On the ground

March 27, 2003

SINCE THE Civil War days of George B. McClellan, American generals have always wanted more troops before going into battle. They haven't always been wrong.

Today, the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division is in the desert southwest of Baghdad - having paused so that American and British forces can establish firm control in the rear before it moves toward the capital. The lightning invasion of Iraq succeeded in bringing the division across 185 miles in less than a week, but it didn't kick down the house of Saddam Hussein. Now the Iraqis are counterattacking; even as the 3rd Division contends with that, the Army needs to prepare for a second, bigger push.

For two years, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has portrayed the Army as bloated, slow, heavy and - worst of all - low-tech. He wants a military that is nimble, gadget-laden, and light on its feet. The Army, as he saw it, was none of these.

He wasn't all wrong, by any means. But the civilian leadership's fascination with precision weapons and dazzling air power and gun-slinging special forces overlooks one salient reality: You can't win a war like this one if you don't win it on the ground.

In a sense, the strategy of the opening week of this war has been more political than military in intent. There was a gamble that the regime could be shocked and awed into a collapse. That it didn't pan out is not really a failure, because the British and American forces have been left in a good position to continue the fight. But it means that the second, more deadly phase of the war is only now getting under way.

There are four Republican Guard divisions based around Baghdad, and if they can be enticed into battle out in the open, the war might still come to a quick conclusion. But it's more likely that the American forces will have to take the fight to them.

And that's going to require not more planes, or more cruisers at sea, but more soldiers.

Soldiers are needed to put down the continuing resistance in southern Iraq. Soldiers are needed to secure the supply lines to the front. And more soldiers - ordinary foot soldiers - are needed if the Army is to capture the city of Baghdad.

The first week of the war was fought according to the civilians' plan. Now the Army and the Marines are going to have to take over. In a week, the 4th Infantry Division, which is still at sea, will be on the ground, and that's when the next campaign will really be able to get rolling.

It won't be pretty and it won't be very discriminating. Up to now, the Pentagon war plan has tried to take into account the political sensibilities of the Iraqis and the rest of the world. It failed to take into account the resilience of Saddam Hussein's regime. Now the emphasis is likely to be reversed, because that's the way real wars are won.

There was a time not so long ago when Mr. Rumsfeld thought that the war could be undertaken with about 70,000 troops. Instead, the United States went in with close to 300,000, and they haven't been enough. Victory, in the end, will come back to the doctrine of an ex-general named Colin L. Powell, who believed the country shouldn't start a fight unless it could win, and the only way to win is with overwhelming superiority on the field.

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