Icing The Cakewalk

The first two weeks of war have not exactly been the "cakewalk" predicted by Richard Perle, ex-chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board. Western troops, their numbers low on the ground and their supply lines under siege, have been bedeviled by false surrenders and soldiers disguised as civilians.

An Iraqi suicide bomber killed five U.S. soldiers last Saturday by luring them to his taxi at a checkpoint north of Najaf and then detonating an explosive. Another car bomb explosion on Friday killed three more American soldiers after a pregnant woman emerged screaming from a vehicle at a military checkpoint. And Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf promised today that Iraqi guerillas will soon "commit a nonconventional act" on Western troops. Next, U.S. troops face what will likely be a battle for Baghdad, fought street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood. Those familiar with a war game called Millennium Challenge say none of this should be a surprise. Valuable lessons about guerilla warfare, they say, have gone unlearned by technology-smitten policymakers, setting Western troops up for even more nasty surprises as they move into Baghdad.

Millennium Challenge, a $250 million war game that took place between July 24 and Aug. 15 last summer, received some press when Paul Van Riper, a retired three-star Marine Corps general, complained in a private e-mail that was subsequently leaked to the Army Times that "Instead of a free-play, two-sided game ... it simply became a scripted exercise." The goal of the game--a massive simulated war between a Blue Team (the U.S.) and a Red Team (a despot-ruled oil-rich Persian Gulf country that remained nameless)--was to test a set of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld-endorsed combat theories emphasizing technology, speed, agility and "leveraging our information superiority," according to the game's Web site. The hitch: Van Riper claims the game was rigged to validate the new theories. "It was in actuality an exercise that was almost entirely scripted to ensure a Blue 'win'," he wrote.

Thinking outside the camouflage box, Van Riper had outfoxed the Blue Team's eavesdropping technology by using motorcycle messengers to transmit orders to Red soldiers. His troops were constantly on the move and succeeded in firing chemical-tipped missiles at their faux enemies. And, with suicide bombers in speedboats, he even sank a few ships--hits that were negated when the ships were promptly refloated by the Blue Team. People familiar with the war game suggest that by ignoring the weaknesses Van Riper exposed, the Defense Department has done its troops a disservice in the current war on Iraq. "I think they felt that it was unimportant," Richard Oakley, a former ambassador to Somalia and State Department counterterrorism coordinator who played the Red Team's civilian leader, tells NEWSWEEK. "It is important. In 1983 in Lebanon we had 16-inch-gun battleships and carriers sitting off the coast, yet the guys used a car bomb and blew up the Marine barracks and killed 241 Marines." Saddam's men will continue to fight dirty, he predicts, and while U.S. troops on the ground may have registered surprise at not being welcomed like the liberators they've been told they are, he doubts that policy-crafters like Rumsfeld and Perle truly appreciate the dangers posed by low-tech enemies.

Last week, Lt. Gen. William Wallace, commander of U.S. Army forces in the Persian Gulf, made headlines when he said, "The enemy we're fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against." Oakley doubts that this remark refers specifically to Millennium Challenge--the U.S. military conducts "lots and lots" of war games, he says. But the comments of several prominent soldiers-cum-pundits, like retired Marine general Joseph Hoar and retired Army general Barry McCaffrey--who moonlights as a television military analyst--suggest the Pentagon did not take to heart the lessons of the game. The former generals have criticized Rumsfeld for not sending more troops into the battle zone, and, indeed, in the Millennium Challenge the lean Blue Team ground troops had trouble with Van Riper's fedayeen. Now life is imitating the simulation as U.S. supply lines suffer hit-and-run strikes and U.S. soldiers are duped by fake Iraqi surrenders. And in an echo of the Red Team's motorcycles, guerrilla fighters have managed to sneak up on U.S. tanks in a "technical," a jeep, under cover of a sandstorm, before being detected and quickly destroyed. At least in these cases, then, it seems this is precisely the enemy the U.S. war-gamed against.

To be sure, Saddam has yet to employ all of the sneaky tactics Van Riper perfected as the Red Team leader. When Wallace made his much-publicized war-games remark, John Pike, a defense expert and director of the nonpartisan Globalsecurity.org Web site, had his own interpretation. "I took that as meaning that their war-gaming had really focused on a much more robust resistance from Iraq than has materialized." He points out that Saddam has not used chemical-tipped missiles, suicide-boaters or any of the other unorthodox Red Team moves. "If you think about the way the Red Team was playing Iraq versus how Saddam--or whatever's left in Baghdad--is playing Iraq, I would say that the Millennium Challenge Red Team was basically playing a high-end Iraq and what we have been seeing is a low-end Iraq." Still, he concedes he was surprised that Baghdad did not exactly "collapse at the first whiff of gunpowder" (another Perle prediction).

But the real test of whether the lessons of the $250 million war game went totally unheeded will come in the coming storm on Baghdad. Although U.S. troops have routed Saddam's well-trained Republican Guard at each engagement so far, most of the fighting has been done in the desert--Western troops have been bypassing towns and fighting many of these battles in open country. Baghdad will present a whole new terrain, and a whole new likelihood of underhanded Iraqi fighting. Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke has said that the toughest fighting, including possible Iraqi use of chemical weapons, may still lay ahead. Indeed, U.S. troops said today that they found thousands of boxes containing vials of unidentified liquid and powder alongside chemical warfare manuals at an industrial site south of the capital. Another reason for Baghdad's resilience could have something to do with the fact that 12 years ago the U.S. encouraged southern Iraqi Shiites to rise up against Saddam, but then pulled out of the country, leaving them to suffer retribution at the hands of the leader. Iraqi civilians will be unlikely to give Western troops a big hand on the ground until they fully trust the intentions of the invaders.

Regardless of how easily Baghdad may or may not fall, Oakley suggests the failure to heed the lessons of the Millennium Challenge hints at a problem that runs much deeper. He says there is a more profound, endemic issue that needs addressing at the Pentagon, where there is grave "temptation to overestimate our sophistication, our superiority in technology, our superiority in weapons. We did that in Vietnam and in Lebanon," to say nothing of Mogadishu where in 1993, during Oakley's tenure as ambassador to Somalia, 18 U.S. soldiers came home in body bags after a fire fight in the capital. "I think we do this frequently. We get carried away by our weapons, firepower, superiority, technology, all this kind of stuff, and we fail to look at the human factor. People will look for a chink in our armor, the same way David found a chink in Goliath's armor."

Icing The Cakewalk | News