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Iraq Journals

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Thursday, April 24

War in Iraq goes into the textbooks with history-making strategy

By John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON - The war in Iraq is now ready for the history books, but at the Pentagon it's bound for a prominent place in the textbooks as well.

Military students will study Operation Iraqi Freedom as a precedent-setting success built on new tactics meant to exploit cutting-edge technology. The campaign is also likely to manifest itself conspicuously in future Pentagon budgets and development strategies as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pursues his controversial restructuring of the military by enhancing its lighter, faster elements, which swept through Iraq in blitzkrieg fashion.

"The Iraqi forces just never expected U.S. forces to move so quickly and to be as powerful and overwhelming as they were," said Ken Pollack, author of "The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq." The Iraqis "planned on having more time to shift forces around, and they never got it. U.S. forces just kept pushing the Iraqis off balance."

Never have the different armed services worked so effectively and closely together sharing information in real time, Pollack and other experts noted.

Air power was both overwhelming and surgically accurate. By the time most U.S. ground forces encountered resistance, it had been significantly reduced by relentless air assaults. During the height of the bombing, U.S. forces flew close to 2,000 sorties a day - four times the number flown during the peak of the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

Potential targets were selected and vetted using unparalleled intelligence.

Special forces troops on the ground were able to identify targets so bombers could strike even in blinding sandstorms.

The war plan, initially attacked by critics for relying on insufficient forces and unproven technology, produced one of the most impressive military victories in U.S. history.

If anything, the strategy worked so well that the pace of the war - the speed of the victories and the rapid movement north from Kuwait to Baghdad - caught coalition forces off guard and initially unprepared to handle the chaos that followed the rapid implosion of the Iraqi forces.

Special ops and convergence

Despite all the attention focused on the "shock and awe" air campaign, it's not what ultimately stood out most for some of the leading military experts tracking the war.

Special forces were roundly cited as critical to the war's success especially because of potential disasters they were able to prevent.

"As a percentage of overall war effort, they (special forces) were unprecedented," said Army Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

By securing oil fields south and north of Baghdad, special operators were able to foil Saddam's plan to ignite them in retreat as he did in Kuwait during the gulf war.

Taking dams stopped Saddam from trying to flood coalition troops when they were especially vulnerable moving west of Baghdad near Karbala.

Occupying airports in regions where Scud missiles were suspected of being hidden ensured they weren't launched against Israel, which could have escalated the war.

Many of the targets hit in the air campaign were scouted by special forces and located through computer coordinates minimizing the possibility of hitting civilian targets.

This ground-based intelligence also allowed bombers to reroute in mid-mission, most notably to strike a site in Baghdad where intelligence indicated Saddam might be meeting secretly with top regime officials.

The war also saw sometimes competitive armed services working together as they never had before in a coordinated air-ground campaign that devastated Iraqi forces.

Going into the war, Iraq's vaunted Republican Guard was considered the most dangerous threat. As it turned out, it was simply no match for the coordinated air and ground attack by U.S. forces. When U.S. artillery smashed guard units on the ground and forced them to retreat, bombers and helicopters were waiting to decimate them.

This was particularly evident along the final Iraqi front south of Baghdad from Karbala in the west to Al-Kut in the east. U.S. war planners feared that the guard troops would retreat from this line into Baghdad for the war's nightmare scenario: urban combat. But they never made it. Four of the guard's six divisions were picked off as they fled.

While the concept of coordinated air and ground attack is hardly new, the effect has never been so dramatic so fast.

"What won that fight was military excellence and a devastating combined arms fire," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military expert at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution. "All four military services were critical in the execution."

The Rumsfeld doctrine

There are few corners of the military where this success will not resonate.

The war "is a giant laboratory," Rumsfeld said. "You look at what you did well and then try to back the lessons into the systems."

Those systems include the infantry, artillery, air power, special forces and intelligence. Rumsfeld has the ammunition now to attempt a major shake-up of the military.

Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Rumsfeld was talked of in some Pentagon circles as a bristly boat-rocker bound for a rapidly approaching retirement. But the war changed that.

Rumsfeld came into the Pentagon with a post-Cold War philosophy rooted in the belief that U.S. strike power had to be prepared for quick and potentially disastrous flare-ups rather than the predictable battles envisioned occurring in Europe before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Rumsfeld's vision ran counter to the prevailing wisdom of overwhelming force through conventional means that the success of the gulf war helped enshrine as military doctrine.

It's not that Rumsfeld has forsaken overwhelming force; Iraq was clearly overwhelmed. Rather, his philosophy calls for exerting it unconventionally.

It remains to be seen how much momentum victory in Iraq it will give him in pushing weapons systems suited for his brand of warfare.

The Pentagon is stacked with traditionalists who already have dug in against some of his plans such as killing the lumbering Crusader artillery system. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers with lucrative defense contracts in their home districts and states have shown they will fight tooth-and-nail to keep them.

Rumsfeld may find the regime he faces in Washington now is in some ways tougher than the one he just toppled in Baghdad.