A War of Subtle Strategy

William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for Opinion. E-mail:

No one outside the Bush inner circle could have predicted that Operation Iraqi Freedom would begin as it did. Before war broke out early Thursday in Baghdad, military officers and government officials were describing an invasion plan founded on an opening display with such overpowering force and intensity its designers called it “shock and awe.”

That came later, of course, but in the early hours of war, we watched instead an opening phase that was as much psychological as physical. It was not initially overwhelming. It was intentionally unpredictable. It was a thinking man’s war.

The strategy seemed so jarring, so at odds with its advanced billing, and so novel in its approach, it is difficult to describe in purely conventional terms. The traditional yardsticks for measuring a war do not necessarily apply. In Iraq, at least during the opening phase, the number of bombs dropped or the count of troops and tanks could be deceiving. This was a strategy that favored focus over scale. It sought a TKO instead of trying to batter its foe into unconsciousness.

To be sure, the first phase was not the last. But even the blistering attacks on Baghdad Friday were an attempt to achieve victory without a full-blown war. If not successful, the focused attacks could swiftly give way to sledgehammer blows. In the words of Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, we could still see a war “of a force, a scope and a scale ... beyond what has been seen before.”


It is notable that the Bush administration, which has seldom been seen as a model of patience, chose to begin the war in Iraq with a strategy built upon just that quality. “Let’s give fear a chance,” it seemed to say to itself. Before the first missiles struck Baghdad, the U.S. had already begun its campaign to defeat Saddam Hussein.

Covertly, U.S. aircraft had struck more than a dozen key targets in southern and western Iraq: an air traffic control radar site outside Basra, communication sites, long-range artillery and missile emplacements, an air defense command center and radar facilities in western Iraq and two airfields. In each case, the objective was as much psychological as military. To paraphrase a famous saying, it’s the targets, stupid.

Of course, the early bombardments were “preparing the battlefield,” as the Pentagon put it, removing potential obstacles for the massive invasion force that would follow. At the same time, these early attacks were rapier thrusts that showed watching Iraqi forces just how vulnerable they were. To understand what was really going on, it is useful to visit one of the targets.

On Wednesday, U.S. forces bombed a relatively obscure airfield called Ruweished. The American military has kept a close eye on Ruweished since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. It is Iraq’s westernmost base, situated near the border with Jordan. Given its location, there has been a fear that Iraqi bombers might be staged at Ruweished to attack Israel. In December 1990, in fact, U.S. intelligence agencies observed Iraq building aircraft-size revetments adjacent to a 9,000-foot-long runway.


As a result, Ruweished was attacked on the first night of Desert Storm. Over the course of the 43-day war, U.S., British and Saudi aircraft returned again and again to blast runways and facilities. By the end of that war, Ruweished was unusable.

In 2003, when the U.S. came back, the story took a surprising twist: Ruweished was actually attacked before Baghdad and Hussein were ever bombed. On March 14, B-1B bombers blasted the base for the first time since 1991. And on Wednesday, Ruweished was bombed again, in an intense but low-profile attack.

This time, however, the intent was different. In 1991, Ruweished was rendered useless. Now, it is part of an overall strategy that calls for American Special Forces, covert operators and conventional ground elements to form a tightening noose around Baghdad. Bases such as Ruweished are seen as vital resources to be captured as potential staging bases for coalition forces. So the bombers hit Ruweished’s defenses but did not obliterate its runways.

That might seem conventional enough as a matter of military planning. Generals have often sought to capture key bridges, roads and ports rather than destroy them.

But in this case, the nature of the attacks on Ruweished was shaped by another factor as well. If the conflict turns into all-out war, capturing facilities such as Ruweished would increase the Pentagon’s ability to order up crushing blows. In the opening phase, though, U.S. strategists played a subtler hand. Rather than destroy Iraq in order to save it, they were trying to coax victory from an enemy they saw as weak and -- except perhaps for Hussein and his innermost ring -- uncertain about its appetite for war.

That is why planners put such emphasis on psychological warfare, targeting both the military and the Iraqi populace. Along with extensive but highly selective bombing Wednesday, U.S. Central Command dropped some 2 million leaflets on 29 locations in and around the southern port city of Basra alone. It was the largest U.S. leaflet drop since the first Gulf War, larger than any such effort in Afghanistan, where U.S. goals were also both psychological and military. On Wednesday alone, the U.S. delivered 20% of the 17 million leaflets it has delivered all year.

Some of these leaflets contained threats to Iraqi forces, warning them not to use chemical weapons or sabotage oil fields. For the first time, other leaflets included specific instructions about how Iraqi troops could surrender safely. The coordinated bombing and the prepared leaflets further tend to suggest that what unfolded in Baghdad on Thursday morning was not merely opportunistic but consistent with a well-laid plan.

Some asked Wednesday and Thursday when the “real war” would begin, but that question missed the point: This was the real war. President Bush’s 48-hour deadline ended with a large coalition air force ready to strike at any time, with special operations and CIA operators working both around and on Iraqi soil, and with ground forces poised to push into Iraq on two axes -- one east toward Basra, the other north to Baghdad.


Though there was a so-called “target of opportunity” in Baghdad on Wednesday night, the overall schedule seems to have been moved up by only a few hours and the basic choreography remained intact.

What we can learn from the specifics of the targets attacked, and from those that were initially passed over, is that -- largely out of public view -- the United States began the war by building up resources and capabilities to try for a “shock and awe” victory that still attempts to be as sparing to the Iraqi population as possible. Astoundingly, on Friday, even during heavy bombing, electricity still flowed in Baghdad.

We have seen this before, in October 2001, when the United States began its campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Then, as now, all eyes were focused on the Afghan capital and the search for Osama bin Laden. Then, as now, the importance of psychological warfare and special operations were not well understood. Then, as now, exotic strategies and sometimes unbelievable intelligence information drove the most important attacks.

Experience, of course, suggests that it is extremely difficult to find and kill an enemy leader. But that is not a reason to criticize the opening salvos of the Bush administration’s war. By not going in with all guns blazing, by intensely focusing the Baghdad bombing, the Bush administration was seeking a middle ground -- militarily and politically.

It had obstinately rejected diplomacy. It dismissed inspections as a road to nowhere. But it embraced a modulated war plan that offered at least a chance for success without a huge cost in human lives and resources. What is more, by giving Iraqi military forces an opportunity to surrender instead of backing them into a corner, and by offering the Iraqi people a chance to win the war for themselves, the U.S. hoped to emerge better than anyone thought possible in the eyes of the Islamic world.

Further escalation may still prove necessary. Even catching Hussein in the cross hairs or inducing front-line troops to surrender in southern Iraq does not necessarily end the war. Short of a coup that deposes the entire regime or a wholesale surrender of the capital, there is recognition among the war planners and commanders that U.S. and British forces still must root out the regime faithful -- a group that still numbers as many as 100,000.

“We all certainly hope that offensive operations will be over quickly,” British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon told the House of Commons on Thursday, “but we should not underestimate the risks and difficulties that we may face.”

Still, whatever comes next, the Bush administration and its war planners surprised their friends and confounded their critics with an opening gambit that tried persuasion over all-out war.