In the aftermath of World War II, as the U.S. faced a growing Soviet threat in Europe, a team of U.S. Army historians and intelligence officers formed a special “red team” that included members of the former German General Staff to help them think through the challenges of a potential new “Eastern Front.” Sixty years later, the U.S. military is again gathering lessons from a recently defeated opponent in its “Project 1946,” this time with former senior Iraqi military leaders.
Over four days in 2007, historians, including one of my all time favorites, Williamson Murray, questioned Iraqi former Lt. Gen. Ra’ad Hamdani on a range of issues from his experience as a young officer fighting the Israelis on the Golan Heights in 1973, as a Republican Guard commander during the long war against Iran and against the Americans in 1991 and again in 2003. His long and storied military career ended as commander of the II Republican Guard Corps with the collapse of the Iraqi army in 2003
A recent release in the National Defense University McNair Paper series, Saddam’s War: An Iraqi Military perspective of the Iran-Iraq War, contains the fruits of those interviews with Hamdani. His insights on Iran are particularly valuable as that country emerges as perhaps the region’s dominant power. Hamdani displays an impressive insight into the tactical, operational and strategic levels of war and gives a unique view of Middle Eastern military thought. I highly recommend reading the entire monograph, and have excerpted some of his comments below:
On fighting Israel:
Hamdani’s earliest military education was focused intensely on Israel. Arab militaries desperately sought revenge for the crushing defeat they suffered in the 1967 war, “it was the loss of an illusion about the strength of the Arab armies,” Hamdani said. To prepare for the next war, Iraqi units imitated Israeli operations and tactics, for months they conducted armored maneuvers in Iraq’s southern desert. “When the combat started in 1973, I was still a first lieutenant, but I was completely aware of the Israeli army’s leadership – the names and backgrounds of its generals,” he said. “We had the problem of inflexibility of usage of the armored forces; we always favored tying the infantry to tank divisions. This is the nature of the Third World generals; they are not creative when it comes to maneuvering. For us, the Israeli generals were the professors, since they adopted the German method in using armored forces.”
While the Arab armies performed better in 1973, the IDF’s ability to rapidly recover from its heavy losses in the opening stages of the 1973 battles, particularly on the Golan, and regain the battlefield initiative, came as a particularly rude shock. “The results of the war gave us the impression that Israel was stronger than we could imagine – all of our preparations had still not [made us equal] to the effectiveness of the Israeli army… they were far more well equipped and trained than what we expected.” Hamdani said the quality of Arab armies suffered from a lack of the technical expertise needed in modern war because of low levels of education among Arab soldiers. “Even if we had the equipment, we did not have the scientific expertise and training to actually make good use of it.”
On the Iran-Iraq War:
It wasn’t until 1979-1980 that the Iraqi army’s focus shifted from war with Israel to the possibility of war with its Shiite neighbor Iran; the collapse of the Shah and the Iranian revolution in 1979 changed Iraq’s strategic calculus from west to east. “We heard of the revolutionary changes inside Iran that largely wrecked the Iranian army… a popular revolutionary army started to emerge as its replacement. This appeared as a dark cloud.”
Saddam Hussein viewed the abrupt collapse of the Shah’s army as an opportunity to eliminate the Iranian threat and stop the spread of the Iranian revolution to heavily Shia Iraq. The Iraqi leadership didn’t plan for a long war, they thought it would last at most 8 weeks. Their strategy rested on the assumption that advancing 10-20 kilometers into Iranian territory would force Ayatollah Khomeini to send units guarding Tehran, including the revolutionary militias, to the Iraqi border, allowing Iranian opposition parties to gain control of Tehran and begin a counterrevolution. The counterrevolution never happened.
The strategic challenges of war with Iran became immediately apparent. Iran had a major geographic advantage. “We could never relax, because we had little strategic depth… Iranian soldiers were approximately 116 kilometers from Baghdad, while Iraqi soldiers were 800 kilometers from Tehran.” After Iraq’s initial incursions into Iran in the war’s early days, it mostly fought on the defensive for the rest of the war. “Where could we go, if we wanted to advance to a certain depth in Iran? [L]et us say as a division commander you wanted to go more than 40 kilometers into Iranian territory, what would be the point? Going this far would not get you any closer to Tehran, because it would still be another 800 kilometers to the Iranian capital.”
Iran had a far larger population from which to recruit and fielded an army three times larger than that of Iraq. Iranian troops began the war with a religious fervor: “Their soldiers were willing to do anything, such as walking through minefields and suffering huge losses.” Iraq’s material advantage grew during the war as they were able to import modern Soviet and Western weapons, whereas Iran was largely cut off from major arms producers and their stock of heavy weapons steadily depleted. The Iranians fielded a mostly light infantry force supported by ever diminishing amounts of artillery and armor that relied almost entirely on massive human wave attacks.
Much of the fighting was positional. In open ground, Iraq’s armored forces were able to stop Iranian attacks and inflict huge losses. Hamdani described the bitter battles around Basra in 1986 as another “Battle of the Somme” where the Iranians are thought to have lost as many as 150,000 killed. Iranian attacks relied on infantry infiltration, mostly at night, and were almost always initially successful. But they were unable to exploit those gains because they lacked enough armor and the Iraqis were able to seal off any penetrations.
On the defensive, Hamdani said, particularly in urban areas, the Iranian fought tenaciously, “they would hold every point to the bitter end. This caused us to lose the best of our troops, including the special forces, in the first 2 or 3 years of the war. On the other hand, the Iranians also lost the best of their troops in the early stages.”
Iranian religious fervor began to wane as the war dragged on and the casualty toll grew. “The charm of the revolution started to fade in 1985 and 1986. So we can divide the use of human waves into the two periods before and after 1985. In the final stages of the war, it got to the point where the Pasdaran [Islamic Revolutionary Guards] and Basij [religious militia] even started surrendering in large numbers to Iraqi forces.”
Iran as Adversary Today:
Hamdani, a Sunni, fears spreading Iranian influence in both Iraq and the Sunni Arab world: “The Americans are now the barrier… Iraq was the barrier, but now the Americans are. So, if this barrier is removed, it will not take the Iranian tsunami more than or 10 or 15 years to invade the area.” Hamdani said the Iranians have the largest intelligence system operating inside Iraq.
He said Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the real leader in Iran, “He is the top of the pyramid of all religious, civilian, military, and economic institutions. He is like the Pope during the Crusades.” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lacks real power, Hamdani said. “Khamenei is the only one who decides any issue. When Khamenei signs or approves it, this will be holy writ to those who must comply.”
The Iranian military learned valuable lessons from its 8 year with Iraq, as well as from the U.S. wars against Iraq. “During the 1990-1991 war, the U.S. forces did not manage to destroy a single mobile Iraqi missile. There were more than 2,000 American air sorties against the Scud launchers and yet they did not manage to hit even one. Therefore, Iran has focused on the long-range mobile missile bases.” Iran will use its missiles as a strategic weapon. “It has adopted the same strategy as the Iraqi army in 1991. Iraq defied the Americans by striking Israel. Iran can defy the Americans by striking Saudi Arabia and the Emirates,” Hamdani said.
“They rely on their missiles not as a destructive force, but as a deterrent force to discourage others from attacking them. This is even true of their air defense systems. Iran has thousands of vital targets but has an ineffective air defense system… Iran wants to protect its command headquarters, its air bases, its factories, its nuclear projects its ports, its oil fields, as well as its military infrastructure, the roads and bridges. The air defenses of the old Soviet Union would not be enough for this task.”
“There are approximately 30,000 vital targets in Iran and each target requires one air defense battery at least. That is why Iran has focused on deterrence and that it why it is working on a nuclear project to reach a level of equivalence; this equivalence in deterrence will achieve the objective. The more Ahmadinejad screams, the more he expresses Iran’s weakness.”