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On Point

"Walk back the cat" Part II

by Austin Bay
October 1, 2003The following column is the second in a three-part series.

"Walk back the cat": spy jargon for reassessing evidence and assumptions until the false source or analytic error appears.

This is the second column in a series examining the historical context framing intelligence evidence, assumptions and analysis regarding Saddam's Iraq. Unfortunately, the current debate over intel gives the larger historical frame short shrift.

Last week's "walk" examined Saddam's indelible record for using weapons of mass destruction. Gassing Iranians in the Iran-Iraq War and gassing Kurds at Halabja (1988) demonstrated chemical weapons capability and culpability. From 1981 through 1991, Saddam's pursuit of nuclear arms and long-range missiles is beyond dispute.

But walk back a cat, track by track, and at some point you'll get clawed. Dr. David Kay understands that. Last week, Kay delivered his Iraqi Survey Group's interim report. Next week's column examines that report.

The United Nation's 1991 decision to halt Desert Storm short of toppling Saddam -- and it was a U.N.-mandated decision -- had two harsh results. One was mass murder: Shia Arabs in southern Iraq and Kurds in northern Iraq. The second was a long siege. The United Nations, with the United States as enforcer, began a "slow war" with Saddam. Sanctions and inspections to ensure compliance with Resolution 687 (which denied Saddam not only stocks of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles, but programs as well) were vital tools in that slow war. So were the north and south No-Fly zones, established to provide Shias and Kurds with some minimal protection.

Don't doubt this: For 12 years, the USAF and RAF fought Saddam. No-Fly missions were combat missions, a grinding air war waged from Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

The burden of "slow war" fell on the Clinton administration, which did a fairly good job of prosecuting it. Clinton pursued a "containment" strategy. In fall 1994, Saddam ran armor units toward Kuwait; the United States responded with ground reinforcements.

A major mistake occurred in 1996. Clinton directed CIA to back anti-Saddam dissidents. In August 1996, however, Saddam's forces struck northern Iraq and killed Iraqi dissidents. The United States failed to stop the assault, and the policy of "protecting Kurds" was damaged. Some dissidents called it a "little Budapest," alluding to the U.S. failure to support the Hungarian revolt against the USSR in 1956. Many nations concluded the United States wasn't serious about toppling Saddam. The 1991 coalition, already frayed, unraveled some more.

Yet Clinton's 1998 Desert Fox air campaign, unleashed after U.N. inspectors withdrew, now appears to have severely damaged Saddam's weapons programs. But in 1998, the degree of damage was tough to ascertain. Without U.N. inspectors, Iraqi defector allegations and electronic intelligence became "best" sources. Both indicated Saddam pursued illegal programs. Defectors, however, have their own agendas.

But another war was also underway. In 1993, Al Qaeda bombed the World Trade Center. In 1996, U.S. troops died in Khobar Towers -- a sign long-term U.S. troop presence in Saudi Arabia was untenable. In 1998, after attacks on U.S. African embassies, Clinton declared war on terrorism. In 2000, the USS Cole was bombed.

With the terror war accelerating and the will to contain him fading, Saddam maneuvered to end sanctions. Consider a key cat track -- the corruption of the U.N.'s Oil for Food program. Oil for Food provided Saddam with a lifeline to outlast sanctions. The United Nations has yet to account for the dramatic abuse of oil funds.

With 9-11, the terror war struck U.S. soil. Cruise missiles popping Afghan caves hadn't fazed Al Qaeda. The United States faced a huge strategic dilemma. Saddam sat in the center of the politically dysfunctional Middle East. His regime elites were prospering (Oil for Food). Fighting a long-haul global terror war would spread U.S. assets thin.

Sept. 11 presented Washington with a fast war waged by millenarian fanatics and a slow war against a dictator who had used weapons of mass destruction.

Add another consistent strategic intelligence assumption, one based on an evidence trail from 1981 (see last week's column) and sustained through four U.S. administrations. Rogue states, weapons of mass destruction and fanatic terrorists were a formula for fatal Hell.

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