WASHINGTON—The late British military historian Sir Basil Liddell Hart wrote that "the difference between a military operation and a surgical operation is that in a military operation the patient is not tied down."
In Iraq, "the patient" has refused to cooperate with the operation. Instead, the Iraqis have turned to classic guerrilla warfare, drawing lessons and tactics from wherever they can find them: Mogadishu, Bosnia, Kosovo, the old Soviet Union, even Vietnam.
As American Army and Marine front-line divisions draw closer to Baghdad, the supply columns strung out behind them are having to fight their way forward with everything, including the weather, seemingly turning hostile.
The American forces are bypassing Highway 28, a modern four-lane freeway ideally suited for speeding fuel, ammunition, food and water to the forward units, in favor of a clogged, bumpy parallel road, because the highway passes too close to cities.
Iraqi irregular forces determined to slow and unsettle the invaders fake surrenders or spring ambushes, then retreat into civilian neighborhoods. Men in civilian clothes with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 rifles hidden under their robes make the supply route a nightmare for those who drive it in fuel and ammunition trucks.
The commander of the ground war, Army Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, put out a hurry-up call to the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Polk, La. They plan to fly a cavalry squadron and its armored Humvees and a helicopter reconnaissance squadron to the war zone Sunday to provide much-needed security along the 250-mile corridor leading from Kuwait to the front lines.
The hurry-up airlift is yet another confirmation that the civilian planners in the Department of Defense left some crucial capabilities out of their plan, in this case an armored cavalry unit and a brigade of military police to provide security on vulnerable supply lines.
All this also reveals that Saddam Hussein planned a much different war from the one his counterparts in the Pentagon expected.
Military analyst Anthony H. Cordesman of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research center for national security issues, notes that many of the warnings of the past decade about "asymmetric warfare," the difficulties inherent in fighting low-tech forces with high-tech ones, may to be coming true in Iraq.
"This is reflected in the use of dispersal, concealment, decoys and civilian areas. It is reflected in what is clearly a higher degree of independence of action," Cordesman said.
Cordesman said Iraqi leaders were demonstrating a great degree of flexibility by combining the use of regular Republican Guard forces and the irregular Saddam Fedayeen, and in the strange mix of stay-behinds in cities and rear areas that included Baathist Party thugs, Fedayeen and regular soldiers in and out of uniform.
Of even greater concern to Cordesman and other military thinkers is the Iraqi nationalism that's coming into play. "We may have badly underestimated what Iraqis feel as national patriots, their unity as Arabs, their reaction to (the U.N. program) Oil-for-Food and their reaction to the images of the second intifada," Cordesman said, referring to the Palestinian uprising against Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza. "Disliking Saddam is not the same as liking us."
The ingredients may be in place for a lingering guerrilla war against the U.S.-led coalition, waged classically against the coalition's weakest link, that long, vulnerable lifeline between the fuel and supply depots hundreds of miles south of the fighting divisions.
Protecting it will take thousands more soldiers than are presently on the ground. It requires active patrolling and screening all along the tortuous routes leading out of southern Iraq. It will mean taking units into cities and towns where the guerrillas, in Chairman Mao's words, will swim like fish in a sea of the people.
In the worst case, it could mean that even when Baghdad has fallen and the war is over, the war will continue. For those forces who will be tapped to police a nation the size of California, with a population of nearly 25 million, it could mean the war is just beginning.
Iraq has Highway 28. South Vietnam had Route 19, which ran from the coast up into the Central Highlands. It was garrisoned from beginning to end by American and Korean soldiers guarding the bridges and the high mountain passes.
Off to the right of Route 19, on a barren hill, stood a monument and a small, empty cemetery full of markers bearing the names and ranks of an entire regiment of France's finest, Groupe Mobile 100, proud veterans of the war in Korea.
As their column drove across the Man Yang Pass between An Khe and Pleiku in 1954, they were ambushed by Viet Minh guerrillas. They all died on that lonely highway, and with them died the last hope of French victory in Indochina.
If America is to avoid a long, costly and uncertain struggle in Iraq, it will have to avoid the trap Saddam is setting: making soldiers and Marines who have come as liberators appear to be invaders, or worse yet, colonizers.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.