Anthony H. Cordesman, former assistant for national security affairs to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., argued in a recent analysis that there are significant differences between the political military situation in the two countries "and at the same time, the similarities are as much an argument for caution as for action."
"The Taliban," he writes, "was never a real state" but Saddam's regime "is an enduring, relatively modern tyranny with modern military forces" that survived eight years of war with Iran and a stunning defeat in 1991 by the U.S.-led coalition in the Persian Gulf war.
In a nine-page paper for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the former Defense and State Department official made these points:
"The Taliban and al Qaida had virtually no air force, no real modern surface-to-air missile defense system," Cordesman points out, with a core military strength of 25,000 "real troops, plus several hundred tanks and other armored vehicles."
The Iraq military by contrast, Cordesman said, "is still a force of over 400,000 actives, 2,200 tanks, and 8,000 other armored vehicles" and an air force of over 300 operational combat and a significant, "battle experienced" surface-to-air missile force.
Though it has formidable numbers, Cordesman acknowledges that 20 to 25 percent of the forces are reservists and 40 to 45 percent are conscripts. In the Gulf War many of the forces Saddam arrayed against the coalition were demoralized by the bombing and did little to resist.
But Saddam still retains a hard core of fighters in the Republican Guards brigade, 10 commando brigades and two special force's brigades.
"Al Qaida examined weapons of mass destruction at low levels, but there is no evidence that it succeeded in actually weaponizing any form of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear device," he reports.
But in contrast, Iraq's chemical and biological "capabilities are extensive," he said. Though Cordesman suggests some defector reports of nuclear devices "are probably exaggerated, but possible," it has the ability to "rapidly weaponize large amounts of highly lethal biological agents, if it has not already done so." Furthermore, Iraq "probably retains" some ability to assemble and fire variations of Scud missiles with chemical or biological warheads.
Saddam used chemical agents in the war against Iran and fired Scuds at Saudi Arabia and Israel during the Gulf War. Israel instituted an extensive chemical and biowar defense during the Gulf War as Scuds rained down on Tel Aviv.
Though Cordesman does not discount the combination of electronically guided bombing munitions and unmanned planes, directed by highly trained special forces on the ground that combined with an anti-Taliban insurgency to win in Afghanistan, he says the elements will be harder to mix in Iraq.
The Taliban, for instance, "faced significant armed opposition" in the recent fighting "relative to its total strength in Afghanistan." The Northern Alliance had some 7,000 to 12,000 fighters with Russian support with armor and artillery forces. There were other "experienced, if largely disarmed," forces in ethic areas hostile to the Taliban.
But Cordesman challenges that the "Iraqi opposition talks as if had military capability but does not really have it." He described two principal opposition forces -- the Iraqi National Congress, formed of the two main Kurdish militias, and the Iraqi National Accord, formed of former Iraqi security and military officers -- as "hollow shells."
"The Kurds do a bad job even of fighting fellow Kurds," Cordesman argues. "The Hakim faction in the south has some residual capability, but the Shiites are largely defeated and never had much military capability.
What makes it very difficult for President Bush is that previous administrations, including his father in 1992, have funded uprisings by these groups -- and they have all failed, often with brutal repression by Saddam.
Cordesman points out that the fact there is opposition at all, of course, contributes to the possibility that Saddam's reign can be ended.
The country, he said, is "deeply ethnically divided," with a majority of the population having reason to hate Saddam. The minority groups, the Kurds and Shiites, have enclaves that would provide a base from which to attack Saddam's forces.
The war that would be successful as Cordesman sees it appears to be a combination of the Afghan conflict and the heavy armored division that defeated Iraq in the Gulf.
"Over-deploy enough U.S. forces to win rapidly, to keep casualties on all sides low and to limit collateral damage," he advises.
"Let the critics and analysts whine about inefficiency and excessive force later," he said. "Do everything necessary to ensure the ability to win."
He says that Saddam can learn from watching the campaign against the Serbians and the Taliban and will try to draw the coalition into urban warfare, where bombing will inflict massive civilian casualties as it tries to destroy Saddam's tanks. Though certainly the battle in Mogadishu, Somalia, so vividly described in the book and now move Blackhawk Down, is not representative, it shows what can happen when U.S. forces are attempting to carry out a campaign in a heavily populated urban area.
"Don't count," he cautions, "on a repetition of the open armored warfare and exposed Iraqi deployments of the Gulf War."
Cordesman's analysis is clearly in line with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's view that a renewed war against Iraq would have to be built on a major coalition of forces as it was in 1990-1991. He advocates a substantial representation of Arab forces and specific promises to insurgent forces of their role and future after victory.
President Bush will need to rally Britain and Europe behind his plan, as well as Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Cordesman suggests.
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