Former Marine Corps General Bernard Trainor Worries About U.S. Force Level and Lack of a Northern Front in Advance of Iraq War

Former Marine Corps General Bernard Trainor Worries About U.S. Force Level and Lack of a Northern Front in Advance of Iraq War

March 18, 2003 5:54 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Former Marine Corps General Trainor says he’s “not quite comfortable” with the size and makeup of the U.S. forces based in Kuwait, asserting that the military has been slow to send in armored divisions that would provide the forces with more flexibility. He also says that the failure of Turkey to approve the stationing of American forces is “a real problem” because it makes it difficult to secure the oil fields in northern Iraq quickly.

Nevertheless, Trainor, who is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, as well as a retired three-star Marine general, says that despite his concerns, he believes the United States will be able to overwhelm the Iraqi military fairly quickly.

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He made the comments in an interview with Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on March 18, 2003.

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Q. General Trainor, as we move close to war with Iraq, what is your view on the level of U.S. forces now in the theatre of operations?

A. I’m not quite comfortable with it. There doesn’t seem to be much margin for error and there is not much operational flexibility. There are Marines in Kuwait and there’s the 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division, and part of the 101st Airborne and part of the 82nd Airborne. That’s not an awful lot. It’s enough probably to do the job, if you put your trust in an assumption that the Iraqis are not going to fight hard, that all your high technology is going to work nicely and you have trust in airpower doing a lot of the work.

Q. When we did an interview in January, you said it was crucial to have a northern front. Obviously Turkey has been very slow coming around, so there are no United States troops ready to come in from the north. Is this going to hurt the war effort?

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A. It’s a real problem, a real problem. From a military standpoint, it’s not essential for the taking of Baghdad, but it is essential if you want to protect the oil fields in the north from the depredation of the Iraqis or the Kurds. But more importantly you have an additional problem with the Kurds. The two Kurdish groups fight among themselves, and more ominous is the possibility that they might engage the Turks. And so the possibility of great instability in the northern front is very significant and very troubling.

Q. Why is the president so anxious to go to war now, rather than wait a few more weeks?

A. Well, I think the reason is more political than military. I think this has dragged on for so long, and so much pressure has built up against him around the world and even domestically, that he has just decided it is time to fish or cut bait. The president probably figures, you know, we are going to have to do this ultimately anyway, so let’s get on with it.

Q. So what army troops is the United States missing in the south? There is no mechanized division, is there?

A. They have the 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division which has about 250 or so tanks with it. You have the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which is made up of the 1st Marine Division, and a British Division, the Royal Marines. They have between them some 220 odd tanks. This is a very, very powerful force.

Then you have in addition to that the 3rd Commando Brigade, and attached to it, a battalion of United States Marines. Then you have a separate Marine brigade, which can be used for reserve, or for targets of opportunity. Then you have part of the 101st Airborne Division. All of its helicopters are in country, some 280 helicopters and all of their Apache helicopters, numbering some 64. They’re all in Kuwait, but they’ve only recently gotten the troops in and got themselves organized. They’re shaken down at this point for one air assault brigade, rather than the entire division. A division is made up of three brigades.

And then you have a brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division. They’re already organized for a parachute landing. If you were going to use them for anything, it would be to drop into the northern oil fields to try to seize and secure them. But they have no mobility and no heavy fire power, so they will have to depend on airpower to give them support.

The heavy stuff is still on the way. That includes the 1st Armored Division, the 1st Cavalry Division, which is an armored division. You have the 4th Mechanized Infantry Division, whose equipment is sitting off Turkey and its troops sitting back in the United States.

Frankly, I cannot understand the sequence. It would have seemed to me important to have gotten an armored division in there early on, but for whatever reason, the Secretary of Defense seemed happy with the sequencing they are having. It seems to me be backwards and lopsided.

Q. And we have overwhelming airpower, right?

A. There is no question about that. We have six aircraft carriers out there. There are about 1,000 aircraft ready to go of all sorts, ranging from F-15 attack aircraft to the B-2 bomber.

Q. If you were in headquarters and were calling the shots, what would you do in the initial phases of the war?

A. I don’t want to play field marshal. But just doing a terrain and force analysis, I can tell you what the options are: To attack up the Euphrates corridor towards Baghdad, another parallel attack up the Tigris corridor, going past Basra, and taking Basra, and heading on toward Baghdad in a pincer movement. Alternatively, you could use the 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division, instead of going up the Euphrates valley, which is very highly populated and has a lot of river crossings which could impede our movement. They could conceivably go directly west across the desert and then swing in to the north up around Karbla. That would cut out the problem of the water crossings and congestion of population in the Euphrates river valley.

I would use the 101st Air Assault brigade. I would use it as a maneuver unit to take advantage of opportunities to get behind the enemy or maybe get up in the vicinity of Baghdad quickly, or conceivably— and this is a very, very long stretch— to have them substitute for the forces we had planned to move out of Turkey into northern Iraq. But that’s going a long, long way with a helicopter force. Not that they can’t do it, but the logistical problems involved would be significant.

Q. What about sandstorms?

A. They’ve had some terrible sandstorms out there, but happily we’re coming to the end of the sandstorm season, so in less than a week, the sandstorms should be completely gone or subsided. But by the same token, the temperatures are going up.

Q. Will the airpower start the war?

A. Well, I think everyone assumes that and clearly the airpower has to go in, near simultaneously with the ground forces, to take out the air defenses that exist in Iraq. But most of all they will be in support of the ground forces. This is different from Desert Storm, where we used the airpower to pummel the field forces, and most of all, to destroy the military and economic infrastructure of Iraq.

We certainly don’t want to do that this time, because that will be essential for reconstruction— things like power plants, electric grids, railroads, electric bridges. We don’t want to take any of that out. We will be concentrating the airpower against command and control, and against forces in the field that are going to put up resistance.

I think one of the things to consider as an option on the opening night of the fray is to start it off by putting Special Operations Forces into Iraq to seize critical targets and take them by surprise.

For example, just by the city of Karbala, which is off to the west of Baghdad and on the Euphrates river line, there is a dam. If Saddam Hussein were to blow that dam, it would flood the Euphrates River valley. It would not only take out a lot of Iraqis, it would really impede our advance up that valley. You don’t want the dams or airfields to go.

You want to be able to seize known and suspected missile sites and weapons of mass destruction storage sites. You might want to send the special operations forces’ units the night before the real operation begins, and once they have seized their objectives, then launch the air and ground attack.

Q. So in a best case scenario, what kind of war will this be?

A. The best case scenario is that all of the Iraqi armed forces decide that there’s no point in going on with this thing, and one or all of them turn against Saddam Hussein. That’s not going to happen, however, unless they see visible evidence of the Americans coming at them, so that they know they will not be left in the lurch, and where we might withdraw as part of some negotiated solution which would put them on the end of a rope.

More likely, we will move very quickly toward Baghdad and overcome the resistance in the south. There will be spotty resistance. Saddam Hussein has grouped his best Republican Guards units in the center of Iraq. I think he’s pretty much written off the Shi’a and written off the northern portion toward Iraqi Kurdistan, and he’s going to try to hold in the center. And his actions in the center, and all his military actions, will be designed to support a diplomatic strategy to call the attention of the world to the aggression by George Bush and to the atrocities the Americans are committing and so forth, so that there is such pressure to bear on the President that he is forced to look for some negotiated solution. That will be enhanced by the Iraqi military operations which will have as their goal inflicting as many casualties on the Americans as possible, so that the Americans, repulsed by the casualties, will sue for a diplomatic solution.

Q. Could there be a lot of casualties?

A. Conceivably there could be. Once you have unleashed the dogs of war, there’s no telling what is going to happen. But the chances of heavy casualties are low on the scale of probability because I don’t think the Iraqis are going to fight that hard. And we’re going to move so fast, with such overwhelming power, at least that’s the plan as I deduce it, that they really won’t get an opportunity to put together a coherent defense. You might have a few sharp battles here and there in which casualties will occur. But we’ll be on top of them, including Baghdad, before they will be able to organize for any sort of reasonable defense, even within Baghdad.

Q. Any problem with ditches full of oil being set afire by the Iraqis?

A. No problem at all. This was done in Desert Storm. It sends up a lot of smoke. It can briefly obscure your vision, but you can go around it. Anyone banking defense on fortifications like that is playing a losing game.

Q. Are the Iraqis likely to use chemical weapons?

A. Oh, I think you have to assume that they will use chemical weapons, but you have to look at the Iraqis’ capabilities and how they will deliver them. They can deliver them by way of land mines, which is perhaps probable, particularly at river crossings where we have to ford the rivers because they are going to blow the bridges. And when we slow down, we will be vulnerable to mines or artillery shells. None of that will be a show stopper. If [Saddam] does use it, it will be incidental. We are in better position to deal with it than his own forces are. In many cases, you can just bypass the area. The ones who are apt to suffer the most if the Iraqis use chemical weapons are the civilians.

Q. Is this a real test for the Marines? They will have to go some 300 miles inland to get to Baghdad.

A. They don’t have the logistic infrastructure to support that, but under the memo of agreement that the Marine Corps has had with the Army, the Army provides the long haul logistical support. I must remind you that back in 1805, the Marines marched to Tripoli to unseat the Bey of Tripoli as part of the Barbary War campaign against the pirates there. This was a 600-mile march across the desert on foot.

Q. You started out saying you were uncomfortable with the deployment size. But you think it will go pretty smoothly?

A. I think so. I just go by “Trainor’s Rule” of three. Everything takes three times as long to do, costs three times as much as you anticipate, and uses up three times more resources than you planned. Since we have the forces, I see no reason why we did not get them there earlier, which was entirely feasible, so we would have had a lot of flexibility. In this instance, the military doesn’t have very much flexibility.

Some basic assumptions were made that the Iraqis would fold, that our high tech will work as completely as advertised, and that airpower will be overwhelmingly successful. These are valid assumptions, but just being an old Marine, I’ve heard promises before.

We heard at the landings in Tarawa, and Iwo Jima in World War II that the air and sea bombardment would be so effective that all the Marines will have to do is walk ashore, and that wasn’t the case at all. And so I am always suspect of people who want to do it on the cheap when they can do it with the full benefit of the forces we have available to us. We have the forces available, but we have just been slow sending them over there for some reason I can’t understand.


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