Desert Warrior

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A Personal View of the Gulf War By the Joint Forces Commander

HRH General Khalid Bin Sultan with Patrick Seale

Columnist Col (Retd) EAS BOKHARI carries out a review of Prince Khalid's view of the Gulf War 1991

Anyone who had followed the Gulf War-1991 - or for that matter Arab-Israeli Wars would be able to discern the weakness of the Arab Public Relations. The Arabs have never been able to project their point of view - notwithstanding even where they fought well and shattered the shibboleth of Israeli invincibility. I am referring to the opposed crossing of Suez by the Egyptians during the October War which not only surprised the planners of the Bar-Lev Line but also the Egyptians who had never been able to cross the canal.

The Egyptian point of view was never projected till after many years of the end of the October War 1973 - that the Arab scholarship was able to vindicate its inability to expand the Sinai bridgehead. So there it is - the Arabs are generally poor at PR.

But then I find a very welcome change while going through the book under review. I should say the amazing book by Gen Khalid Sultan presents the Arab point of view most succinctly. The fact that it has been written by a field commander who actually had gone through the predicaments makes it all the more unique both in its conception and presentation.

I do not have the right document with me - but as I have been following the Gulf War - rather closely, I remember having seen some years back - presumably in 1993 - a presentation on the Gulf War by Gen Khalid in the RUSI - Journal. And now after the study of the book under review I find that the book more or less is an elaboration cum expansion of the themes tackled in the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies. This also indicates the Saudi interest in PR matters and in the art of projecting their actions. I have a faint idea that the presentation in London covered the most important facets of the Gulf War less of course the tactical side of it (and for that there was no space in the journal or time for a verbal presentation.) The Gulf War - and its aftermath was also touched upon by the General in a most lucid manner.

In the amazing book under review the General brings to life some of the unique facets of the war as far as he was concerned and as far as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was concerned. It must have been a tremendous predicament. Gen HRH Khalid Bin Sultan brings into focus not only the problems faced by the newly appointed Joint Forces Commander 'whose entire Headquarters Staff at that stage comprised one, his Adjutant, and the logistics of assembling an international military force.' The book clearly brings out the implications for the Arab world of Arab fighting Arabs - which they normally do not do. It also brings out the cultural impacts on the Arab land of a massive Western presence in the Kingdom - especially in the Eastern province - and its border areas with Kuwait.

From the Arab point of view although the strength of international coalition has been vindicated, the long-term Gulf security should be made the ultimate responsibility of the countries concerned. It is interesting to see what the General has to say about his write up. He says '... I have written this book because although there have been many published accounts of the Gulf War none in my view does justice to Saudi Arabia's massive contribution to victory. There is an untold story which I feel it is my duty to tell. Unless I do so, I do not think others will. I owe it to my country, to our allies, and to our brave and loyal soldiers to set the record straight ... I hasten to add that this is not an official account of the war or of my country. I am not speaking for the Government of Saudi Arabia or for the Royal Family. It is a personal view of what I witnessed and what I and my colleagues achieved....'

The book also provides copious episodes of the General's training as a soldier from Cadet's day at Sandhurst - and to the highest level training in USA. His first assignment was in a Hawk Battery - and he has rightly pointed out in the book that it was the air defence around which the defence of the Kingdom should be built - and his views were accepted as the basic strategic thought in the Kingdom.

It comes out very clearly in the book that the General was an expert negotiator as far as sophisticated military hardware was concerned - the case in point being the acquisition of long range Chinese missiles and the French anti-aircraft missile infrastructure in preference to US offers.

At the time of his appointment to the apex slot - and then the Kingdom hardly ever expected a ground attack - Saudi Arabia had just two rag tag brigades - perhaps less - and there was evidence from US satellites that if Saddam wished, he could invade the Kingdom after consolidation in Kuwait. And if he had done that in August-September 1990, nothing could have stopped his onslaught - and it would have been nothing short of a catastrophe and a terrible one at that.

The General points out that the Kingdom had three good reasons for not panicking. These were:

  • Superior air defence - and air force of the Kingdom.
  • The expanse and depth of Saudi desert land and,
  • Saddam himself and lack of rationale in his mental build up, and his wayward behaviour.

The General goes on to explain that Saddam no doubt headed an army which was the fourth largest in the world - but he makes a scintillating remarks that an army is judged by the quality of its leadership - and not by the size of its battalions.

It appears that Saddam invaded Kuwait on the basis of following four assumptions - all being rather illogical and false:

  • He had falsely assumed to catch the Kuwaiti ruling family napping. This did not happen. The Kuwaiti political leadership left Kuwait in good time to take refuge in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
  • He had thought it erroneously that the Kuwaiti people would be receptive to his puppet government.
  • He then also thought that the former Soviet Union would block the UN Resolution against him. He did not appreciate the real meanings of the end of the Cold War, and Soviet sterility.
  • He also thought that King Fahd would never risk his country, his position and family by Western forces intrusion in the Kingdom.

And it was not long when 'The multinational forces rolled in, the defence line between jubilee and Hafer-el-Baten took shape, and the Desert Shield was up.'

Two of the most serious problems for the planners of Desert Shield and later Desert Storm were the command arrangement - and the supply of hot meals 'in situ' to some 750,000 troops in the field everyday. Millions of gallons of gasoline and water were also the Saudi commitment besides fast moving stores - and heavier equipments. Out of the total of 37 polyglot nations which took part in this operation - 24 were under the command of HRH Gen Khalid Bin Sultan.

It goes to the credit of the Prince and Gen Schwarzkopf to work out a smooth working environment mainly during daily meetings. I think both showed tremendous sagacity - and mutual understanding - and notwithstanding their age differential, they were both equally physically rotund - and were left handed - rest of course they were asymmetrical. There was friction on many occasions when the two even stopped talking and meeting each other - but then the problems were resolved amicably.

Surely in an arrangement like this some problems do come up and must be addressed. Very briefly Gen Khalid sums these up as below:

  • To keep the 37 national contingents working harmoniously in itself was a problem. As a corollary - it was important to keep the coalition together at all costs. The Arab unity against Saddam was the most redeeming factor of this coalition during Desert Storm.
  • As already pointed out - the problem of command and control was both interacted due to the polyglot nature of forces- and there were 'even difficulties within the forces of single nations.'

One important facet which we generally overlook - and which was cardinal in the Gulf War was the position of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a host nation to many European, US and other armies - of course a very large number of these had non-Muslim soldiers and even women in arms. Gen. Khalid makes an illuminating assessment of this and says '... One billion Muslims, including my own people consider all our kingdom - and not just Mecca and Medina - to be a holy land. This is a central reality that influences most of our decisions in Saudi Arabia, including our military decisions. It was of the utmost importance that the massive multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-religious mobilisation in the Kingdom not be perceived in any way as an encroachment on Islam, its Holy places and its values - there were Islamic principles, customs and traditions that had to be respected and observed. As I told Sir Peter (Dela Billiere - the British Commander) in one of our first meetings we did not want to win the war- and lose our country. 'The British General respected the Islamic sensibilities - and did not issue any beer to the British soldiers during Christmas. Western tolerance was equally well matched by Saudi tolerance as they had realised what was at the stake and made due allowance for that.

The General goes on to explain that some people wanted to avoid an open conflict and war- and hoped that war aims could be achieved by 'peaceful pressure! But according to Gen Khalid to have left Saddam's army intact for an extended period would have risked trouble - and that incidentally would have meant a protracted stay of foreign troops in the kingdom perhaps for an indefinite period - which would have meant another disaster. And in his typically clear and succinct manner the General says ' Fortunately, however, Saddam lived down to our expectations. He stayed, the war was waged, and the rest is history.'

Incidentally - the operations have not been really covered with detail or else the book would have become almost unreadable - but there are excellent tables, graphics and other data for any reader or a researcher to work on the operational issues.

The final surrender - if we can call that as such and the exchange of POWs (Prisoners of War) was perhaps the most expeditious ever done - and this happened under the usual arrangement of ICRC. Gen Khalid conceives this last act as an anti-climax of the whole operation. It was least ceremonial.

There is no doubt that the Gulf War was a watershed in which hi-tech weaponry such as stealth aircraft - precision guided missiles and other state of the art military hardware was used (some for the first time) - and naturally it was both time and casualties effective. In the more elevated and philosophical levels it had been generally thought that Arabs had generally lacked the intricate understanding of modern equipment and war. I think this shibboleth was shattered to pieces in this war. This mindset was changed when the Arab and the Western interests converged - and were nearly identical. The Arabian desert proved that East and West can stand together and fight together on equal footing.

General Khalid does not corroborate Harvard's Guru Samual P Huntington's conception that West is soon going to fight an Islamic-Confucian alliance in a so-called 'clash of civilizations.' According to Gen Khalid ' the only clash I see is one between fact and fiction....'

The General has summed up his thoughts about the Gulf security in the later part of his book - and some of his pragmatic views are summarised below:

  • Usually an Arab does not attack an Arab - but Saddam has set an awkward example - but all the same as the Western Allies (after the Second World War) had to live with Germany and Japan - the Arabs will learn to live with Iraq sooner or later, with no lingering hatred.
  • 'Show me a man who believes Iraq can become a benign member of the Gulf Community under Saddam and I will sell him Trafalgar Square.'
  • Is Saddam still a threat? Perhaps Yes, and No. A new Gulf War like 1990-91 is perhaps not on so soon - but yes Saddam has the ability to make mischief at some level against his neighbours.

The General's recipe for the Gulf Security - and these are his personal views is as below:

  • The Gulf States must gear up their own individual defences.
  • The GCC must be more functional - and it is preferable if a Joint Command is established somewhere in Riyadh. Perhaps a larger force level than the 100,000 mark should be exceeded for better performance and economy.
  • 'To strengthen its own military capabilities, the GCC should enter into defence arrangements with Arab and other neighbouring states, namely Egypt, and Syria, Turkey and Pakistan.'
  • Friendly countries like Great Britain, France and United States, in any case, cannot be excluded from the defence predicament of GCC.
  • With overall cuts in the defence budgets of the Western Allies and the fact that Arab-Israeli conflict is likely to settle in the near future (let us hope so) - raises the possibility that the next time around the Arabs may have to face the music alone.

I somehow have with me here the concluding remarks which the General made in the RUSI presentation which I quote '... It would in my view, be greatest long-term mistake to place our security in the hands of others, however friendly and well intentioned. We must do more for ourselves. This, of course, is strictly the personal opinion of a retired soldier.'

The book under review makes a delightful - and insightful reading especially of the Arab mind - and is perhaps a glittering example of the performance of young Arab generalship. I have often wondered why the general had retired so soon - and while still so young. I take some solace in the fact that (like me) he was a gunner by background training. He had started his career as a young officer in a missile unit.

I would recommend all officers to read this exciting account of the Gulf War. The book has excellent index for any researcher to use - and sure its get up is marvellous.

Harper Collins-1995

Pages 492- Price Pounds: 20.00 Net