Saddam’s folly and America’s road to perdition
Beirut - When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, he set Iraq on the path towards what may well be its destruction and a chain reaction of violence that has plunged the Middle East into volcanic convulsions ever since.
The invasion, and the perceived threat the Iraqi dictator would keep going south and drive his elite Republican Guard armoured divisions into Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter and then the linchpin of US strategy in the Gulf region, thrust him up against the Americans, who were taken by surprise. This was the first American blunder of many that followed that would have grave consequences for the entire region.
US surveillance satellites had observed Saddam’s military build-up on Iraq’s southern border but they did not believe he would be so brazen as to invade a neighbouring Arab state after his ill-fated invasion of Iran in September 1980 and the crippling cost of the eight-year war that followed.
The 1990-91 Gulf War was the United States’ first major war in the Middle East and heralded 25 years of conflict in the region. Thus began a US intervention that would hasten Iraq’s ethnic and religious polarisation and ignite an explosion of Islamic extremism that would ultimately be a major factor in forcing the war-chastened Americans to disengage from a region they have dominated since the 1950s.
The Americans, supported by a 34-nation coalition, easily crushed Iraq’s armed forces, then the fourth largest army in the world but totally outmatched by the Americans’ high-tech firepower. But even before Saddam’s invasion force of 100,000 troops, spearheaded by six divisions of the elite Republican Guard with their Soviet-built T-72 tanks smashing into tiny Kuwait, Iraq’s southern neighbour, at 2 am on August 2, 1990, the Americans were getting it wrong.
On July 25th, the US ambassador in Baghdad, April Glaspie, was called to a meeting with Saddam, who apparently wanted to get a sense about how the United States would react if he moved against Kuwait, with whom Baghdad had a border dispute that dated back to Ottoman times. Saddam claimed — not without some justification — that the emirate was stealing Iraqi oil by using side-drilling techniques along the desert border. But he also owed Kuwait loans totalling $14 billion received during the war with Iran, which Kuwait refused to write off.
According to transcripts published much later, Glaspie said that according to her instructions from the US State Department, the United States was not concerned with inter-Arab disputes, which were the problem of the countries concerned. Saddam took that as a green light that the Americans would not interfere.
US military analyst Bernard Trainor, a former US Marine general who knows Iraq well, said that, although Glaspie was following State Department instructions, “I think she has to take some blame in that after this interview with Saddam Hussein, she recommended to the administration that they not have a tough response to Saddam Hussein and his threatening moves.
“That, in a certain sense, gave Saddam the impression that the United States would simply tolerate, in the interest of Iraqi-American relationships, any sort of Iraqi move against the Kuwaitis. That was a bad miscalculation.”
Eight days after Glaspie’s meeting with Saddam, Iraq’s T-72 tanks rolled into Kuwait, along with helicopter-borne and amphibious assaults by special forces. The oil-rich emirate was conquered in two days and proclaimed as Iraq’s 19th province.
Trainor says that with the slaughter of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war ended only two years earlier, the administration of President George H. W. Bush “had pretty much discounted aggression on the part of Iraq”. But the bottom line was the war with Iran had exhausted Iraq coffers, even though the Gulf states had pumped tens of billions of dollars into Baghdad’s war with the Arabs’ ancient enemy, the Persians.
Saddam’s invaders had stopped at Kuwait’s southern border with Saudi Arabia. But on August 5th, the CIA told Bush the Iraqis were massing to attack the kingdom. Then, using satellite photos that Dick Cheney, then the US Defense secretary, insisted showed a quarter-million Iraqi troops poised to strike into the kingdom while Iraqi surface-to-surface Scud missiles in Kuwait loaded with chemical warheads were aimed at Saudi targets and convinced Riyadh that the country, the world’s largest oil exporter, was in grave danger.
The Americans needed Saudi Arabia as the jump-off point for a massive operation to liberate Kuwait and there is considerable doubt those satellite photos were genuine. But they did the trick. King Fahd bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud swiftly lifted a ban on deploying foreign troops in the birthplace of Islam — a decision that years later would rebound on the Americans and cost them dearly.
Within weeks, there were 250,000 US troops, later followed by others from the anti-Saddam coalition Bush had stitched together with Britain’s Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher. Within six months, there were 750,000 foreign troops, half a million of them American, in Saudi Arabia.
The Allies launched a massive month-long air campaign against Iraq on January 7th, 1991, codenamed Operation Desert Storm, that pulverised Saddam’s forces around the clock with advanced precision-guided weapons never before used in combat. A ground offensive was launched on February 24th, and that blitzkrieg took scarcely 100 hours to deliver the coup de grâce.
It was a one-sided conflict and the Americans got off extremely lightly in terms of casualties — 148 killed in action, another 145 from non-hostile causes during the six-month build-up of forces that preceded it. Overall Allied losses were 292 killed, 776 wounded. Iraq’s losses were up to 35,000 killed, of whom 1,000-5,000 were civilians. Some 75,000 people were wounded.
After Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, Kuwaitis formed a resistance, largely made up of civilians. Around 1,000 activists or suspected activists were tortured and killed during the six-month occupation. Overall, 4,200 Kuwaitis were killed and 12,000 captured. Iraqi losses were 295 killed. Before Iraqis fled the emirate in February 1991 there was widespread plundering and destruction, including setting many oilfields on fire that cost billions of dollars in lost revenue.
Once Kuwait was liberated, Bush halted all operations and, seeking to avoid any further entanglement, made no move to push to Baghdad and depose Saddam. That proved to be another major error that would haunt the United States.
Convincing the Saudis to host Western forces in the kingdom to end the occupation of Kuwait had unforeseen consequences too. Osama bin Laden, a son of one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent business families who had created al-Qaeda during the Afghan War of 1979-89 against the Soviets, was incensed that the House of Saud would allow Western troops to deploy on Islam’s holy soil just to save a profligate monarchy.
His anger is seen as one of the main drivers for his subsequent jihad against the “crusaders and Zionists” and the carnage of 9/11, which led to the proclamation of an Islamic caliphate by a minor Iraqi cleric who heads a growing army of savage warriors bent on an apocalyptic religious war.
Liberating Kuwait was hailed as a triumph of US arms, although battering what was in fact a third-rate military was hardly a historic turning point. The Americans badly needed to lay to rest the ghost of the Vietnam disaster that had haunted them since the 1970s, and beating Saddam did the trick. US pride and sense of invulnerability were given an even bigger boost by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
But the Americans failed to see how they had set themselves on a road that would plunge them into a decade of war, mostly against Muslim insurgents and fanatical jihadists they were never able to defeat with their high-tech armoury, a conflict that has brought the Arab world to the brink of chaos.