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Two Authors Question Prewar Decisions

March 17, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: On the eve of the Iraq war’s third anniversary, a new book has been released chronicling the planning and execution of the war and the bloody occupation that followed.

The book is “Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq.” It’s based on three years of reporting by co-authors Michael Gordon, chief military correspondent for the New York Times, and retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Bernard Trainor, a former Times military correspondent.

And both gentlemen join us now.

And welcome, thank you for being here.

This book is filled with all kinds of fascinating detail about the planning and execution and the occupation of the war. But I’d like to focus on those new things you’ve discovered that bear on why we’re in the predicament we are now.

And I’d like to start with you, Michael Gordon.

There is a quote very early, right — very early in the book, what I found the most stunning overall conclusion you came to, and it was the following: “There were indications from the first days of the invasion,” you wrote, “of the insurgency and guerrilla tactics to come, but they were ignored at the highest levels in Washington and at the Central Command.”

What were those indications and who failed to take them seriously?

MICHAEL GORDON: All right. I think in going back and studying the war in microscopic detail, which is what you do — interview all the participants, go through the documents — what basically happened is the forces as soon as they crossed the border, they were involved in rather fierce fights in towns like Nasariyah, Samawah, an-Najaf. And they were fighting an irregular enemy, an enemy that used guerrilla-style tactics from Toyota pickup trucks, used RPGs, not the Republican Guard or regular army.

And it was very evident to the forces in the field that this was a different type of foe. In fact, some of the intelligence officers said this is a kind of enemy that’s not going to go away when Baghdad falls.

But these lessons really weren’t learned at the highest levels.

MARGARET WARNER: But they did send back word. They sent back intelligence reports and field reports, is that right?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, that they were involved in these fights was no surprise to General Franks or Secretary Rumsfeld.

The forces had to stop and pause for several days to deal with this enemy and they had to change their plan, which didn’t go down too well at the highest levels.

But there was a Marine intelligence officer in really the first major battle of the war in Nasiriyah who wrote an intelligence report. And he had experience in insurgency and counterinsurgency operations, and he said this enemy is not being defeated. It’s going to ground and we’re bypassing this enemy, and we’re going to have to deal with it again and it could disrupt our postwar efforts.

It was an early clue, but there were many others that basically the war wasn’t going to necessarily end when Baghdad fell.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, there was another fascinating nugget you all discovered which was where this Fedayeen came from. And in fact, it had been created by Saddam Hussein to fight a very different enemy.

Explain that and how it morphed into really the core of the early insurgency.

BERNARD TRAINOR: Well, you have to understand that Saddam Hussein’s sole goal was survival of the regime, and survival of the regime mean keeping control of the Shia population in the south which rose up against him at the end of the first Gulf War. And he had a great deal of difficulty putting it down.

And so he decided that he would put together a parallel quasi-military force to the regular army, called the Fedayeen, paramilitaries which he put under his son Uday. And these would be armed with AK-47s, RPGs, machine guns, no artillery or tanks.

And they would be located throughout all of the rural and urban areas in the southern portion of Iraq to put down any sort of insurgency, not because the Americans were coming, but just put down the insurgency.

The only external threat he saw was not from America but from Iran. So these were internal security forces, but they were armed. They were fanatical. And when we went in there, when the army and Republican Guard was not a particularly difficult target, the Fedayeen picked up the slack.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the debate about troop levels is an old one. But you all also have some new information on that score, which was that it wasn’t just Army chief of staff, General Shinseki who had said we’re going to need a more robust force, but that there were a lot of military commanders who in the planning phase were saying you’re going to need more.

MICHAEL GORDON: The central point that General Shinseki made in congressional testimony in response to a question was that the force you need to control the country after the regime falls is larger than the force you need to destroy the regime.

And what we’ve discovered in this book is this was by no means his unique assessment, number one. There was an Army general, Steve Hawkins (ph) who worked on planning issues for the land war (pH) command, who the day before General Shinseki testified told him that his internal estimate was that you could need in excess of 300,000 forces to control the country.

MICHAEL GORDON: Also, there was a Marine officer on the staff of the National Security Council who put together a study of the number of forces that have typically been required for postwar situations. And he looked at Bosnia, and he looked at a whole host of them. And he said based on past experience, he took the Balkans, for example, as your model. How many would we need in Iraq? And what he discovered is you need 300,000 to 400,000.

His study was briefed to Steve Hadley, the man who is now the national security adviser to the president, to Condi Rice. They saw this information. They just preferred to stick with their optimistic estimates.

MARGARET WARNER: And so as a military man, what is your conclusion based on your reporting of why Tommy Franks, the CENTCOM commander, and Secretary Rumsfeld ignored this advice and went with the smaller, leaner force?

Was it all about his desire to transform the military?

BERNARD TRAINOR: Well, that was certainly part of it, certainly on Rumsfeld’s part.

But as Michael said, yes, we did have enough forces to win the battle. But, you know, they overlooked the fact that just fighting a battle is not what warfare is all about.

Warfare goes beyond the end point of the battle, which is the post-operation period, and that’s where the shortage of forces were.

MARGARET WARNER: But you found that — at least in this book you write about the fact that even after the Saddam statue falls, but the looting has begun in earnest, that at that point even then Franks did not believe that there was a need for a bigger force.


The whole idea was that, well, we really don’t need forces for the postwar, post-combat phase because the Iraqi police, Iraqi civil infrastructure, they will take over. External international forces will come in and we go home. That was the whole idea that we were sought to draw down our forces, so that after a short period of time at the end of the summer, we would be down to just about 30,000 troops. So the whole thing was–

MARGARET WARNER: And, in fact, he told his commanders to get ready…

BERNARD TRAINOR: Get ready to withdraw the forces, correct, yes.

So it was in and out very quickly. So you wouldn’t need extra forces for the post-combat phase.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael, you write about Tommy Franks that he, quote, “never acknowledged the enemy he faced nor did he comprehend the nature of the war he was directing.”

Now, that’s pretty tough. What do you mean by that? Explain that.

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, you know, I bare no animus toward General Franks and I think he did a number of good things.

I think the idea of beginning the air war and the ground war simultaneously was an important innovation that allowed the U.S. to achieve tactical surprise and I think General Franks deserves credit for that.

That said, when the Fedayeen raised their ugly head and all the field commanders decided they had to stop and fight them for several days before resuming the march, General Scott Wallace, the commander of the 5th Corps, made some public comments about — to the media why this was necessary.

As a consequence, General Franks threatened to fire this commander. Instead of learning the lessons of the war and adapting, he wanted to shoot the messenger.

MARGARET WARNER: And did people in the room with him at the time tell you that he just didn’t believe the postwar challenge was going to be great?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, General Franks had overseen the operation in Afghanistan, and he thought he learned an important lesson from Afghanistan that you didn’t need large forces to score a lightning victory.

I think he learned the wrong lesson from Afghanistan. I think it’s an entirely different strategic case. But he says in his own after-action interview, which we’ve also accessed for this book, that was done internally, that, that was a big influence on him.

Also, I think in General Frank’s own personal history he has done many different things. He was in Korea. He was in Europe. He was never among the generals who did Balkan peacekeeping. He didn’t have that in his background the way a Dave Petraeus does. And I think it was a gap.

MARGARET WARNER: And then, of course, ultimately, General Trainor, it’s the civilian leadership that really is running the show.

To what degree, in terms of the decisions, whether they were good or not wise in retrospect, would you say that Secretary Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney and President Bush were really involved, were hands-on?

BERNARD TRAINOR: A troika, three of them joined at the hip.

They were the ones that ran the war. The president presiding, the vice president kind of being the brains behind the organization, and the man that carried the thing out would be Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense.

Everybody else was kind of in and out of circle. Condi Rice, the national security adviser, Colin Powell cut out, even the so-called neo-cons, they were part of the great cause.

But those three were joined at the hip and they thought the same way and acted the same way.

MARGARET WARNER: And you obviously got a lot of military men to speak very candidly for you for this book.

Why did not one of them speak out publicly at the time?

BERNARD TRAINOR: You have to understand the culture of the military.

I mean, they will make their case, lay their case before the decision maker, the civilian decision maker. And after they made their case, a decision is made against them. They will say, aye aye, salute and try to do the best that they possibly can.

They could have pushed back harder, but they didn’t.

MARGARET WARNER: General Bernard Trainor, Michael Gordon, thank you.