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War Strategy in Iraq

March 20, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: And for that, we turn once again to retired Col. John Warden, former Air Force deputy director for strategy, doctrine and war fighting during the 1991 Gulf War; retired Army Col. Patrick Lang, a former Special Forces officer and defense attaché in the Middle East and chief Middle East analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency during the ’91 conflict; and retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner, who teaches military operations and planning and is a longtime consultant to the Defense Department. Welcome gentlemen once again.

Col. Gardiner, let’s pick up on John Burns’ report. What does his report tell you about the state of the conflict right now?

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: Well, you have a sense that Baghdad is starting to have troubles. You have a sense that maybe the plan that went into effect last night to go after Saddam Hussein is having an effect on the leadership. You have a sense that we didn’t see any strategic decisions today.

I mean there were no actions taken by Iraqi military forces that wouldn’t be done by a guy down at the unit level just responding to the situation. There seemed to be no strategic guidance.

MARGARET WARNER: What do did you make of that, Col. Warden and what John Burns — how he described the Iraqi reaction militarily?

COL. JOHN WARDEN: Yeah, and I think we have sort of an interesting thing here that rather than sort of the safe conservative course of really coming in and hitting a lot of things at the same time, we’re probably taking a slightly more risky course.

But as Sam says, I think that you have this interesting situation where in that strategic center that have you it falling apart, the gravity getting a little bit weak, the ripples going out and then rather interestingly from the other end, where you have this strange un-eerie kind of a ground combat….

MARGARET WARNER: Now you’re talking about in the South.

COL. JOHN WARDEN: In the South, yes, and in the South at the periphery, the fifth ring that we talk about, that, in turn is creating strategic ripples and having probably an impact far beyond the tactical as that starts to go back towards the center — and as those two start to reinforce themselves, very interesting what could happen in a much shorter period of time than what we had anticipated.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you mean, reinforce themselves?

COL. JOHN WARDEN: Well, you know, if somebody throws a rock in the middle of the pond and somebody else throws one here, those waves come out and you get potentially messy things. And if you get the right kind of rhythm in it, you can get some pretty nice waves.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you see what is unfolding?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, that all makes sense, you know, and of course we don’t know exactly what sort of instructions have been given as standing orders all the way down the line.

MARGARET WARNER: In the Iraqi forces.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: In the Iraqi forces based on the contingency idea that you are going to lose communications.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean, you think they might have been well prepared for that.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: They may have issued that kind of orders; you can’t tell if they have or not. And one indication that they did something like that was the way Saddam divided the country up into autonomous military regions. You can’t be sure exactly what is going on in there.

But I have the impression listening to what is going on on our side, that what we’ve done here is, is that we’ve rapped hard on the door and now we’ve sent our ground forces across the border and we are we’re waiting to see if the military disintegrates. If it doesn’t disintegrate, then we have to go back to the massive shock and awe thing.

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: But I think the evidence at the tactical level, the defense that the marines ran against sounds like it was one tank.

MARGARET WARNER: You’re talking about the marines who just went across the border.

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: Just ran across the border; it sounds like it was one tank. There was an exchange of some artillery fire. The third army — third infantry division has crossed and has gotten no resistance. I mean we’ve had a few missiles fired. Interestingly, even in that category, are navy missiles that were fired on land, which is really bizarre. An anti-ship missile was quoted as being flying over. So, I mean, all this stuff doesn’t add up to….

MARGARET WARNER: Should we also assume that there are operations going on elsewhere in the country that there are no embedded reporters with the units and we don’t know about yet, for instance Special Forces, Pat Lang?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, I think you can be sure that is going on. That in fact there has been so much emphasis on this and this administration and with the secretary of defense, that we already know that Army Green Berets are with the Kurds and Shiite in the southeast trying to make them into a force.

And I would be willing to bet you that some of this wonderful intelligence in Baghdad probably resulted from some Delta operators or Seals or somebody in there with friendly Iraqis who could either laser designate or provide information or something like that. So I think that is a very likely thing; what I don’t know about is whether or not they’ve started spreading airborne troops around the oil fields, things like that, I don’t know.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Col. Warden, there are, just in the last few minutes, 15 minutes, reports of big explosions near Basra. So clearly there, wouldn’t you say, the air power is doing its traditional job of trying to… explain to us what that is all about…

COL. JOHN WARDEN: Actually that’s… I’m not quite sure what to make about that. It clearly could have been B-52 strikes, but given this obvious desire to, not to try to do too much damage right up front to the Iraqi army, this is going to be interesting to see what this is. And when the sun comes up, it just struck me that we’ll see something like Hemingway’s retreat from Caparatto with everybody sort of streaming back away from the front but who knows.

MARGARET WARNER: And the sun is coming up very shortly.

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: There is not that much Iraqi resistance at Basra, so one sort of suspects that maybe they are blowing things up. I think we expected that city to fall pretty easily.

MARGARET WARNER: And explaining why – because that’s a mostly Shiite city, it’s the site of a big uprising back in ’91, there’s believed to be no love lost for Saddam Hussein there.

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: It never was invested in. I mean, all the way from the infrastructure to the army, it was the poor part.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Except that there is some division among the Shiite and their feeling about the regime and contrary to what is often portrayed.

MARGARET WARNER: I’d like to hear from you three military men about how much more flexibility there seems to be in war planning. Has that changed? Is it because of technology, is it because of changes in strategic thinking, or is it just because we in the press, or at least we think we know so much more about the plan and we’re all out there, everybody is out there talking about it and so adjustments that might have been made all along are just more obvious?

COL. JOHN WARDEN: Well, you know, in the days, if we go back to the days of Klauswitz and you talked about all this fog and friction stuff in war, a significant chunk of that was really driven by the fact that communications were almost impossible. You never had a clue where anything you sent out was actually going to get to anybody who was going to do anything about it.

Now you have a very, very high probability that a communication that you get out will go get to the person that it is designed to get to, they’ll understand what it is and have the ability to do something. So you’ve got a heck of a lot more ability to change than you ever had before.


COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: I think that’s exactly right. I think the wonderful thing we saw unfold is the way this plan has changed in the last two days. I mean it’s so different from what we… I think what it was, which was three days of air operations, followed by the ground attack — none of that happened. We had the small strike, the air operations continued, the ground attack went ahead. I mean it’s…

COL. JOHN WARDEN: But there is a risk in that and we need to remember there is a risk.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Unless we were all in fact taken in by the deception plan and this was the plan.

MARGARET WARNER: And we have to wait for the books to tell us that. All right. Pat Lang, how will we know… what will be the early signs really that the “decapitation” scenario is working?

Give me a scenario in which actually the obvious appeals of Donald Rumsfeld to Iraqi commanders to take out Saddam. How would it really happen?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, I think what you’ll see is their inability to reconfigure their defense — as we poke holes and do various things, their inability to adapt — to change what they’re doing because there is no one to resort out the priority tasking and things like this, which will cause them to just collapse like a house of cards.

COL. JOHN WARDEN: I think you are going to see something different. I mean, you may see that and probably will. But I think the real key thing is when you start seeing people in Baghdad start poking their head out and start wandering around and finding that there are no nasty internal security people out there to make them do something else. And when I think when you start seeing that, that then the end is clearly in sight.

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: I think would I say tomorrow, the third infantry division is moving at 30 miles per hour. Tomorrow we’ll see how the defense is because they will be major ahead.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s the army division moving up towards Baghdad –


MARGARET WARNER: — as opposed to the Basra loop.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Just one note about civilian casualties: In all the things that I’ve ever been through since Libya back a long time ago, all that stuff you see going up over the air going up over Baghdad, air defense fire, that all falls back at exactly the same speed and a great many of the civilian casualties are caused by that stuff, not by air strikes.

MARGARET WARNER: So what else should we be looking for tomorrow, which is actually today already in Baghdad?

COL. JOHN WARDEN: Disconcerted, discombobulation on the part of the Iraqis.

We haven’t heard… we’ve heard about a lot of prisoners, a lot of surrenders but we haven’t had any numbers. If those numbers start to be in the thousands and the tens of thousands, then clearly the things are beginning really to deteriorate rapidly.

MARGARET WARNER: But no one thinks we would see the “shock and awe” air assault begin?

COL. JOHN WARDEN: I think if that happens, why bother?

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: We’ll see — Basra will fall. We’ll see a major operation in the North, probably into an airfield that is in the Kurdish area.

MARGARET WARNER: You’re talking about up near Mosul.

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: Yes. There will be airborne infantry flown in from Turkey into that airfield. There will be airborne troops flown in from the southern part. We’ll begin to see the second part of the operation, not to the degree we thought in the plan, but it will still be there.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: But if the resistance stiffens on the ground in front of the army and the marines, then you’ll start to see all this tremendous air power.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in other words, if we see the “shock and awe” air assault, we can conclude, or might conclude that the Pentagon has concluded that they’re going to have toe essentially revert back on the old plan or it’s going to take more pressure to actually make this whole thing collapse?

COL. JOHN WARDEN: Yes. This I think was one of these things that look, probably not… nobody would guarantee that this was going to win the war; you never would have based your war plan on just this. But there was a decision that said look, let’s try this. And it has some probability that we may get some extraordinary results out of it. It is a little bit dangerous, but we’ve got sufficient capability that if it doesn’t, then we can come in and do it en masse.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, colonels. Thank you all.