the invasion of iraq
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Todd Purdum is a correspondent for The New York Times and the author of A Time of Our Choosing, a comprehensive account of the war in Iraq. In this interview he discusses the key debates and decisions in the prelude to war, the significant battles and turning points, and the invasion's overall successes and failures."There's no doubt that Rumsfeld and Franks's plan succeeded militarily. It toppled a dictator," he says. "There also seems to be no doubt that postwar occupation of Baghdad was not what it should have been." This interview was conducted on Jan. 29, 2004.

interview: todd purdum

Why was the force in 2003 so much smaller than it had been for the Gulf War?

Don Rumsfeld believed that this war could be fought in an entirely different way than the first Gulf War. He thought that the lesson of Afghanistan, where use of special forces troops, high-tech equipment, [and] battlefield intelligence could mean a lighter, more flexible invasion force [that] could do the same kind of job.

It was really kind of a Keystone Cops operation  the Iraqi resistance. The generals were unwilling to give Baghdad the bad news of the truth. The troops were ignorant about what was happening.  ...

It was part of his broader goal to prove that the military could be transformed for the twenty-first century into a different kind of fighting force. He really saw Iraq as a great big laboratory.

Before the war, there was an argument between the generals and the civilian leadership and the Pentagon -- specifically between Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks -- over the size of the force needed to fight the war. Explain that argument. Was there a compromise?

American generals, since George Washington all the way through Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower and Norman Schwarzkopf in the first Gulf War, believed in huge, overwhelming fighting forces that could hammer an enemy and take him down. Tommy Franks, an old artilleryman, believed that he needed more troops than Rumsfeld was willing to send. …

… The natural instinct of the Army was to have as many men and as many weapons as possible. That ran right up against Don Rumsfeld's insistence that this war could be fought in a new kind of way. So they were many months back and forth, in which General Frank's first war plan was dismissed as insufficiently creative, didn't envision enough options.

In the end, when it was over, there was a kind of a compromise between the old Army, with its big, massed troops and equipment, and Rumsfeld's insistence on special operations forces and high-tech surveillance and battlefield intelligence. Indeed, that's about what happened in the war. They went in with a kind of a blended force. … Forces would flow in [on] a rolling basis. There would be a northern front of American troops coming in from Turkey. That turned out to be impossible, because of lack of diplomatic support from Turkey.

So who won, basically, in the fight over force numbers?

It's a really hard question to figure out who won in the fight over numbers, because we don't know exactly what General Franks had originally privately proposed. We may, someday. The best you can say at the moment is they kind of came to a draw, and each claimed that he was satisfied with the result.

What happened to the northern front?

In the end, it couldn't happen, because Turkey wouldn't let the troops come in. The 4th Infantry Division, which was the most mechanized, most technologically advanced division in the Army, ultimately did come rolling in through Kuwait, but it wasn't there at the height of the invasion. It wasn't there on the march to Baghdad.

Did this actually fit into Rumsfeld's scheme in some way?

It fit into it in the sense that his scheme and Franks' scheme envisioned flexibility all along. It envisioned a great deal of adaptability. That turned out to be the best result of the plan -- that it, in fact, could adapt to unforeseen circumstances; guerrilla fighting, sandstorms, delays, long supply lines. It was stretched thin, but it worked.

What was Rumsfeld's basic reasoning?

Rumsfeld has been both the oldest and the youngest defense secretary in American history, and the only guy to hold the job two times. He feels, in his bones, that the twenty-first century is a completely different time; it has to be treated in a different way, and war has to be fought in a new way; and that there's no reason to have massed equipment and men in the same way that America was forced to fight most of its wars. That technology has made that obsolete. He was determined to prove that in Iraq.

Prewar-- Give me an understanding of the general attitude in the Pentagon about the coming war.

The general attitude of the Pentagon was a mix of strong optimism about how American forces could succeed in Iraq, and incredibly deep pessimism about how dangerous Saddam Hussein was.

Did Franks and the other generals in the theater have the same optimism as the Pentagon had?

It's pretty clear that the commanders in the field did have a high level of optimism, just as the Pentagon did in Washington from the beginning, about what they'd face. When they faced reversals, they had a big picture of the whole battlefield in their mind, and they felt things were going pretty well.

What were some of the key assumptions?

One of the key assumptions from the very beginning about how this war would be fought is that American forces would be welcomed in southern Iraq in the Shiite regions that had been oppressed by Saddam Hussein. They'd be welcomed as liberators, like Americans in Paris in 1944. That shot through the whole war planning -- that we would be able to bypass southern cities, not really secure them, move swiftly to the main objective in Baghdad. Turned out, of course, there was a lot of opposition in those southern cities from guerrilla fighters, [which] slowed the advance.

I think the assumption was that the Iraqi military would fight hard to defend Baghdad. The assumption was that the forces would retreat to Baghdad to a ring around it that came to be known as the Red Zone. This was different than the 1991 war, in which the American forces and the coalition forces were fighting to repulse Iraq out of its neighboring country, Kuwait. This was fighting Iraqis on their own soil and fighting the regime of Saddam Hussein in its capital city. So I think everybody assumed the battle for Baghdad would be bloody and tough. They wanted, at all costs, to avoid close quarters urban combat in Baghdad.

What was the size of the force waiting in the Gulf before the invasion, of the Army, the Marines, the Brits, the Navy, the Air Force? How did it compare to the 1991 Gulf War force?

On the eve of the war, there were about 130,000 American troops of the various branches on the ground in Kuwait, waiting to go in. More in the theater, of course. More on aircraft carriers around. Overall, it was about less than half of the force that was prepared for the 1991 Gulf War. There were commanders, current and former, who were already worried about whether that was a big enough force. There was plenty of speculation that it might not be big enough.

Describe the ground war attack plan.

The overall American battle plan was like a giant pair of arms circling around Baghdad. The 3rd Infantry of the Army was supposed to advance from the south and the west bank of the Euphrates, curving up to Baghdad from the west, while the Marines would march up in the valley between the Tigris and the Euphrates, curving to Baghdad from the east. Special operations forces would do their jobs.

In the end, the 101st Airborne was prepared to leapfrog ahead, do what it needed to do. Because the 4th Infantry Division could not come down from Turkey, there were some more paratroopers that ultimately landed in the north and made a kind of makeshift psychological northern front, as well.

There was a substantial special ops campaign going on before the war, and also at the very start of the war. What were they doing?

In the opening hours before the war, in the opening hours of the war itself, American special operations forces were sent into Iraq to take out Iraqi antiaircraft installations, secure oil fields, deal with the port security in Umm Qasr and other places. They went in like commandos -- which is what they are -- to make the advance of the American regular forces easier.

And the psychological warfare campaign that the U.S. mounted against the Iraqis?

Of course, the biggest part of the psychological warfare campaign was the president himself standing up on a world stage and threatening Saddam and his sons that, if they didn't leave, they'd face the consequences -- they'd face war at a time of America's choosing. Leaflets were dropped. All kinds of information was sent. "Do not fight. Surrender. Don't stick your neck out for this dying regime, because we're here. We're coming."

There were American special operations forces and CIA operatives making speed-dial cell phone calls to the numbers of some Iraqi generals, trying to rattle them, make them think that war was imminent -- which it was -- try to persuade them not to fight.

The impact on the early war?

It's unclear what the impact of that on the early war was, because, in fact, it started earlier than it was supposed to. The surprise of that early attack, trying to take out Saddam Hussein, may have messed up some of these efforts to do psychological operations and negotiations aimed at averting a broader conflict.

Describe for us the March 19 White House meeting, Bush and Rumsfeld, where they decide to act on intelligence to go after Saddam.

From the very beginning, one of the possible battle plan options was called "Inside Out" -- to try to take Saddam out at the beginning of the war, spare fighting, spare casualties. On March 19, George Tenet of the CIA got an extraordinary tip. He thought he knew where Saddam Hussein would be that very night. He rushed in his car down the Potomac across to the White House, and he met with President Bush and the other members of the national security team for several hours.

They had a big debate. It was risky; they couldn't be sure. President Bush worried that the first pictures out of Iraq might be a wounded grandchild of Saddam Hussein. But in the end, they decided to go for it. It was very dramatic, because the planes had to be mustered on incredibly short notice. The F-117 Night Hawk that was sent to do the bombing, the pilots had not even seen the bombs until the day before in a training exercise. They were struggling to get it to work as they approached the skies over Baghdad, with dawn coming up.

It was a dramatic decision, because the war wasn't really supposed to begin for about another 24, 36 hours. But part of the plan had, from the beginning, envisioned this level of adaptability, this ability to strike quickly if the occasion presented itself. So in the end, President Bush made a bet. He made kind of a gamble, that if the war could begin with the effective destruction of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi will to fight would crumble accordingly, and the regime would sort of fall apart of its own accord.

How'd they miss Saddam? What went wrong?

It turned out in the end, they now believe, there was never a bunker there. It was just a house. It just turned out to be a piece of bad intelligence. It seemed very promising at the time, but it just turned out to be one of those things that wasn't right.

Some people will say that the special ops operations were affected by this. What's your take on that?

One of the debates is whether starting the war early with the attack on Saddam messed up efforts to do some special operations to take out Iraqi leadership, or messed up some ongoing negotiations to try to arrange maybe some sort of surrender or truce. I think historians will also wind up debating that, and as classified information comes out over time, we may know more about it. There are some disputes within the Pentagon and the intelligence community about whether the early start messed that up. We don't know the whole story yet.

What were the opening hours of the war like?

In the opening hours of the war, the ground forces crossed the borders of Kuwait under a silvery moon in the desert. There was virtually no resistance. They moved forward through graveyards of tanks and artillery from the last Gulf War. They moved swiftly up from the south meeting very little resistance at all.

Why did the Iraqis not put up some sort of fight at the border?

They don't really know the answer to that. I mean, it wasn't clear why there was no resistance when they went across the border. I think the Americans assumed it was in keeping with Iraq's strategy to gather its wagons around Baghdad, and not really try to engage the Americans at the border.

March 23, around Nasiriya, the maintenance group from 507 take a wrong turn, and they're attacked.

March 23 turned out to be the single worst day of the war for the Americans. The supply lines of the advancing American forces were so long -- the longest in 200 years for the Marines -- that the straggling support units, the engineers and the cooks and the maintenance people, were struggling to keep up. They'd been driving, by this point, for something close to 36 hours from Kuwait, with hardly any sleep. Their weapons were jamming from sand; their vehicles were running out of gas.

The 507th Maintenance Company made a wrong turn outside the central southern Iraqi city of Nasiriya. Suddenly they found themselves in an intense firefight with guerrilla forces, some Fedayeen militiamen. It was a kind of frantic 45 minutes of complete chaos and disaster, and wound up with a number of Americans captured, others killed. It sent shock waves back to Washington, because it seemed like such a setback.

Why? Was it bigger than just a lost battle?

It wasn't even that it was a lost battle, because the advance continued. It was that it was a shock that the regular forces were causing such problems, and that these guerrilla and militia people in a part of the country that was thought to be hospitable were turning on the American forces and leaving them almost defenseless.

It happened at a time after 72 hours of very optimistic reports. Suddenly there was this bad news, people being captured, people being killed. It was a Sunday in Washington. Some of it happened right during the Sunday morning talk shows, and it landed with a horrible thud. People suddenly realized what war was like.

Did it in any way reveal -- or was it thought at that point to reveal -- a flaw in the war plan's strategy?

The battle around Nasiriya did reveal one vulnerability, which was that you couldn't leave these rear supply lines unsecured. You couldn't simply bypass these cities without trying to pacify them a bit. American forces wound up fighting in Nasiriya for several days.

It's funny, because it didn't prove the flaw; it revealed a vulnerability. In the end, it also proved the workability of the plan, because it never stopped the advance of troops ahead of it. Even a three-day sandstorm didn't really stop that, because aerial reconnaissance and bombing continued during that.

Nasiriya was one of those moments that seemed to be the darkest hour. It also in the end proved that the plan would go forward.

What was the public's reaction to the capture of Jessica Lynch? Why did that thing catch fire?

The capture of the American forces in Nasiriya prompted a big public reaction, partly because one of those captured was this young private from West Virginia, Jessica Lynch -- very attractive, appealing young woman who'd joined the Army because she thought she didn't have many economic opportunities in her home state of West Virginia. She began to seem like a symbol of the new American Army, the all-volunteer Army, and her capture, along with those of her colleagues, was played very extensively for days.

The initial reports of what Lynch did in the firefight-- Explain what was happening there.

It turns out the situation was chaotic in Nasiriya, and some initial reports suggested that a blonde American soldier had gone down emptying her weapon. People thought at first that might have been Lynch. Turned out to have been a male soldier who also had blonde hair, who did fire his weapon, who did die. There were some early reports that seemed to credit this with Lynch.

The British press especially thought this was an example of America's hyping the war, making it seem valorous. I don't think it's a question so much of the Pentagon trying to hype it, as it was really a situation of the confusion of war.

And it must be said [that] Americans and the American media were hungry for a happy story at that point. They were hungry for a story of bravery.

What actually happened to Jessica Lynch is that she was riding in a big truck, and in the chaos of the attack, it crashed. All the injuries that she suffered turned out to be, we think, from the impact of that collision. She was taken prisoner. She was taken to a hospital, first one and then another, in nearby Nasiriya. By all evidence, she was cared for adequately and ably by the Iraqi doctors and nurses, who took a shine to her and brought her fruit and drinks and helped take care of her.

The Marines' battle for Nasiriya -- how difficult, how surprising was it?

The fighting that the Marines particularly faced in Nasiriya was daunting. It was very unpredictable. It was really hard to fight in close urban quarters. It was exactly the kind of fighting that the Pentagon had hoped to avoid. People back in Washington worried about it a lot. A lot of the commentators thought this would be a disaster. Some of the armchair generals who were all over television tried to say this was a fatal flaw in the war plan.

On the ground, it was tough for commanders, but they never worried about it in quite the same way. They had a feeling that they would go forward. Indeed, they knew that dozens and hundreds of miles ahead of them, American forces were continuing on their objective. So it was tough, but it turned out not to be as tough as people thought it was on the home front at the time.

The Army had high hopes for the use of the Apache helicopter to help destroy Iraqi forces. But March 23, the first large operation, was a disaster. Explain what happened here.

The hope was that the Apache attack helicopters could be a kind of vital fighting force in forward operations, to go up into hostile territory and take out Iraqi forces. But the first time they really tried to do that, it turned out to be a disaster. It was an ambush. The Iraqis on the ground were aware of their presence. They set up a wall of small arms fire that wound up downing one helicopter, at least, and two pilots were captured. Their faces were shown on television the day after the captives in Nasiriyah.

It was another blow to American morale. It was very upsetting. They looked so frightened, and turned out to be, of course, very gallant. They took the lead among the prisoner-of-war Americans in keeping their morale together as they were shifted from place to place up to Baghdad, often under risk of American bombs. It turned out to be kind of a disaster.

So for the remainder of the war, those helicopters were used in support of reconnaissance, but not in forward operations in the same way that they had been hoped to be used.

You've got Nasiriya raging. You've got the 507th attack. You've got the two Apaches down with prisoners taken. You've got the advance bogged down in a sandstorm that would last three days. There is a public debate over whether the Pentagon had enough troops. Describe the controversy at that point.

The days after Nasiriya were a tense time. At home, retired generals were all over television, saying the advance was bogged down, and that Rumsfeld had rammed this down the throat of his commanders without enough troops. There was worry on the ground, because the sandstorm had stopped people. The fighting was intense.

But at the Pentagon and in the White House Situation Room, the overall picture looked a lot better. The forward troops were very close to Baghdad. Aerial reconnaissance and bombing continued. There was a meeting between the commanders on the ground in which they discussed what to do, whether to wait for advancements.

Then a couple days later, there was a meeting at Camp David with President Bush and his senior advisors. They talked about it, and President Bush ultimately said, "Let's go forward. We don't need to wait for reinforcements." So when the sandstorm stopped, 3rd Infantry began its advance toward Baghdad again, and they never looked back.

What about the question of whether we should pause and wait for the force to get through all the problems that they had down in Kuwait, and getting their forces together to come up? Was it ever seriously considered that there should be a pause in the war?

From the evidence, the commanders and the president himself never considered the pause in quite the same way the commentators suggested. It was a possibility. They could wait for the 4th Infantry to come up. But people at the Pentagon have told me that it was never really such a big debate. The president let Tommy Franks have his way and bowed to his judgment, and the judgment was that the advance could go on.

Tell me about the meeting on March 29.

On Saturday, March 29, there was a meeting at Camp David at the end of the week that began with the battle of Nasiriya, saw the sandstorm, the delay. President Bush and his advisors were there. Tommy Franks participated by secure videoconference. The discussion was whether to go ahead or wait for the 4th Infantry to come in. People who were there say that the president was not impatient; he was prepared to let things unfold. He was prepared to give his commanders their head and let them use their judgment.

In the field, commanders felt the same way. Colonel William Grimsley, commander of the 1st Brigade of the 3rd Infantry said, "You're only bogged down when you've lost the ability to do things on your own initiative. And we ain't there yet."

The significance of the battle of Najaf, around March 25 to March 29. Can you describe what happened?

Najaf is a holy Shiite city on the road to Baghdad. American commanders had hoped to bypass it completely, because there are very important Shiite shrines there. They didn't want to get into fighting. But once again, they faced unexpectedly stiff resistance -- soldiers using women and children as shields, firing from behind mosques, firing in all sorts of ways that led to a bloody, really tough eight-day battle.

Once again, it turned out to be a case where the American forces could not do what they thought. They could not swiftly bypass it on the road to Baghdad. They had to stop and fight.

What did it say about the Iraqi tactics?

There were reports of Iraqi commanders threatening to shoot their troops if they didn't fight. Of course, this was something really amazing for Americans to face, and the feeling was that the Iraqis were fighting dirty. Of course, they were fighting to defend their land, in a desperate move. But it was very, very difficult for the American troops to pick out the good guys from the bad guys in places like Najaf.

On April 1, we're now moving on to the approach to Baghdad. After more than a week in captivity, Jessica Lynch is rescued. Can you briefly describe the rescue?

For days, rumors had been swirling around Nasiriya that there was a young American in the hospital. Eventually, American forces got a tip that she was there. They were taking no chances. There had been some hostile action around that hospital, so they went in -- special operations forces loaded for bear -- special night vision equipment, heavily armed. They went in a very dramatic, almost commando-style raid which was videotaped, and parts of it were later shown.

It turned out it probably wasn't necessary to have quite so much bells and whistles. It wasn't such a risky situation. They didn't know that at the time. The videotape of the rescue and the pictures of her being carried on a stretcher with an American flag over her chest were flashed all around the world.

Her rescue was a kind of turning point in the public perception of the war. There's no getting away from the fact that it was the first successful rescue of an American soldier behind enemy lines since World War II. That was an important thing, and it played like that, and it came at the end of a period in which there'd been an awful lot of bad news from Iraq. So the press, the public, and the president were all really happy.

The taking of Baghdad Airport. What took place?

The American forces had come up to the Karbala Gap on their way to Baghdad. The first target they took was Baghdad International Airport, which had been called Saddam Hussein International Airport.

When American forces arrived at the airport, they turned out to be the first invading army at the gates of Baghdad since the British in 1941. It was eerily silent and strange. They couldn't figure out why there was not more resistance. Indeed, the next morning, there was some intense fighting back and forth. But there was never a doubt that they were going to hold the airport, and holding it became a key to the rest of their operations in Baghdad during the fall of Baghdad. They could begin flying in supplies, materiel, men, and [it was] what they used as their base of operations for the rest of their assault into Baghdad. It was a key objective for them.

As they were at the gates of Baghdad, basically about April 4, what were the assumptions about what they would meet?

The working assumption was always that the worst resistance would come in Baghdad, that the Iraqis would fight to preserve their capital, and that Saddam would fight to preserve his power. They were prepared for close combat. They had done all kinds of training exercises to avoid getting drawn into house-to-house battles, but they were prepared to take out whatever they needed to take out. There was tremendous dread, I think, as they approached, a great sense of trepidation about what they would find.

Then they plunged in, and they met far less resistance than they might have imagined.


Because the Iraqi regular army more or less crumbled. Saddam and his commanders were not in adequate control. The generals didn't want to give Saddam true information about how bad things were. The Iraqi forces just were not up to the task.

… So they decided ultimately to make a reconnaissance in force. They called it a "Thunder Run." That nickname came from what American soldiers said when they go to the bar districts of Korea and West Germany. They made a lightning raid with 761 men and tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles on a Saturday morning at dawn, and they took the Iraqis completely by surprise. One of the commanders they captured said they thought the American forces were still 100 or 150 miles away.

The Americans took a lot of fire. Virtually every vehicle was hit. One was hit and disabled and blown up. But they made it. They made a big curving arc from southern Baghdad back to Baghdad Airport, where American forces had arrived 36 hours earlier. It was an incredibly dramatic display of force, that the Americans could go through the city any time they wanted, and show that they were there.

But here you have 20,000 troops available, and a city of 5 million people. How daunting a task, really, was it in the minds of those that were responsible for taking Baghdad?

It was a daunting task, but the goal of it wasn't to take control of Baghdad with that first run. It was to show the flag, show that they were there, because the truth is the Americans were vastly outnumbered in terms of the population of the city. The psychological effect was the most important thing, and that had a big effect; it worked. It was in Saddam's backyard, and there was no stopping the Americans.

What did it demonstrate about Iraqi resistance?

There were pockets of intense Iraqi resistance. There was a lot of fighting, but they were sporadic and disorganized. They were not unified. It showed that when pushed, the defense of Baghdad might not be as tough as the Americans had feared. It inspired the Americans to go back again just two days later on an even more ambitious incursion.

And what happened with the second Thunder Run, and what specifically was its goal?

The goal of the second Thunder Run was more ambitious. It was to plunge into the city again, and this time go all the way to the heart of the capital, right to Saddam's palace. The commanders decided that, if they could get in there and spend the night, they would. The problem was the three interchanges on the Baghdad highway, which the Army had nicknamed Moe, Larry and Curly for the Three Stooges. The fighting was intense at those intersections, sometimes with foreign jihadists from Syria and other places.

The Americans nearly lost one of those intersections, and that would have trapped the vanguard of the forces inside Baghdad without ammunition, without fuel, and they would have been stuck there in an almost Mogadishu-like situation. They avoided it, and once they did, that had broken the back of Iraqi resistance. The American forces never left Baghdad after that to this day.

Summarize the failures of the Iraqi military in responding to the invasion.

There were all kinds of failures of the Iraqi military. Part of it is that Saddam had put the defense of Baghdad in the hands of his son, Qusay, who sent all kinds of conflicting orders back and forth. It was really kind of a Keystone Cops operation in terms of the Iraqi resistance. The generals were unwilling to give Baghdad the bad news of the truth. The troops were ignorant about what was happening, and clearly, some of them just took off their uniforms and ran away.

Basra. Were U.S. and British military at odds on tactics? The British, of course, worked a very different way with Basra than we were working.

There were some reported differences of opinion between the Americans and the British over what to do in Basra. The British were clearly willing to wait it out -- kind of a war of attrition. It was different from the approach that the Americans were taking with their swift and surprising advance.

I don't know how severe the tensions were. There were some reports at one point that the Americans had threatened to simply go in and do it themselves if the British wouldn't do it. In the end, it worked out; Basra fell. And in the postwar period, the British were able to pacify Basra very successfully.

Were the British more successful in mitigating civilian casualties?

I think it's hard to know whether it was the British tactics that were more successful in mitigating civilian casualties or the conditions on the ground in Basra. But it's clear that, in the aftermath of the war, the British were able, for almost all of 2003, to police Basra with a lighter hand. They didn't have ostentatious displays of weapons. Sometimes it was hard to find British troops on the streets in Basra. They had a lighter touch. They had the luxury of being able to have a lighter touch, because the situation was different.

There was a feeling among some of the British military that the U.S. tactics were possibly too dramatic and could lead to more civilian deaths -- true?

The British had had long experience in Northern Ireland dealing with the guerrilla resistance, and they were proud of how they handled that. They felt they knew what to do. They felt that they had done tactics during the battle and in the occupation afterwards that had a lighter hand, [which] worked better. They had the luxury, also, of working in Basra, which was one of the most sympathetic cities to the invasion, one of the cities that had been oppressed by Saddam -- a Shiite region that had suffered very much under Saddam's regime.

So it wasn't quite the same job the Americans had up in the Sunni Triangle and up in Baghdad, fighting a much more hostile population, much more resistance.

What happened at the Diyala Bridge, and why the civilian casualties?

On their way from Kuwait, the Marines had crossed two of the world's great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates. During the battle of Baghdad, they found themselves stuck at a 60-meter tributary called the Diyala River. They were trying to cross it. There were reports that suicide bombers were headed for the bridge, and that had been a real threat before in the days before, this was true. So the American forces were very nervous. They were taking no chances. When the reports [came] that people were coming across the bridge, they wound up just more or less firing at any vehicle that tried to cross, even if it turned out to be civilians fleeing. A number of civilians were killed.

It was one of those tragic realities of what happens in war. We think of this war as one that had a lot of high-tech equipment, bombing from great heights. This was bloody, old-fashioned war, just like it was in the Middle Ages, and it was pretty grim.

Was one of the reasons that deaths occurred that the Marines were trigger-happy? That they had gone through so much in the days before that perhaps they were not taking time?

I don't think the Marines were trigger-happy. The truth was that they'd faced such intense resistance, often from civilians, that they just were unwilling to take risks. They were unwilling to die because they made a mistake, and the civilians, the Iraqi civilians, paid the price.

The second mission to kill Hussein -- what went wrong here?

Just as there had been on the first night of the war, there was a second attempt to kill Saddam Hussein, once the battle of Baghdad was underway. American forces bombed a restaurant in the Mansour district where he was thought to be eating. Once again, if he was there, he got away. No one really knows what happened, but they didn't find him.

What does it say about intelligence?

Once again, it was a perfectly reasonable attempt. It was an attempt to spare fighting. It just shows the incredible difficulties that we had for the years preceding the war and during the war in getting information about what was happening inside of Iraq, and getting reliable intelligence about what Saddam Hussein was doing and where he was living and where he was sleeping.

You write that, after April 9, after the second Thunder Run, everything had changed in Baghdad. Explain.

After the second Thunder Run, everything suddenly changed in Baghdad. The Iraqi minders who'd watched out for American reporters were virtually in tears of joy at suddenly being free. There was not the same kind of tension. Baghdad fell sort of quiet. The only noise was from the American planes coming and attacking and the bombs of Americans. It was like a world transformed. Suddenly Iraqis themselves could sense that this long curtain was lifting, and they began to respond to the American troops accordingly.

The information minister who was known as "Baghdad Bob" suddenly didn't show up for work. After days of saying that the American forces were nowhere near Baghdad, he simply disappeared. That was the surest sign yet that the American forces were right in the heart of Baghdad, and he couldn't deny it.

Can you talk about the pulling down of the Saddam statue in Firdos Square on April 9? What was the reaction?

Once the statue got pulled down, there was exultation in the square. But it wasn't unadulterated. Iraqis worried about what would happen next. They said they hated Saddam, but they hated the war, too. One Iraqi told an American reporter, "Whoever comes next will need a stick. A weak man will not be able to succeed in the postwar chaos of Iraq."

Can you describe the scene in the White House and the president's and Rumsfeld's reaction to the statue falling.

The statue falling was sweet vindication for the president. After weeks of saying that he wasn't watching much of the war on TV, his aides acknowledged that he was watching it, and he said, "They got it down, they got it down." It was clearly the end of something important for him.

At the Pentagon, Secretary Rumsfeld compared the fall of the statue and the fall of Saddam to the fall of Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and other regimes of repression, from Eastern Europe to around the world. It was also a sweet victory for him.

Was Rumsfeld's insistence on lighter, more flexible military with fewer troops vindicated by the victory?

In purely tactical terms, Rumsfeld's insistence on a lighter force was probably vindicated by the Iraq campaign. It worked pretty much the way they hoped it would work. Even when it didn't work the way they wanted it to, they had the flexibility to make it keep working in a different way. There's no doubt that Rumsfeld interpreted that as a big success.

The looting breaks out. There's massive outbreak of lawlessness. What happened?

The problem for the Americans was that, after the fall of the statue, after the fall of Saddam, there was no order in Baghdad, and they didn't have enough troops on the ground to enforce order. They didn't have enough civil affairs officers. They didn't have enough military policemen. The 4th Infantry was still making its way up from Kuwait.

So if Rumsfeld's vision of the war plan was a tactical success, some generals in the Pentagon began to worry if it mightn't have been a strategic failure, because the American forces did not have the capacity to enforce order in the all-important aftermath of the war.

The looting is breaking out all over, and the U.S. troops don't do anything. Why?

When Iraqis would ask U.S. forces why they weren't trying to stop the looting, the answer was clear. They just didn't have enough people; they couldn't do it. They were outnumbered. It wasn't their job. They weren't trained in police action, they were trained in warfare, and it was dangerous for them to move about. There were still parts of Baghdad that were very unsafe. They had absolutely no ability to stop tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians from running riot over their capitol.

You have talked about Frederick Kagan's description of "catastrophic success." Describe the theory that this war was a catastrophic success, how the speed of the attack contributed to the postwar problems.

One of the outcomes that the Pentagon had always envisioned was something called "catastrophic success," that the regime would collapse so completely that there would be no remaining infrastructure left in Iraq. Indeed, that's about what happened. It turned out that the success had been so swift and overwhelming, there was nothing left.

The Americans had hoped that Iraqi civil servants would return to work, that maybe lower-level members of the regular Iraqi army could be sort of repatriated into a new force. In the weeks after the war, that turned out to not be workable at all. It was a long time before the Americans could restore a measure of stability.

Before the war, there were U.S. contingencies that were planned for, but that didn't occur -- food shortages, WMD.

The Americans had planned for all sorts of postwar contingencies -- food shortages, refugee influx, oil well fires that never turned out to be lit. They had not planned for the degree of civil disorder -- looting, petty crime. They had not fully anticipated that, and they had not fully anticipated the degree of it and the way it continued, from sporadic [to] eventually intense resistance to the American occupying troops.

In a war plan that stressed so much the need for flexibility, did it seem here that they really only had a plan A, and no plan B?

It does seem as if the Pentagon only had a plan A and not a plan B. Partly that's because the Pentagon cut the State Department out of postwar planning. The State Department had a whole elaborate range of options for civil administration in postwar Iraq -- what it would need to do to deal with the day after, as Colin Powell liked to say.

The Pentagon took charge of the planning and charged ahead. One of the great questions that I think will be debated for years is why the Pentagon was so pessimistic about Saddam Hussein and his intentions, and so optimistic about what would happen in Iraq after the war.

What about the apparent contradictions in U.S. policy on avoiding civilian casualties?

The American military made a great point of its intention to avoid civilian casualties whenever possible. But the truth is, it wasn't always possible. It was very difficult at times, partly because of the way the Iraqi regulars fought. Donald Rumsfeld reserved for himself the right to approve bombing targets in which certain numbers of civilians would be at risk. In fact, he approved more than 50 of those targets; every single one that came to him for consideration.

The truth is, war is brutal. War is terrible, and there's no getting away from it. The Americans didn't even try to count the Iraqi civilian casualties afterwards, and we may never know for sure how many there were. But it's one thing for the Pentagon to say it wanted to avoid civilian casualties, because I think it did. Could it avoid all civilian casualties? Not even close.

Why didn't we try to count civilian casualties or Iraqi casualties?

The Pentagon doesn't tend to count civilian casualties on the other side. I think there may be a lot of reasons for that. One, because the difficulty of getting a reliable number. I think it's also a kind of horrible, depressing number that no one wants to think about very much.

We'll never know for sure how many civilian casualties there were. After the war, The Associated Press did a tally, canvassing hospitals around the country. They came up with a figure of more than 3,200, but they acknowledged it was incomplete.

But do we know how many Iraqi soldiers?

No, I don't think we really do know that.

How would you sum up the overall successes and failures of the invasion of Iraq?

Clearly, in purely military terms, the invasion succeeded on the grounds it set for itself. It was a swift and surprising advance that toppled a regime that turned out to be weaker than we even thought.

In political and diplomatic terms, it was a much more mixed bag. The invasion had strained alliances with Europe; strained America's involvement with the United Nations and the broader world community; raised all sorts of new questions about whether it had really created a Middle East that was more congenial to American interests; whether Americans would be safer; whether the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would be helped or hurt; how the Muslim world would regard America; how countries all over the world would regard the use of American power.

Those questions are still unresolved, and will be for years.

How did we end up with an easy war and a messy peace?

Oh, the peace is always harder. I think most generals are quick to say that, and there's no doubt that America is the supreme military power of the world. It stands unchallenged with equipment, manpower, resources, resolve. Being strongest doesn't mean being smartest always, and the hard work of the peace is the most grinding challenge that war makers ever face.

Going back to the looting and what happened in the days after the fall of Baghdad, what went wrong here? Did the Pentagon fail to anticipate the looting?

There's always looting and chaos in a postwar situation. It just comes with the territory. … What was so problematic about it was the image that it left in the minds of ordinary Iraqis -- that they had not traded Saddam's fall for something that would be safer and better.

In those vital early days and weeks when the Iraqis were looking for signs that their lives were going to improve, in many cases in the immediate aftermath, their lives were worse. They had no power, they had no security, they had no water. It was grim, and they blamed the Americans for that, and that was problematic.


Because one of the things the Americans had counted on was the goodwill of the Iraqi people to help them build a new country. If the first impression that the Iraqis got of American control of Iraq was chaos, no electricity, lack of basic services and lack of security that could let them walk on the street at night, they were not inclined to look with favor on the occupying power that had brought this to them.

Isn't this what to some extent General Shinseki had said to Congress, and what some of the other military had been talking about before the war?

There were warnings from uniformed commanders, from retired generals, from diplomats. There were ample warnings about how important it would be in the aftermath of the war to guarantee the safety and security of the Iraqi people. And Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon brushed most of them aside, saying they wouldn't need a large occupying force, and that the Iraqi population would sort of take care of itself and join the Americans and go forward.

How much tension was within the Pentagon at that point between the uniformed and the civilian side of the Pentagon about this very question?

I think there was a lot of tension between the uniform and civilian side at the moment of the fall of Baghdad. I think there's been increasing tension all summer and fall and all the rest of the year, as the situation has played itself out.

Based on your own research and your analysis of the reporting of others, what is the bottom line on the importance of the decisions to limit the force level and the importance of the days after the fall of Baghdad?

There's no doubt that Rumsfeld and Franks's plan succeeded militarily. It did what it was supposed to do. It had a swift, surprising advance. It toppled a dictator.

There also seems to be no doubt that postwar occupation of Baghdad was not what it should have been, either because we didn't have enough troops, we didn't have enough planning. We planned for the wrong things [and] the Pentagon had a certain degree of arrogance in forcing the State Department out of the planning at an early stage.

It will remain one of the most tantalizing, troubling questions about this war -- whether it turned out to be a tactical victory with strategic disappointments because the thinking was not what it should have been.


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posted february 26, 2004

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