Grinding Out War Takes Time

January 31, 1991|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. President George Bush was assured by his military advisers that Iraq would collapse within two days of the start of bombing two weeks ago. I have that from a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Mr. Bush was told by President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt that the war would be over in two weeks. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia told him ''two hours.''

The public would seem to have been wiser. Few ordinary citizens, I think, have really believed that the war could be won overnight with laser weapons. People have wanted to believe that, certainly, and have told themselves that it might be true. Who wouldn't? But from the start there has been evidence of an inarticulate public dread that the United States faced exactly what the White House now says it does face: ground combat and a long war. ''Probably months,'' Marlin Fitzwater says.

But people still do not seem to understand that the long-war scenario is an optimistic scenario, in that it foresees eventual success for the coalition, with the possibility of a constructive political aftermath.

Higher-optimism scenarios exist, of course: that Saddam Hussein is removed by his entourage; or that the morale of his army proves brittle and shatters when the coalition's ground forces attack. However, these are pure speculation; there is no serious evidence for either.

The pessimistic scenarios merely require that one takes seriously what Saddam Hussein has said, which until now has not generally been done. Yet Iraq's president has unfailingly told us what he would do. To the degree that it has lain in his power, he has done what he has said he would do.

He threatened Kuwait, and when Kuwait's royal family refused to give him what he wanted, he invaded and seized their country. Despite the sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council, the threats of the United States and other members of the U.N. coalition, and the pleas of the Soviet Union and Iraq's friends in the Arab world, he has kept Kuwait -- which all along he said he would do.

He said that if the U.N. coalition attacked him, he would attack Israel and Saudi Arabia. He has done so, to not inconsiderable effect. He promised to set the oil fields and the sea afire, and he has begun to do both, at the cost of ecological catastrophe in the gulf. He says that he will employ other unconventional weapons if that seems necessary. It would be foolish not to believe him.

He says that allied invasion of Kuwait or Iraq will produce ''the mother of battles.'' If his troops don't crack, why not? A half-million well-entrenched, well-equipped, experienced, peasant soldiers, if they are motivated, are a formidable opponent. Ask the people who fought in Korea or Vietnam.

In mid-September I wrote that this war's resemblance was to Korea, not Vietnam. I see no reason to alter that judgment. The Korean War lasted three years, the last two of them murderous quasi-siege warfare along the 38th parallel, while truce negotiations went on. Overall, there were at least 4 million casualties. United States losses were 54,000 dead and 100,000 wounded.

This war cannot last as long as the Korean War did, nor -- one prays -- produce casualties on that scale, so long as the LTC blockade of Iraq holds firm (but it now looks leaky, on the Iranian border). Obviously Iraq is not self-sufficient; it cannot go on indefinitely by itself. But the fighting could certainly be just as intense as in Korea, and continue for a considerable time.

We owned the air in Korea, as we do over Iraq. The Air Force promised, but failed, to isolate the Korean battlefield. When rail and roads were destroyed, the North Korean and Chinese armies were provisioned by men and women walking down from the north with A-frames on their backs.

Gen. Colin Powell said last week of Iraq's army, ''First we're going to cut it off, then we're going to kill it.'' Perhaps. It is not the first time that has been said, though. The Air Force promised to cut the Viet Cong off from its arms supplies. The U.S. invaded Cambodia and ran a ''secret'' war in Laos to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Where trucks could not go, men and women did, again with supplies on their backs, or pushing loaded bicycles.

To say all this invites gloom. It is meant to incite realism. If the president was indeed being told two weeks ago that the war would be over in 48 hours, realism has been in short supply. Let me suggest what the seriously pessimistic scenarios could look like:

Stalemate and failure: Our ground offensive bogs down. The summer heat makes fighting all but impossible. Support for the war fades in the U.S. and Europe. Arab or European mediation gets some response from Saddam Hussein. We are forced to settle. Saddam survives, stronger than ever.

Defeat: Exocets take out a Marine landing ship with all aboard. The coalition's ground invasion force is blunted by Iraq's defenses, with much blood-letting. The American home-front crumbles, or the coalition breaks up. This is Saddam's scenario.

General war in the region: Israel attacks on the ground to clear out the Scud missile sites, going through Jordan. Iran comes in the war on Iraq's side. Turkey becomes involved. Turmoil in Egypt, the Maghreb, etc. This is not in the least unlikely.

Nuclear war: Iraq makes a nuclear, chemical or biological strike on Israel or the coalition forces. Or, Exocets, gas, etc., inflict severe losses on the coalition's attacking forces. U.S. and/or Israeli public opinion demands and gets a nuclear retaliation. General world uproar.

But I won't go on. I'm sure that readers would rather not read more.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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