How did it fit into Rumsfeld's theories on force size?
The background to that small war plan was this debate with the Pentagon over military transformation, which Rumsfeld embraced … the idea that, as the information revolution came to rest in the military, that you could have smaller precise warfare; not only from the air, as we saw with smart bombs. But you could have the ground equivalent, as sort of this small precise ground force, which is really a new idea -- and in some ways, an untested idea.
For the war plan, it really did work brilliantly in many ways. The question that remains, though, is whether this brilliant war plan also created the conditions for what followed.
But there was this ongoing debate at the Pentagon over force size. …
There was a huge and difficult debate that went on for months about the size of the force, and the nature of the force as well; not just sheer numbers of troops, but also what kind of troops. Rumsfeld's argument was, you don't need all that stuff.
Tommy Franks was kind of a pivotal figure in this, because he was seen as a classic muddy-boots army general who somehow began agreeing with Rumsfeld during the course of this argument. As one officer put it to me one day, "Tommy Franks has drunk the Kool-Aid." They did wind up with a much smaller force.
I'm told that Franks had some worries about it, and so what they did was promise him there would be just-in-time delivery of troops. He wouldn't begin with all the troops on hand that he needed, but he was promised that troops would be arriving, and he could throw them into the war as needed.
How did the northern front add also to Tommy Franks's concerns, and to the debate over the number of troops?
The northern front was part of the war plan for a long, long time. They assumed that they would be able to have a northern front, a substantial northern front. I remember people at the Pentagon telling me, "Don't worry, Turkey will eventually come on board, just like they did in 1991. They waited until the last minute, and then they gave us permission."
… It was always part of the plan to have a small but substantial force coming out of the north, basically, the 4th Infantry Division and a special operations component -- small, somewhat more of a sporting proposition than the U.S. military is accustomed to doing. One division, out there all alone in what they call "Indian country."
What happened to the invasion force from the north?
For weeks, the ships carrying the material of the 4th Infantry Division sat offshore in Turkey. The U.S. military, and I think the U.S. government really did believe that ultimately the Turks would come around. But as the ships sat there, it became a kind of form of strategic deception. CNN was showing those ships on TV every day, and it was a signal to Iraq that the U.S. expected to come through the north. That was a way of tying down Iraqi troops up north, and making sure they weren't all moved south.
Ultimately, the U.S. didn't get permission, and they scooted their ships around very quickly, and offloaded them as quickly as they could through Kuwait. But really there was a bottleneck there at Kuwait. They couldn't get all the material off that quickly.
Before the war, sketch in for us the size of the forces that were waiting in the Gulf, the basic components -- the Army, Marines, the Brits, the Navy, the Air Force -- and how that force compared in size to the force assembled before the Gulf War in 1991.
Essentially, the force assembled on the eve of the war was about half the size of the Gulf War force. Not only was it half the size, it had at least twice the job. In 1991, the mission was simply to go into Kuwait and eject the Iraqi military from Kuwait. Here, the mission was to go 500 miles to Baghdad, much longer supply lines, much further inland, difficult for the Marines to operate that far inland. They'd never really fought that far inland before. You'd have to rely on air coming in a lot farther, which means more refueling, fewer actually strike missions, and so on. In many ways a more difficult mission, with half the force.
What did we bring to bear? Who was there? How were they situated?
It was not that large a force, when you look back on it. You had the 3rd Infantry Division, a heavy division -- despite its infantry name -- of mechanized infantry, lots of tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles. You have the 101st Airborne, a helicopter-heavy division, but not a lot of tanks. You had the First Marine Expeditionary Force, a large, sort of reinforced division type of thing that had its own aircraft as well. Offshore, you had lots of Navy ships, a couple of aircraft carriers. You had hundreds of Air Force aircraft based at bases in Kuwait, and some of the Persian Gulf states, and reconnaissance aircraft, refuelers -- all sorts of support aircraft flying out of Saudi Arabia.
The most important technological thing was not steel or planes or anything. I think the biggest difference, the thing that pulled this force together and really made it uniquely powerful, [were] computers [and electronics]. This was an information-rich force of the type never seen on the planet before.
I remember being about Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia in January, as they were getting ready for war. They had more bandwidth coming into that base than basically existed on the planet not long ago. They were able to do real-time video into cockpits. They really were fighting a war in a way that had never been fought before. This was an information force going up against a kind of crummy, small version of a World War II force.
So was the term "shock and awe" therefore accurate? Was it basically a PR term, or was this a tenet that actually had been around since the early 1990s, dealing with a type of warfare that this indeed was?
Shock and awe was a media frenzy that had nothing to do with the way the war was going to be fought. It landed in the middle of a media with not a whole lot left to say about two or three weeks before the war actually began. The media snapped around that phrase, and made it into much more than it was. Shock and awe was a media frenzy that came out of the media fighting the last war again, not the military.
To my knowledge, the phrase never appeared in the news columns of the Washington Post, and we worked hard to keep it out. I think it was pure horseshit. It had nothing to do with anything. It was not a governing principle of the war.
Shock and awe really did describe the U.S. approach to air power in the 1991 war. You did not have shock and awe in this war. The use of air power was actually remarkably restrained, and fairly minimal. There was not a lot of bombs dropped in this war. I actually think it was never really part of this war plan. I think the media found this phrase in a fairly obscure document produced by the National Defense University, and had nothing else to do, and kicked it around -- sort of like a pre-game show before the Super Bowl, which is totally irrelevant to actually what happens in the Super Bowl, and no one remembers as soon as the kickoff begins.
There was a substantial special operations campaign going on before the beginning of the war. Can you summarize the scale of that activity, and what they were doing?
In some ways, you could say this war began in about September 2002, which is when the special operations campaign against Iraq really geared up. It began as a psychological operations campaign with various components, all aimed at swaying Iraqi public opinion. Millions upon millions of leaflets were dropped on Iraqis, beginning around that time, I think fall of 2002, and escalating in number right up to the eve of the war in 2003.
It's a good question as to whether it had any success at all. This was probably, if not the largest, then the second-largest psychological operations campaign in history. I have yet to see an iota of evidence that it affected the opinion of a single Iraqi. No Iraqi I interviewed has ever mentioned, "Oh, yes, I got one of those leaflets, and that really persuaded me." I think it would be a good subject for a congressional investigation. I don't want to prejudge it. I'm not sure that anything really came of that.
Then the next phase on the special operations campaign was inserting various drops of stuff inside Iraq, so forces could operate behind enemy lines, or at least inside Iraq. So you had advance little bases put up with some ammunition, some water, communications gear, batteries, and so on -- 50 kilometers, 100 kilometers inside Iraq -- especially western Iraq, which is a largely empty desert, but which was of strategic concern because they didn't want Israel attacked from there. So that gears up.
Then the third thing was getting special operations troops into some of the key infrastructure, especially the oil fields, to prevent the oil fields from being destroyed, from manifolds from being blown up, things like that.
March 26, the U.S. paratroopers land in northern Iraq to open the battle of the northern front -- the new northern front, basically. Can you describe the landing, what it was for, and how it opened the northern front?
The U.S. had sworn that, even if it couldn't get the 4th Infantry Division in, it would get some troops into northern Iraq. So they went to the 173rd Air Brigade, which is based in Italy, its paratroopers, and got them into northern Iraq. They actually did a jump into Iraq, which a lot of people in the military thought was kind of cheesy, because there was no military need for it. There was sort of a sense that they were showing off. The response was, "Well, it demonstrates to the Iraqis that we're paratroopers." I'm not sure it meant a lot to people in Iraq.
So 173rd goes in, and starts operating with Kurdish forces in the north. I think it probably did achieve an American presence there, kept the Kurds from sort of saying, "We're in charge here all by ourselves." But it was not a large military operation, and they actually didn't have that much combat up north. I think it was partly a message to the Iraqis -- partly a message to the Turks, but I think mainly a message to the Kurds -- which is, "The U.S. government is here. Don't think you can go off by yourself."
What was the strategy of this northern front?
The original strategy of the northern front was to have the 4th Infantry Division -- a big, heavy, mechanized division -- come in through Turkey and fight its way down to Baghdad through the Sunni Triangle. Had they done that, you probably would have had less fighting than you've had there subsequently. When the Turks wouldn't allow the 4th Infantry Division to come in-- It's a heavy division. It would have to come in by land, trucked in, and also carried by train. Then the alternative was simply to get some U.S. military presence to fly the flag in the north, and that's why they went with this light infantry brigade, a paratrooper brigade. Nothing is lighter than paratroopers. They don't have tanks. They hardly have big guns. But it got some U.S. boots on the ground up north.
There were also special operations troops up north. As we saw in Afghanistan, a few special operations troops calling in air strikes can have a devastating effect. They actually did have some combat of that sort, where you had some Iraqis trying to move forward, and devastating air strikes were called in to stop them in their tracks.
Was the northern front strategy successful?
In narrow terms, the northern front strategy was successful, in that the Kurds didn't go off the reservation and declare independence, and U.S. forces successfully occupied the north. Eventually the 101st Airborne Division moved in and made its headquarters in Mosul, and Iraqi reconstruction began.
Arguably, Mosul has been much more successful than most of the rest of the country in reconstruction. I was in Mosul last week, and the local TV [station] has basically an Iraqi version of "American Idol." So, yes, I mean, with a minimal number of troops, they did achieve some U.S. military aims. But it was not what the U.S. military originally had conceived for northern Iraq.
What past military experience was this strategy modeled on? I'm talking about the special forces air power, and indigenous forces strategy.
The entire U.S. war in Iraq, I think to a surprising degree, is very unusual. There's only one real analogy to it, one real model for it, and that's the U.S. war in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. I think no other military has ever fought in the way those two wars were fought. Afghanistan was kind of an extreme model. Basically, Afghanistan was conquered with 300 U.S. troops on the ground, working with several thousand Afghan allies.
But remember, those Afghan allies have been fighting for years, and have been unable to take Kabul. Once you had a few hundred U.S. special operations troops on the ground, calling in air strikes with everything from small fighter jets to gigantic B-52s, it changed the entire operation on the ground in Afghanistan. I think that's the model that Donald Rumsfeld had in mind when he first began looking at U.S. military planning for Iraq.
Ultimately, what you came out with was a far different war plan. But I think the guiding spirit of the small, precise use of force, and not having more troops on the ground than absolutely necessary-- That lesson was taken from Afghanistan, and I think applied to the Iraq war plan.
Prewar-- Describe the key assumptions on how this war was going to be fought.
This was actually a story I wrote with Rick Atkinson, and in some nice timing, it ran on a Sunday before the war actually began. We laid out the assumptions, the thinking, the planning for the war. It was extremely straightforward. It was going to be a drive to Baghdad as quickly as possible. The major concern they had was a 500-mile unprotected convoy supply line back to Kuwait.
The major concern they had about the Iraqis was that they would be attacked with chemical weapons. They knew that Iraq did not have nuclear [weapons]. They did think that Iraq had deliverable biological weapons. But they did fear -- wrongly, as it turns out -- that Iraq had chemical weapons, and would use those. I remember being told by officers flatly, "When we hit the Red Line, which is the line just outside of Baghdad, chemicals will be used against us." Officers believed this to their marrow.
How optimistic were they?
The U.S. military, going into this war, is extremely optimistic. I think optimism ultimately paid off. They knew this enemy extremely well. They had studied this enemy for 10 years. They fought this enemy 10 years earlier. They thought about that war. They knew they could do this quickly. The question was, how quickly, and how many casualties would they sustain in the process? The betting basically was, "We'll get there in seven to 10 days, and we'll have 200 KIA [killed in action]."
What were the expectations as far as the reaction of the Iraqi civilians as we came through?
This is an extremely tender area, what they expected out of Iraq. I've had junior officers tell me quite bitterly how they were misinformed. People were told U.S. soldiers were told that they would be greeted as liberators. I remember a soldier from the 1st Army Division, a captain, complaining to me that they had been briefed that they would be greeted as liberators when they crossed the berm, that is, when they went across the border into Iraq, and that was a bitter surprise when they weren't.
Briefly describe the ground war attack on the eve of the war -- what the Army was supposed to do, what the Marines were supposed to do, what the British were supposed to do.
The ground war originally was supposed to begin a couple of days after the air war, but because of the March 19 strike, began really simultaneously with the air war. The basic plan was for the Army to begin from Kuwait, and drive north towards Baghdad, staying to the west of the Euphrates river, kind of in the desert. Inside those rivers [are] quite wet, quite lush palm trees and so on.
But you just get a couple miles outside it on either side, and you get into desert. So they were going to drive up across the desert, staying to the west of the Euphrates, and then, not far from Baghdad, cross the Euphrates and drive straight into Baghdad.
Meanwhile, the Marines were to go up right through the middle of Iraq in, literally, Mesopotamia, which means "between the rivers." They were going to come up more over towards the Tigris River, but on the left bank of the Tigris, inside that river valley, and also drive towards Baghdad.
There was some controversy about whether they were supposed to stop outside Baghdad. But everybody knew that, Marines being Marines, they were not going to stay outside the capital while the Army went in.
Finally, you have the Brits in the south, who basically were supposed to take Basra, and also make sure the oil fields stayed safe.
What was the air war supposed to accomplish to support this ground attack?
If anything, the air war was the inverse of the 1991 war. In the 1991 Gulf War, air power really was preeminent. It was kind of seen as the central aspect of the war. At least in the public perception and the media perception, ground forces kind of didn't break a sweat. They waited until the air war was over, and then waltzed into Kuwait. This really flipped that entirely. Air power took a back seat to ground power.
The key thing the air power did -- and it's still kind of controversial -- is hit the massed Iraqi forces outside of Baghdad before ground forces came in. I was told by one general at the Pentagon that those forces on the ring outside of Baghdad were reduced from about 70 percent effectiveness to 20 percent effectiveness by several intense days of bombing that began, actually, during the sandstorm. I've since been told by other equally credible people that those forces basically fell apart by themselves, and that air power did very little; that Iraqis did not intend to fight the conventional war the U.S. wanted to fight, and that they'd seen this in 1991. They knew that they couldn't take on the U.S. conventionally, and that what they wanted to do was get to their war, their combat, as fast as possible.
As the ground forces crossed the Kuwaiti border, describe the early going.
The first couple of days of the war were extremely fast moving. They did not encounter much opposition. They took care of a lot of their major problems, the major concerns. Would Iraq launch scud missiles at Israel? Would Iraq launch chemical-laden missiles at [the ground forces] as they crossed [the border]? Would the oil fields be torched? Three major worries; none of those things happened.
The scuds had to be launched from certain areas, and those areas were occupied very quickly in western Iraq. Chemical weapons didn't happen as they crossed, and so they were inside Iraq, moving along. The best time to hit troops with chemical weapons is when they're assembling, before they start moving. Once they start moving, a moving target, especially a moving military target, is very difficult to even slow down with chemical weapons. They'll just keep driving through it.
There was some minor damage to them, but really, they were able to get to the oil fields. The Marines came into the southern oil fields very quickly, and shut down a lot of the damage quickly.
Why didn't those possibilities take place? What was going on on the Iraqi side?
We still don't know what the thinking was inside the Iraqi military. Some Post reporters have done some interviews with various commanders since then. Iraq's response to [the] U.S. military size was slow and inept. Except, in retrospect, maybe it wasn't, which is to say Iraq and its military had been down this road before. They knew they couldn't take on the U.S. military conventionally. So the question was, how quickly could they get out of our fight, and into their fight?
So there is a minority school of thought inside the U.S. military -- that they appeared to capitulate, to really sort of turn the war over to these irregular militias, and kind of disappear, so they could start the fight they wanted to fight. …They were getting to the fight that they've been fighting since April, that's been going on now for nine or 10 months, in which hundreds of U.S. troops have died.
In retrospect, it does look like we tore down the goalposts at half time.
March 23, Nasiriya. An element of the 507th takes a wrong turn, and is attacked. Jessica Lynch is captured. Was this the first shock of the war?
I remember those days really vividly, March 23, 24, 25. March 23 was a Sunday. It was the day the U.S. lost the most troops in the war -- 37 dead or POWs, I believe, that day. That was a real shock. You had the 507th Maintenance Company, the Army supply unit, get lost [and] get shot up. You had Marines go in and try to rescue them. There was some friendly fire incidents following that up.
I think that day really set the U.S. military back on its heels. Not that they fell apart; they knew there would be bad days. They didn't think it would be that soon, and in that way. On top of that, there was a kind of undercurrent of concern -- "Maybe we've cut this thing too close. Maybe we should have had a few more troops protecting our convoy lines. Maybe we should have had a few more MPs running these tactical control points, these traffic points."
What's the Pentagon's reaction in Washington?
The Pentagon had distance, which is good. You don't want everybody running around like they're on the battlefield. And the Pentagon's attitude [was], war is difficult. War can be bloody. I didn't see any impulse among military commanders or civilian leaders to change the war plan one iota at that point.
Did it reveal a flaw in the war plan?
Some people argued that that really did show a flaw. But I think an equally large number, probably far more people, [including] military experts, would argue no, that there are costs to any war plan. A narrow, small war plan has certain risk for troops. But if you have a lot larger number of troops, moving more slowly, you would have created more opportunities for the enemy to attack you. So ultimately you would have lost more troops, and you would have had more accidents and more friendly fire. So there are tradeoffs in either direction. This was what the tradeoff became with having a small force.
What exactly happened when the maintenance group made the wrong turn?
It was March 23; U.S. forces are moving north, and they've really moved much further north. This is [the] rear echelon, [the] second and third days of convoys are coming along. One convoy coming along from Fort Bliss, I believe it was, missed a turn outside the town of Nasiriya, and should have been heading up west of the Euphrates, out in the desert, away from population centers. Instead, [it] heads right through Nasiriya, a major city in the south. It gets, I think, to the other side of town, realizes its mistake, tries to figure its way back, takes another turn, and kind of drives around the outskirts of the city, coming under overpasses and bridges, in which these Iraqi irregulars are waiting to shoot at them with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
They really get chewed up coming through. Their convoy kind of breaks up. A couple of trucks make it out. Several don't. It's a real mess.
Then there was the public reaction to the Jessica Lynch story, the story as reported in the press.
The Jessica Lynch story really somehow struck a chord, I think, with the American people. There had been a lot of worries about female soldiers, how they'd be treated, what would it be like to have them in combat. I think somehow the American people found this reassuring -- from what they heard, at least -- that the female soldiers had fought, and they were basically acting like good soldiers. I think this resonated with Americans. Whether or not it's true, they certainly liked hearing it.
Was it a bit hyped by the press or by the Pentagon?
I don't think the Jessica Lynch story was hyped by the Pentagon. I think that was an unfair attack on the Pentagon. I think the media kind of did it all by itself. I think the reason for it was, in journalistic terms, it was "a good story." It excited people -- not just reporters, but editors. This was interesting, a new [and] different angle on the war. This was something that had not been seen before. In some ways, that's the definition of news -- something we haven't seen before.
During this time, it's not just the 507th Company getting [attacked]. Describe the other big troubles they encountered, and the controversy that grows out of all this at this period of time.
That week, I remember really intensely, March 23 through about the March 27. It begins with that very bloody Sunday, the 507th Company getting lost. That night, Sunday into Monday, the Army launches an Apache deep strike raid. The two Apaches get knocked down. A couple of crew members get captured. That really did set the U.S. Army back on its heels. For 20 years, they had built a big part of their thinking about combat around the attack helicopter….
… On the night of March 23, 30-odd helicopters [went] on a so-called deep strike raid, deep behind enemy lines, and had a shock, in that they were hit with intense small arms fire. Every single helicopter flying was hit. Now, almost all of them made it back to base. But there were a lot of white faces among those helicopter crews, and among senior Army officers the next morning when they realized what had happened.
A lot of controversy within the Army about that mission. Was it done the way it was supposed to be done? Should Apaches be flying deep behind enemy lines without any support? The classic way you fight is arms supporting each other, that you have infantry and tanks and helicopters working together. These helicopters were way out there by themselves. Some Army officers would argue that it was just a bad misuse, a misconception of where the helicopters should be used -- that the best way to use those Apaches is when you're standing behind your own lines, firing across them, with infantry [and] tanks out in front to protect the helicopters.
The result, though, was that Apaches had a big question mark thrown over their future, both in that war and since then. It's interesting, actually. What I've seen is the Army actually prefers a smaller, more nimble helicopter … and uses that much more, I think, in Iraq in the postwar combat than they use the Apache.
Supposedly, the Iraqis had intelligence forces [out there] spying. So the helicopters take off, and then got in touch with the folks in the village, and lights were turned on and off, and everybody went to their roofs. Was that capability of the Iraqis a surprise to us?
I think it was a surprise, in that Iraqis were using fairly low-tech answers, cell phones and electric lights, to signal each other, to communicate. The bigger surprise was that small arms, AK-47s, could inflict that amount of damage on Apache helicopters. You used to hear Army officers, especially aviators, tell you, "These things are flying tanks."
Then, on top of that, you have this horrible sandstorm come in that really, literally, throws sand on the gears of the U.S. military machine. Then, on top of that, the Washington Post comes out with a story, in which we quoted a general as saying, "This is not the enemy … [we] expected, and this war could last until summer." People thought, what a pessimist! In retrospect, actually, he was optimistic. But at the time, that really did culminate the week.
So back in Washington, watching all this, were a bunch of retired generals who had really become kind of a new part of the American way of war -- retired generals going on TV, especially cable TV shows, and commenting, as if it were a football game.
The theme that those retired generals struck that week was, this thing is not going as well as it should because it is not a big enough force; because it has overextended supply lines that are under-protected; because it doesn't have the mass; because when one unit gets tired, there's not another unit standing behind it, waiting to push on.
This really antagonized Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Myers, who, at a press conference a few days later, really showed some anger in talking about it. …
It really stung the Pentagon that so many of these officers were commenting so vigorously, and second-guessing the war plan so vigorously. Behind that, of course, there was this running debate between Donald Rumsfeld and the U.S. Army about the size of the entire army, not just in the war plan, but the future of the U.S. Army, and a kind of distrust of Rumsfeld among senior officers in the Army.
During the sandstorm, there is the story that there was real consideration that the Pentagon thought that maybe now we should slow the attack and wait for the 4th Infantry, which had come around. They were trying to get up through Kuwait, at this point, to reinforce.
As the sandstorm came in and really forced the U.S. military operations to slow down -- at least on the ground -- there was talk floating around of a strategic pause. Would there be a strategic pause? If so, how long would it last? I don't think the Pentagon ever seriously discussed sitting down and waiting for another couple of divisions to come in, which is what some people, like retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, were advising. "Sit down, wait, get some more reinforcements in, and kind of reset, re-cock your war plan." The Bush administration hated talking about a strategic pause. They said, "No, no, no, that's not happening."
In fact, there was a kind of a tactical pause, if you will, going on. Forces had gotten to within about 100 miles of Baghdad, and it was time to sort of sit down and say, "OK, let's catch our breath for the final run into Baghdad." So there was a kind of smaller pause that in fact was going on, even as air power was continuing to pummel Republican Guard divisions outside of Baghdad from the air, or what they thought were Republican Guard divisions. In retrospect, many of them probably had melted away as the first bombs hit.
Then there was the meeting at Camp David [that] followed this.
It's the weekend after the most difficult week of the war, and you had unexpected troop losses. A terrible sandstorm comes in, slows them down. Meanwhile, a chorus of pundits, led by retired generals, [are] going on TV and criticizing the war plan. These are people with a lot of credibility, especially inside the U.S. military -- seasoned combat leaders like Barry McCaffrey, who's kind of a galvanizing figure for a lot of soldiers. I think the administration was feeling quite stunned by that criticism.
So the principal figures go up to Camp David, and Powell, Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Myers. I don't think they were really seriously saying, "Do we need to rewrite this war plan?" But I do think there was kind of a gut check, which is, "Look, this was a fairly difficult week. We are being hit a lot by the critics back here. Are we on track? Is this the way we want to go?"
I think the word came back from all levels of the chain of command, up to Tommy Franks [and] up to General Myers, [that said], "Yes, there have been some bumps here, but we're doing fine. Don't worry about it."
We're at April 4. Sum up, at that point, as the military is considering how to take Baghdad, and how the Thunder Run mission came about.
At that point, the U.S. military is on the outskirts of Baghdad, and they suspect that this [city] really could be knocked over with a good, focused flick of the finger. The question is, who's willing to take that gamble? Col. Perkins, a brigade commander in the 3rd Infantry Division, actually put his hand up and said, "Let me take a whack at it. What's to lose here?" He goes shooting downtown -- not all the way downtown, but shooting most of the way downtown -- with a bunch of tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles. They have some pretty tough fighting. They get hit with a lot of RPGs, rocket-propelled grenades. But they find, actually, they can really slice through Baghdad like warm butter, and they do.
So after they do it the first time, they say, "Let's try it again, and maybe this time, we'll stay downtown, just stay there." The key issue for them was actually fuel. M-118 tanks consume enormous amounts of fuel. An M-118 tank is a great fighting machine until it runs out of fuel, and then it becomes a 70-ton piece of cement, extremely vulnerable. They weren't sure if they'd have enough fuel to keep going. … In order to [get] that, you had to have a fairly secure supply line, at least through major intersections, because the intersections were where they were getting chewed up in the initial fighting, as they came in.
With sort of the typical American kind of attitude, they named these three intersections Larry, Moe, and Curly. ... I think Curly was the toughest fight, because they were closest to downtown. These were just basically major intersections that had superhighways coming through, and overpasses, and a very modern sort of superhighway structure.
They went charging right through, tried to hold, and did hold those intersections. [They] charged right down to the presidential palaces in the middle of downtown that are now the home of Bremer and the Green Zone, and the Civilian Occupation Authority. …
Here they are, 20,000 U.S. troops and a city of 5 million. What are they thinking? What's the process? What's going on?
What happened with that Thunder Run was, in some ways, a microcosm of the entire war. This is a much smaller force than anybody could have conceived as taking Baghdad. You have 20,000 troops in the 3rd Infantry Division. Without them, it was really only a few hundred in these runs downtown, several hundred troops heading straight downtown.
Their target was one thing. It was not the 5 million residents of Baghdad. It was Saddam Hussein's government. They figured, "Let's try it. Let's roll the dice. If we head down with a few tanks, show them we're here, fight our way through a few checkpoints and so on, can we win this war?"
Remember, they defined the war aims very narrowly. The aim of the war was to go to Baghdad and knock off the regime. Ultimately, it came down to this one brigade from the 3rd Infantry Division seeing if they could do that, and they did it. So the war, as defined by the U.S. military, was essentially won with this very small lighting strike into downtown Baghdad.
Unfortunately, then the Iraqi opposition said, "Now, let's fight our war." And that's the war that we fought the following eight to 10 months.
The taking of Basra. Were the U.S. and the British military at odds on tactics?
The U.S. military and the British are always at odds on tactics. I think this goes back to the Revolutionary War. I saw this in Bosnia. You saw it in Iraq. Whatever the U.S. military is doing, the British will tell you probably they could have done it more cleverly, more carefully, more thoughtfully, with less damaged china. ... [But] it took the Brits forever to take Basra.
On the other hand, Basra has been much quieter than Baghdad's been. Even though there are all the Shiites, Basra does have a substantial Sunni population. It's [like] soccer and football: different approaches, different ways of thinking.
Did the folks that you were talking to when you were over there think the Brits were moving too slowly? Did people talk about that?
I think there was a bit of puzzlement as to why it was taking the Brits so long to take Basra. At the same time, it was sort of, "Hey, it's their show, their approach." The U.S. military understands this well, because the Marines and the Army frequently have very different approaches, different ways of doing things. So there's kind of a shrug: "We're busy with our game. They've got their game over there. Don't know what's going down there, but we're sure they're doing well."
The U.S. military is very comfortable with the British. Even though I've been talking about their differences, it's really the only military that is, in some way, interchangeable with the U.S. military. The U.S. military does look up to the British military as a somewhat quaint -- but extremely seasoned and good -- small, well-led force.
On the other side of it all, though, did the Brits think that the U.S. were moving too quickly? Did they have problems with the number of civilian deaths? What was sort of the attitude?
What I've seen of the British generally is, they believe that the U.S. military tends to bring too much force to bear, lacks finesse, and tends towards cowboy-type tactics. At the same time, there's a real professional respect for U.S. military, especially its technical competence. The biggest problem right now between the British and the American militaries is the British equipment is several decades behind U.S. military equipment, basic things like communications. ...
There were certain points when there were a lot of civilian casualties. Can you address that?
We're holding the U.S. military to an extremely high standard, and I think it should be held to a high standard. I think most people in the military [that] I know would welcome that standard. On the other hand, a soldier inside a tank has a very limited view of the world. He literally can't see that much. So I always had a certain sympathy for the guys in the tank that shot up the Palestine Hotel and killed some journalists during the attack on Baghdad.
Journalists needed to reconsider how they thought about war. There's almost this attitude among some journalists that war is something that occurs in the field, and you can sit [in] the stands. It's not. Sure, it might be like a football stadium, but you have troops rumbling all over that stadium. You have [ammunition] being shot in every direction, missiles going off. There is no safe place in the stadium. I don't think it's reasonable to expect that there be a safe place in the stadium.
In my experience, the U.S. military really goes out of its way to minimize [the] shooting civilians and killing [of] civilians. It does happen. Ground forces, I think, tend to be more sensitive to it than air forces do. [An] air forces' attitude is, "Occasionally a bomb goes wrong. We're sorry. We don't like it. But it happens." Ground forces really tend to hold back, I think, on the use of force, partly because it is more personal, because it is somebody they can see.
One of the most striking stories of the war that I can remember is, Bill Branigin of the Washington Post witnessed an exchange in which an American officer was chewing out some of his troops for killing a family of Iraqis, because they hadn't fired soon enough. He was saying, "If you fired warning shots earlier, you wouldn't have had to shoot at their car. But you waited and waited. Then you had to shoot at their car, and it turned out to be an Iraqi family that was scared and trying to run away, and they zoomed right into your checkpoint." He said, "You just got this family killed because you guys didn't shoot fast enough."
It actually was a great example of why embedding reporters was a good thing. You don't get that sort of story sitting hundreds of miles away. You only get it if you're out there, listening to officers talk to troops, and seeing what's happening on the battlefield.
The failed missions to kill Hussein -- can you talk about these?
There were two attempts to kill Saddam Hussein during the war. One is at the outset on March 19 at Dora Farms. The second is near the al-Sar restaurant in the Mansour district. They both failed. It's interesting that they both failed. It indicates that intelligence was poor in both cases.
I've actually been to the Mansour district strike [site], and interviewed people around the crater. "It's not as big a mistake as some of the other attempts to get Saddam Hussein," they said to me. They said that while the house that was hit was entirely civilian and had nothing to do with the military, the house next to the one that was hit actually had been a safe house for the Iraqi military intelligence. One guy said, as a matter of fact, he saw one of Saddam Hussein's sons run out of that house immediately after the strike, hop in a red sports car, and drive away, clearly panicked. So the Mansour strike probably would go down as a near miss -- close, but not close enough.
After the fall of Baghdad, there is the massive outbreak of looting and lawlessness. Describe the looting. What happens?
In retrospect, this period, from the fall of Baghdad until late May, is probably the most important period of the war in some ways. People don't talk about it much, but it really was when the failure to properly apprehend the situation came home to roost. What happened in those weeks was looting that began [on a] small scale, and increased and increased and increased. I think [there] was two types of looting. Partly, it was just people rising up against the regime, lashing out at symbols of the regime. Then the next wave was, "Hey, nobody's stopping us. There's good stuff here. Let's grab some."
Then, underneath that all, I think there was some strategic sabotage going on by Ba'athists, loyalists to Saddam Hussein, who were really launching their own war. They kind of waited for this wave to wash over them, the sort of tsunami of American power, [to] wash over it. Then when that powerful wave goes by, you rise up.
It was a subtle way to begin a war. They weren't really attacking American troops at that point. You have a few American casualties, but very few, in late April, early May. What you have is massive destruction of the Iraqi infrastructure. Railroad trains, power stations, bridges, hospitals -- the basic structure of Iraqi society is dealt almost a death blow in that period. It's something that we're still seeing a slow recovery from.
What were the effects of it?
The effects were twofold of that period. The first thing you saw was just a radical decline in the quality of life. ... I think the secondary effect was a political one. The effect of the looting, the infrastructure damage, was that it really shook Iraqi confidence in the American occupation. ...
So the looting begins, and the U.S. troops don't do anything. Why?
This was actually something I had conversations about with American troops in Baghdad in May. The 3rd Infantry Division is the unit in Baghdad at the time -- 17,000 or so troops in a city of 5 million. When I asked them, "Why did you do what you did?" they said, "These were our orders." They basically stayed in their fighting position, for two reasons. First, they had no orders to do anything else. Their orders were to go to Baghdad and stay there, but not to go out and do a lot of presence patrols. The second thing was, they really did feel under-resourced. They were tired. They just fought a war. They didn't have a lot of people. Even if you wanted to establish a presence, a city of 5 million will soak up 20,000 soldiers. So they really were not prepared to do the larger mission of presence that ultimately was needed.
But did the war's quick victory in some ways back up Rumsfeld's theory of the lighter, more flexible military?
Some people would say the quick victory vindicated Donald Rumsfeld's theories. My response would be, that's like declaring victory in the fifth inning of a baseball game. It doesn't matter what the score is in the fifth inning. What really matters is the score at the end of the ninth inning. That's why I would insist that the fall of Baghdad was not the end of the war. It was actually, if anything, the halfway point.
How would you sum up the overall successes and failures of the invasion of Iraq?
It's too early to try to summarize the successes and failures. We won't know for 10 or 20 years whether this thing really has been a success, even if it looks like one. Nobody knows whether Iraq ultimately will descend into civil war. Alternatively, it's possible that a new, more vigorous version of Saddam Hussein could arise from a unified Iraq, and lead the Arab world in a way that Saddam Hussein aspired to doing, but was never able to do -- gets weapons of mass destruction, and launches the attacks that the U.S. feared Saddam Hussein would, but was not able to.
So it's way too early to say how the thing's going to come out.
There's a real optimistic--…
I'm just keeping in mind that Saladin, the great fighter of the Crusades, was an Iraqi Kurd.
In the end, how did what seemed like a very easy war end up with such a messy peace?
Well, I think one of the questions is whether a war plan that at the time looked brilliant in retrospect was brilliantly bad. Did the war plan that the United States military conceived and executed create the problems that followed? It's a fairly bloody-minded thought to express, because inherent in that is, had it been a broader, more grinding, bloodier war, had it fought its way through the Sunni Triangle, had a lot more Iraqis died, you might have had a better peace that followed.
It was an extremely optimistic war plan at its core. That's worth thinking of. It assumed a lot of things about postwar Iraq. It was not as if everybody agreed, as James Fallows so eloquently pointed out in his Atlantic article. A lot of people thought there were going to be more problems. A lot of people said, "We need more troops -- not for the war, but for the postwar." The Bush administration, I think, really pushed aside those concerns, didn't want to hear them, didn't want to talk about them.
I don't know quite why they didn't want to talk about it. It really puzzles me. Was it because there was a political calculation that, if you really talked to the American people about how difficult the postwar might be, that the American people would back off and say, "I'm not interested in throwing billions of dollars down into that?" Was it because, if the true costs became apparent, that it would endanger the Bush administration's top priority, which was tax cuts?
I don't know. I've never gotten a good answer as to why they didn't want to focus on the genuine postwar difficulties, why they didn't have a better-developed, more robust postwar plan.
General Zinni, who is General Franks's command predecessor as commander of the Central Command, told me once that the postwar plan he'd developed years ago for Iraq called for as many people in the provinces as the Civilian Occupation Authority now has in Baghdad. One of the major problems has been, there's almost no U.S. civilian presence outside of Baghdad, which is really just a military presence. That's the face of the American occupation. They went for even a very small civilian presence. All I can think is they really did believe what they were being told by Iraqi exiles -- that this would be a piece of cake after Saddam Hussein was knocked off.
The taking of [the] Baghdad airport -- describe the scene, how it was done.
I wasn't there. I've talked to people about it subsequently. Generally what I would say about that time is, the Iraqis -- Iraqi civilians, Iraqi leadership -- were kind of stunned at the speed of the American advance. They didn't really think it was possible. They'd seen the Americans fight before. They knew the Americans were pretty good.
At the same time, I think they were genuinely surprised when the American forces showed up that quickly on the edge of Baghdad. I remember talking to a guy who worked at the Baghdad airport, and they were talking about getting some plane in the air. They're getting orders to get a plane in the air, get it ready, and they realized that U.S. tanks were pulling up at the end of the runway. At that point, this guy's boss said, "Go home." They all hopped in their cars and drove home as fast as they could.
What were the U.S. prewar assumptions about how they would take Baghdad -- what we thought was going to happen?
The two biggest worries the U.S. military had going in-- I remember talking to a general about this months before. [The] first was chemical weapons being used against them, and it really was an article of faith that they would be used. The second was Baghdad. The catchphrase at the Pentagon for this was Fortress Baghdad. They had visions of Baghdad being an Arab Stalingrad, with weeks of grinding warfare, and troops being poured in endlessly. Urban fighting is a casualty machine -- not just for soldiers, but also for civilians.
So they really had worries about this. I think it was a big shock when Baghdad fell so quickly after those two Thunder Runs. As one of the generals had said to us, "This is not the enemy we war-gamed." In many ways, I think the United States had overestimated the strength of Saddam Hussein, and had not quite comprehended the degree to which this was a hollow regime.
Can you summarize the failures of the Iraqi military in responding to the invasion?
The perceived failure of the Iraqi military was that it never really mounted an organized resistance, that the regular rank-and-file uniformed Iraqi military never really showed up to the fight. The specific failure was also that there were certain Iraqi capabilities that were believed to still be pretty good. For example, combat engineers. I remember people at the Pentagon telling me, "Sure, their infantry kind of stinks, and their tanks are old. But they've got good engineers, and they're going to blow the bridges."
Very few bridges across those rivers were actually blown. Actually, there were a lot of smaller bridges across canals, because that area between the rivers is just chock-a-block with canals. It could have been a real nightmare for the U.S. military, even if just the engineers had been out blowing up bridges, mining choke points between the canals. And not a lot of that happened.
Now, is that a failure? Yes, if you thought they wanted to fight a conventional war. The question is, did the Iraqi military calculate early on, "Let's not go to that fight. Let's fight a different fight?" The Ba'athists fought a very successful insurgency for several months, because they fought the war they wanted to fight, instead of the war that we would have preferred they fight.
... What do we know about the number of Iraqi military casualties during the war?
Not a whole lot definitive[ly]. For example, the largest number of casualties would have been caused by the aerial bombardment of entrenched forces south of Baghdad as U.S. ground forces approached them. But there's a real controversy there about how many people actually were in those trenches.
Aerial bombardment can be devastating. It can leave no body parts at all, so even if you wanted to count them, you couldn't. I remember in Afghanistan, people telling me that after B-52s came through, they went to look for some guys. All they could find [was] cloth, and the bodies actually had just been turned into mist. They weren't there anymore. So it's hard to know, actually, what Iraqi casualties were. I suspect they were lower than the U.S. military initially thought. ...
Were British tactics in Basra more successful in mitigating civilian casualties?
British tactics in Basra were different. There's no question about that. It took longer to take Basra, and they would argue, "Yes, it took longer, but we did minimize the number of casualties."
That's a tactical mission. Taking Baghdad was kind of the strategic goal of the U.S. forces. Yes, they went in, and they shot up cars that were driving at them, and so on. I think they would argue that they were achieving a strategic mission -- getting into Baghdad as quickly as possible; that once Baghdad fell, the south was inevitable. You could police up the south, but you had to take Baghdad to send a signal to the rest of the country.
On April 14, Rumsfeld declares the end to major combat. Did the Pentagon think the worst was over at this point? Do you remember that specifically? Were you there?
I was in Washington still. Yes, I remember that day, and I think the signal was, "Yes, this war is over. There's going to be some policing up to do here," but I think the expectation of the Pentagon was, "This thing was basically finished." I believe that Rumsfeld said that in a briefing at the Pentagon, if I recall. I think the media basically agreed.
The Bush administration was not alone in thinking that Iraq was largely concluded as a military enterprise with the fall of Baghdad. The media basically agreed with that. I think the American people did. I think what's happened in the months since then has been a real shock. We're kind of like in totally unexplored territory -- have been, for months.
The surprise to me is how little controversy this whole thing has provoked in America. If you had told me last April that U.S. forces would still be engaged in a lot of combat early in 2004, and that we'd have over 500 dead in Iraq, I would have told you this nation would be in an uproar by that. Instead, it almost doesn't seem to be a controversy in this country right now, that we're in this open-ended war with, really, an uncertain outcome.
Should what took place have been a shock to the Pentagon, knowing what they did know -- the arguments of General Shinseki and others?
Yes. I mean, you've got to wonder why. There were credible voices, people like Gen. Shinseki, who had done peacekeeping in Bosnia and could give you quick, back-of-the-envelope calculations that says, "If you're going to occupy a country of this size, you're going to need X-many troops. And guess what? Iraq is like Bosnia times six, so you're going to need six times as many troops."
Those sort of questions seemed to be aggressively shut down in Washington. Not only did they not want to engage, they didn't even want the question posed. You do have to wonder.
There was a lot of information out there. It wasn't like everybody was predicting this was going to be a cakewalk. There were a lot of people raising questions about how difficult Iraq might be. I am no genius. I remember writing an article shortly before the war, saying, "The thing that worries a lot of officers in the U.S. military is not the war. It's the peace that follows, which they think is going to be extremely difficult."
At some point, Shinseki goes before Congress, and it is reluctantly pulled out of him that it will take several hundred thousand to fight this war.
In the spring of 2003, there were some congressional hearings. It's striking, because the administration officials would come up from the Pentagon and elsewhere, and really answer in the vaguest terms, and they wouldn't be pinned down. But some members of Congress knew that the Army had real concerns.
So when Gen. Shinseki, who was then the Army chief of staff, was brought up to testify, it was pulled out of him. "How difficult will the occupation of Iraq be? Give us some concrete terms." He kind of didn't want to answer it, and they pushed him again, and he finally said, "Yes, it's going to take several hundred thousand troops, I think."
When Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was subsequently asked about this, he described it as "wildly off the mark." This was the final fissure between Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz on the one hand, and the Army on the other. At that point, I remember writing a story about this. The Army went into opposition. "We'll go fight your war, but we don't like the way you're thinking about this, and we think you are underestimating the difficulty of postwar Iraq."
The Army especially, going in, had the concern that they were going to be left holding the sack. You know, the Navy comes in, steams around for a while. The Air Force comes in and drops a few bombs. The Marines comes in and fight for 30 days. They all go home. The Army has seen this before, in Bosnia and Kosovo. Everybody has their little war. The Army is stuck occupying. The Army looked at Bosnia [and] Kosovo, and said, "Whoa. Iraq is a lot bigger, and a lot more difficult. We're going to be left holding this baby."
So are there tensions now in the Pentagon between the uniformed military and the leadership?
There are tensions still at the Pentagon. What strikes me is the degree to which they've been suppressed, and which officers have been told, "You will not voice dissent" -- to the point that they don't even need to be told that anymore. They just know, "You don't voice dissent around here."
But the Army, to its credit, still keeps on poking its head up. Just about three weeks ago, the Army War College issued a very scathing study by a visiting professor that denounced the Bush administration's conduct of the entire war on terrorism, and especially its approach to Iraq. So the Army still was kind of saying, "No, we're going to be professional, and give our best opinion, even if it disagrees with the administration."
How surprising was Wolfowitz's statement a couple of days after the general, and the way he defined his opinion about what had been stated?
Wolfowitz is a very intelligent man. I think he's been very careful about how he states things. But I don't think that it is unfair to him to say that he had a pretty optimistic view of Iraq, and postwar Iraq. He really genuinely did think that Shinseki's estimate was off -- that it would not take several hundred thousand troops to occupy Iraq, that it would be an easier proposition than Shinseki was describing as being -- because I think Wolfowitz thought that Iraqis generally would welcome us.
What I notice now is, even the Shiites who really do say, "Thank you for getting rid of Saddam Hussein," at the same time say, "Now go home." Even the Shiites, who really benefited from the American presence, don't want it to continue.
Rumsfeld's view of Shinseki?
Rumsfeld hasn't spoken much about Shinseki. What I heard for months was that there was a real division, going back into 2002, that Rumsfeld found Shinseki [an] obstructionist, a stick-in-the-mud, that didn't get with the type of change he wanted to see in the military.
The Army, as a whole, seemed to be kind of off the reservation, I think, in Rumsfeld's eyes. There had been a series of clashes between Rumsfeld and Shinseki -- one over the handling of the cancellation of the big artillery program, the Crusader; other stuff about the size of the Army, and also discussions of the war plan in Iraq.
So I think there had been a long and increasingly bitter divide, exacerbated by the situation with Tom White, who was the Army secretary at the time, and who really seemed to have difficulty getting along with Rumsfeld and vice versa. So you had both the Army secretary, the civilian leadership, and the chief of staff of the Army, the uniformed leadership, fully at odds with Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and the office of the secretary of defense.
Lastly, knowing the antagonism that exists between the Pentagon leadership, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and the uniformed military, what happens in the next war that comes down the pike?
I think it's impossible to predict exactly how it plays out. It depends on who the civilian leadership is, what the lessons that the military -- and especially the Army -- ultimately draw from Iraq.
Iraq's an open question; we don't know how it's going to end. We don't know how this will be viewed 20 years down the road. Will this be seen as a Vietnam-scale mess? Probably not. Will it be seen as somewhat like the U.S. intervention in the Philippines at the turn of the century? Could be.
But an interesting side effect of all this is that you basically have the most combat-experienced Army that this country has had in decades. Most people in the U.S. Army are either in Iraq now, or have been in Iraq, or are getting ready to go to Iraq. A lot of those people have already been in Afghanistan. A lot of them also have been in Bosnia, Kosovo, or even the 1991 war. They're going to have a lot of credibility when they talk to the American people, and they talk to Congress -- probably more credibility than civilian leadership will have, no matter who the civilian leadership is.
What might that mean?
What it might mean is, despite the image a lot of people have of the military as eager to go to war, the military is actually quite eloquent in arguing against going to war, in arguing for other tools to be used, especially diplomacy. I think what you'll see is a lot of military officers saying, "Before you go to war next time, try some other tools. Try diplomacy. Get better intelligence. Don't stick it all on us."