The myth of air power: What madness is this? Bombs are not the way to p eace

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The justification for an air attack on Iraq is very like that for the strategic bombing of Germany by Britain and the US in 1942-45. It was easy then to make the claim that Hitler deserved whatever punishment he got. Post-war investigation showed that, in fact, the bombing did little to harm his regime, or to shorten the war despite the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Germans it caused.

A similar political and military failure may await the impending bombardment of Iraq. As with the Gulf War, hundreds, if not thousands, of Iraqi civilians will certainly die. But this will not "punish", or even damage, Saddam Hussein. There is no reason why it should make him more willing to cooperate with UN inspectors. General Brent Scowcroft, the US National Security Adviser in the Gulf War, warns: "We bombed him heavily [in 1991], more heavily than we can now; and he didn't change his mind about anything."

The objective of the allied air offensive during the Gulf War was clear: to force Iraqi troops to leave Kuwait which they had invaded the previous year. Eight years later the aim of the airstrikes is much less easily attainable. It is to force Saddam Hussein to cooperate with UN inspectors looking for his non-conventional weapons. All the Iraqi leader needs to do to frustrate American and British war aims is to refuse to change his policy.

It is not enough for President Clinton and Tony Blair to say that all they want is the implementation of the UN resolutions on inspection and destruction of non-conventional weapons agreed by Iraq in 1991. Ever since, Iraq has systematically tried to conceal them. But it is also clearly true - and Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, said as much soon after she took office last year - that for seven years the US has been determined not to lift sanctions on Iraq so long as Saddam Hussein was in power.

It is this policy that is no longer sustainable. Iraq is not going to cooperate with weapons inspectors for any length of time if there is no real prospect of sanctions being lifted. The only way to resolve the crisis in the long term is to bring to an end the immediate consequences of the Gulf War. In other words, an end to the embargo and the isolation of Iraq should be discussed at the same time as a final accounting of Iraq's non- conventional weapons: in the same negotiations.

The process of UN inspections was always bizarre. No sovereign state, whether it is run by Saddam Hussein or Nelson Mandela, is going to agree, if it can possibly help it, to foreign observers - often former intelligence officers - having free run of its military, intelligence and government offices. Iraq only agreed to this in 1991 under the threat of invasion by an army of half a million men.

This army no longer exists. The Gulf War alliance has fragmented. Saddam Hussein's grip on his own country is probably stronger than at any time since the invasion of Kuwait. Allied planes still over-fly Iraqi Kurdistan, but on the ground the Iraqi leader is now largely in control.

There is a growing acceptance on the far right in the United States that air power alone will not damage Saddam Hussein. They put forward the alternatives of ground attack or external subversion. Supporters of these neo-colonial ventures show a dangerous ignorance of what really happened in the Gulf War as well as the political history of Iraq over the last seven years.

The Gulf War was much less of an all-out military conflict than appeared at the time. Given the disparity of forces the Allies were bound to win. But the Iraqis had a large army with long experience in the eight-year- long war with Iran. Allied casualties were so low because at the last minute the Iraqi leader ordered his men to withdraw from Kuwait.

An Iraqi brigadier, now in exile in London, told The Independent that his unit received "three separate messages - from the army, party and military intelligence - telling us to withdraw. This was to show us that the orders were real and not a fake sent by the Allies." He says that if the Iraqi army had not pulled out of their prepared positions, protected by vast minefields in Kuwait, it could have inflicted heavy casualties on the Allies.

Saddam Hussein evidently calculated that if he withdrew voluntarily from Kuwait - and Allied casualties were low - that he would not be pursued to Baghdad. He may even have been covertly told so by Washington. These historical points are important today because the ease with which Kuwait was reconquered in 1991 has gives the impression that any new invasion would succeed with equal ease.

The option of externally directed internal subversion is equally flawed. The CIA made repeated efforts between 1991 and 1996 to subvert the regime in Baghdad, based first in Iraqi Kurdistan and then in Jordan. In 1995 it became involved through its operatives in Kurdistan - though not fully backed by Washington - in a plan to build up an opposition army in the Kurdish provinces. It hoped that this would ignite revolts in the Iraqi army.

It never happened. In 1996 a military conspiracy in Baghdad was bloodily crushed. This appears to have given Saddam Hussein the confidence to capture the Kurdish capital Arbil with his tanks. Over 100 members of the Iraqi opposition were captured and killed. The CIA was forced to evacuate its vast operation from Kurdistan.

A further problem for President Clinton is that that the Gulf War created exaggerated expectations. It may also have dissipated a healthy scepticism in the US about the use of airpower which followed its failure in Vietnam. General Norman Schwartzkopf, the commander of Desert Storm, says: "We run the risk of doing the same thing we did to North Vietnam." He explained that in Vietnam the airforce, frustrated at its failure to achieve its political or military goals, continually escalated its air attacks.

Air power has a sorry history in the Middle East as a means of political coercion. Ironically, it was pioneered in Iraq where Winston Churchill as Colonial Secretary in 1922 withdrew most of the British army on the grounds that it could be held by the RAF. Arthur "Bomber" Harris, later head of bomber command, served his apprenticeship dropping bombs on Kurdish villages.

One of the myths of the Gulf War is that "smart" weapons have revolutionised warfare. This has done no end of good to the budgets of airforces around the world. Airforces need to argue for perfect accuracy to justify the expense of the new weapons. Although only 7 per cent of the munitions dropped during the Gulf War were "smart", they made up 84 per cent of the cost. At times these weapons were very accurate. They hit bridges, ministries and telecommunications towers in the heart of Baghdad.

But the Iraqi government went on functioning. Even the uprising in the south of Iraq never spread to Baghdad, which is the key to political power in Iraq (eight million Iraqis out of a total population of 20 million live in the metropolitan area of the capital). There is little chance of this recurring. Ordinary Iraqis are deeply cynical about the motives of the US and Britain. And even if they did rise up any revolt would be crushed in blood.

It is reasonable for the US and Britain to ask for the final destruction of Iraqi non-conventional weapons. But the last six months have shown that this is not going to happen through the present UN inspection process, even buttressed by air attacks. The only possible way to secure destruction of biological or chemical weapons, if ground invasion is ruled out, is to offer an immediate end to the embargo as a direct quid pro quo.

Comments