Exactly twelve years ago last week a cease-fire was declared in the Persian Gulf War.
The campaign was hailed as a glorious victory yet, with a second campaign against Iraq looming just over the horizon, there is a lingering, vague feeling that the Gulf War was not nearly as successful as we have been led to believe.
Could there be another version to the first conflict with Saddam?
Back in 1991 the first Bush administration maintained that Iraq’s army had been quickly expelled from Kuwait, that the elite Republican Guard had been rendered “combat ineffective,” and that tens of thousands of lesser troops had simply given up.
Night after night we witnessed television footage of enemy command posts being zapped by laser-guided missiles, modern bridges being pulverized seemingly at will, and hundreds of Iraqi tanks burning in the desert.
But what were we not told? What were we not shown?
Absent from the Pentagon‘s glowing reports was the fact that Iraqi command sites had been emptied long before the war started, that the downed bridges were of limited relevance to the war effort (as ready-made pontoon versions were available), and that most of the destroyed tanks were third-rate, surplus models Iraq had little use for.
Most critically, our military brass failed to make clear that the Pentagon war plan called for Iraqi forces to be expelled from Kuwait only after the 120,000-strong Republican Guards had been destroyed as a fighting force.
As for the 80,000 Iraqi troops we saw eagerly surrendering, practically all were fourth-rate conscripts who were simply handed a rifle and told to sit in a ditch and wait. As he did repeatedly in his long war with Iran, Iraq’s wily President deliberately placed these “throw-away” divisions on the front lines so to bring our ground advance to a near standstill.
In the meantime, most of the Guard detachments packed up, headed north across the Euphrates River (using those pontoon bridges) and were safely out of reach by the time of the February 28 cease-fire. For most of us following the war back home, these crucial details were withheld, garbled, or downplayed by our leadership, leaving us with what appeared to be a shining example of American military superiority. But for those who watched closely there were tiny clues about the true nature of events.
In the second week of February, 1991, then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney appeared on CNN’s Evans and Novak, offering a lengthy interview about the events of the war. Co-host Rowland Evans took note of the secretary’s sullen mood and, after Cheney left the studio, commented, “I’ve never seen him (Cheney) look so morose.” A few days later, at a dinner held in his honor, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell could barely bring himself to rise when given a standing ovation by Republican supporters. After smiling politely to all, the general nearly collapsed back in his chair as the audience continued offering praise for his wartime efforts.
President George H. Bush himself, at a press conference a day after the cease-fire, was questioned as to why, in that moment of complete triumph, he looked “so downcast” while back in Saudi Arabia General Norman Schwarzkopf was reportedly suffering from post-war depression.
In the next few months, while Americans were distracted by the victory celebrations, the raw data started trickling in. Anthony Cordesman, respected defense analyst for the Center for Strategic Studies, returned from his post-war inspection of the Kuwaiti battlefield, saying, “My discussions with theater commanders and officers in the allied forces raise questions about the extent to which many believe in the official battle damage assessments” (Armed Forces Journal, 6/91, p. 68).
Then in 1992, Brassey’s, a well known military research organization from the United Kingdom, published their semi-annual report on world-wide military capabilities. “Fresh information,” they said, “has allowed a reassessment of Iraqi divisions.” The Republican Guards still totaled exactly eight robust divisions while Iraq’s greater army remained at its prewar high of nearly one million men.
Four years later Jane’s, another highly respected defense think-tank, gave confirmation to Brassey’s assessment on the Guards, saying, “Very few of the elite Republican Guard forces were affected by the Storm.” It was also ascertained that Iraq was now in possession of several advanced weapon systems stolen from Kuwait including British tanks, Russian Infantry Fighting Vehicles and American-made Stinger, Hawk, and TOW missiles. It should be assumed that all of these arms have long since been integrated into the Guard’s arsenal, making them an even more potent force.
In sum, the Gulf War should rightly be seen as a major strategic setback for the United States. Not only had we failed to destroy Iraq’s main offensive ground capability, but the enemy’s air-force, its air defense, its short and long-range missiles, its weapons of mass destruction, and, most importantly of all, its presiding regime came out of the war intact, unbeaten, and more emboldened than ever.
With the Pentagon gearing up to launch a second campaign to destroy Iraq’s military and leadership, Americans everywhere should consider the strong likelihood that we undertake this repeat effort largely due to the failure we suffered twelve years ago.
More importantly, that failure should put everyone on notice not to expect an easy road ahead in another contest with Iraq and Saddam.