Siege mentality

Coalition forces are 'storming towards Baghdad'. Just don't ask what they plan to do when they get there.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

‘Four miles from Baghdad’ say today’s headlines, as coalition forces apparently amass around ‘their final target’. ‘Having travelled hundreds of miles we will now go the last 200 yards!’ declared a fist-slamming President Bush last night, to cheering marines in North Carolina (1).

Coalition forces may be close enough to ‘see the lights of Baghdad’ (until a bombing raid caused a blackout, that is) – but what happens next? Alongside the ‘unstoppable advance’ to their ‘final target’, US officials appear increasingly uncertain about what to do once they get there, how to define victory, and what to replace the regime with.

The troops ‘storming towards Baghdad’ seem to have little intention of entering the city. ‘We are not expecting to drive into Baghdad suddenly and seize it in a coup, or anything like that’, says US Major General Stanley McChrystal. Instead, US forces are apparently planning a ‘stand-off’ – where fighter planes will continue bombing from the sky while ground troops peer in menacingly from the ground (2).

According to one report, the Pentagon doesn’t want US troops ‘to force their way into [Baghdad] en masse, out of fear of being drawn into dangerous street warfare’ (3). Coalition forces will employ ‘tactical patience’ instead, where they will wait for something to give inside Baghdad, and attempt to seize small strategic parts of the city, before entering in full force (4). One former US diplomat thinks coalition forces are planning to play ‘the game of “political stand-off”’, where ‘someone will have to blink’ (5). So having failed to decapitate Saddam’s regime, perhaps the coalition can stare it out of existence instead.

The Pentagon defines its Baghdad strategy as ‘surround and squeeze’, rather than being a ‘traditional siege’ (6). And US General Richard Myers is confident that the people of Baghdad will help the coalition forces in their squeezing. According to one report, Myers expects that ‘a good portion of the five million residents – the oft-persecuted Shi’ite population in the eastern half of the city – could quickly switch their loyalty to US forces’ (7).

Sound familiar? Part of the plan for Basra was that a good portion of its oft-persecuted Shi’ite population would quickly switch their loyalty to the coalition forces. Yet two weeks later that city remains untaken. (However, one report this morning claims that British forces around Basra have managed to ‘poke a toe’ into the city.)

For all the media reports of ‘endgames’ now that Baghdad is in the coalition’s sights, it seems that coalition forces are approaching their final target with the same combination of hoped-for low-level engagement and wishful thinking that has defined the campaign from the outset. Part of the plan seems to be to besiege (sorry, squeeze) Baghdad, and hope that it implodes from within – either as a result of the continued ‘shock and awe’ bombing from overhead, or the people of Baghdad standing up to the regime, or something…anything.

At the same time as Bush urged his forces to ‘go the last 200 yards’ to ‘nothing less than complete and final victory’, some in the Bush administration are redefining what victory in Iraq might look like. According to the Washington Post, some US officials now talk up a ‘rolling victory’, where they would ‘declare victory in Iraq even if Saddam Hussein or key lieutenants remain at large and fighting continues in parts of the country’ (8).

For coalition forces, victory would not require ‘a formal Iraqi capitulation’, but simply ‘a moment when the military and political balance tilts decisively away from Hussein’s Ba’ath Party government’ (9). For General Richard Myers, even if Saddam and his henchmen were still struggling to survive in Baghdad, the coalition could declare victory. According to Myers, when Baghdad is isolated from the rest of the country, the city will become ‘almost irrelevant’: ‘Whatever remnants are left would not be in charge of anything except their own defence.’ (10)

Baghdad irrelevant? Before the war, US officials drew up a Baghdad-or-bust plan for invading Iraq, with a focus on getting to Baghdad as quickly as possible (within two days, according to some officials) – yet now they claim the war could be won without winning the capital.

Coalition forces may be squeezing Baghdad while British forces are poking their toes into Basra, but according to one senior US military officer that doesn’t matter – because victory in Iraq isn’t just a geographical thing: ‘The objective is not necessarily to take buildings or occupy areas. It’s the people. It’s getting them to accept the fact that the regime is gone. That’s the essence of the thing. It’s not going to be a geographic piece.’ (11)

In this new-fangled idea of victory, Saddam and co could still be holed up in Baghdad and Basra could still be burning, but as long as the people ‘accepted’ that the regime had gone (even if it hadn’t) then the coalition would have won the war. This elevates the image war in Iraq to a new height – where coalition forces could declare victory on the basis of a perception that the regime had disappeared, rather than on the reality of the regime’s defeat.

Some are even talking about starting the US occupation before Baghdad has fallen, by administering Iraq from somewhere in the south (not Basra, surely). And if anything is likely to be less stable than the already-planned postwar occupation, it will be a half-cocked half-war, half-occupation.

Others raise the problem of what kind of image could define the coalition’s victory in Iraq. In a war where US forces have been told not to fly the Stars and Stripes and where all troops have been warned against ‘displays of triumphalism’, winning a victory and depicting it to the world could prove problematic. Writing in The Times of London, Ben MacIntyre says that ‘perhaps the liberation of Baghdad will not be symbolised by flags, shattered statues, uniformed generals, recaptured monuments, formal acts of capitulation or parades – but by packets of food, handed out to hungry children’ (12).

Finally, there’s still the issue of what to replace Saddam’s regime with après la guerre. The ‘political stand-off’ with Saddam’s forces around Baghdad has been mirrored by an internal stand-off within the US elite, as disagreements about postwar Iraq have come to the fore. Some hawks apparently want America to be the boss, while others are cautious of explicitly imposing American values and want to involve the UN – as captured in the debate about Iraq’s postwar currency.

According to one report, ‘one of the first concerns of the [American] government-in-waiting is what to do about Iraqi banknotes which – horror of horrors – carry a picture of Saddam’. Someone in the administration suggested the solution of replacing Iraqi banknotes with the US dollar – but then that idea was scrapped in case it was interpreted as ‘proof of America’s imperialist intentions’ (13). Even if Baghdad was to fall through the magic of wishful thinking, it seems the coalition is deeply uncertain of what to put in its place.

As coalition forces surround the Iraqi capital with little idea of what to do either inside the city or after the war, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this campaign is still a load of shock and awe signifying nothing.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Bush motivates Marines to ‘go the last 200 yards’, Bill Sammon, Washington Times, 4 April 2003

(2) Battle of Baghdad may be neither siege nor surge, Kansas City Star, 4 April 2003

(3) Myers: No ‘siege’ planned for Baghdad, Pamela Hess, United International Press, 3 April 2003

(4) At Baghdad’s gates, speed and caution, Brad Knickerbocker, Christian Science Monitor, 4 April 2003

(5) See Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall, 30 March 2003

(6) Allies take airport as noose tightens, Phillip Coorey, Melbourne Herald Sun, 4 April 2003

(7) Myers: No ‘siege’ planned for Baghdad, Pamela Hess, United International Press, 3 April 2003

(8) ‘Rolling’ victory key to US endgame, Peter Slevin and Bradley Graham, Washington Post, 4 April 2003

(9) ‘Rolling’ victory key to US endgame, Peter Slevin and Bradley Graham, Washington Post, 4 April 2003

(10) ‘Rolling’ victory key to US endgame, Peter Slevin and Bradley Graham, Washington Post, 4 April 2003

(11) ‘Rolling’ victory key to US endgame, Peter Slevin and Bradley Graham, Washington Post, 4 April 2003

(12) Forces must find definitive image of victory, Ben MacIntyre, The Times (London), 4 April 2003

(13) Beyond Baghdad, Brian Whitaker, Guardian, 2 April 2003

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