With the allied recapture of Khafji, the Saudi border town briefly occupied by invading Iraqi forces, the first ground skirmish of the Persian Gulf war has run its course. For Americans, the loss of 11 Marines was a reminder that this war, like all wars, has claws. Early euphoria created by the performance of U.S. wonder weapons is gone, along with the Bush administration's suggestions that the conflict could be over in days or weeks. Now the talk is in terms of months.
Nonetheless, deep despond would be as unjustified as over-optimism. Military historians will likely conclude that the U.S. air campaign against Iraq, now into its third week, was notable for its ferocity and effectiveness. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. forces in the gulf, estimates that Iraqi troops, are getting only one-tenth of the supplies they need just to sustain themselves. Perhaps, in time, this means the allies will indeed be able to cut off and kill the Iraqi armies massed in and around Kuwait.
Yet Saddam Hussein has made it clear he wants to spill so much blood that American public support for the war will wither and he can escape his current predicament. This being the case, his doomed attack on Khafji seems, in retrospect, almost predictable. In a classic military sense, it was a textbook exercise in probing an enemy, testing his fighting capability, looking for his weak spots. As a propaganda device, it enabled Iraq to claim it was the first to take enemy territory, though with heavy casualties. A dictator with little regard for the lives of his own troops can always put the squeeze on a democracy which treasures its young.