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Iraq War Battle Report

March 25, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: And with me for tonight’s assessment, we get the perspectives from two retired colonels with extensive operational experience. Patrick Lang is a former special forces officer and defense attaché in the Middle East. He was chief Middle East analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency during the gulf war. Marine Corps Colonel Gary Anderson has commanded troop formations at every rank, saw combat in Somalia, and has focused extensively on urban combat operations. Well, gentlemen, just before the program went on tonight, we got word of a very large engagement near Najaf. Marines and U.S. Army units are speeding toward Baghdad. Let’s get an idea of your assessment of the state of the campaign. Patrick Lang?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: I think the sandstorm story dominates the news today. Everybody is seeing all this stuff blowing around. It presents a lot of maintenance problems for equipment and everything else and makes everybody miserable. But also it limits visibility so much that you could much more easily have the kind of meeting engagement that they seem to have had near Najaf. Interestingly enough, it’s the same army unit, the third of the 7th Cavalry, which is the advance guard of the third infantry division which has fought two major actions in the last 24 hours.

After they crossed the Euphrates River northwest of Samawa, they were attacked and in a fight that went on for an hour in which they seemed to have killed a couple of hundred men. One reporter reported an enemy combatant within ten feet of his vehicle. Today up near Najaf the same thing happened once again. I think you’d have to say that resistance along that axis is indeed significant. The marines are making a move steadily forward on the East so that the whole force is moving to close up on the red line around Baghdad. I think that’s the story of the day as well as the increasing activity in the Basra area, which is very interesting in a lot of ways.

RAY SUAREZ: Gary Anderson, when you’re in command of units facing that kind of harsh environment, is it just tougher to do all the things you have to do and get your personnel to do them as well?

COL. GARY ANDERSON: Well, yeah. I mean it’s a really, really difficult situation. I’ve only been in 29 palms under those situations. We never had sandstorms quite as bad as that, but it’s extraordinarily difficult to maintain vehicles and so forth, but the interesting thing is that you could see those young soldiers and marines out doing maintenance and doing the things that they need to do, cleaning their weapons, which is always an indication of well-disciplined troops. They always take care of their weapons before they take care of themselves. And there’s always a kind of a silver lining. Although I know the commanders are, you know, would prefer to be going forward and so forth– and I would too if I was a commander– but probably the troops… this is an extraordinary advance, as Gen. Myers pointed out. This is a long way under difficult conditions. One good thing about the storm is it may give the troops a chance to rest and recharge their batteries and so forth. So there may be a bit of a silver cloud in this whole thing.

RAY SUAREZ: Gen. Myers also talked about how difficult it is to face irregular troops, guerrillas, people out of regular uniform. What’s challenging about that for somebody on the ground with a weapon in their hand?

COL. GARY ANDERSON: Yeah, what you really face in that type of situation is you’ve got to make snap decisions as to shoot or not to shoot, fully realizing with cameras all over the battlefield and so forth if you make a bad decision, the whole world is literally watching, so these… so there’s a lot of pressure on a young sergeant, on a young lance corporal. It can make it really tough. Now one good thing… I know I can’t speak for the army, but the marines have got a pretty good program for what they call combat decision-making. It’s a sort of an automated program, but it makes them do recognitional decision-making so they’ve seen these kinds of situations before and they can make snap judgments. I think that’s going to prove to be a combat multiplier for them.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: From my point of view, the most difficult thing about irregular forces like this is that it’s hard to fix them. In the army, you want to fix the enemy force so that you can get your hands on it, crush it. And it’s very difficult to fix these people because they come….

RAY SUAREZ: When you say fix? Take an assessment of their size, figure out where they are?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: No. Fix them in position by latching on to them and keeping them where you know where they are all the time. But these people can’t exist unless they have some sort of civilian population that supports them in among whom they hide. They tend to disappear back into places like Nasiriyah. Then it’s hard as the devil to go in and find them for the very reasons we’re talking about is you don’t want to go in there and kill civilians if you can possibly avoid it. Iraqis tend to look upon that on our desire not to kill civilians as a weakness, because if they are in our position, they wouldn’t be bothered by anything like this as much.

RAY SUAREZ: Everything is speeding toward Baghdad. A lot of commanding officers are talking about this coming battle being the one that really tells you the shape of the whole remainder of the war.

COL. GARY ANDERSON: George Patton often said you never know an enemy until you’ve fought him. I think that’s been the big question about the Republican Guard. How good are these guys? Will they really fight when they come up against a determined enemy? They fought reasonably well under the defense in the Iran- Iraq War. We really didn’t get a good feel for them during the last Gulf War. They’ve certainly done a wonderful job, you know, shooting their own population and so forth when they need to. Now, how good are they? How tough are they? But they’ve got really three options. They can fight and die. They can surrender or they can retreat. I can’t think… I think those are their only options at this point.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: You know, I think there’s interesting big picture stuff about this situation. He mentioned the Iran-Iraq War. At the beginning of the Iran- Iraq War, which went on forever, they were kind of a small-scale third world army, couldn’t do very much operationally, and contrary to press reports, they got steadily better as the war went on.

Actually, in the last year of the war, they conducted large-scale offensive operations including one that had four armored divisions in it in which they really defeated the Iranian army and captured all their equipment. So… and then they went to Kuwait, invaded the place and tried to apply the lessons of World War II there against us and were defeated completely. Now they seem to have analyzed all that and have made a paradigm shift and are conducting a different kind of war in which they’re attempting to meet us in front of their capital while attacking our rear area security stuff all over the place and holding out in places like Basra. This is an interesting kind of process of adaptation for a third world army.

RAY SUAREZ: You’ve got a force, the Republican Guard that is by all accounts well outnumbered, outgunned. The United States forces control the air as well. How much of a tip of the balance does it make that they know the terrain better, that they’re defending their own country, that they’re dug in, and what does it mean to be dug in?

COL. GARY ANDERSON: I think what you’re going to see happen is a lot of what has happened. I would be very surprised if a lot of them were actually in their vehicles. I think they probably gotten themselves as embedded with the local population… it’s a very sprawling area out there, it’s like a huge ramshackle suburb and there’s a lot of places to hide. Again, you use an asymmetric tactic of hiding among the civilians and so forth.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see them start taking off their uniforms even though they’re regular troops. I think they know if they stay in the vehicles, they’re in fairly bad shape, but the problem is when you disperse like that, when you force yourself to disperse– and they’re defending about a 100- mile front– you’re going to leave holes. Now you’ve got a very aggressive LAV units or light armored reconnaissance, on the marines side, 7th Cav are going to be looking for holes. When they stop they won’t stop and roll people up. They’ll move through the holes and roll them up from the rear and so forth. They have a lot of strategic and tactical problems they’re going to have to overcome.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: I buy all that, but there are things about this that bother me. You know the anomalies again. Down in the Basra area today we have this revolt started that may or may not have some degree of Iranian influence over it. But there are reports that the British have experienced attempts by elements of the 51st Mechanized Division, which supposedly were finished days and days ago from trying to break out in large-scale defense, an armored formation of that division tried to break out of the city. So I find this quite surprising that it wasn’t really thought that this division was a really hot-shot outfit. We get up against the Hammurabi Division up there, they may be out of their vehicles, but I wonder if they won’t return to their vehicles once the assault starts and things are closed up.

RAY SUAREZ: You’ve talked about how well the Iraqi forces may be adjusting. How have the British and American forces adjusted to the changing nature of the battlefield as we’ve gone on from last Wednesday?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, I think that… pretty well, actually. You know, we have this inherent flexibility in that both we and the British are amongst the more masterful military forces in the world in that we have this built-in ability to adapt. Down in Basra, people have been changing their tactics as necessary. I see they’re now running escorted convoy operations for supplies up to Najaf and Karbala. And things seem to be going pretty well. I still have some questions in line with the one that was asked to Secretary Rumsfeld about the size of the force, but…

RAY SUAREZ: Patrick Lang, Gary Anderson, gentlemen, thank you both.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Right.