The Tech Herald

Would a U.S. cyberattack on Iraq have changed things?

by Steve Ragan - Aug 3 2009, 19:00

Guns or computers...the weapon is moot. (IMG: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jorge A. Rodriguez)

When you talk about the invasion of Iraq, no matter what your stance, the conversation is bound to get ugly. There are some strong feelings on both sides concerning the 2003 invasion launched by the Bush administration. However, a story recently published by The New York Times begs the question; would it truly have mattered if the U.S. launched a cyberattack on the Iraqi banking system before the invasion? Would the outcome seen several years later have changed?

The New York Times’ report centers on two things - cyber warfare and collateral damage. The reason that the Bush administration held back on a plan to launch a cyberattack, freezing billions of dollars in assets held in banks for Saddam Hussein’s use, was fear. The plan, one that the Times reports “would have been the most far-reaching case of computer sabotage in history” could have created “worldwide financial havoc, spreading across the Middle East to Europe and perhaps to the United States.”

The cyberattack on Iraq was developed to strip Saddam’s money away, thus crippling his ability to wage any type of sustained counter-offensive. There would be no money to pay for equipment, such as clothes, armor, bullets, or medical supplies for his military. On the morale side of things, there would be no money as a means to pay the soldiers. The assumption at the time was that the cyberattack would make it harder for Saddam to fight, and easier for the U.S. to move in and take over.

It’s easy to blame the Bush administration, to say that they dropped the ball, and as a result, U.S. troops paid for it and paid dearly. However, the collateral damage worries held at the time the cyberattack plan was proposed were valid. Not to mention such a plan would likely be scrubbed today as well, by the Obama administration, for the same reasons.

The New York Times article also talks about the developing cyber-based prowess of the U.S. government, and how there are serious debates over its usage.

“Two traditional military limits now are being applied to cyberwar: proportionality, which is a rule that, in layman’s terms, argues that if you slap me, I cannot blow up your house; and collateral damage, which requires militaries to limit civilian deaths and injuries,” the Times’ article said.

Plans such as the one proposed for Iraq in 2003 demonstrate how this fine art of balance needs to be played. As nation, the U.S. has the ability to wage a serious cyberwar with anyone. However, just because the ability is there does not mean it can be used at will. What if the U.S launched a coordinated attack, using a botnet developed for the U.S. Armed Forces against an enemy? What if this same attack, not only crippled the enemy, but civilian infrastructure? Is it worth the risk to the civilian population?

It’s hard to answer those questions, as there is no right or wrong answer. Even now, there is proof and evidence of technological-based warfare being used by the U.S. government. They jammed communications in Iraq, at the cost of jamming other areas that were completely non-related to the objective. Collateral damage.

Would it truly have mattered if the U.S. launched a cyberattack on the Iraqi banking system before the invasion? Would the outcome seen several years later have changed? I started with those questions, so I’ll end on them. The answer is no and maybe.

If the U.S. had launched a cyberattack on Saddam’s money, there could’ve been collateral damage, as financial markets suffered globally. However, there will always be collateral damage in any military action, conventional or cyber. Would it have mattered? No, because cyberwar is still war, the difference is in how it’s fought.

Would the outcome of the invasion, seen through the eyes of people six years later, have changed any if the cyberattack had been launched? Maybe. If there was no money, then the morale of the troops and the inability to purchase supplies might have caused less resistance, leading to far less loss of life. We’ll never know for sure. The plan was scrubbed.

“It is well that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it,” Robert E. Lee is reported to have said. Technology is a wonderful and dangerous thing. The militaries across the globe have it, not just the U.S., and they will use it. Cyberwarfare will simply be another tool. There will be “rules” written for it, just as we have traditional rules of engagement today. You can use a gun, a tank, or a computer, it won't matter. In the end it is still war, and war is hell.

Chime in, what do you think of cyberwarfare? Is it natural progression? Should there be a fear of far reaching consequences? (Such as was the case in the plan for Iraq.) Is cyberwar truly different from conventional war? Let us know below in the comments.

[This editorial is the opinion of Steve Ragan and not necessarily those of the staff on The Tech Herald or the Monsters and Critics (M&C) network. Comments can be left below or sent to [email protected]]

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