Iraq war as a blueprint for next one
The conflict used a mix of precision weapons, cold-war planes, intelligence.
WASHINGTON — Operation Iraqi Freedom - still as much objective as complete accomplishment - reflects a pattern in post-Vietnam US military engagements, a trend line indicating how likely future conflicts will be fought.
This includes a mix of lightly armed but mobile ground units together with heavy tank battalions; more close air support of such units involving precision-guided aerial weapons - even from cold-war workhorses such as B-52 bombers; and heavy reliance on advanced and mid-war intelligence from CIA operatives and Special Forces teams.
From Grenada to Panama to the Balkans to Afghanistan and now Iraq, advances in weaponry and doctrine together with commonalities among enemies (including stateless terrorists) have pulled US war-fighting in this direction. So too, has the Bush administration's shift in US approach from deterrence and containment of potential enemies to preemptive strikes against nations or terrorist groups that threaten the US.
Compared to the first Gulf War, the 27-day war with Iraq has been riskier, involving more complicated operations spread over a larger territory and against a force thought to be armed with "weapons of mass destruction." And some of its major goals - finding chemicals and other banned munitions, rounding up key regime leaders, and proving clear links with terrorists - are yet to be met.
But in the end it's been shorter and more decisive. The regime of Saddam Hussein is gone and the US - so far, at least - has suffered even fewer combat casualties than the surprisingly low number in 1991 (148).
"Once more, US forces showed that they can easily defeat a conventional enemy force," says Marcus Corbin of the Center for Defense Information in Washington.
Does this necessarily hold true for the future? It depends on what potential battlefield opponents learned about trying to counter overwhelming US advantages in size and strength. (In military terms, this war really was no contest. The US spends 285 times as much on its armed forces as Iraq does.)
For example, will future opponents now be more inclined to make major use of what are called "asymmetric" or "unconventional" capabilities? Aside from a few suicide bombers and relatively ineffectual attacks by paramilitaries (dubbed "regime death squads" by the Pentagon), Iraq did not do this. Syria, on the other hand, has developed extensive means of carrying out asymmetric attacks in its war with Israel.
As has been shown in the toppling of so many Saddam Hussein statues, most of the Iraqi populace apparently is glad to have him go. But the minimal tossing of garlands at US soldiers also indicates Iraqis' opposition to a long-term occupying force. And other potential wars could well occur in places - Syria, Iran, or North Korea - where the population is much more likely to resist a US invasion, many experts believe.
"All the military lessons of Operation Iraqi Freedom hinge on the answer to a single question: How representative is Saddam's regime of future adversaries?" says Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute.
In this case, Iraqi forces were not as robust as they had been before the Gulf War, nor were they willing to fight to the end.
The treatment and release of the seven American POWs this week says something about the regime as well: That the threat of war-crime trials may have worked, and that overwhelming coalition firepower and troop levels led to widespread desertion of the officer corps.
"The fact that the captors of the prisoners were a local policeman and an ordinary soldier indicate that, at the working man's level, there is little if any affection or deeply felt allegiance for the old regime," says retired Army Col. Dan Smith.
Still, the scenes of chaos in the streets of Baghdad, followed by continued confusion and conflict over who's in charge of restoring order, show that the US was not as well prepared as it might have been to be the occupying force it will have to remain for the foreseeable future - another lesson for future wars.
"Before the war, the Pentagon and White House made the case over and over that we would be there to be liberators, that we would honor the local culture, restart local life, etc.," says retired Navy captain and Defense Department strategist Larry Seaquist. "But it appears that they were actually only prepared to be armed occupiers in a rather benign climate."
For all the speed and success of the US-led military effort, it also has brought to the surface - and likely increased - the tensions between Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and many senior officers.
Vice President Dick Cheney tweaked "some retired military officers embedded in TV studios," but there may be more to it than that. "When Cheney is attacking the opinions of retired military officers, he is really attacking the mouthpiece of active military officers who can't speak up," says military analyst Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif.
Says Marcus Corbin of the Center for Defense Information: "We should check back in with Cheney at election time next year, when we see how much damage the war may or may not have caused to the overall US position in the world."