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Iraq War Plans

March 26, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: And with me again tonight are the NewsHour’s regular cadre of military experts, three retired colonels: Former Army Special Forces and Middle East intelligence officer Patrick Lang, Marine Corps urban warfare expert Gary Anderson, and Air Force operations planner Sam Gardiner. Welcome again, gentlemen.

Colonel Gardiner, there’s been much discussion about the strategy versus the tactics of this war at this point. Have you discovered any evidence that the strategy, the overall strategy has really fundamentally changed?

COLONEL SAMUEL GARDINER: I don’t know that it’s changed, Gwen but I guess I would argue it should. And maybe it’s not the word strategy; it’s the plan. The plan was to go right for Baghdad with this limited force, essentially a two division attack. There have been a lot of things that have happened not the least of which is that the fact is Iraqi’s are fighting harder than we had sort of expected. That’s sort of contrary to what we’re hearing in the briefings.

But they are fighting harder, and I think that the notion is that we do have to wait until we have something in there like the fourth infantry division because we need to have enough combat power. We can’t send an attack into Baghdad if there’s any possibility we’re short of combat power.

GWEN IFILL: Colonel Anderson, do you think they are doing it right so far?

COLONEL GARY ANDERSON: I think it’s important not to lose momentum. This is a war that counts an awful lot on essentially a very bold and daring stroke. I think – and Sam and I probably disagree on this, I think it’s time to finish off Baghdad. We said — I signed off on a report when we were asked in my last job about how many people we thought we needed in terms of battalions to beat the conventional force in Baghdad. I said about 36. That’s what they’ve got going on. Nobody at that time asked me how many people we needed behind them.

GWEN IFILL: Thirty-six thousand you’re talking about – when you say thirty-six?

COLONEL GARY ANDERSON: Thirty-six battalions, that’s three divisions. And so, you know, at this point in time, I think maintaining the momentum is important. Now if they feel they need a few more days to soften up the Republican Guard, that’s, whatever it takes to properly prepare the battlefield is fine, but I think that constant pressure on Baghdad needs to be felt and it needs to be felt by the leadership echelons.

GWEN IFILL: Colonel Lang, has the momentum been curbed somewhat about this rear guard preoccupation in Basra and Umm Qasr?

COLONEL W. PATRICK LANG: I don’t know that that curbed it. I think the sandstorm had a lot to do with it, plus the fact that he had very nearly run our supply lines at the time they stopped for the sandstorm. So there are some advantages, as Michael Gordon said in a pause here to bring things forward.

The situation may change radically in the next day or so because the Iraqis seem to have come out of their prepared positions around Baghdad as well as Basra to take advantage of the sandstorm to do something offensive. They may lose so many men in this that the situation would be very different, but basically I’m with my friend, Sam, here on this one, I would just as soon wait for a week or so for the fourth infantry division to show up.

GWEN IFILL: You say a week or so?

COLONEL W. PATRICK LANG: Yeah, a week or ten days.

GWEN IFILL: And. Colonel Anderson, you think how long if any – there should be any…

COLONEL GARY ANDERSON: My feeling is they should push on.

GWEN IFILL: No pause.

COLONEL GARY ANDERSON: — you know as hard as they can to keep the appreciate pressure on Baghdad.

COLONEL SAMUEL GARDINER: I think we have lost the momentum. You can see it from the feed we get back from the embedded news that when you see those things bogged down in the mud, when you sort of hear and some of these stories are from indirect sources but of the number of vehicles broken, of the supply lines that are in very difficult position, the notion of the momentum was great when we started, but we didn’t follow up enough. It took longer; there was not the shock can he expected from the air power. I think we have lost the momentum.

GWEN IFILL: What is the Achilles heel here? Is the Achilles heel that we didn’t study up enough on what to expect from these paramilitary or as the Pentagon likes to call them, “thugs”?

COLONEL SAMUEL GARDINER: I really — let me say it another way. It’s about the plan. We’re not losing. We’re still on top in this. But the notion is when there begins to be problems with plans, with the plan that you start with, the worst of military mistakes occur when you don’t adjust, that when you take the plan you started with and keep going with it and don’t adjust to it.

GWEN IFILL: Is the plan an undercapitalization of coalition forces?

COLONEL W. PATRICK LANG: I think so. I’m sure the game, whatever it was, showed 36 maneuver about battalions would be enough but I think as Sam says what has been revealed the real circumstance in Iraq changes the situation. You have to adapt to that. You know? What we have tonight out in the desert with sand blowing in their faces we have the third infantry division waiting to receive the attack of whatever it is that’s coming south from Baghdad. There isn’t any momentum there; they are sitting in the desert with a lot of broken down vehicles waiting to receive this attack. So I think the period of consolidation would not be a bad idea.

GWEN IFILL: Colonel Anderson?

COLONEL GARY ANDERSON: I’m not going to fall off, but I’d defer to the forward commanders, division commanders. If they feel that they have the combat power and they feel their force is well enough supplied and they have had a little bit of rest now in the sandstorm period to continue to push on, I’d defer to them and their judgment.

GWEN IFILL: Can the momentum be sustained if, as Michael Gordon has reported, forces have to be diverted to the South not pushing forward to Baghdad or if this whole plan is predicated on the notion of minimizing civilian casualties?

COLONEL GARY ANDERSON: It’s hard for me to speculate but this – you know, Gordon is in Kuwait, where as I understand it, the ground command is located and so forth. I haven’t heard anybody in Central Command or in Washington say that there were going to be a strategic pause or a change in strategy. I thought I heard somebody say that they were going to continue to keep their eye on Baghdad but that was just in passing as we came in here. So, maybe you know more about it than…

COLONEL SAMUEL GARDINER: No. I just want to add a political military dimension. Yesterday a very important thing happened. Two retired four-star generals: Wes Clark and Barry McCaffrey, who was a division commander in the first Gulf War, said we don’t have enough force. Whether they are right or not, the leadership of the United States has a problem. And that is if we go to Baghdad with two divisions and there are losses, that’s regime change kind of stuff. And I don’t mean Baghdad regime change. But you don’t send American men and women into battle without all it takes to do that. I mean, that’s a very serious thing.

COLONEL W. PATRICK LANG: The fact of the matter is in real warfare the bigger the force you bring to the battlefield the more fire power, the more mass, the more you can crush the enemy’s opposition, the lower your loss is going to be. Their losses are going to be higher and maybe civilians in Baghdad, too, but American troop losses will be — the more friends you have on the battlefield the better you are going to do in terms of any individual’s chances of coming home.

GWEN IFILL: We heard in Tom Bearden’s report for the CENTCOM today that a lot of reporters were asking what happens when things going wrong and when will we know when things go wrong, for instance, the dispute about whatever happened on the bridge or in Baghdad at the market today or yesterday. When will be know if things goes wrong or will we? Colonel?

COLONEL GARY ANDERSON: Well, let me address the explosion in the market in Baghdad and the Central Command briefer said that as far as we know we didn’t shoot that — we didn’t shoot at anything anywhere near that. Generally the way this thing has gone if you do wake up alive in the morning in Baghdad, the Americans weren’t shooting at you. I’m a little curious about what really happened there.

GWEN IFILL: Were Americans misdirecting, accidentally dropping ordinance?

COLONEL GARY ANDERSON: It’s entirely possible, but as the CENTCOM briefer said we didn’t have anything dropping near there. Every time — when I play a bad guy in some of these games I have not been above – if I’m not seeing enough of my own casualties to put on TV – causing some. I’m not necessarily accusing them of doing that but I think it’s a little premature to say it’s the Americans’ fault. Accidental explosions happen in Baghdad, too.

COLONEL W. PATRICK LANG: Well, these precision weapons are precise when they work right. They have a million moving parts and little circuit boards in them and so on. The chance for a misadventure in a missile or whatever it is, is enormous. It’s quite possible that could you have an accidental strike in a place like this. The other possibility that was raised which sounds silly at first that anti-aircraft artillery fire falling back on the city could kill some people. I’ve seen that happen in every strike that I have been involved with in the last 20 years. Usually the casualties inflicted are greater from their anti-aircraft fire than from our missiles and bombs.

GWEN IFILL: The Pentagon has been warning us that we are, because of our wonderful snapshot view we have through embedded reporters, looking at this conflict as if through a soda straw. Do we run the risk of taking isolated incidents and blowing them out of proportion?

COLONEL SAMUEL GARDINER: Actually, Gwen, the best way I can answer that is to witness. I don’t feel I’m looking at it through a soda straw. I have a feeling of this war that if you get enough views you can have a mosaic of what’s going on. I don’t have a sense of not knowing. You don’t get it from the briefings. You get a little bit here and a little bit there. Particularly if you sort of have some sense of what might be going that that picture becomes pretty clear. Maybe there are some units attacking that we don’t know about. But I have a sense that I know what is going on.

COLONEL GARY ANDERSON: Yeah, I think it’s very, it’s good to be able to see what is going on particularly what the troops are going through and you know, the heroism and sacrifice they are making. But what troubles me, Secretary Rumsfeld has used the word analysis. You don’t analyze a war until it’s over.

When people are starting to dissect fire team size fights and company sized fights immediately after the fact and make sweeping pronunciations about when do we know what is going wrong, holy cow, that’s troubling to me. I think the information age is a great thing but I think it’s something – and I think the media is going have to come to grips with – is to understand that you know wars and campaigns are a series of firefights and one firefight does not make a war.

COLONEL W. PATRICK LANG: Some of the embedded reporters, also, say too much. I mean, I have heard reporters make pronouncements about the state of supply of units and the breakdown rate in vehicles and things like that, which is really not a good idea in an active combat situation.

But I would have to say that the emotional appeal of seeing these guys embedded up front with the Marines and the Army, there is unbelievable. I think America is going to really appreciate our soldiers and marines and people like a great deal when this is over.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. Gentlemen, thank you very much as always.