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David Miller: Desert Storm, Unresolved Conflict?

Ten Years on from Desert Storm: Victory or an Unresolved Conflict?

January 16th of this year marked the tenth anniversary of Operation Desert Storm in which the United States led a multinational coalition, which liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. Following the air offensive against Iraq, it took just over 100 hours for the multinational force to expel the Iraqis from Kuwait and ultimately the mission was hailed as a great success. However even ten years later the question remains as to what was really accomplished from that war. Aside from the liberation of Kuwait was anything else resolved?

On the face of it, Operation Desert Storm was a military success. The six-week air bombardment of Iraqi targets and subsequent ground offensive achieved the mandate set down by the United Nations Security Council, Kuwait was freed from Iraqi control. It also set a new benchmark for warfare. The first planes to fly over Iraq in 1991 where US F-117’s, which are stealth bombers designed and built to avoid radar. These embodied not only the technological superiority of the United States but they set the benchmark for the high tech wars of the future. During Desert Storm unmanned smart bombs only accounted for 7% of the total bombs dropped by the coalition, however by the time the Kosovo crisis prompted the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999, this figure had risen to 30%.

To those who maintain that this was the extent of the mandate for the coalition forces then the argument ends at this point. No further debate is required as Kuwait was liberated and that was all that the coalition was tasked with doing. However there remains a lobby, which claims that the war was terminated too early, that the bulk of the Iraqi military was left intact when the opportunity was there to destroy it and the ongoing problems in the region are a result of this decision. This argument is based on the premise that had the war been extended for another 24 to 48 hours then the Iraqi military, including the elite Republican Guard units would have been destroyed and with it Saddam Hussein’s ongoing ability to threaten the stability of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.

To those who subscribe to this point of view then the campaign was only partially successful. There where six missions assigned to the Allies in the war. These where destroy Iraq’s military capability to wage war, gain air supremacy, cut Iraqi Supply lines, destroy Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programme, destroy the Republican Guard and finally, liberate Kuwait City with Arab forces. If one believes that all of these missions should have been achieved then Operation Desert Storm failed to reach its objectives.

The decision not to continue the war beyond the liberation of Kuwait was based upon several factors. The first was that while US military planners had devised a means of occupying Baghdad it is likely support for this would have waned both domestically and certainly from the Arab members of the coalition had this order been given. The US and Western forces were already perceived as occupiers of Arab soil during the build up to the war and this sentiment would have certainly grown had the Allies pushed on into Iraq. If Saddam Hussein had fallen from power it is uncertain which Iraqi opposition group or leader would have succeeded him and the financial cost of rebuilding Iraq would have been immense and fallen onto the Allies shoulders.

The irony of Desert Storm is that the United States’ decision not to follow this scenario has led to similar consequences had the war been extended beyond Kuwait. Support for the US policy of continued economic sanctions on Iraq has fallen sharply over the past decade. The US remains perceived as an occupying force by many groups in the region and membership of the coalition is now almost non- existent. Great Britain is the only country left that actively supports the US in policing the no fly zones that where established at the end of the conflict to protect Iraq’s minorities. While the total of planes operating in the region is small compared to the Americans, the Royal Air Force is nevertheless engaged in daily missions and participated in Operation Desert Fox in 1998, which was designed to force Iraqi compliance with UN weapons inspectors.

Enforcing the no fly zones over the northern and southern parts of Iraq costs the both the US and Britain over a billion dollars a year. In 2000 alone over 500 tonnes of bombs where dropped on Iraq, and the two allies remain alone but resolute in their determination to enforce the no fly zones and the economic sanctions that the UN imposed on Iraq following its invasion of its neighbour. Such policies have drawn criticism both internationally and at home and Britain has said it is prepared to be flexible on the sanctions if Iraq allows the UN weapons inspectors back into the country. However this is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.

Saddam Hussein appears to outlived three White House Administrations and three occupants of 10 Downing Street, all of who have sought his downfall. He points to the crumbling of the coalition, the weakening of support for US/British policy and has begun trading with most of the countries around him. He has also maintained a significant part of his military power, which remains a threat to the region and above all else his has rich oil reserves. At a time when OPEC is threatening to cut supplies further and prices are rising around the world, oil is very much a topic on people’s minds and there are a growing number of countries seeking to purchase Iraqi oil. This is Saddam’s trump card, which he could use to further fracture the opposition against his regime. However while the UN has not moved to lift the sanctions and the US and Britain remain steadfast with their policies, the stalemate drags on. Hence Desert Storm remains the success that failed to find a solution.

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