Monday, July 21, 2003

How was the war won?
Why, with air sorties and strikes:
Nine months, and six weeks

I am certainly no great follower of military affairs, but a front-page story in yesterday's New York Times by Michael R. Gordon, the paper's Chief Military Correspondent -- "U.S. Air Raids in '02 Prepared for War in Iraq" -- had some intriguing information in it.

(By the way, for some reason, as of Monday, at 5:45 p.m., the NYT's Web site had a second, identical version of the story, titled "U.S. Attacked Iraqi Defenses Starting in 2002.")

Anyone reading the news in the past few years knows that the U.S. and the U.K. had been bombing Iraq on and off ever since the Persian Gulf war of 1991. But now the numbers are in.

From graf 16 of Gordon's story: "From June 2002 until the beginning of the Iraq war, the allies flew 21,736 sorties over southern Iraq and attacked 349 targets, including the cable stations." [These cable stations "transmitted military communications between Baghdad and Basra and Baghdad and Nasiriya."]

Graf 18: "During that period before the war, American officials said the strikes were necessary because the Iraqis were shooting more often at allied air patrols. In total, the Iraqis fired on allied aircraft 651 times during the operation. But General Moseley [Lt. Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the chief allied war commander] said it was possible that the Iraqi attacks increased because allied planes had stepped up their patrols over Iraq. 'We became a little more aggressive based on them shooting more at us, which allowed us to respond more,' he said. 'Then the question is whether they were shooting at us because we were up there more. So there is a chicken and egg thing here.' "

Compare the numbers above to those of the war itself. Graf 10: "During the war, about 1,800 allied aircraft conducted about 20,000 strikes. Of those, 15,800 were directed against Iraqi ground forces while some 1,400 struck the Iraqi Air Force, air bases or air defenses. About 1,800 airstrikes were directed against the Iraqi government and 800 at suspected hiding places and installations for illicit weapons, including surface-to-surface missiles."

I admit to being unsure whether these numbers are comparable, given the different terminology used -- are a strike and a sortie the same thing? -- but it appears as if the number of strikes carried out in the nine or so months leading up to the war was roughly the same as the number carried out during the six weeks of the war proper (following the Bush administration's own dates: March 20 to May 1, 2003). Assuming this is true, it might change one's perspective as to when the war truly began.

The article also notes (graf 13): "Gen. Charles Wald, General Moseley's predecessor as the top American air commander in the Middle East, proposed a major attack to disable the beefed-up Iraqi defenses in early 2001. But the newly inaugurated Bush administration was not looking for a confrontation with Iraq at that time, and General Wald's recommendation was not approved."

Gordon goes on to describe the goals of the commanders of the air war, for readers who are interested in that sort of thing.

But here is the piece of information I think many people will be most interested in (graf 9): "Air war commanders were required to obtain the approval of Defense Secretary Donald L. Rumsfeld if any planned airstrike was thought likely to result in deaths of more than 30 civilians. More than 50 such strikes were proposed, and all of them were approved."