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The Iraq War: Military Plans

March 28, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: At today’s briefing Joint Chiefs Chairman Myers showed a map of Iraq similar to this one. He said the areas in green were under U.S. control. For an assessment of the military situation we go again to two retired colonels, plus one. Former army Special Forces and Middle East intelligence officer Patrick Lang, Air Force operations planner Sam Gardiner, and tonight we’re joined by retired Navy Commander Harlan Ullman. He has taught military strategy at the National War College.

Well, when we hear a senior officer like General Myers say this is an area under U.S. control, what should we understand that to mean? Harlan Ullman?

CMDR. HARLAN ULLMAN: Well, first, I think it means that we have the area pretty much under control. But what I would like to caution Ray is patience. I think that the reports you hear really suggested impatience with the war. If this were June 16, eight or ten days after the Normandy invasion 1944 in Normandy, if we had television, the NewsHour would not be going to General Eisenhower, then the supreme commander, and saying when are you going to Berlin, are you surprised by what the Nazis are doing? And I think that right now the advance has gone pretty well.

I think that the war, despite whatever the negative sides are, whether you agree or disagree, is probably being handled as reasonably as it can be. And I think for the time being, we need to have patience and not to take every sort of downside as a disaster. This thing is obviously not done. There is a lot of fighting left. I think the downsides are going to be what happens in Baghdad, if the Iraqis choose to resist, if civilians decide to fight alongside the Iraqi army, it is going to be a very, very bloody battle. But the fact of the matter is, however long it takes, in my judgment, we are going to prevail.

When we prevail and what the extent of the casualties, it seems to me, are the largest issues along with whether or not Saddam uses chem-bioweapons. But the issue here, if it is a bloody, bloody siege in Baghdad and lots of civilians are killed, then the consequences for the peace are going to be quite severe.

RAY SUAREZ: General Wallace’s remark, the enemy we are fighting is a bit different than we war-gamed against. It is not a secret that every army tries to imagine what its potential enemy will do. What is the significance of that remark, Sam Gardiner?

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: I think we were surprised. There is no question in my mind. He was talking about the war game that they had in December out with General Franks. But I have to witness that I have been around doing war games for the military services for about ten years. A lot of them have to do with Iraq because we knew the territory and there were a lot of reasons to focus on that, not because we were going to invade. And I must admit that in probably twenty or thirty of these games I never saw a significant impact by irregulars. I was totally surprised by that, despite the fact that I have fought this war that many times before myself.

RAY SUAREZ: So repeatedly in the way that we had imagined fighting this war, irregular troops were not a big part of the equation, in your experience.

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: That’s right. I mean we had planned… we envisioned fast-paced offensive operations. That began to emerge eight or nine years ago. We envisioned a strong impact by air power. We envisioned a rapid unfolding. We envisioned fighting in the cities. We envisioned chemical and biological weapons — but never heard irregulars.

RAY SUAREZ: Pat Lang, is this getting a lot of attention because it has been quoted widely and he said it to a reporter, or are these the kinds of things that people at his level would say to each other and not to somebody with a notepad?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: You know, I agree with the idea that the operation is not behind schedule. The map for this operation has control lines on it, phase lines, things like this and I’m sure they’re up where they are supposed to be. But I think what General Wallace is saying is, and this is probably from the heart, is there are some factors here on the battlefield that he did not expect to see. And the biggest thing is this business about rear area security and guerrilla warfare in the United States rear. There is all this talk about these people being terrorists and thugs and all this kind of business, and I’m sure they’re unpleasant people. But in fact they’re guerrillas and someone is leading them in an organized and pretty effective way.

There are three battalions of U.S. Marines in Nasiriyah tonight, I saw before I came on. That was never envisioned that there would be that kind of U.S. force committed to the task of securing the area. I think to some extent, and of course I’m prejudiced as an old Special Forces man, but I think there is a tendency on the part of senior people in the defense establishment not to take seriously the possibility of bands of irregulars under competent leadership interfering seriously with your lines of supply and things like that. And I think that’s what has happened here really.

RAY SUAREZ: But does it bring into question how we make these plans or at least should cause everybody to take a backward glance about how the plan was made? The CIA, in a February report, said that Saddam loyalists would be dressed in civilian attire and use urban areas as bases to threaten supply lines. And one officer said to a reporter today, those who say we didn’t warn them were not reading their homework. Harlan Ullman?

CMDR. HARLAN ULLMAN: I would like to make a comment. I don’t know Gen. Scott Wallace from a hole in the wall. But I think he seems to be an honest man and I think he’s reacting honestly to the situation. And I think that’s commendable. We don’t need to make a big case about that. We have problems in the rear area but I don’t believe that those are going to be overwhelming problems, but they’re ones that have to be recognized.

Whether we anticipate it or not, where we are is where we are. And we’ve got to make due. Battlefields are fluid. Vietnam was a very fluid war. We have to adjust. And my sense is that we have enough fighting power to do there and at this stage, I think that we just need to be patient and see how this thing unfolds.

RAY SUAREZ: You’re shaking your head.

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: I don’t buy the enough fighting power. The examples are too overwhelming. The best division in the United States Army is not in this fight; they were going to come through Turkey. The Fourth ID is not in the fight.

RAY SUAREZ: Infantry division.

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: I’m sorry — the Fourth Infantry Division. We learned today that the original plan written by Gen. Franks to central command came to Washington and was cut in half. The force structure that had originally been planned for that operation in December was halved — both the combat and the support forces. I don’t think that we can send American men and women to battle without full support. It is a little bit of a twist on the thing, support the troops. Support the troops is letting them have the combat power that the United States possesses. And we could have delayed and we may want to delay now until that infantry division arrives.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: I see nothing wrong with waiting for that infantry division to arrive. I mean, you need to have a follow-on force here in order to support the spearheads or even to be able to pass one through the other. You are going to have to breach a couple lines of defenses here unless you want to go back to the assumption that the Iraqis aren’t going to fight, which I think would be a little risky at this point.

You really need to be able to pass one major unit through another in a succession of offensives until you get to the center of Baghdad or wherever you’re going. But as for this business about the rear area security problem not being really serious I don’t think there is any way to know that right now. I mean, nobody anticipated that this was going to be as big a problem as it is, and nobody can see at this point how big it might grow to be, because if in fact you can cut somebody’s lines of supply, you can stop them cold in their tracks.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, do you wait until a big chunk of that 120,000 reinforcements arrives?

CMDR. HARLAN ULLMAN: Well, there are two points here. I mean, whether or not the rear guard problem is a real big one, we’ll see. I’m not sure that it is but we’ll see. About the siege of Baghdad, I mean obviously it makes some sense if you want to reinforce. And so there is also a need to rest the troops. But the point, the point that I would make, we seem to underestimate the amazing firepower and overwhelming advantage we have militarily. Let me give you an example.

In Mogadishu in 1993, we had 18 Americans killed but we probably killed several thousand Somalis. Now we didn’t have air power. We didn’t have armor, but the fighting power of that life force was extraordinary. The fighting power we can bring to bear is extraordinary. The larger strategic issue is: How do you take on Baghdad if there is resistance because that is a really difficult issue. If you take it on and have you lots of casualties, there’s a problem. If you have a siege, that’s a problem. So the notion of waiting until you bulk up and see how this thing works out probably makes some sense.

RAY SUAREZ: Go ahead.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, you know, you have to begin to ask yourself, what does winning mean here? If we killed 3,000 Somalis with Task Force Ranger, which is just a tiny little infantry outfit with a few helicopters and we go into Baghdad, fight our way into downtown Baghdad to evict the regime, how many Iraqis are we going kill? What’s that going to do to our position in the future and in the Arab world, Islamic world especially? You have to ask yourself, what does winning mean in this case?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Col. Gardiner, let’s talk a little bit about what they have to be thinking about as Baghdad pulls into view. Is there an equation where, in order to protect your own forces you risk killing more civilians when you fight for a city? Or, if for political reasons the decision is made to kill as few civilians as possible, you take that loss of life on to your own forces?

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: Let me answer that in a way that I don’t think you would expect, Ray– that we have a ticking time bomb that we are sitting on. And that time bomb is the humanitarian problem. We’ve seen what it has done in Basra. The problem with waiting, the answer for you to me with waiting is that this time bomb continues to tick. The thing that we have seen in Basra is going to be multiplied by three, four, five in all those cities that we move up and then in Baghdad. The longer we wait, the more serious the humanitarian problem will be.

Okay, so that’s what sort of, you set that out. Then if you look at the battle of Baghdad, the original concept was to be sort of cautious about it, not to go in and do the big street fight, but to be cautious. Now if we wait for three weeks and we begin to have civilians who are without water, without food, that becomes more difficult. So in ways, it is a dilemma of these two tensions that we’ve gotten ourselves into. You have to deal with the humanitarian problem that’s coming up on you and you want to wait to have enough force.

RAY SUAREZ: The wait/don’t wait – Is the wait/don’t wait question also made more complicated by questions that have to do with what we saw earlier in our war report, the reports of weapons possibly coming in from Iraq and Syria. Is delay one of the things that allows these kinds of external events to go on?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Yeah, well you know commenting on what Sam said first, I don’t think there could be a siege of Baghdad, in which you surround five million people and essentially cut them off from foodstuffs and things like that. Having arrived at this point, we are going to have to solve this situation sometime in the not too far distant future.

But with regard to Syria, I do a lot of business and travel in that part of the world and I have listened to people very closely and it has been very obvious for the last year or so that the Syrian government has been in fact safeguarding things for the Iraqis of various kinds and that their ports – Tartous and Lattakia and places like that — have been open to imports of things for the Iraqi government. And they’ve gotten away with that in a big way because they have been helping us against al-Qaida in our war against terrorism across the world. I’ve been puzzled up to now as to why the day of reckoning hadn’t come. And I’m really glad to see this has happened and it’s about time.

CMDR. HARLAN ULLMAN: Pat made the interesting point. And he’s right. What does winning mean? He is right. As far as this administration, it seems to be winning is collapsing Saddam’s regime, taking over all the levers of power, which include Baghdad. And once you’ve made that decision, if it turns out there is going to be heavy resistance in Baghdad, we have made the decision to accept those casualties. Now the issue here is not so much the war. We are going to win the war. It may take us a month, it may take us four months.

But the peace is what really is important. And if we face the probability or the possibility of killing large numbers of Iraqis — because it is not so much civilians being used as human shields — supposing Iraqi civilians join up with the Iraqi military in the ways of resistance — you have a tremendous problem and the administration has a big bullet to bite. What it does is going to have a huge impact on the particular peace.

So my colleagues are correct saying that there are some huge issues here and one wonders how well the administration has thought these things through in advance. The fact of the matter is, we are engaged in a war and this administration cannot afford to lose the war, even if the Iraqi civilian casualty count is going to be very, very high.

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: I just have to… I’m sorry, I do it politely but I don’t accept casualties. When there is enough combat power…that’s my point…

CMDR. HARLAN ULLMAN: Casualties to the Iraqis, not to us.


CMDR. HARLAN ULLMAN: Not us. Not our side. We are not going to endure the brunt of this. The Iraqis are. Our casualties I think will be– our combat power is so overwhelming that it impresses me. It is not us. It’s the Iraqis where I think that the casualty count is going to be extremely high.

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: Let me try another dilemma though that relates to that which is, having cut the plan, I think the administration may be in trouble if we have casualties of any significance. I mean this is the thing that’s very serious when the commander asks for this much force and you end up with something less than that.

RAY SUAREZ: Are we, right now, in this pause, within days of encircling Baghdad as the commanders on the allied forces have said? Or is this the kind of thing where we can wait a while?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: It sounds to me… nobody told me anything, but it sounds to me from all the externals of the situation, that we don’t have the patience to wait four weeks, five weeks, until we bring up enough force to hold American casualties down very low. The bigger the force you go in with, the more firepower, the lower American casualties are going to be. But I don’t think we should kid ourselves about how many Iraqis are going to die in the taking of Baghdad because when you’re fighting in a built up area with a civilian population around, there are going to be a lot of people hit. There is just no way you can avoid it.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thanks a lot.