the invasion of iraq
photo of mckiernan

McKiernan was comander of combined allied land forces in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. From the war's sudden, early start to the taking of Baghdad, he offers details on some of the strategies, tactics and jolting setbacks, such as the bloody battle in Nasiriya and the fierce ambush on Apache helicopters the same day. He also talks about the difficult transition to the postwar realities. "The back end of the campaign is significantly different than the front end … much more blurry. … You try to adjust your tactics, techniques, but there's no quick end to this. … This is a process that is not going to happen in 16 days like the movement from the Kuwait border into Baghdad. It's going to take a lot longer."

interview: Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan
Our joint campaign was so fast getting to Baghdad, that the regime's situational awareness was destroyed.  They didn't know where we were; didn't know where their own forces were.

... [This operation was] very different from the Operation Desert Storm.

The difference in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Desert Shield/Desert Storm … there was a much larger military available in 1990. We [placed] 3 or 4 divisions of the U.S. Army into Kuwait and what amounted to about two-thirds of the U.S. Marine Corps in Kuwait. That's a significant amount of your available military, given that you have other global contingencies that you have to think about.

The troops level you had -- was it something that you and all of your senior field commanders were totally happy with?

It was a size of the force and the right combat capabilities within acceptable risk. ... Did you get everything that you want? The answer is no, because there is a prioritization on movement, on strategic lift on ships, on what the conditions will bear. But I will tell you unequivocally that the force I had as the ground component commander of G-day were the forces that I asked for and were sufficient to do the mission that I was given. …

The flow of troops. … What were your concerns?

In terms of force flow, if you fight a campaign on a model that you are going to employ the front end of the force while you're simultaneously deploying the rest of the force, there is a large imperative that the flowing of the rest of the force has to be near perfect. It has to be continuous, there can't be hiccups in the force flow that may cause major formations to be late -- or if there's logistics problems, etcetera. So if you're going to have a fight with the front end of the force and follow on with the rest of it, all of that has to work very well.

Now our deployment process is something that I think will be a major observation in this campaign that has to be [reviewed]. ... The process itself is still largely an older, Cold War process that says you have more time to do all this. And in the world that we live in now, and for future contingency operations, we've got to [review] this process and make sure we can flow forces as effectively and as quickly as possible. And that is a thought that I think is shared by all the services, the joint world, the officer[s] and [the] Secretary of Defense. Everybody's intent is [to make] this process better.

Do you think, essentially, that the flow is too slow?

I'm saying that the flow was not a continuous flow in all cases. There were gaps in time when we were still waiting for additional capabilities to be introduced into the fight up in Iraq. ...

Why was there not that continuous flow?

I'm probably not privy to all the decision making that went into that but -- for reasons of strategic conditions or what the regional conditions would accept -- there were decisions based on different force modules instead of flowing the entire force.

So talking specifics -- who or what arrived too late?

We would have liked to introduce to some of the later-flowing units, like the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment or the rest of the 101st Air Assault Division [or] some of our military police formations. We would probably have liked to have them fed quicker into the campaign. You can't look into a crystal ball and predict exactly what's going to happen after G-day, when the first [ground troop] formations go over in Iraq. This campaign, because of the great effectiveness of joint war fighting, went quicker, and conditions changed rapidly. And the regime, I think, was removed perhaps quicker and more effectively than we ever gave ourselves credit for. I probably didn't fully appreciate the speed at which I needed all these later-arriving forces to be introduced into the fight.

Those elements that you mentioned, they were the elements you need during the weeks of conflict?

No, not necessarily during the three weeks of conflict. But the transition from major combat operations to subsequent combat operations and stability and support operations was so fast, and you had no Iraq institutions to [bring] into this [process]. No Iraqi army, no Iraqi police. The prisoners [were] let out of prison. No local or national government organization. Ministries didn't exist. So into that power vacuum, [having] some of these later-flowing capabilities [quicker] would have been [helpful]. But you can't and it's very hard to predict all that.

So actually the flow problem [occurred] postwar, post-April 9th, rather than during the three weeks?

In order to get up and sieze the key terrain in Baghdad and to force the regime from power, the forces that were available at the start of the fight were available to accomplish that mission.

But once you do that and you have now a set of conditions where you have various asymmetric threats -- everything from unemployed population to [the] former regime, pockets of resistant to criminal elements to foreign fighters -- the nature of the operation takes on a certain character. That why it's called a "transition to stability and support operations." ...

As a general trying to organize the practical campaign in the field, how useful, comprehensive, and specific was the intelligence that you had?

... We had superb electronic intelligence. We knew the terrain, we had absolutely first-rate terrain products. What we didn't have [enough] of was human intelligence. And you don't just develop human intelligence overnight. ... That requires assets that work over long lead times. So we [had] a deficit [of] human intelligence [in] Iraq. ...

Why did we have almost a simultaneous start to the air and ground wars? Because that's very different from previous campaigns. ...

... The speed with which we could execute our operations, and [we] decided that ultimately this was consistent with General Franks' decision, was the more we compressed air attack and ground attack, the faster and the more decisive, with a greater surprise, we could execute this campaign.

That involves everybody accepting some risk. My air [military commander], who had prefered to have X amount of days and focus all his assets on removing an air defense threat ... before he has to support ground maneuver, he's asked to accept some risk by accepting both of those simultaneously. The ground [troops] commander is asked to accept some risk by perhaps not having so much close air support on [any given day] so that the air support can strike deeper. The special operations commander has to accept some risk that he might not have as much time on the front end of the campaign to insert and work special operations forces. So when we talk about the timing of air attack and ground attack, it's really a question of acceptance of risk, and does that better allow you to achieve your strategic and your operational objectives?

Now very late in the process, all of us agreed and General Franks made exactly the right decision -- that we needed to secure the southern oil fields straight away. If we didn't, we ran an unacceptable risk that the regime could possibly sabotage these oil fields [that would] create an environmental disaster [and] a long term economic disaster. And in addition to removing the regime and getting very quickly to Baghdad, we also need to secure those southern oil fields. The only way you can secure terrain is on the ground. That led to this discussion to compress and make near simultaneous air and ground attack[s]. ...

Why was the decision taken to the last minute [to] move the ground attack forward -- I think [with] 24 hours [notice]?

The decision to move the ground attack forward was triggered by what had happened two or three days previous to that, and that was a strategic air attack on regime leadership in an area [near] Baghdad called the Dora farms, where we thought [we] had confirmed presence of senior leadership of the regime. Once that attack took place, there was analysis and the commanders felt that perhaps that might trigger certain responses from the regime. …

What sort of responses do you think it might trigger?

It could have potentially triggered reprisals inside of Iraq. It could've triggered the potential use of chemical or biological warheads. It could have triggered terrorist activities, not only in Iraq but in other places in the region. It could have triggered preemptive moves and movements of Iraqi formations, and we wanted to retain the initiatives. And the agility of our formation said that we could move up our timeline. The commander, General Franks, told us to do that, and by God that's what we executed. ...

What were your memories of being informed of the experiences of the 11th Aviation [Regiment], the attack on the Medina Division, just before dawn on the 24th [of March]?

...When you get down to a deep attack with Apache helicopters, you have a variety of factors that you look at to make a "go" or a "no go" decision. But the two that are probably the most important are, do you have good confirmed intelligence on the target, and secondly do you have a good plan to suppress enemy air defenses which cause a threat to those Apaches? As [General Wallace] went through his planning, he felt he had good enough intelligence on the target set, and we felt we had a good handle on suppression of enemy air defense systems.

So as those helicopters lifted off to go strike deep [at] these Medina artillery targets, the decision was made to go with this attack. What we found was that there was a very sophisticated system of communications that were triggered by a senior Iraqi officer that had a … phone network, and there [were] a series of observation posts that could [make phone calls to warn that] the Apaches had lifted off and were headed in [their] direction. And then there was -- not confirmed by any interrogations yet, but what I think [was] a fairly well-rehearsed plan of local small arms moving out from urban areas. And [they] were able to shoot at places that they knew the Apaches would have to travel through to get to where they were going, where [the Apaches were] crossing high power lines or certain areas to avoid flying over urban centers.

So they had a fairly sophisticated air defense with small arms and RPGs. When these attack helicopters took off, just about every one, as I recall, was hit … with either small arms or RPGs. … I talked to one of the senior war officers, [who was in] one of the battalions who had flown in Vietnam and just about every conflict since Vietnam, and [he] said that he had never seen a more dense wall of small arms RPG fire against helicopters as he did that night.

Now, it's important for everybody to understand that what the U.S. military does better than anybody is adapt to what the enemy's actions are. You never saw another deep attack that had that problem. And, in fact, you saw Apaches used from that day on, very effectively in the close fight and in ground-air combat arms employment technique. And so we didn't repeat tactics that we used that first night. We adapted to those conditions and very effectively used not only Apache helicopters, but [also] the Marine Cobra helicopters almost exclusively in the close fight from that day on. …

Let's move forward to the afternoon of [March] 24th, when we've had the fighting in Nasiriya. The Brits have got problems at Basra; you've been up all night listening to the Apache helicopter attack. Just how worried were you at that point? … What was really going through your head on that afternoon?

… At that same time, we had terrible weather -- very tough conditions. We had already maneuvered hundreds of kilometers into Iraq. So you're now already stressing your logistics and your ability to distribute things on the battlefield. And so when some of these reports came in of casualties [from] the Apache attack, I talked to my boss and I talked to my subordinate commanders. There was no sense of anxiety or frustration or despair, or anything other than conviction. And we knew [we] were into some tough fights there in the south, and we went and fought the enemy, wherever he was at.

Was there a pause?

If you're down there, in a company, or battalion, and you're in the middle of terrible weather, and you're waiting for your logistics train to get to you and refuel you and give you food and ammunition, is there a pause? Yes. At my level, at the operational level, at General Frank's level, at the operational strategic level, there's not a pause. …

… There's a key teleconference that happens on the 27th, between those two generals and yourself where, effectively, a decision is required of yourself. …

… [As] units get deeper and deeper into Iraq, and more and more dispersed, and pictures are less clear -- even with all the technology we have available which is [an] immense [amount] -- the commanders all have a different perspective, to some degree, on the speed of the operation. … My intent from the very beginning of this -- and it's an intent nested in my boss's intent -- was fast is best than slower. Fast is more lethal than slower. Fast is more final. I'm constantly pushing my subordinate commanders to go and maneuver rapidly. At the same time, though, I'm listening on their assessment on how fast is fast. And from time to time you have a difference of tactical judgment. And that's what commanders are paid for, to make a decision.

So there would be a point in time where I would push the Marines to get [to] Nasiriya, and get out into that supporting attack for the 5th Corps in the east, perhaps faster than the commander deemed practical. There were times when the 5th Corps is fighting this urban-rear area, or multi-directional fight, and I want him to continue to push towards Baghdad. And so we have -- We share our professional insights into the fight, but ultimately that's what commanders are responsible for, to make a decision. So there [are] times, and that video teleconference was one, [where] I would synchronize what I wanted -- to synchronize two corps, attacking side by side, in terms of tempo.

What feedback were you getting from your two generals in that video conference?

At the end of the video teleconference, when a decision's made, [it] was [made] because we are professional and personal soldiers and Marines. We say "wilco": I understand and will comply. And we move out on it. But on that particular point, I believe that probably both the 5th Corps and the Marines desired additional time to fight some of those urban pockets of resistance before they continued their maneuver to the north, and perhaps rightfully so, given their assessment of vulnerability on their logistics supply lines. But as I looked at the operational level and the full joint effects I said that, "We're going to have to accept some risk, and I want you to continue your attack rapidly to the north." And so I pushed them a little. I think at the end of that video teleconference, compared to all other video teleconferences, we came to the right tactical judgments; a decision was made and we moved out on it. …

But specifically in this meeting on the 27th -- who wanted whom to slow down?

… I believe the 5th Corps probably wanted the Marines to slow down a bit because they were now in a series of fights along the line along the Euphrates. They had traveled significantly more ground distance than the Marines had, and they were starting to get stretched out a little bit. And so they wanted to take care of the enemy inside their zone of action before they got the [major] part of their formation together and continued their attack north. Now remember, this corps is basically [a] one maneuver division, so you can only stretch a division out so far before you've got to culminate those attacks [and] get it back together if you want to have mass for your subsequent operations. So there was some debate on [the] tempo of operations, which ultimately the commander has to sort out and make a decision. …

Basra. Were you entirely happy with the British speed of advance?

I was. I was happy with the British speed of advance because my intent, again for the supporting attack, was to fix enemy forces in the east part of Iraq. The speed of getting inside Basra and securing Basra was not critical to the main effort, which was to penetrate and isolate Baghdad. So there was more time for a more methodical approach in the eastern part of the zone, which was the first UK zone. What they had done very well was immediately secure that portion of the oil fields and oil infrastructure that went all the way out into platforms that were in the North Arabian Gulf, and secured those enemy forces in the east. And then in a very precise, methodical way, [the British forces] isolated and began to gain control over the city of Basra. So I was not personally concerned with the time or the execution of that attack.

… What was the original plan for taking Baghdad?

… We planned that if we were going to have an urban fight, it would be [in] Baghdad, because that was the center of gravity; that's where Saddam would use his most loyal parts of his regime security organization to fight. So in an urban fight -- I can't imagine of any tougher set of conditions to fight in -- [in] a city the size of Boston or Detroit, you don't just drive into Baghdad if you're going to face a determined, well-prepared urban defense. We had a plan that basically isolated the major arteries, the major road networks in and out of Baghdad, so we could cut off the flow of forces, logistics, retreating enemy, high value targets [and] everything else, set up operating bases where we could then attack with conventional special operations, [build] very precise aerial platforms, and go in and either destroy targets inside the city and come out, or go in and secure key points in the city -- not fight block to block.

… And what in fact happened was our joint campaign was so decisive and so fast getting to Baghdad that the regime's situational awareness was destroyed. They didn't know where we were; they didn't know where their own forces were; they hadn't had time to set a very deliberate Baghdad urban defense. And as our initial mounted formations got to Baghdad and conducted the first armored raid from the 3rd Infantry Division, they found that they could maneuver a mechanized formation through Baghdad. [There was] a lot of fighting; they killed thousands of Iraqis that day. But their decision and their tactical commander's thinking was, "let me exploit this success." So their second attack into Baghdad was designed to go and stay. The second attack went straight down into the heart of Baghdad. And that brigade combat team stayed there, and we re-supplied them and we fed additional forces into Baghdad while we were securing Baghdad International Airport.

The central mystery of the war -- what happened to the Republican Guard?

Not knowing all the information that was in the heads of my opponent, I think the Republican Guard were destroyed; some of them destroyed through very lethal air effects, some of them destroyed through very lethal ground attack, some of them destroyed because they gave up and went home. And some of them destroyed because they did not know where they were on the battlefield, where the enemy was, and they wandered into places that they were quickly dispatched.

Final question. Did the generals win the war and the politicians lose the peace?

… Soldiers and small units won decisive combat operations and removed the Baath and regime. Nobody has lost the war. The campaign continues. The war had changed dramatically in nature and we're into what I call the back end of the campaign, which is a combination of combat actions, of security and stability operations, of peacekeeping operations, of infrastructure repair, of transition to the Iraqi leadership and ministries and governance. Nobody has lost that war.

But it's a war. The expression I used was "lost the peace." Are we still in a war?

Yes, we're in a war [of a different nature]. This is not [a] major combat operation; we are not fighting military uniform formations. We're fighting foreign fighters, criminals, regime holdouts, et cetera. So the fighting continues, the campaign continues, and nobody has lost that. Everybody is committed to seeing that through.

It's the second Gulf war, running with a ragged end.

… The major combat operations were characterized by speed, precision, lethality -- but when you transition into a set of conditions where you now have to control terrain, you have to control the will of a people, you have to rebuild institutions that are emerging in a power vacuum -- technology doesn't do that for you. That's [military] presence, that's soldiers … on the terrain in urban and rural areas. And the nature of the fighting is much more confusing, and telling the difference between civilian, opponent, [and] criminal is challenging.

The back end of the campaign is significantly different than the front end of the campaign -- takes longer, is much more blurry. Unfortunately it will continue to involve casualties, although you try to minimize those causalities. You try to adjust your tactics, your techniques and procedures, but there's no quick end to this. There's no peace treaty that's signed and no capitulation and no government in waiting and no military that you can put back to use right away. No police, no judicial system. The infrastructure in Iraq is the infrastructure that has been neglected for decades. All those variables make this a process that is not going to happen in 16 days like the movement from the Kuwait border into Baghdad happened. It's going to take a lot longer.


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posted february 26, 2004

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