With a single comment made while visiting hard-pressed U.S. troops in central Iraq, Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, commander of all Army forces in the Persian Gulf, has forced into the open a question his superiors have been trying to sidestep since the war began: How long will it last?
"The enemy we're fighting is different from the enemy we war-gamed against because of these paramilitary forces. We knew they were here, but we did not know how they would fight," Wallace said Thursday during a visit to a command post of the 101st Airborne Division.
Did that mean the war would run longer than expected?
"It's beginning to look that way," he said.
As reports of Wallace's comments spread through Washington on Friday, the White House moved quickly to scotch any suggestion that the Pentagon's battle plan may be in trouble and that the war may thus run longer than expected.
"The president has faith in the plan. He believes that the plan is on track, it is on progress, it is working," said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. Meantime, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointed out that the plan had been vetted by an array of senior U.S. commanders.
"Overall, our plans are on track," Myers said.
In other circumstances, a perhaps overly candid assessment by one general might have passed unnoticed. But Wallace's comments hit like a thunderclap because they spoke volumes about the tensions simmering beneath the surface of the war in Iraq.
In part, the tensions arise from the strains of a 72-hour period during which the coalition suddenly seemed to have stumbled into a briar patch of troubles. Fedayeen Saddam paramilitary fighters kept up bloody raids on lengthening allied supply lines. Iraqi troops refused to crumble. The Army's tank-killing Apache helicopters were turned back by low-tech ground fire. And Saddam Hussein remained in power.
The flare-up over Wallace's frankness brought to the surface the lingering unease among some U.S. officers and outside analysts over the fact that civilian leaders in the Pentagon sent U.S. forces into Iraq with a substantially smaller force than military planners originally envisioned.
And the pell-mell advance of coalition forces -- about 300 miles in less than a week -- has stretched supply lines and support systems far beyond anything logistics officers normally train for.
"This is a very bold, audacious plan, but it is poorly resourced," said a former field commander in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. "They need operational depth and they don't have it."
Yet despite such tensions, both senior Army officers and many outside analysts say the paramilitary attacks and other challenges are relatively minor when compared with what has been achieved. And many predict that, weather permitting, it may take no more than another month to destroy Hussein's Republican Guard, Special Republican Guard and other organized military forces.
"Three or four weeks, if we have to take the city down," said Andrew Berdy, a retired Army colonel who commanded U.S. troops around Nasiriyah in 1991, referring to the possibility that the final push may require a direct assault on Baghdad.
Hussein's organized forces may be overcome more quickly, Berdy said, if they remain arrayed as they are now, miles outside the capital.
"The question is whether we can isolate the Republican Guard outside the city. I hope we can," he said, "because as soon as they move and are out in the open, we can nail them."
"There is still a lot of combat power in the region that has not yet engaged with Iraqi combat forces," agreed Richard Hart Sinnreich, former director of the Army School of Advanced Military Studies.
He noted that the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division has seen intensive action along the route leading north from Kuwait through Nasiriyah and other cities in central Iraq. But the 7th Cavalry constitutes a relatively small part of the division's total combat punch, he added.
The great bulk of the 3rd Infantry's tanks and other heavy forces has moved to within 50 miles of Baghdad without serious opposition.
Although attacks by Fedayeen and some units of the regular Iraqi army have inflicted casualties and forced adjustments by U.S. commanders, Sinnreich said, in military terms "they are pinpricks."
Hussein's defensive strategy, however, has caused problems for allied commanders and prompted them to shift their own tactics.
"There is no question they didn't anticipate the Fedayeen," said William M. Arkin, a military analyst at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, "or that they overestimated 'shock and awe' and the degree to which coalition forces would be welcomed as liberators."
Still, the goal was to get to the outskirts of Baghdad quickly, he added, and that was accomplished in one week. "My guess is three weeks," he said of the time it will take to crush Hussein's organized forces.
"A battle never turns out exactly the way you planned it. That's the norm," said a ranking U.S. officer familiar with the planning process. "The guys in the theater are having to adjust to circumstances, because conflict just ain't predictable."
As a result, Wallace's statement sounds unexceptionable to military officers, though it may seem jarring or unexpected to civilians -- and possibly unwelcome to government officials determined to keep the focus on allied forces' gains.
In particular, this officer said, problems along the main supply line were a predictable consequence of its successful advance.
"One of the problems with making progress faster than anticipated is that the supply line gets longer than you wanted," he said. "That's good news tactically, but it may be bad news logistically."
At the Army's National Training Center, which is considered the most rigorous and realistic program in the world for preparing troops to handle the strains of combat, a brigade might be expected to cope with supply lines stretching 30 miles to the rear.
In Iraq, the lines back to secure supply depots are nearly 10 times that distance. Front-line shortages of fuel, ammunition and water have cropped up, but overall the logistical challenge has been met, officials say.
But it takes what one called "hard soldier work."
"That kind of fuels the fire" of debate over whether the force in Iraq is large enough and heavy enough to do the job. Critics argue that having at least one more heavy armored division and additional air-mobile forces to protect supply lines would have made the present campaign easier and safer.
"That is probably a valid argument," the officer familiar with the planning process said, adding, "we would also be second-guessed if we had more troops and had not made such rapid progress."
During the Gulf War, he said, the military brought a huge force and mountains of equipment. But the flow of materiel in the Gulf was so overwhelming that much of it never reached those who needed it.
"There was just so much junk you couldn't sort through it," he said.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Easier said than done
"I believe demolishing Hussein's military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk."
-- Kenneth Adelman, Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, in February 2002
"I don't think it would be that tough of a fight."
-- Vice President Dick Cheney, Sept. 8, 2002
"There may be pockets of resistance, but very few Iraqis are going to fight to defend Saddam Hussein."
-- Richard N. Perle, chairman of Defense Advisory Board, Feb. 25
"My guess is even significant elements of the Republican Guard are likely as well to want to avoid conflict with the U.S. forces and are likely to step aside."
-- Vice President Dick Cheney, March 16
"The days of Saddam Hussein are numbered."
-- Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, March 20
"Nobody with any knowledge of military matters expected there to be no resistance. If anything is unexpected, it's the speed of the advance and the relative absence of organized resistance."
-- Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of Defense, Monday
"What you'd like to do is have it be a short conflict. The best way to do that would be to have such a shock on the system that the Iraqi regime would have to assume early on the end was inevitable."
-- Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, Tuesday
"This war has just begun.""
-- President Bush, Tuesday
"We cannot know the duration of this war."
-- President Bush, Wednesday