WASHINGTON, April 4 (UPI) -- Where are all Iraq's soldiers hiding? John Keegan -- defense editor of the London Daily Telegraph and probably the most important, respected analyst and historian of war over the past generation -- asked this potent question Friday in his paper. The question is a troubling one. The possible answer, even more so.
Keegan begins by questioning the fundamental assumption comfortably accepted by all U.S. official briefers on the current war in Iraq, as well by all U.S. media coverage of it. Far from Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard units being shattered by overwhelming firepower, Keegan questions whether they were ever even committed in the first place. And the evidence appears very much on his side.
"Fairly regularly," Keegan writes, "television or the press brings us news of Iraqi divisions 'severely mauled' or even 'destroyed.'" Yet, he continues, "Strangely enough, there are no photographs or eye-witness testimonies. Indeed, rather the contrary. James Meek, traveling with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force up the Tigris reported (Thursday) that the enemy was a will 'o the wisp."
"The situation map of March 20 showed six Republican Guard divisions encircling Baghdad and 16 ordinary army divisions, of which six armored or mechanized, (were) distributed around the country," Keegan wrote. Yet up to now, more than two weeks later, "Of the ordinary divisions there have been no reported signs at all. The Americans do not appear to have seen them, nor have the British. It is as if they have disappeared into thin air."
"Have they gone home and hidden their uniforms?" Keegan understandably asked. "Have they drifted across the borders into Iran or Syria? Are they refugees in the northern no-fly zones?"
All good, truly prescient questions. And we will in fact attempt some cautious attempts at answers.
The answers, in fact to all three of Keegan's last questions appear to be "No."
There is no evidence of any significant defections from the Iraqi army into Syria whatsoever. And although there may have been a trickle of civilian refugees from Iraq into Iran, that figure is still apparently miniscule. Indeed, the lack of refugees appears to have astonished even the Iranians who, as our Iran Media Watch correspondent Mojdeh Sionit has documented, had anticipated a flood of up to half a million of them.
Are they refugees in the northern no-fly zone? Almost certainly not.
First, it would be unlikely for Sunni troops to flee to the mercies of their traditional, long-repressed Kurdish enemies. Second, and even more decisively, there simply have been no reports of such a thing happening on any significant scale.
Have they then gone home and hidden their uniforms? From the main Iraqi army formations, many may well indeed have done so. U.S. forces driving on Baghdad, as we have previously noted in UPI Analysis, have come across significant evidence of mass defections in the field from units such as the Baghdad Division.
But the evidence of defections seen so far had been from specific identified units, not from the "vanished" or "ghost" regular army divisions that Keegan is rightly concerned about. The entire point, as he says, is that these forces do not appear to have been deployed in the first place.
The whereabouts of the missing Republican Guards divisions is even more troubling. For there does not appear to be any credible evidence of significant defections from any of these units, contrary to the basic war plan assumptions of Department of Defense senior civilian officials, depending on the assurances of Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress, before the war ever began. Where then, is Iraq's Invisible Army?
The answer to this question, however, should begin with another question. Why is Iraq's army invisible in the first place?
The answer to that second question begins with history. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin has long been Saddam's inspiration and greatest hero. And it is therefore striking that Iraqi officials have emphasized the importance of turning Baghdad into a giant killing ground for U.S. forces on the lines of the epic Battle of Stalingrad in 1942.
Soviet soldiers of the legendary 62nd Army under Gen. Vassily Chuikov turned Stalingrad into a killing ground for the Wehrmacht's greatest attack infantry formation, the elite Sixth Army, during the three months fall and early winter of 1942. But that was just the first stage of the battle.
True catastrophe only befell the German invaders when Stalin unleashed the massive armies he had pulled out of Nazi Panzer traps by timely retreats during the previous summer's fighting in the southern Russian steppe to close in like steel jaws on the vulnerable, over-extended supply lines and flanks of the Sixth Army. Some 300,000 German soldiers were caught in the trap. Less than 10,000 of them lived to ever see home again.
Saddam's tactics in refusing to commit any of his elite Republican Guards and most of his better army divisions to open fighting has indeed allowed U.S. forces to advance at breakneck speed and with remarkably low casualties to the outskirts of Baghdad. And if the city falls fast, then the Mystery of the Vanishing Army may well prove to be nothing more than a historic curio, or it might well be demoralized, paralyzed and disintegrated already as U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputies clearly expected.
But if Keegan's concerns, and the observations of combat correspondent James Meek, are confirmed, then the more U.S. forces are pulled into the giant magnet and potential killing ground of Baghdad, the greater their peril will be. But it will not be primarily from the "Saddam Fedayeen" and other irregular forces contesting physical control of the great city of 5 million people -- more than 10 times the population of Stalingrad.
Instead, the real threat will be from the main forces of the Iraqi army, currently bedded down in vast underground bunkers -- which Iraqi engineers have long been expert at constructing -- and expertly advised on camouflage tactics by senior retired Russian officers, as we have also reported before in UPI Analysis.
Like the Soviet reserves gathered on the eastern banks of the Volga River, these forces will be biding their time, waiting for the weather to get unbearably hot for the un-acclimatized, over-extended, increasingly exhausted American invaders, just as the Soviets, directed by Marshal Georgi Zhukov patiently waited while the Sixth and Fourth Panzer Armies ran out of steam amid the hellish burning buildings, ferociously contested factories and ever more frightful winter cold of the Stalingrad struggle. Until the time was ripe for them to pounce.
It is of course far too early to be confident this is indeed Saddam's tactic. If Baghdad is in fact subdued within the next week, or even two, his remaining forces may fall apart anyway. And his divisions, as we noted above, may well have already evaporated, or be in the process of doing so. But having acknowledged that, there is, in fact, no serious evidence that they actually have.
Until, therefore, the war is actually well and truly safely won, the Stalingrad in the Sand scenario is one that Department of Defense war planners would do well to consider and guard against. Especially if they do not have conclusive answers yet to Keegan's worrying questions. This scenario may indeed prove alarmist and improbable, but the job of strategic military planners is to guard and guarantee precisely against such threats regarded as impossible but in often by no means so.
Keegan has asked the right questions. The consequences of ignoring the possible answers could yet prove catastrophic.