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The Enduring Lessons of the 1991 Gulf War

Written by Louise Kettle.

Twenty five years ago saw the beginning of Operation Desert Storm; an intervention in the Middle East to remove Iraqi occupying forces from annexed Kuwait. The operation was a US-led coalition of the largest international deployment of troops since the Second World War.

Unlike the US-led coalition twelve years later into Iraq, the operation was completed with permission and political and economic support from Arab countries. Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Syria also contributed militarily to the effort.

The events of 1991 revealed universal and enduring lessons for the West on how to intervene in the region and to do so with international – there was a UN resolution – and local support. It was clear by 2003 that these lessons had long since been forgotten by politicians but as the rise of ISIS and the raging civil war in Syria continues to escalate it has become imperative that the lessons of the Gulf War now be remembered. Although there are many, six vital strategic lessons are offered for consideration:

1. Western-Arab relations are possible and productive

The most significant lesson from Desert Storm (codenamed Operation Granby in the UK) was that the US and UK could have a meaningful and mutually beneficial relationship with Arab states. Efforts of diplomacy with individual nations and the Arab League proved their worth and Saudi Arabia was revealed as a crucial ally and a key lynchpin for the whole operation.

The British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sir Alan Munro, had wide praise for the role of the Saudi’s throughout this time. In his book,
Arab Storm, he provides a unique behind-the-scenes account of the political and diplomatic interplay which made the relationship possible and the resulting benefits of working with regional support. These include avoiding much of the local condemnation, resentment and retaliation to Western actions that were later experienced during Operation Iraqi Freedom (codenamed Operation Telic in the UK).

The military planners were particularly grateful for local support. One report from the UK’s Ministry of Defence noted of Saudi Arabia “the logistical benefits of conducting operations from the forecourt of the world’s largest petrol station should not be overlooked”.

Working collaboratively also provided positive unintended consequences. The events returned Syria to the international community – albeit temporarily. Relations between Iran and the British and Saudi Arabia were renewed, leading to the release of British hostages held in Lebanon by a group supportive of Iran. There was even a new pragmatic approach to the ongoing Arab-Israel dispute after the operation was completed.

In more recent years, such diplomatic liaison has increasingly lagged behind military action. Most recently in Syria the engagement and consultation with local actors appears to have been slow and out-of-step with military intervention.

This risks a similar civil-military misalignment that emerged in the armistice negotiations of the Gulf War. These negotiations were handled by the US Supreme Commander, General Norman Schwarzkopf, without diplomatic participation and resulted in a number of concessions to Saddam Hussein which would later be regretted.

2. Maintaining local support means remembering you are a guest

For international troops arriving in a foreign land can be unnerving and unfamiliar. This often results in a self-defence mentality and a reserved, sometimes even dismissive, attitude towards the local population. However, it is important for militaries to remember that they are guests in another country and that to gain and maintain local support requires pro-active efforts to build a mutual understanding and respect.

For Western nations in the Middle East these efforts are even more significant and even more challenging. The shadow of Western imperialism haunts the memory of many Arabs and provides a deeply ingrained suspicion towards US and UK actions – making them all the more important.

When the British military were despatched to Saudi Arabia in 1990 the Commander in Chief, General Peter de la Billière, sought to ensure soldiers were educated in the local culture and respectful of their hosts. He produced and circulated a pamphlet to all troops which provided an introduction to the Arab culture and way of life, tips on how to behave in an Arab society and some basic Arabic vocabulary. In contrast, it took four years of the Iraq War before the UK Ministry of Defence published its Iraq: Cultural Appreciation Booklet in 2007.

Once Western forces had landed further efforts were made to act respectfully; imported magazines had female flesh blacked out and there was enforced abstinence from pork and alcohol. Even the presence of 19 military bands did not lead to a disregard for the Saudi ban on public music.

In addition, the operation was planned to take place long in advance of Ramadan and great care was taken to avoid attacks on archaeological, cultural and religious sites. The Shiite holy shrines of Karbala and An-Najaf were regularly photographed to prove that they remained undamaged throughout the campaign.

3. Regime change is always difficult and success requires local commitment

Regime change is challenging in any society. Transition to a new form of government and governance is a long, intricate and destabilising process which requires the will and determination of the people. As a result, it must come through self-determination or a negotiated or evolutionary change and cannot be enforced by external actors without popular support and commitment.

In 1991 this lesson had been learned. The British history of Iraqi tutelage in the 1920s, 30s and 40s had demonstrated that regime change would be long and thankless. The UK Foreign Office prophetically warned in a pre-Desert Storm planning paper that killing Saddam Hussein would lead to an “upsurge of popular nationalist and anti-Western sentiment in Iraq, probably including violence against Western interests. Possibly an upsurge of Islamic fundamentalist sentiment too.”

President George H Bush, along with the British and Saudi governments, took heed of this complexity. The decision was taken accordingly to call a ceasefire before the coalition reached Baghdad or deposed Saddam Hussein. As an alternative, Western allies took steps to support anti-Saddam groups and a reassertion of Iraqi public opinion in an effort to create a revolution from within, while containing through international vigilance, including economic sanctions, any further threat from Iraq’s regime.

President George H Bush’s son, George W Bush, had not learned the same lesson. In 2003, 21 days after the invasion of Iraq by the “coalition of the willing”, Saddam Hussein was officially deposed from office. He was captured later that same year before being tried and executed, contradicting the warnings of 12 years prior and foretelling the inevitable conclusion of violence and anti-Western feeling.

Furthermore, after Saddam’s removal from power the transitional government – the Coalition Provisional Authority – under the leadership of American diplomat Paul Bremer embarked on the controversial policy of de-Baathification. This policy instantly alienated a significant and powerful part of the Iraqi population leaving little incentive for them to support the new, fragile political structure put in place. As a result, the new regime remained weak and opposed, creating political and security vacuums to be filled by a number of different insurgent groups, including ISIS.

4. Middle East identities are complex

Middle East society is not homogenous. It is filled with rich historical traditions, different dialects, ethnicities, religions and forms of governance. Countries are influenced by Ottoman and colonial rule, Arab nationalism and a vast number of modern conflicts. Identity, therefore, is complex and this must be understood before attempting to change any society.

In 1991 this lesson was understood by politicians and warnings were made that Iraqi society was split three ways; Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis. There was an awareness that any involvement in the country would be incredibly challenging and require a long-term commitment to manage a unitary system that could encompass a diverse population. This famously led the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to warn against getting an arm caught in Iraq’s mangle.

In contrast, the released documents from the UK’s ongoing Iraq Inquiry reveal that similar warnings were made by diplomats in 2003 but that these were not heard by political leaders. In a 2012 interview the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, admitted that before committing troops to the war his understanding of Iraqi identity was entirely naive and superficial.

5. Domestic public support will only last so long

The Vietnam War revealed the limits to public support for prolonged wars and its impact upon political support. Over time public opposition and discontent will grow and political will go into decline, especially when casualties mount and deployments continue.

In the run-up to Desert Storm the UK Foreign Office identified this lesson and wrote a policy planning document stating “If we become embroiled in a long war, domestic and international opposition would increase…Comparisons would be drawn with Suez and Vietnam. Parliamentary unity would be threatened.”

The identified solution was to ensure that any military operation was short with clearly defined, achievable military objectives which could be fulfilled quickly and efficiently. Desert Storm lasted a month and a half.

In opposition, in 2003, military objectives became conflated with political and developmental tasks. As a result, the operation was inevitably longer from the outset but it also fell afoul of “mission creep” as the situation on the ground changed and developed.

This was coupled with the impossible task of running Operation Iraqi Freedom as part of a broader war against the tactic of terrorism – a War on Terror. Consequently, public and political support soon went into decline and continued to fall as the operation became increasingly prolonged.

6. The media are a key component of the operation

The Gulf War was the first war to be fought in an era of 24-hour news. It was also the first conflict where reporting could not be controlled through the routing of content through military channels. Instead journalists had their own, portable, real-time satellite communications broadcasting unfiltered content.

As a result diplomats and military personnel were careful to manage media reporting and facilitate journalist access. The UK Ministry of Defence secured 170 visas for British press and had over 80 servicemen responsible for managing press relations. It also took the decision to keep journalists well informed and entrust them with confidential information in order to build trust and rapport.

Journalists were “embedded” in armoured brigades. This allowed them to develop an understanding of the soldier experience and to broadcast live from just behind the front line. The result was positive reporting. In January 1991 General de la Billière wrote to all of the British newspaper editors thanking them for their support of the troops.

In 2003, the method of “embedding” was expanded and around 700 journalists were placed within coalition forces, including 153 with British units. The success of Desert Storm was initially replicated with the Ministry of Defence reporting that 90% of the combat phase media reports were positive or neutral.

However, once the combat phase was over, experienced media personnel and many of the embedded journalists returned back home. Those who remained in theatre increasingly suffered from security restrictions leaving little opportunity for positive reporting. With a lack of information reporting became increasingly negative, reflecting the frustration of the remaining journalists and creating a similar mood amongst the public at home.

Lessons learned in Desert Storm – forgotten in Iraqi Freedom – must now be remembered

The Gulf War was a successful military intervention in a complex region. It was achieved with international and regional support and proved that the Western and Arab world could work together constructively for a common goal.

As discussions have been opened on Syria and ISIS continues to pose a regional threat it seems as though now is the time to return to the enduring lessons of the Gulf War before any further Western intervention is considered.

Dr Louise Kettle is an Assistant Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations. This article was first published on the US-Saudi Relations Information Service and can be found here. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Published inConflict & Security

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