General Bernard E. Trainor Sees War with Iraq Starting by Mid-March and Ending with Quick U.S.-led Victory

General Bernard E. Trainor Sees War with Iraq Starting by Mid-March and Ending with Quick U.S.-led Victory

January 28, 2003 12:10 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.

Bernard E. Trainor, a retired three-star Marine general and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says a war against Iraq could start in the period from late February to the middle of March, based on the pace of the buildup of U.S. armed forces in the Persian Gulf. Once a sufficient number of forces are in place, Trainor says, a U.S.-led invasion will overwhelm Iraq’s defenders in a brief war. Turkey’s participation is crucial, he says, to allow a northern U.S. assault to coincide with a southern attack launched from Kuwait.

Trainor, co-author with Michael Gordon of The Generals’ War: The Inside Story of the Persian Gulf War, says U.S. officials made a mistake in 1991 when they failed to order U.S. forces to demand Saddam Hussein’s ouster.

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Trainor was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on January 27, 2003.

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Q. How close are we to completing the military buildup that would be sufficient to launch a war against Iraq?

A. We are almost there. Logistically, I think we are in pretty good shape. We have been building up the wherewithal for war since last summer. In terms of air power, we are in good shape. You could start an air campaign right now as a matter of fact. There is an air campaign, in fact, already underway with the enforcement of the northern and southern no-fly zones. We have the aircraft carriers on the way, plus we are flying in a lot of F-16s, F-15s, and so forth.

As far as ground forces, we are not there yet. We have to have many more units. I think we probably have a fairly adequate number of Special Operations forces, but they are not going to win the war. If you are going to win this thing, quickly and decisively, one of the things you are going to have to do is intimidate the Iraqis. They have to see a visible allied presence and the imminence of their doom before they surrender or perhaps even turn a gun on Saddam Hussein.

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In the Iraq theater of operations right now you have basically an Army brigade and a Marine brigade. Substantial forces are on the way. You have the Fourth Mechanized Infantry Division and the Third Mechanized Infantry Division.

Q. Where are they based?

A. The Third is split between Ft. Stewart and Ft. Benning, Georgia. The Fourth has a brigade at Ft. Carson, Colorado, and the other two brigades of the division are at Ft. Hood, Texas. But you are going to need more than that. You’re going to need an armored division, and we don’t have one in there yet. I think the [likely candidate] is the First Armored Division, coming out of Germany.

Q. Do you need the 101st Airborne Division too?

A. The 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) from Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, is probably in the equation because of their terrific ability to airlift troops by helicopter. But it takes an awful lot of shipping to move the 101st. It is very, very equipment-intensive. You will probably have the First Cavalry Division, also based at Ft. Hood, Texas.

Q. So the war could start at the end of February, or in March?

A. I think by mid-February you should have completed the buildup. The dark of the moon, which favors our type of operations, comes at the end of February. So I would say that is the timing unless there is some sort of dramatic change in the Iraqi situation, or in the diplomatic and political situation which forces the president’s hand. I would say from a purely logistic and buildup standpoint, you are talking of no sooner than the end of February and, probably, early into March.

One of the big elements in this equation is Turkey. I think to do a quick and decisive job, we very badly want to be able to attack out of the north, as well as out of the south. That way, we keep the Iraqi forces split, and we will have a major presence where the oil fields are located in the north, and also make sure a Kurdish civil war doesn’t break out up there.

Q. We’re talking just about bases the United States forces can use, not for the Turkish army to take part, right?

A. Yes, but the Turkish Army I think will, in effect, be involved. They want to make sure there is no attempt by the Iraqi Kurdish community to break away and form an independent Kurdistan. So they will be there, and I think they will assist indirectly. But in terms of offensive operations, no, I wouldn’t anticipate the Turks being involved in that.

Q. Let’s talk about timing of war.

A. March is not too late. Right now, you have Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, indicating he would like a little more time. That is fine. We have more playtime here. I think that after the inspectors’ reports [on January 27], there will be some minds changing and shifting over and saying that Saddam Hussein has really not been coming clean on this sort of thing. So we may see a shift. If the president allows more time, it would show him being a reasonable man. And in the meantime, we would gain more time to continue the buildup in the region. The military operation itself should not last long. We have such overwhelming power.

Q. Will it be a quick operation?

A. I think the Iraqi forces will collapse very, very quickly simply because discretion will probably be the better part of valor. There obviously will be some hard-core units that will hold out, but for all practical purposes, the operation should go cleanly, quickly, and with a minimum of casualties or collateral damage. I cannot see an air campaign that will go after the military industrial infrastructure -- as we did in 1991
— because we want to get Iraq back on its feet as quickly as possible. I wouldn’t see them bombing bridges, or electrical grids and that sort of thing.

And so the targeting will be primarily against [Saddam’s] command and control, his security forces, and such forces in the field that we may feel need convincing that they better surrender before they are destroyed. So it’s a relatively short air campaign.

Q. Two weeks?

A. I wouldn’t see it as more than a week. The first thing we have to do is take out their integrated air defenses. We have already partially done that in the northern and southern no-fly zones. That leaves the central portion, where admittedly he has his strongest integrated air defenses. I would think we could neutralize them in one or two days at least to the point we can operate freely.

Q. And then the ground attack starts?

A. The ground attack would begin conceivably within two or three days of the start of the air attack. The two would be going on at the same time. Unless there are unusual circumstances, you are talking about a war that will take days or weeks, but not more than that.

Q. Is this a desert war, or an urban one?

A. Obviously, you want to take some of the key cities. [In] places like Basra, which is the second largest city, in the Shiite region in the south, you will find Shiites helping take it over. You obviously want to take the cities in the north near the oil fields, Kirkuk and Mosul, and also Tikrit, which is Saddam’s own clan area, and of course Baghdad. But interestingly, history shows us that when an enemy loses the countryside and is forced to withdraw to the cities, it knows the war is over. You get people who surrender or defect. The classic case was in 1949. When the Chinese communists drove the Kuomintang, the Chinese nationalist forces, into the cities, it was all over. Many of them simply went over to the communist side.

In the countryside, there are certain key areas. You should ensure you make use of the excellent highway network that the Iraqis have around the country. If you have all those lines of control under your command, the enemy will be split up or holding out in small pockets of resistance and can be persuaded, militarily or otherwise, that it is not in their interest to keep fighting.

Q. How important is it for the United States to keep trying to get a broader coalition?

A. Very much so. Not only in terms of the implicit diplomatic support, but in the impact it has on the Iraqis. If we start to garner good international support, that creates a greater reason on the part of the Iraqi armed forces not to resist. From a military standpoint, it is very important, but in terms of military utility -- in other words, helping us fight -- it is inconsequential.

Q. Back in 1991, could the United States forces have driven right into Baghdad?

A. No question of it. There was nothing protecting Baghdad but a brigade, and it was not particularly well-trained. We could have gone directly to Baghdad at the time. Probably we would not have had to do that to get rid of Saddam Hussein. We had the opportunity at the ceasefire talks at Safwan, in southern Iraq. This is where General H. Norman Schwartzkopf, the head of United States forces, went to arrange a ceasefire.

Unfortunately, he went in uninstructed from the United States government. All he was interested in was the details of the ceasefire. The United States had a perfect opportunity to exercise the leverage we had to convince the Iraqi military to take out Saddam Hussein or suffer the consequences because we would continue to attack them. It was an opportunity lost, and it was lost primarily because of [then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Colin Powell, who wanted to end it as quickly as possible and get out of the area. Well, he ended the thing as quickly as possible and we are still in the area.

Q. Why was the elder Bush administration so soft on Saddam in 1991?

A. Bush was taking advice and counsel from those around him, particularly Colin Powell and [Secretary of State James] Baker and [National Security Adviser Brent] Scowcroft, who felt they had done so much damage to the Iraqis that the regime would fall. They overestimated the damage done to the Iraqis because they did not know that half of the Republican guard with more than half of their tanks got out of Kuwait. And the assumption that the regime would be deposed was dead wrong. They felt the Iraqi army would take things into their own hands. Saddam Hussein used this situation to claim a victory.


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