The Probability Tree

19 March 2003

The Probability Tree

By Gwynne Dyer

Of all human enterprises, war is the least predictable or controllable. Even when an attacker enjoys such a huge advantage as the US armed forces have over the Iraqis, things can go wrong. Here is a day-by-day check-list of what should be happening in Iraq once the US attack really starts (not counting Thursday’s attempt to assassinate Saddam Hussein with cruise missiles).

END OF DAY ONE: Twenty-four hours after the ‘shock and awe’bombardment opens with the explosion of some 3,000 American cruise missiles and smart bombs, almost all of Iraq’s oil-fields should be under US control. If more than a quarter of the wells are still outside US control, or blown and burning, then things did not go well.

There should be no serious resistance to US and British armoured forces crossing the border from Kuwait, nor to the US and Royal Marine amphibious landings along the short Iraqi coast. (They could just have driven round from Kuwait, but they never miss a chance to storm up a beach.) By the end of the day, the Marines should be entering the big southern city, Basra. Soon afterwards US and British tanks should be approaching the outskirts of Baghdad.

Now is also when we start to find out how big the backlash against this invasion will be in other Arab and Muslim countries. There will be impassioned Friday sermons in the mosques, and Washington can count itself lucky if the only result is a few mob attacks on US embassies. The real risk is that pro-American governments may be overthrown, either from the street or by military coups. The most vulnerable regimes are in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. If any of those fall to Islamists, then Washington has already lost far more than it hoped to gain from this war.

DAY TWO: If there is going to be a ‘war of the cities’, it will be starting now. There is not likely to be much resistance in Basra, an overwhelmingly Shia city that rebelled against Saddam in 1991, but thousands of exiles in organised military units will be making their way across the border in Iran, aiming to gain control of the Iraqi state or else secede from it. And if there is serious resistance around Baghdad, get ready for ‘Stalingrad-on-the-Tigris’.

In the north, the big question is whether the Turkish army moves in to stop the Kurds from taking their independence. Ankara had a deal with Washington by which it could control northern Iraq in return for letting US forces use Turkish territory to launch a second front against Baghdad, but the parliamentary vote two weeks ago cancelled that deal. If the Turkish army occupies most of Iraqi Kurdistan anyway, expect a war with the Kurdish militias and a confrontation with Washington.

DAY THREE: One of Saddam Hussein’s main hopes for survival is to provoke Israel into attacking him in order to portray the war as an Arab-Israeli struggle. To do that, he needs missiles that can reach Israel, and within 72 hours of the war’s start we will know if he has any. Even if he has such (illegal) missiles, they can only reach Israel if fired from Iraq’s western desert, but all that territory will quickly be occupied by US and British forces coming in from Jordan and northern Saudi Arabia (though everybody still officially denies that they are there).

By now we will also know whether the demonstrations against the war in major Western cities will grow so large that they actually endanger the position of the two other leaders who are actually providing significant numbers of troops for Mr Bush’s war, Britain’s Tony Blair and Australia’s John Howard. Both men have dragged an unwilling majority of their own people into the war, and in Blair’s case his own party is also deeply split.

The other members of the so-called ’45-nation coalition’ of Eastern European wannabes, South American satellites and Micronesian micro-states that have been dragooned into the US crusade doesn’t really count, as almost none of them actually sent any troops to the war (and in ten cases we even have to take Washington’s word for their existence, since they don’t want their names mentioned in public). What really matters is whether Americans come out on the streets in large numbers against the war — and they probably won’t.

DAYS FOUR-SEVEN: These could be the last days of the war (if none of the Iraqi army fights for Saddam Hussein), or the beginning of the real fighting (if some of it does). US army senior commanders insist that they will not let themselves be drawn into a high-casualty battle for Baghdad and other cities in central Iraq, but the option of surrounding them and waiting doesn’t recommend itself highly, either.

A steady drip-feed of casualties on the American side would start to turn US public opinion against the war, and meanwhile horrifying footage of Iraqi civilian casualties, broadcast throughout the Arab world by the various satellite TV channels, would be undermining the existing regimes from Morocco to Yemen. There would be great pressure for American troops to plunge into the cities and finish the job quickly no matter what the short-term loss of life.

DAYS EIGHT-SIX HUNDRED: The long hereafter, in which the United States discovers the joys of occupying a country of three mutually hostile ethnic and religious groups that has an 800 km. (500-mile) border with the Islamic Republic of Iran. If you liked the trailer, you’ll love the movie.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“In the north…Washington”; and “The other…won’t”)