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Marching Forward Towards Baghdad

March 22, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: For tonight’s assessment of the war’s progress, we turn to three military men with expert experience.

Retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner teaches military operations and planning, and is a longtime consultant to the Defense Department; retired Army Colonel Patrick Lang is a former special forces officer and defense attache in the Middle East, he was chief Middle East analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency during the Gulf War; and retired Marine Corps Colonel Gary Anderson, he has commanded troop formations at every rank, saw combat in Somalia, and has focused extensively on urban combat operations. He is now with a consulting firm.

Gentlemen, welcome again. We are going to use you tonight to walk us through Tommy Franks’ briefing, be translators for us, if you will.

GWEN IFILL: Col. Lang, one of the interesting points he made was the decision to bypass Basra, the second largest city in Iraq. Why would they do that?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, as I understand the plan — and nobody has told me anything about it in particular — the idea is that the army will advance on a western axis apparently on several different routes, having crossed the Euphrates around Nasiriyah up to Baghdad.

And the Marine corps, which is really almost a core size force, is expected to advance a line up the east and arrive in the Baghdad area near simultaneously with the Army force. So we can’t afford to leave that force bogged down in front of Basra because the Army force is certainly not big enough to deal with Baghdad when they get there.

As I understand, the British are going to be left behind to deal with Basra, and I don’t believe they intend to try to take the city, but the tee is so big and the situation is so uncertain as that Marine colonel was saying, I think that’s the wise thing to do.

GWEN IFILL: Col. Gardiner, is there any risk in that strategy?

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: I don’t think there’s much, but there’s some surprise in it, I think, Gwen. And that is we’ve been led to understand that they had expected Basra to fall or to open arms to the attack. This is a regular division that’s defending it.

We hadn’t expected much resistance out of them. So this is somewhat of a surprise that we’re bypassing it. Risk? I don’t think much. The forces that are in there can’t project combat power. So, in other words, you can afford to bypass them. You can isolate them in the city and they really aren’t a threat to your further movement.

GWEN IFILL: Risk, Col. Anderson?

COL. GARY ANDERSON: The need to bypass Basra, I think, really has two elements to it. The first as Col. Gardiner said is to keep the momentum of this attack going. But the second one, you don’t need it right now. You can always turn around and deal with it later. It’s not something that you need for a logistic standpoint. You have the southern port there for logistics through-put.

Let’s face it. The center of gravity is Baghdad. If regime change is job one, that’s where the infrastructure for that regime is and you have to get to that and deal with that.

GWEN IFILL: Col. Lang, go ahead.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: But there are elements of this situation, as it develops, that worry me. I’m an intelligence guy formally. My function is to draw attention to anomalies. There’s some anomalies developing here as Sam was saying.

That is, you know, we were… the plan clearly was drawn up with the idea that the regular army would not be a problem and that the people would welcome us with open arms. And no matter how you wish to describe what has happened there has been some resistance from forces, in fact, that according to the way it was expected to go should not have resisted around Nasiriyah, Umm Qasr and Basra.

I wonder what that says for the future of the plan, which is predicated on the idea that that would not happen.

GWEN IFILL: Well, the plan was also predicated on the idea that they would be able to do their back-channel negotiations with Iraqi leaders. Does that seem like it’s stalled at this point?

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: I would say probably not. As evidence, I woo… I would show what happened in Baghdad tonight or last night. The bombing has come down. It was not the kind of air operation we would have expected, given that we were told yesterday that we’re now beginning the — I hate the term — the “shock and awe” part, but it didn’t. This was not awful. This was probably Republican Guards on the outside of the city, but this is a reduced air operation now. So I interpret that as saying that, okay, we’re negotiating, let’s… we’ll hold back while we do that.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about — back to translation. “Emerging targets,” we heard General Franks say that was the focus. What are emerging targets? What’s he talking about?

COL. GARY ANDERSON: Well, the good example of a moving target is a Scud. They shoot, they move a short distance, they hide again, and they’re very hard to… first of all, they’re hard to find. But now we have troops on the ground kind of infesting, recon teams trying to spot them on the ground, which hopefully will make it a lot easier than the last Gulf War.

The other problem with moving targets is the decision time. If you remember, there was some controversy during the Afghan campaign concerning centralization of the targeting process, getting lawyers involved and all that sort of thing.

But to CENTCOM’s credit, there was an area where you had a lot of people, a lot of civilians involved really the potential for a lot of mistakes to be made and quite as a matter of fact some probably were made. The nice thing about this is that it’s out in the open desert. You can’t mistake a Scud for a piggly-wiggly truck. I mean it’s a Scud. So when that team sees it, he’ll probably be able to engage a lot faster.

GWEN IFILL: But what about Col. Lang’s point about the anomalies, which is to say the resistance which may be greater than they are admitting right now?

COL. GARY ANDERSON: You know, of course, he’s an intelligence guy, and he’s quite rightly supposed to look for the anomalies and so forth.

The interesting thing is there’s… something, either Gen. Franks is right and things are not going well because you don’t leave bridges across a major water obstacle to be captured. Hitler hung generals for that literally. You don’t, you know, you don’t conduct an information briefing like the Howdy Doody Show, which they did yesterday. A lot of things just seemed… either this is the mother of all deception and we give Saddam an Academy Award tomorrow night, or this thing is a very discontinuous defense.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: I think we have to remember we’re dealing with a third world country and a third world army. They have ambitions to do things the way we do them in the West, but they often don’t succeed, in fact.

A large, concrete bridge is a difficult thing to take down. It’s not an easy mark at all. And the problem I think is from the overall point of view of the plan is that — from I hear in the Arab world — and I talk to people there a lot — is the legend is already starting to grow that they are fighting us to a standstill, in fact, that they are doing well against us.

This legend is growing out there in the Arab world. We cannot afford to lose momentum in this.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about momentum for a while. Col. Gardiner, you provided us with a map in which you advanced your theory of how American ground troops are punching through to Baghdad starting on one road and then splitting off.

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: Well, again, it’s probably worth saying there’s nothing about this that’s secret. This comes from looking at the map. Once you get to where we are now, you want to take the roads. Once you’re on the roads, the hard surface, you can go fast. Tanks don’t break down as much.

As we were talking earlier that the Marines, the notion is, they will go up the east side. Now that the Army is across — the third infantry division — across the Euphrates, what they encounter is a series of five roads that go towards Baghdad.

In 1991, the plan we didn’t implement to Baghdad, the idea was you spread forces on all those roads, and the reason: So that you can very quickly get to the outskirts of the city. So my notion is that that’s what we’ll expect to see maybe tomorrow.

Then what’s going to happen is we are going to get into contact with both of these forces with Republican Guard units for the first time.

GWEN IFILL: Colonel Anderson, if these forces are split up into five different entry points, are they easier to pick off?

COL. GARY ANDERSON: It depends on who you’re fighting and where you’re fighting. I’d worry a lot more about my lines of communication if we were in the mountains of Kosovo or the jungles of Vietnam, I’d be very worried.

The fact that we’re in open terrain with heavier superiority and the ability largely to see at night when they try to move, I see the potential for onesie-twosie ambushes and a lot of harassment. I don’t see a major, you know, I don’t see a major envelopment to cut off our lines of communication as being in their kit bag of things that’s possible to do.

GWEN IFILL: Gen. Franks was asked today about weapons of mass destruction, whether any had been discovered so far. His answer in a round-about way was not so far. Is that a big open-ended question here?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: It sure is. I mean, the administration made its case for what has been undertaken here on that basis, in fact, to the world and to the American people and to everybody else.

It is certainly important to everything that’s going on here that such weapons be found.

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: I would also add the Scuds. There had been talk of possibly twenty-four or twenty-five. You notice he was very careful today not to call the missiles that were fired Scuds. He called them land-attack missiles or something like that.

But as far as we know, there have been no Scuds found which was part of the allegation.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. Well, we will have to leave the discussion there for tonight. Thank you very much for joining us.