How Long A War?

Longer And Tougher Than We Hoped

The first days of the war went by in a blur of positive news for the U.S. and its allies. Then, over the first weekend, the picture started to grow darker. 48 Hours Correspondent Lesley Stahl reports on the status of the war, and on what we might expect next.


At the start, it looked as though this war might be over before it really began. From cruise missiles bombarding what was thought to be Saddam's hideout to the assault on strategic southern cities, the race to Baghdad appeared to be going quickly and by the book.

"The regime," said Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, "is history."

In one day, March 21, our soldiers moved from the Kuwait border up to the edge of the Euphrates River Valley in six hours.

By March 22, the Marines controlled the major East-West highway between Nasiriya and Basra. For a second night, bombs rained on targets in Baghdad. "This campaign is unlike any other, characterized by shock and awe and overwhelming force," General Tommy Franks said that day.

But over the weekend, coalition forces suffered a string of unexpected blows, including surprising resistance at Um Qasar.

The worst day was Sunday, March 23, near the town of Nasirya. The U.S. Marines suffered their heaviest casualties of the war, with 50 killed or wounded in a two-hour shootout with members of a militia loyal to Saddam Hussein.

Americans at home are now confronting the reality of this war. Not everything is going as they expected. And administration officials, especially Secretary Rumsfeld, are beginning to face hard questions.

Is the government managing the expectations of the public with regard to the war? "This is a tough business, and wars are unpredictable, and there's lots of difficulties," Rumsfeld says emphatically. "The fact of the matter is, that we have said repeatedly we don't know how long it's going to last. We do not know. Days, weeks, months--don't know."

Jim Webb, former secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan, who saw combat in Vietnam, is not surprised at the turn of events. "Any people, when they are invaded from the outside, generally are going to resist," he says.

He adds: "I would say that the people who thought this could be done very quickly with a small amount of forces were clearly wrong."

At a worst-case scenario, he says, "What we may see is this thing deteriorating into more of a classic guerilla war, and that is very clearly what we were fighting in Vietnam."

When the first American bodies were displayed on Iraqi TV, the reaction on the home front was visceral. "Savages!" screamed a headline in the tabloid "New York Post." One heartbroken father directly blamed President Bush for the loss of his only son.

As of Tuesday night, our troops have succeeded in their race to Baghdad, but they've left other cities unsecured. There is still resistance in Basra, Nasiryah, Najef and Karbala. Only the port city of Um Qasar has been declared safe and open.

The question is, do we have the right plan of attack?

"It is a good plan," insists Secretary Rumsfeld. "It is a plan that in four-and-a-half or five days has moved ground forces to within a short distance of Baghdad. Forces increase within the country every hour and every minute of the day."

We asked former Secretary Webb, "Do we have enough men there?"

If asked his opinion, Webb replied, "I would have definitely suggested more."

Currently, fewer than half the number of U.S. troops are fighting the Iraqis than in the last Gulf War, and the enemy seems to have a new battle plan. "They seem clearly to be fighting a different kind of war than happened during Gulf War I," Webb says. "They're using populated areas. They're spreading their tanks out. "

Webb says it's a familiar routine of war: "The first four or five days, you're running on adrenaline. You're running really hard. And then you start to crash. And you can recuperate and get going again. But it's very demanding on your emotions and on your intellect and on your judgment. I mean, you've got to get up and do it again and again and again."

Blinded by a sand storm, bleary from combat, American soldiers now are braced for the battle of Baghdad, the battle that will determine the course of this war.

Secretary Rumsfeld remains confident of American support for the war effort. "I have a feeling that the American people have a very good sense of what's going on there. What do they see? They see young men and women in uniform performing incredibly difficult tasks. They are doing it courageously, tirelessly and with great success. And the fact that a few analysts say, well, it should have been faster or slower or this or that, I don't think is affecting the judgment of the American people."