the invasion of iraq
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Thomas White was Secretary of the Army from May 2001 to May 2003. In this interview he discusses the prewar debate within the Pentagon over force levels, the big events of the war, and the war's failures, including the lack of good intelligence. "I think we are all disappointed that it wasn't better. … We're basically still going into fights blind." Regarding the war's aftermath, White says, "We lost the ability to accomplish the peace quickly and efficiently [when the war ended]. We just underwhelmed it and we're paying the price for that." This interview was conducted on Jan. 31, 2004.

interview: thomas white

What was the mood in the Pentagon and their expectation of what was likely to happen once troops actually crossed the border into Iraq?

I think the expectation was that there would be mass surrenders; that the combat phase of the operation would not be too difficult; that, at grassroots level, this would be viewed as a war of liberation. Consequently, people would be glad to have Saddam Hussein gone, and would be supportive of the allied operation.

The secretary of defense is a micro-manager  by nature. He did not like the notion that he would make an initial decision to deploy a force, and beyond it would kind of be on automatic pilot. [He]decided to manage it piece by piece.

The view on the military side, I think, was far more pessimistic. I think the view on the military side was that this would be a tough operation. There was a lot of ground to be covered. There was the potential use of chemical weapons by the Iraqis, and that this could turn out to be quite a difficult operation. So there was a bit of a difference of view between the two sides.

… To simplify the whole thing, the military commanders tended to want larger forces. The civilian side of it tended to think we could get away with a much smaller force. The argument produced something roughly in the middle.

What was the nature of the deal, the compromise that was struck on force levels?

I think the nature of the deal was that that you would have an operation that approached Baghdad both from the north [and] from the south. You have a heavy concentration of special operating forces that would be involved, accomplishing various tasks.

You would have an extensive air campaign, although one that did not lead the initiation of the ground campaign by any significant amount of time, as opposed to the Desert Storm style of operation. You would have a sizeable force, [a] couple hundred thousand people. But it was not quite as large as what the military people involved in it initially thought they wanted.

Then, of course, the northern front disappears.

Right. The northern front disappears, as you know, because the Turks will not grant movement across their territory to Iraq's northern border. The 4th Infantry Division was in ships off the coast of Turkey. The route to support that move had been prepared, and was ready to go.

But the at the end of the day, we couldn't get the clearance, not only for the movement of 4th Infantry Division, but for aircraft and so forth. The whole plan had to be adjusted kind of on the fly. The operation started without the 4th I.D. fully in place to participate in the initial assault.

The 4th I.D. was kept bobbing around in the Mediterranean. Why not bring it around quickly?

The philosophy was, "If we leave them up there, then Saddam still has to defend in two directions, and he will not relocate his Republican Guards further to the south against the southern advance."

That turned out, in hindsight, to be not much of a factor. We could have brought the 4th I.D. in much earlier. [It] would have been the a better move, rather than leaving it up there until just before the operation.

The decision to launch early, I think, was based upon two concerns. One, that you had large troop concentrations amassed in Kuwait, and you were worried that the Iraqis might try to strike concentrations with long-range missiles; secondly, the concern about the damage to oil fields and so forth in the southern part of Iraq, and whether those would be torched, a la Kuwait 10 years beforehand.

Consequently, a decision was made to launch the ground attack early.

How unhappy were some people with that?

I think everyone, at the end of the day, was reasonably comfortable that that the risk should be taken. We had confidence in the contributions that the Air Force, the Navy, Marine Corps, would make. We had a fairly low opinion of the military capabilities of Saddam's army. I think all of that convinced us that we needed to go ahead and get on with it.

How much of the concern was there around troop levels that would be in place in Iraq immediately after the war?

Shinseki's concern and my concern was, if you were to look at the postwar tasks that had to be accomplished, the special weapons sites that had to be inspected, which numbered in the hundreds -- The size and scope of the concentration of people in Baghdad, for example. The fact that this was a country as large as the state of California with a population of 25 million people. We were very concerned that there wouldn't be sufficient boots on the ground after the operation to provide for security and get on with the stabilization activities.

That was our principle concern, from an Army perspective.

There are those who argue that no one could have forecast that the Iraqi state would have collapsed as it did. Is that a fair enough defense?

I don't think that's an adequate rationale to not have done a better job of planning. We have more experience in the United States Army in peacekeeping operations, because of the Balkans, than probably any army on the face of the earth. All of us in the Army were very, very concerned that if it wasn't a war of liberation, if lawlessness broke out, that we would have a very difficult time stopping that.

There are two ways you could have sized the force to go into Iraq. One was the way it with done, which is necessary to win the war, and then assume that you would need fewer and fewer troops to ensure the peace after the war.

The other was to say the real force driver here is the stability operation following combat. So even if we launched the combat operation early to achieve, to guard against these other problems, the torching of the oil fields and so forth, we still need to keep the force flow going and get additional forces in there so that we can secure the peace.

Unfortunately, the latter course was not the one that was adopted. I think to a certain degree, it was foreseeable. … We were absolutely convinced that it would take an enormous number of people to stabilize the [postwar] situation. Short of those people, a great deal of mischief would occur. I guess you take a bit of satisfaction that your view has been vindicated by the way the results played out. But at the same time, this is something that could have been anticipated, I believe.

Paul Wolfowitz, also Donald Rumsfeld, were very strong, outspoken in criticizing the army's views on troop levels needed.

Well, yes. There's a certain amount of arrogance to both of them in this regard. Neither man is a man that I would say was burdened by a great deal of self-doubt. Having been right in Afghanistan with conducting an operation with basically special operating forces and indigenous forces, their view was that they would be absolutely right here.

Our view was that they were going to be terribly wrong. Their response, publicly and privately, was basically that Shinseki and I didn't know what we were talking about. I suppose, looking back on it, it is hard to believe that rational people looking at that situation before the combat operation could have thought it was going to come out in any other way than in fact it did.

I mean, here you have a population which is fractured, with the Kurds, the Sunnis, and the Shias. It's a huge country. It's been ruled with an iron fist by a tyrant. As soon as you take that iron fist off the population and don't replace it with an obvious presence of law and order, I don't think it was that hard to divine what was going to occur.

What are the big events that stick in your mind?

From the Army perspective, the big events in the campaign were moving up the timing of the ground assault, which meant that the ground assault would launch without a lot of air preparation in front of it. The timing of the ground assault was more flexible than the rejiggering of the air campaign, as it turned out.

Three days, four days in, and the Fedayeen and the challenges, the ambush of the 507th and the sandstorm; then, kicking off the attack again at the back end of the sandstorm. Trying to figure out how the Republican Guard had reconfigured itself, and how the Republican Guard would, in fact, begin to get into this thing as we got closer to Baghdad.

What about the Apache raid on the Medina Division?

I was disappointed that we didn't do better. I mean, this was an Apache raid. We have invested an enormous amount of resources in attack helicopter operations in the U.S. Army. I was disappointed that we didn't sort out our tactics better on a raid that the army's taken a very hard look at since then. The goal is to create a better result. We were very fortunate we didn't lose more aircraft.

What conclusions have been drawn about that raid?

I think the conclusions are, if you fly over a known area of enemy concentration and you don't do anything from a combined arms perspective to prep that area, you're probably going to get your butt shot off. So if you go back to the basics of good intelligence before you go in, [with] combined arm operation and smart tactics, you can be successful.

There were a lot of Fedayeen in the built-up areas. You know if you have a helicopter flying directly overhead, an AK-47 or just about any weapon will do the trick.

I think we were all disappointed that that the operation wasn't conducted with a higher level of tactical skill. Consequently, it was unsuccessful. We got our nose bloodied, and we were just lucky that bleeding wasn't worse.

Let's move on to the Karbala Gap. That's really the turning point. There were a series of sort of minor attacks on April 1. Talk me through your memories of that.

I was concerned. I think we were all concerned, [because] we were a long way away from the fight in the Pentagon -- that we didn't have a better fix on where the brigades of the Republican Guard were as they were repositioning south to get in the way; not only of 5th Corps, but of the Marines, as well. I remember sitting there with the chief and looking at how the intelligence was being portrayed. We all thought we were going to have a pretty good fight there.

I think we were all concerned that we had a good fix on these guys before we went into that fight. You would think, in this day and age, in a joint force that spends an enormous amount of money on surveillance and high tech thises and thats, and intelligence platforms and satellite imagery and all the rest of that, that we could find an Iraqi brigade, and in fairly open terrain; that would not be an insurmountable challenge for our intelligence community.

That information on the posture of the brigade -- where it was, what it was doing -- Is it moving? Is it sitting still? [You would think that information and] so forth could be gotten to somebody like General Wallace in real time.

We are apparently still not to that point. Until we get to that point, we basically are still going into fights blind. As we try to transform the Army into a network-centric force, and sharing information and all the rest of that, we have to get a hell of a lot better than that. I think we were all disappointed that it wasn't better.

We get through the Karbala Gap; there's nothing there. Explain

We all did not expect the conventional Iraqi army to do very much, and they didn't. So there were lots of surrenders early and so forth. That was no surprise. What surprised me was that the Republican Guard didn't dig in and fight it out around Baghdad. We kind of ran over them. I thought, with all the investment and the political role of those units and so forth, that they would have done better. But they didn't. I mean, we were all pleasantly surprised that that's the way it turned out.

What are your memories of the atmosphere inside the Pentagon on the day Saddam's statue fell, on April 9?

It was euphoric. There was a little bit, I suppose, of "I told you so. What were you guys worried about? We've been able to pull this off with a very small force." There was a little bit of, "What do we do now? Now, do we own this city? What's going to happen now? We still don't have Saddam Hussein. We don't know where he is. We still have the deck of cards, so we don't know where a lot of these people are. But the combat operation is basically done. What happens now?"

I think we were all concerned that it was very unclear as to what was going to happen now.

Tell me some of your memories of how the invasion evolved over the next hours and days. The city begins disintegrating into looting…

As the days went into weeks and the looting continued, initially the view was that this would all dissipate in some relatively short period of time. There wasn't a big urgency to get American or allied forces into stopping this. It was kind of "It's not our job. This is kind of a job for the Iraqis or for the police or somebody else. We're happy to have lived through the combat phase." … It wasn't clear that the guidance had been issued to tell people to go out and patrol street corners and start shooting people that were looting. Consequently, it got out of hand.

To a degree, the infrastructure of the country was effectively dismantled before our very eyes on CNN. It really crystallizes the completely ineffective view of what would be required in postwar Iraq. It set the tone. It has made the reconstruction of the country enormously more difficult than perhaps it should have been.

… Finally, after some interval, we started to get into it, to try re-establish some law and order. By then, it was too late. I mean, hospitals stripped, power stations, oil pipeline infrastructure. All the things that we had launched the ground campaign early to protect … We watched a great deal of it get dismantled in the immediate aftermath. Now, at enormous cost and a great deal of time, we're going to have to put that all back together.

But you see, [the chaos and looting] got back the force flow. We had had the 1st Cavalry Division geared up to come into Iraq as a follow-on division. Their deployment was shut down and canceled when the campaign started to gain momentum and it was clear that the military operation was going to be fairly short-lived.

At what point exactly was the 1st Cavalry canceled?

This would have been as the lead forces were approaching Baghdad. It was clear that the Republican Guards were not putting up much of a fight. Therefore, the combat phase was going to be over in fairly short order. The deployment was canceled. They were still at Fort Hood. But they were on orders, and they were ready to move. We could have moved; the shipping was arranged. We just never shipped them.

The working assumption was that, postwar, the forces could very quickly be re-deployed and moved out, because we'd be faced with a fairly peaceful Iraq. Whereas what you'd much rather have done is brought in the additional forces, stabilize the country, protected the infrastructure and so on, got on with the exploitation of sensitive sites and the other tasks that you wanted to get done; then, later on, re-deploy the forces after you were sure that postwar Iraq was running the way you wanted it to.

Unfortunately, that's not the way we did it.

How many men in the 1st Cavalry?

It's a full division, 20,000. They're deploying now. They're going to go in the second rotation.

There are people who say we lost the peace in the first 48 hours. …

Yes, I think it's a fair comment. Now, it's more accurate probably to say we lost the ability to accomplish the peace quickly and efficiently.

…We just underwhelmed it, and we're paying the price for that. The price, both in lives and in treasure, is going to be quite high. We lost 45 people in January -- one of the highest months of casualties that we've had since the war has been over.

General Wallace told me that, by January 2003, you were having to request each thing individually. Why?

The secretary of defense is a micro-manager by nature. He did not like the notion that he would make an initial decision to deploy a force, and that beyond that initial decision, the rest of it would kind of be on automatic pilot.

If you tell me you want a division to show up in Iraq to conduct an operation, there is a logistic tail associated with that. There are support units. Somebody has to go in and open up the port to land the division, on and on and on. That's all encompassed in this time-phase force deployment list. That's what coordinates it. Make sure the guys that open the port get there before the units that have to pass through the port, for example.

The secretary decided to throw that out and manage it increment by increment and piece by piece by piece. That caused it to be enormously painful, and it caused things to get out of synch and not show up in the proper order. It caused reserve units to get very little alert time before they were mobilized. It became a very dysfunctional process. Massive amounts of information were required before decisions could be reached to deploy certain elements of force structure. That almost guaranteed that the deployment would be late, and not in keeping with when the commander in chief on the ground, Tommy Franks, asked for it.

So there was this continual struggle to get the force deployed with this kind of micro-managed process.

What was behind his concerns?

His basic philosophy is that the services are sloppy with their manpower, and if left to their own designs, will bring too many people, perhaps too early. So his intent was to bring discipline to the process by inflicting this wire brushing on the process. That was quite painful, and, I think, dysfunctional.

What was the role of special ops and special forces in this war?

The role was significant. The role was to do the classic things that they do well -- strategic and human intelligence, taking down vital pieces of infrastructure here and there, going after selected leaders on the Iraqi side. There was probably a heavier dose of special operations in this campaign than we've ever had in any operation previously conducted.

… The special ops people up north were extensively used, because we couldn't get conventional forces in there. We finally jumped the 173rd in the conventional force. But special ops were used extensively in areas that it was going to take us a long time to get conventional forces in, as well.

I would think when the history of it's written and you go and interview the leadership of the special ops, you'll get a picture that they did in fact make a significant contribution.

What were the key lessons learned from this war, for you?

A, In the world that we face, the combat phase may be the easiest part; B, that what follows the combat phase is where most of the strategic objectives will be achieved or not achieved and, therefore, it deserves as much planning and attention as the combat phase does. Three, until you've done that, don't start the operation in the first place. Fourth, it's going to take you a long time and a great deal of effort if you get into anything the scale that we've gotten into in Iraq. So you'd better be ready for it.

Are you personally angry about the way the postwar's been mishandled?

I think we should all be angry. It is ultimately going to cost an enormous amount of treasure, and how many lives, I don't know. But certainly the burden to the country is going to go on for a long time. I don't think we adequately addressed that on the front end.

Is the world a better place because Saddam is gone? Certainly. Will Iraq eventually become a better place for the average Iraqi on the street? Certainly, we hope it will. But it isn't yet, and we've got a long ways to go.


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posted february 26, 2004

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