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U.S. Forces Intensify Attacks on Insurgent Strongholds

September 8, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: For an assessment of what hitting the 1,000 U.S. fatalities figure says about conditions in Iraq now, we turn to: Retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Bernard Trainor, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and co-author of “The Generals’ War,” a book about the 1991 Gulf War; and retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner, who teaches military operations and planning, and is a longtime consultant to the Defense Department.

Welcome, gentlemen.

What do these new figures say, Gen. Trainor, about the state of play, the balance between U.S. forces and the insurgency? I mean, we heard Secretary Rumsfeld say, ‘well, it’s a sign of the progress the U.S. is making and they’re desperate.’ Is it that, or is it a sign of rising instability?

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR: Well, I think, Margaret, that anybody that tries to put a good face on this situation– that they’re desperate– I think that they’re just whistling in the dark.

This insurgency is going on, it’s growing, it certainly has no indications of being an act of desperation at all. And the 1,000-casualty mark, you know, it’s a milestone. It has a psychological effect, and obviously is going to have some partisan political interest. But of itself, you know, it’s somewhat irrelevant.

You know, you don’t want to see anybody on our side killed to begin with. But, you know, compared to previous wars, compared to Vietnam, Korea and certainly World War II, the casualties — as horrendous and hideous as they are — are, relatively speaking, low. But you now, it still, the figure 1,000, that’s shocking.

But it’s well to remember what Stalin once said: “One death is a tragedy. A thousand deaths is statistic.” There’s a certain element of that. I think the American people are starting to become hardened to the reality of this war.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think it says about the state of play over there?

COL. SAM GARDINER: Well, the secretary of defense is fond of measures of merit. I think –

MARGARET WARNER: Measures of merit?

COL. SAM GARDINER: Yes, of how we’re doing, how do we measure this. Ray mentioned some of the numbers in terms of attacks per month. But if you look at, for example, the number of attacks per day, last October it was around 20.

At the hand-off, it was 35. This month it was 87 — numbers of attacks on the oil pipeline — January and February, less than five; June, 16; August, 20; September, high already. The numbers aren’t good. The numbers show that the insurgency is getting worse. We seem to have turned the corner, and it’s getting worse.

MARGARET WARNER: What’s fueling it?

COL. SAM GARDINER: There probably are a number of things, Margaret. One of them is we did some bad things. We made some enemies.

The way we treated people in prison, knocking down doors. We insulted them as part of the hard line earlier. That’s first. The second thing is there are people now in Iraq from outside. The Iranians are involved, people are coming in from Syria, so that the insurgency is being fueled from the outside.

I must say, I saw a picture from Baghdad yesterday in Sadr City of the young man with a rocket- propelled grenade. It was brand new.

I’ve never seen that… them carrying brand-new, rocket- propelled grenades. There’s something going on here other than that guy had that in his closet.

MARGARET WARNER: Why, Gen. Trainor, do U.S. troops remain so vulnerable? You know, after the hand-over June 30, U.S. commanders said we’re going to lower our visibility.

Our troops are not going to be as visible during the day, our flights, and so on — I mean, why are U.S. troops still such a target — and I don’t know if you say an easy target, but certainly a frequent target?

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR: Not easy targets, but if you have to supply and replenish various units, you have to travel from “a” to “b.” It’s pretty easy for particularly a suicide bomber. Let’s take the case of the seven marines that were killed the day before yesterday.

It was a suicide bomber that did it. It’s the same sort of thing that happens in Israel with the Palestinians. It’s very difficult to protect yourself against somebody who is going … there’s no deterrent that works against somebody who is willing to give up his life.

So they’re vulnerable in the sense of the psychological things that drive the terrorists.

MARGARET WARNER: General, Secretary Rumsfeld said he also thought they were becoming– the insurgents– more sophisticated. Do you see that?

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR: There’s no question about that. You know, when you look back a year ago, the insurgency was just getting going. It was very inept. They would fire some AK-47s or fire some RPG’s. And then they started to get sophisticated with I.ED’s, the improvised explosive devices, and so forth.

But now they have reached a degree of sophistication, not only in terms of their weaponry, but also in the coordination of their activities, setting off a bomb here, and when the troops come up to it, they’ll set off another bomb and get the follow-on forces. Yeah, but they’re learning. They’re learning.

MARGARET WARNER: Col. Gardiner, yesterday at this press conference that Secretary Rumsfeld and General Myers had they also acknowledged publicly that essentially the U.S. has ceded control of this whole… many cities in the central area to the insurgents, Sunni insurgents and what’s more, that they wouldn’t put a date or a time or when that might turn itself around.

One, do you think it’s wise to sort of admit and accept that fact publicly?

COL. SAM GARDINER: Well, you know, we sort of have an end date that’s forcing us to look at that problem, which is the election in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: In January.

COL. SAM GARDINER: In January. If we’re going to do something about those cities, and if we’re going to do it the way we heard General Myers and the secretary of defense say, which is using Iraqi -

MARGARET WARNER: Right.

COL. SAM GARDINER: — we have got to begin to do that. I mean, we can’t wait and do all of these simultaneously in December.

You’ve got to begin to take them one at a time with trained Iraqi units. But we don’t seem to yet have those trained Iraqi units to do it.

MARGARET WARNER: General, do you think it was a mistake, in retrospect, back in April, to not go ahead and essentially finish the operation in Fallujah, to step back and let the local figures take charge?

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR: That’s interesting, Margaret. We were on the verge of taking down Fallujah and taking down the terrorists that were in there and the insurgents.

Then all of a sudden, they called it off. Why? Because there was this outrage – and there was this concern of civilian casualties. So they made the best of a bad situation and said, “Okay, we’ll let them kind of function for themselves.”

MARGARET WARNER: And let the local folks…

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR: That’s right. They got the promises to do that. Well, that turned out to be wrong. So if you would say, “well, if we had gone ahead, would things be better?” Well, I don’t know.

Certainly, there would have been outrage about how significant that would have been. But we do know by not going in there we have not solved the problem. It’s worse now than it was then.

MARGARET WARNER: And now we have all these fortified enclaves in that area.

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR: Right; which leads you to believe that at some point, somebody is going to have to do something about them — particularly before the elections.

The goal is to drive the Americans out, and within that there’s the power struggle within the country itself. And so what is going to happen? It would seem to me that the interim president is taking the line that we will negotiate but we will also use the heavy hand. But I’m with Sam.

I mean, there’s no indication that we have seen that you can depend upon the Iraqi forces to do the job, so the heavy lifting is again going to fall on the Americans with whatever the fallout consequences may be.

MARGARET WARNER: What about the Iraqi element in a larger sense, Col. Gardiner?

Do you think we have a situation where essentially we have the U.S. forces — we have the Iraqi security forces who are outgunned by a small but determined insurgency, or do you think this kind of thing couldn’t persist without a kind of broader political or social support of some kind from the Iraqi public?

COL. SAM GARDINER: I think there’s a degree of support. I mean, we’ve said all along, and we’ve talked about it here, about how that it’s amazing that these people operate inside of Iraq without our knowing about it enough to target them.

I must say that the people I talk to who know about what’s going on inside, the diplomats, the spies and the military people, say we’re never going to have stability there until the Americans get out. We are causing much of this.

MARGARET WARNER: By our very presence.

COL. SAM GARDINER: By our very presence. It’s one of those things where we’re really on the horns of a dilemma because… one of the reasons for not going in Fallujah was we were worried about making that worse.

MARGARET WARNER: So that brings us really to the final thing I want to ask you both about: Are there tactical or strategic things that the U.S. forces could do there, while there, to reduce these fatalities, these U.S. fatalities, or is the fix only going to be leaving or setting a timetable for leaving?

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR: Of course there are a lot of technical things coming along that will assist us on this. But you know, the best you can do with terrorist acts that we see is to manage them.

You’re never going to stop them. But the key is to get two fronts. One, the Iraqi security forces to be able and confident enough to be able to take some action, to return stability.

And number two, the business of cutting deals with… by the Iraqis themselves. It has to be an Iraqi solution, primarily a political solution within their own midst.

MARGARET WARNER: You’re saying in the meantime this is about the level of deaths– I mean, they go up and down– of U.S. deaths that we can expect.

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR: Yes. We see the statistics going up. But that doesn’t deal with the intensity of each of those events. And that’s somewhat of an erratic sort of line.

But the thing is you’re not going to stop them. You’re only going to be able to manage them the best you can. You’re still going to take the casualties.

MARGARET WARNER: What’s your view of the fix for this?

COL. SAM GARDINER: The fix is, I think, the fix administration has picked, which is to get it off of the newspapers. The strategic communications objectives right now, as I read them, are to take this off of the radar screen of the American people.

In July, you can… we were seeing roughly 250,000 articles in the world press per day about this. It’s now down to 150.

MARGARET WARNER: What about the fix on the ground?

COL. SAM GARDINER: There is no fix on the ground. As one goes into a situation like this, every decision you make not to do something gives up a strategic option.

We’ve given up lots of them– not relying on the army, not getting rid of the militia. When you get down to the point we are now, you’re into tactical defense.

Let’s not have casualties. Let’s hope this thing somehow finds a solution. I don’t hear anybody with a solution.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Col. Gardiner, Gen. Trainor, thank you both.

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR: Thank you, Margaret.