THE months of diplomacy and debate, troop deployments, and United Nations maneuvering, have come down to this: the silence of waiting for war to begin. As of this writing the United States-led multinational coalition had not yet begun military action to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. But it is clear that with the passing of the Jan. 15 deadline such an attack could come at any moment.
Grim White House officials were indicating that no politically meaningful time would elapse before bombs began to fall. The Pentagon said that the 415,000 US troops in the Kuwaiti theater of operations were just waiting for the word.
``The Department of Defense is ready to execute any order we might receive from the president,'' said spokesman Pete Williams on the 15th.
Iraq gave every indication of stepping up to meet the battle. Its fortification line within Kuwait was being adjusted to make it more defensible, while being extended westward into Iraq proper by a constant influx of more troops and heavy guns.
``We don't see any evidence that they are in any way pulling out of Kuwait,'' said Mr. Williams.
Thus, the fate of the Gulf was passing from the hands of politicians into those of generals. At the US command level this seemed little occasion for rejoicing. Discussions in recent months with a wide range of US officers, both in Washington and the field in Saudi Arabia, found only an isolated few sounding gung-ho about ousting Saddam Hussein from his ``19th province'' at gunpoint.
Mid- and high-level officers with combat experience in Southeast Asia have no illusions about the violence their task will entail. They warn that this time when they go, they will go all out - what US Defense Secretary Richard Cheney has called the ``don't mess around'' school of strategy. It's as if the US armed forces are preparing to meet on the plains of Arabia not only Iraq, but their decades-old frustrations about slow escalation in Vietnam.
Analysts have filled the headlines and airwaves in recent days with scenarios about how the war will be fought, and in broad outline many may even turn out to have been correct.
That the allies will begin with massive air strikes seems likely, but targets are uncertain and air power could be accompanied by any number of other military moves. There are more than 20,000 marines afloat in the Gulf, capable of moving ashore at any point along the Kuwaiti coast; Army airborne troops could similarly be moved quickly behind Iraqi lines. Hundreds of cruise missiles, never before used in combat, could be launched from Navy ships as the US first blow.
``I think they could be going to do something unusual at the start,'' says Greg Weaver, a conventional forces analyst with the SAIC Corporation in San Diego.
Whatever operational plans are employed, two main thorny problems confront allied commanders: neutralizing Iraqi terror weapons and forcing Iraqi tanks out of their well-prepared fortifications.
Iraq's Al-Hussein and Al-Abbas missiles have the range to hit targets in Israel and Saudi Arabia, and the terror they inspire could have a significant effect on civilians in those two countries. Thus, the 65 to 70 missile launch sites in Iraq, most fixed, some mobile, are likely to be target No. 1 for allied forces.
Protective bunkers and the ability to move mean some missiles and launchers will likely survive a first attack. But the several-hour fueling time needed before launch may make those that survive vulnerable to preemptive strike.
``The destruction of Iraq's missiles will require a sustained effort,'' judges Michael Eisenstadt, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Dealing with Iraqi armored forces is the nub of the whole allied strategy. Tanks and infantry captured Kuwait; it will take ground forces, as well as air power, to drive them out.
Right now Iraq's Army is hunkered down behind mine fields, antitank ditches, and concrete-and-dirt embankments. These fortifications have been constructed with great skill, says one knowledgeable Pentagon official, by a force whose field leadership knows what it is doing. ``Their generals are very good,'' he says.
This official says that the weakness of this defensive line is that it renders the defenders immobile. Allied ground forces, by contrast, will range from side to side behind the front, feinting action before concentrating and spearing through the Iraqi line at one or more points.
Under this scenario, as US-led units spill through the line, Iraqi armor will have to pull out of position and move to meet the threat. Immobile and camouflaged, tanks are relatively hard to destroy from the air, but ``once they start moving they're easy to hit'' from aircraft, says the official, bringing allied air superiority into play.
On the Page 1 map in the Jan. 17 issue, the Monitor should have included the following countries militarily represented in the multinational force in the Gulf: Britain, France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, New Zealand, Niger, and Poland.