The Iraq War: Toughest Day
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JIM LEHRER: Now some analysis of the day’s military developments, from three retired colonels: Sam Gardiner of the Air Force, who teaches military operations and planning, and is a longtime consultant to the Defense Department, Patrick Lang of the Army, 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. Gary Anderson of the Marine Corps: His specialty is urban combat operations.
Col. Lang, toughest day so far no question about that?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Absolutely no doubt about that.
JIM LEHRER: What’s your overall assessment where we stand tonight?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, I think that in spite of the best efforts to put game face on this, which the general did very well, I think that it is something of a surprise to us that we’re encountering fairly stiff resistance from pretty far south in the country. And from what I understand from various sources, indeed the regime sent out cadres of different kinds of people to dispersed location to provide stiffening for local forces to get them to fight. That’s what happened at Nasiriyah and also in the marine area over in the East.
And so you had the spearheads of the 3rd Infantry Division go through Nasiriyah and go north and then because there aren’t a lot of ground troops in the theater, there was nobody there, then these folks came back in, and what looked like a cohesive move to me back to the center and when that supply convoy made a wrong turn, they walked right into their hands.
JIM LEHRER: And that’s where the prisoners of war were taken, they were maintenance people; they were logistics people in the army.
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: That’s right. If that’s going to be a problem, if you’re going to have these cut-off units that are going to continue to cause you trouble and Bedouins and Saddam Fedayeen — all these kinds of people – along your main supply route going to the rear, then the whole basis on which the campaign was planned which was predicated on a benign environment, has to be questioned, I think, and they should be thinking about making adjustments.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Col. Gardiner, that there may be adjustments needed in the plan?
COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: Some adjustments, and I think that there were some surprises today, surprises because what we began to see was the Republican Guard. We thought that they might defend but it looks like they are. We knew the regular units wouldn’t. But these are people as he said in the briefing from the Republican Guard.
JIM LEHRER: Have been sent, as Col. Lang said, have been sent down from Baghdad to give backbone to these other folks, right?
COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: Yes, but the key is they did number one and number the two story of losing control from Baghdad can continue to be true, which even makes this actually more difficult because it says that the Republican Guard defend even if the control from Baghdad isn’t there. It makes it even more difficult.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. What are your thoughts Col. Anderson, overall from where we are now?
COL. GARY ANDERSON: Well, I don’t think that this represents a major setback for the campaign as a whole. I would be surprised if they didn’t have some stay-behind forces — I would be surprised — having played the bad guy in a lot of these things in the course of the last 12 years that’s what I would do; I’d do the best could –
JIM LEHRER: What do you mean played the bad guy – you mean in exercises?
COL. GARY ANDERSON: In exercises and so forth. So I would be very surprised if they didn’t try that. The issue is how much of an impact are they going to have with various tactical actions. If I could see a pattern of a really coordinated effort to disrupt things and so forth, I think I would be more concerned. But I know as bad as it is and as a marine I hate to see marines get killed. It’s a terrible thing but I think we need to keep our eye on the ball and realize there is a bigger war up front and keep on… I think as General Abazaid said we need to keep pressing on, do what we can.
JIM LEHRER: Colonel?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: As a Special Forces man my instinct is to say, and the part I have always seen happen before, is that when the spearheads of a conventional force move down the road, what Special Forces wants to do is get a bunch of guerrillas and odds and ends together and cut the supply line behind them in two places, it’s very hard to keep you from doing that if you’re quick and skillful. And once you do that –
JIM LEHRER: The thinner the line the easier it is to cut.
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: The 3rd Infantry Division has something like 2,000 vehicles and suck up gasoline and JP4 like you can’t believe –
JIM LEHRER: And what? JP4?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: — JP4, kerosene and tanks run on that. If you do that and the armored vehicles and trucks start running out of gas, you have a real serious problem. If this is an emerging pattern, we have only one day’s experience but it emerges as a pattern, this has to be dealt with.
JIM LEHRER: Do you see it as a serious potential problem?
COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: I was just going to build on… I think it could be. We will see over the next couple of days how it develops. He used a very interesting term — irregular forces. That’s an interesting notion because if you look at the order of battle, combat forces of Iraq, there is no category for irregular forces.
JIM LEHRER: Who are these people then?
COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: That’s the question. It could be Ba’ath Party — people who have taken off their uniform; it could be one or two of the categories of the Republican Guard.
JIM LEHRER: Kind of the Iraqi version of the Special Forces?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: No the people that our Special Forces would lead, a bunch of guerrillas — odds and ends you know.
COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: We saw them without uniforms in civilian clothes and civilian vehicles. That’s the difficulty.
JIM LEHRER: Yes, go ahead.
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: I listened to the briefing by the Iraqi administer of defense from Baghdad today from General Sultan and he listed all of people he said were at Nasiriyah and he went through there were pieces of a regular brigade down there, there were Saddam Fedayeen – party militia — kind of like the brown shirts of Iraq. And he said there were Bedouin tribesmen from out in the desert there and it’s just the kind of group you would get together under somebody’s leadership to start cutting roads.
JIM LEHRER: Your point is don’t dismiss those people too cavalierly because they can kill people just like other people, right?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: They can sure blow up trucks, and gasoline trucks are the biggest target they ought to have.
JIM LEHRER: Sure. All right now, the prisoners issue today, how grievous a violation of the Geneva Convention do you see what happened — what the Iraqis did today?
COL. GARY ANDERSON: Well, you know the Geneva Convention is very plain, that you don’t display people for propaganda purposes.
JIM LEHRER: To humiliate them.
COL. GARY ANDERSON: To humiliate then and all that sort of thing. And I think they’re playing a very dangerous game here. They’d better hope that they win and I don’t think that they’re going to but there’s going to be a retribution for anything that they do. And I think all we can do at this point in time is make it clear to them they’ll be held accountable for what they did.
JIM LEHRER: Col. Lang, let me ask you this. We on the NewsHour made a decision not to run, Ray Suarez in the rundown now in his overview he mentioned it – but we didn’t run the pictures — we have the pictures but we didn’t run them. And most of the networks have decided not to do that. The question is for taste reasons the families haven’t been notified – there are all kinds of legitimate reasons not to do it but is there a danger if we don’t run the brutal part, if we don’t see the bloody part of war all we’re going to see is the big explosions and tanks running down through the desert, is there a down side to not showing the awfulness of this?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: I think there really is. There has been a kind of tendency in approaching this war to think of it as a kind of game especially since the roots of this strategy have its roots in a lot of think tanks around Washington in, my opinion. And so there is a tendency to think all of this is relatively low cost and it’s a grandeur political adventure. In a way there is a down side to not showing it because we don’t want people to think there isn’t this horrible cost that soldiers pay for these kinds of ventures. At the same time the Iraqis — it means nothing to them really. I have had a lot of experience in this enemy and they are inherently a brutal lot; they’re going to do terrible things.
COL. GARY ANDERSON: Jim, there is another side to that, though. Marshall McLuhan was right — that little screen, it may show four bodies but to the whole world that’s the image that they get. I think that the right decision was made in that and I go back to Somalia.
JIM LEHRER: You were in Somalia, right?
COL. GARY ANDERSON: Yes not when Blackhawk Down occurred but shortly before that -and that one image of somebody being dragged through the streets has a lot more impact in this global information age and so forth. So I think you have to be very careful what you portray, because I think Secretary Rumsfeld said it right — you’re just seeing a slice.
JIM LEHRER: I’m very comfortable with our decision. I’m just raising the questions. How do you feel about it?
COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: There is an interesting thing. We’ve set up a difficulty for ourselves, and that is when you announce an advance of a war that you’re going to change a regime, when you announce in advance that these ten people – I think the number is ten — are war criminals in ways then to appeal to them to deal with this rationally or in accordance to the Geneva Convention sort of is a little hollow appeal. We have created a problem that maybe is going to make this more difficult.
JIM LEHRER: In other words, if you say people are brutal when they act brutal why would we be surprised, is that what you’re saying?
COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: Yes.
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: I would have to plead special knowledge here…
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: …associated with these people once upon a time just because we used to go on the Islam trips to Baghdad to our embassy and I think they are inherently brutal, in fact. Iraqi society is a society which physical punishment is very common thing, people slap each other around quite often and I think that the chance they would not have treated prisoners of war brutally is very small really.
JIM LEHRER: The other incident today, Col. Anderson, actually of several – what’s called fragging – the 101st Airborne sergeant who threw a grenade among his own troops — is that kind of thing to be expected at with this many troops in this kind of combat? What’s your experience with this?
COL. GARY ANDERSON: I think it’s an abnormality. We haven’t seen anything like that since Vietnam. Every once in a while the screening process falls down. Timothy McVeigh was in the army and so forth. You don’t know what happened. This guy apparently according to the press reports had been disciplined recently and so forth. So I don’t think you can make a lot of that. If there were two or three of them, then I would be concerned.
COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: And they had already identified him as a potential problem.
JIM LEHRER: Said they wouldn’t let him go to the front…
COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: The system was working, probably shouldn’t have let him had ammunition.
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: But in fact they said that the reason they wouldn’t let him go forward because he had been acting strangely, and evidently this man is a Muslim and nobody wants to talk about this but putting a Muslim soldier in this kind of combat situation, where you’re going to go fight against other Muslims, puts special stresses on this man and it’s a question, special — a very careful kind of leadership has to be exerted in this case. I don’t know what happened but that was unfortunate.
JIM LEHRER: Col. Gardiner, the friendly fire thing, another incident of the day — a British Tornado jet shot down by a U.S. Patriot missile. How can something like that happen?
COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: Well, my assessment is there is probably a technical problem, because we have been doing this for since the no-fly zone has been established. They have been transiting the air defense network of Kuwait and it should have been something we knew how it do fairly well. You sort of need to get into the technical parts of it. I have must say that I sort of find that this would not be something that you would be totally surprised at once the confusion starts of the battle.
JIM LEHRER: Col. Lang, finally the president said, we just heard him say it in our clip here, this war has just begun. That is hard for people to accept after the first three days isn’t it, but today we now know it has just begun, is that right?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: I think that’s really true. The assumption on which the plan was built this would be a benevolent environment and a kind of triumphant progress to Baghdad where we might have to fight the Republican Guard and hopefully the regime would be demoralized by the air campaign. Well, what we’ve seen so far, it doesn’t look like it will be like that. If that’s going to be the case, that we’re going to have to fight our way up through the cities to Baghdad, then I think we ought to start thinking seriously about bringing in some more ground troops in order to make sure…
JIM LEHRER: Come in behind and prevent these things from coming on the rear you mean?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, I think you have to have enough force by the time you get to Baghdad to make sure this is a sure thing and not a gamble.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Colonels, three, thank you very much.