion sufficiently to pressure the government into retaliation. In both these attacks there were no fatalities but there were injuries and severe material damage. Significantly, Iraq hit Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean coast as well as Haifa further to the north. These are areas where there are fewer Arabs and no big Muslim places of worship, unlike Jerusalem, holy land for Islam and Judaism, the two religions.

As a price for its restraint, Israel obtained U.S.-operated Patriot anti-missile batteries with American personnel. Israel had been given Patriot missiles earlier, but the local crew had not yet been fully trained. Meanwhile, there arose serious doubts over U.S. claims about the level of success of the initial strikes. The feeling grew that Saddam Hussein had already decided that it was impossible to compete with the technology and numbers of aircraft-cum-naval firepower ranged against him. Hence he decided to absorb it.

This impression of rip-roaring success of the initial strikes was fostered mainly by the CNN televising the strikes on Baghdad and its environs. From the time the first aircraft was over Baghdad, Bernard Shaw of CNN came alive from his window at Hotel Al Rashid in Baghdad. Baghdad was lit up “like a Christmas tree”, commented the CNN, which gave the world the first-ever televised commentary of the war. You could see the enormous explosions, the tracer-laced anti-aircraft fire of the Iraqi air defences as well as the aluminium chaff dispensed by coalition aircraft to confuse radar-operated heat-seeking missiles.

CNN was created by a separate revolution. The moment the U.S. presidential spokesman announced “the liberation of Kuwait has begun”, CNN changed its work logo from “deadline in the desert” to “war in the Gulf”. Since then it has come in for a lot of fire about its role. It informed, disinformed, misinformed and just plain ignored items related to certain lobbies. Additionally it became too aware that its broadcasts were being monitored closely in Baghdad and in Washington. Often it tried to act as a go-between rather than discharge its primary function. It is like watching a test match that never ends.

Large parts of Baghdad are without electricity or water. Several civilian targets have been hit and the population has been terrorised, though it appeared the U.S. had not directly hit civilian areas. When a target blends into a civilian population the U.S. has opted to hit the area. The civilian casualties in such cases are called “collateral damage”.

A Soviet technician just out of Iraq told the Izvestia newspaper that he had seen a number of residential areas destroyed. Several other eyewitness reports say much the same thing, adding that Baghdad is a high-profile TV location where the damage is not that evident, but outside in some towns whole residential areas have been blasted.

The Americans have bombed the town of Tikrit, the place of Saddam Hussein and most of the senior members of his Baath Party as well as the rest of the top leadership. His Baghdad palace was damaged. Several other targets in Baghdad, including the Ministry of Defence building, were destroyed. The latter was taken out in a classic televised example of the power of the microchip. The laser-guided Smart munitions carried by F-111 bombers went right down the vent shaft of the building. Iraq’s refining capacity has been bombed out to half its original capacity. The coalition is putting out that much of this was used to earn revenue to finance the war machinery or support terrorism. Yet, in the presence of censors CNN reported that in several places Iraqi citizens were queuing up for petrol outside bunks. Iraq’s manipulation of the CNN appears to be to propagate both the civilian devastation as well as how well the people are standing up to it.

Iraq is desperate to get going with the land and sea battle before the carpet-bombing of its elite Republican Guards drastically reduces its capacity to inflict casualties on the coalition. It recognises that the war is a very personalised one between George Bush and Saddam Hussein. It will end only in a finish. No draws or ties. Militarily Iraq cannot hope to win unless it demonstrates a weapon the world does not yet know it possesses. Saddam Hussein has been driven to take the most unorthodox measures.

Saddam Hussein’s latest and perhaps most damaging ploy yet has been to open out the taps at the Al Ahmadi refinery and tanks. Located in Kuwait, this export outlet has been discharging oil into the Gulf, and a major ecological disaster is expected. The spill is estimated, according to U.S. officials, as several dozen times larger than that of the Alaskan Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.

Iraq accused the U.S. of causing the spill by hitting tankers anchored at a Kuwaiti oil export terminal. The U.S. said Iraq had started discharging from five tankers besides opening the spigot at the export outlet. If Saddam Hussein has done this then it appears to be a clever trick to discourage the coalition from undertaking an amphibious assault. Whether the U.S. will actually do so is yet to be seen, but doubtless it will have to review its tactical planning. At some future date Iraq may ignite the spill; something never done before. Though oil experts say it will not affect U.S. plans, this is all theory-talk. In war, experience is the sole guide. Now it is the ecological catastrophe that is sought to be tackled. About six million barrels of oil, at the rate of nearly one lakh barrels a day, has been discharged.

It should be obvious to any observer that the decimation of Iraq’s economic infrastructure is to achieve two aims. One, to keep Iraq preoccupied with reconstruction, and two, to give export opportunities to Western firms in the reconstruction process. Analysts have estimated that the rebuilding of Kuwait will cost about $50 billion (Rs.90,000 crore). Iraqi destruction has been estimated at $200 billions in economic infrastructure alone.

Another aim of prolonging the war is to delay the liberation of Kuwait until the U.S. pursues the elimination of Saddam Hussein from power or gets him killed. Till then it is a wonderful opportunity to experiment with a variety of new weapons untried in extensive combat.

For the moment Iraqis are holding out, though one can be sure with great loss of resilience. It is still not clear if its air force is being held back. It is almost invisible. Saddam Hussein had prepared for a big war for years to take on the U.S.

The U.S. says Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and supposedly biological production facilities have been destroyed, though it admits that all storage facilities may not have been taken out. That does not help. There is no proof of any of these claims.

At the end of the first 10 days of Desert Storm the only certain conclusion that could be drawn was that in the air the coalition had achieved superiority over several areas of Iraq. Eventually, despite the microchip, it is not the technology but the men (and women) who win wars.

Operation Desert Storm is just one phase of a very very long war. At the end of the day you would not want to be an American walking the streets of the Arab world outside the oil-fat fiefdoms of the Gulf.

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