'Cut It Off. . . and Kill It'

February 28, 1991

One does not denigrate the sheer brilliance of the coalition victory in Kuwait by noting it was aided by the sheer stupidity of Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi rout has to rank as one of the dumbest military operations ever. Having thrown away his chances for an offensive triumph over Iran a decade ago, Saddam is now exposed as a fraud in his supposed specialty of defensive warfare.

Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, on being asked yesterday for his assessment of the Iraqi dictator as a military leader, had this to say: "Hah! As far as Saddam Hussein being a great military strategist, he is neither a strategist, nor is he schooled in the operational arts, nor is he a tactician, nor is he a general, nor is he a soldier."

Perhaps the Iranians could have predicted as much. Saddam Hussein, in launching the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, achieved early advantage only to settle for static defensive positions that led to a stalemate he characteristically called a victory. Then, turning his aggressive instincts southward to capture Kuwait, he proceeded to re-fight his last war against an international force light-years ahead in technology, strategy and tactics.

Against Iran, Mr. Hussein could use limited air superiority and ground mobility to fill any holes punctured in his defenses. Not this time. Never did he commit his air force to battle. Not once did he throw his vaunted armor into the field. He just hunkered down, was outsmarted -- and got beat.

Almost from the beginning of this conflict, Western media were filled with maps projecting a northward thrust by coalition forces toward Kuwait City combined with an encircling maneuver from the west to trap the Iraq army. As Gen. Colin L. Powell chillingly put it: "We're going to cut it off, and then we're going to kill it."

His prediction is now confirmed by President Bush's proclamation of a cease fire. And yet Iraqi forces focused on the defense of Kuwait City, which crumbled quickly enough, and on an allied amphibious landing that never came. Meanwhile, General Schwarzkopf was moving the bulk of his land forces far to the west where they could sweep and outflank and close the trap.

It was an air/land operation requiring extraordinary coordination among the armies of half a dozen countries and among military units with a bewildering complex of specialties. And it was conducted with precision not only to liberate Kuwait but to render the Iraqi military establishment incapable of again threatening its neighbors.

Despite the success of the Schwarzkopf campaign, questions are bound to be asked about it. How would the campaign have gone had coalition forces encountered a foe roughly comparable in terms of state-of-the-art hardware? What would have happened if Iraqi forces were commanded not by Saddam Hussein but by professionals making good use of their resources? The latter may well describe another Third World conflict down the road. We had better be prepared for it.

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