Trainor: Battle for Najaf May Prove ‘Tipping Point’ for Iraq’s Future

Trainor: Battle for Najaf May Prove ‘Tipping Point’ for Iraq’s Future

August 12, 2004 6:47 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.

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Bernard E. Trainor, a retired three-star U.S. Marine Corps general, says that Iraq’s future may hinge on the battle for Najaf. “The issue is still in doubt as to whether the outcome is going to be beneficial or whether the consequences are going to be negative,” he says. “No one can predict what will happen. But if this thing fails, if there isn’t a successful military operation, or if there isn’t some sort of acceptable political solution to the culmination of this battle, then I think the tipping point goes against the interim government.”

Trainor, the co-author of a book on the 1991 Gulf War, is currently working on an account of the current Iraq war. An adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Trainor was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on August 12, 2004.

There seems to be a concerted effort to crush the militia of Muqtada al-Sadr in Najaf. How do you see the U.S. role vis-à-vis the Iraqi forces, and what is the ultimate goal?

The Americans are going to have to do most of the heavy lifting on this. And they’ll try to do it by putting Iraqi forces in their midst and giving them a lot of credit and trying to concentrate [attention] on their participation. But the fact is, people are going to see that it’s the American troops doing most of the fighting. But I think there’s a great deal of sensitivity about the Imam Ali mosque [the shrine to Imam Ali, the cousin of the Prophet Mohammed and the father of Shiite Islam, where Sadr’s forces are massed]. I think there’s more concern about that than there is about Muqtada al Sadr.

But it will be mostly an American effort, and what appears to be occurring at this juncture—and it’s probably a smart move—is [U.S. forces are trying] to isolate the militia and put them in a position from which they really can’t escape or get substantial reinforcements, and then look to the Iraqis for some sort of political arrangement. In the final analysis, all of these things are going to require some sort of political arrangement that only the Iraqis can cut themselves.

What caused the decision to go in?

I think this was a decision made primarily by the new Iraqi Prime Minister [Ayad] Allawi. I think he decided, “We have to crack down on these dissident elements.” There are a number of dissident elements, but basically the two major ones are the Sunnis—up near Ramadi and Falluja—and, of course, al-Sadr. So I think [Allawi] figured the best thing to do was to take out Sadr first, because a lot of the Shiites know that they are going to eventually have influence in the government just by virtue of demographics.

So I think he said, “Look, we can’t have this thing going on as it is.” And I guess the reports indicate that the sentiment on the part of the Iraqi people was, “Enough is enough; let’s settle this damn thing.” I think he decided to do this to neutralize, if not eliminate, the al-Sadr forces, [on the assumption that doing so] will also send a signal to the Sunnis. Once they secure the Shiite revolt, then they can concentrate on the Sunnis. [Allawi] is a no-nonsense guy, and he’s going to take advantage of the time that is available to him right now to bring these people to heel, even though it’s really the least of a number of bad options.

I take it the U.S. military supported the move, or they wouldn’t be doing it.

I think so. I think there’s been a desire to use the force—I mean, we could have taken out Falluja months ago, but the decision was made that the consequences of that would probably be more important in the short-term than letting Falluja lie. But I think there’s been a desire on the part of the military to use force when necessary to solve this problem, with a full understanding that the real solution is some sort of political deal-making on the part of the Iraqis themselves.

Which U.S. forces are involved?

It’s primarily Marines from the First Marine Division, specifically, the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit. I believe they also have three brigades from the Army’s First Cavalry Division. So it’s primarily Marines reinforced by Army units.

You’ve been working on a book about the Iraq war with New York Times military correspondent Michael Gordon, a follow-up to your book, “The General’s War: The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf,” that came out after the 1991 war. Can you share with us some of your conclusions about how the United States did in this conflict, even though it’s not over yet?

The whole thing is very convoluted. There are three phases: the planning phase; the execution phase; and the post-operational phase, for restitution and reconstruction. The planning phase was marked by what size of forces [should be deployed] and the flow of forces into the region, with the secretary of defense looking to something more similar to Afghanistan—where we used small forces with high-tech capabilities—than the model from the first Gulf War, when we had a quarter of a million men there. That went back and forth between the military and [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld pretty much got his way, with the military understanding that they could win the war with a smaller number of forces. They anticipated that going in was not going to be much of a problem, but they were also sensitive to the fact that the postwar period was going to take an awful lot of troops. That was something that Rumsfeld, apparently, did not consider important. He thought the Iraqis, generally speaking, would welcome us, and [the U.S. military] would be able to provide stability, security, and reconstitution without too much of a problem.

In terms of the second phase, the actual war itself, that went very well, but there were assumptions there that proved to be false. The most important of these was that they anticipated the major enemy was going to be the Iraqi army and that Republican Guard and the Special Republican Guard, [who] would fight very hard to defend Baghdad. They had discounted the irregulars, the Fedayeen, and it turned out it was the Fedayeen that caused the problems and continues to cause the problems. And then the third phase was completely misread by the administration, as I already alluded to.

In other words, a lot of mistakes were made?

You expect a lot of mistakes to be made in a war. It’s a dynamic; there are two sides operating. You can lay out your plan on the basis of your best data and best assumptions, but because you’re dealing with the dynamics of interaction with your enemy, there are always going to be assumptions that prove to be in error.

But the major two errors were: No. 1, the assumption that the Iraqis would welcome us as liberators rather than occupiers. They did—at least the Shiites did until things turned sour. The other [major mistake] was the misidentification of the main foe—not the Iraqi army, but rather, the Fedayeen. A lot of that blame falls right on the CIA. They were the ones giving us the data on that. Their reading of the order of battle—both the DIA’s [the Defense Intelligence Agency] and CIA’s—was largely correct, but I don’t think it’s any surprise to anyone looking back on what happened that we were surprised by the Fedayeen and the fact that Iraqis weren’t as welcoming as we had hoped.

Do you have any thoughts as to how long before the United States can finally pack its bags?

That depends on two things. It depends, first, on what sort of deals can be cut by the Iraqis themselves, and No. 2, it depends largely on the ability of the Iraqi security forces to take over the lion’s share of the mission. If you put your emphasis on the second one, it’s going to be a long time. If you put your emphasis on the first one—political deal-cutting—that holds more promise. In large insurgent sections of Iraq, such as the Sunni triangle, it won’t be easy. But if [U.S. and Iraqi forces] can take out the Sadr militia, with the Iraqis getting a certain amount of experience and confidence in their government, I think that will speed things along.

You’ve been doing a lot of interviewing for your book. How is the morale of the U.S. forces?

The troops that were involved in the operations were pretty much upbeat, even though there was pretty heavy fighting. I don’t think the American public realizes that, because they saw the speed of the operation, but the speed of the operation was attended by some very, very fierce fighting, and our troops did a super job. So they were very high at the end of the war. Morale remains very high, because a lot of these guys who are back out there fought in the initial war and are proud of what they had done. But while morale is probably good, I think the frustration level is very high. That’s not something that will keep them from doing their job, but frustration has a corrosive effect.

To me as a civilian, the casualties seem quite low compared to other wars.

There’s no question about it. Every death is a tragedy, but if you compare weekly or monthly casualty rates with World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, by comparison, the casualties are very, very light, especially considering the amount of firepower that’s being exchanged.

Any thoughts about who is leading the Sunni opposition? There seems to be no political agenda.

In a certain sense, it’s a faceless enemy because there are so many factions. There is a power struggle within each of these communities—within the Sunni community, within the Shiite community. And then you have to take into account the Kurds and the foreigners. There is support for the Shiite effort, for al-Sadr, from the Iranians. For the Sunnis, there is support—material and psychological and political support—from the Syrians and, to a certain extent, elements within Jordan. You have the leftover Baathists in the Sunni triangle.

You have people who are just dead-set against other nations occupying their territory—the nationalists. I think an awful lot of opponents of the Americans are, in fact, nationalist-inspired. And then you have various religious groups—ranging from moderates, who want to see some sort of religious government there, to the far end of the spectrum, the absolute jihadists and Wahhabi zealots who want to kill all the infidels. The big power struggle is: who is going to be running Iraq at the end of the day? So you have a political fight going on, and these people, in terms of supporting some of the violent efforts, shift back and forth according to their view and what is going to serve their interest. It’s a very difficult enemy to try to deal with because it has many faces.

Are we reaching the end of the line? In a note you sent me, you wrote, “The tipping point must occur in the favor of one side in the battle of wills.” And you seem to say the struggle in Najaf may signal its arrival.

Yes. I think that’s true. I think we are coming to a culminating point. This thing can’t go on as a standoff forever. There has to be a tipping point, and the tipping point will be a function of both the military activities and the political activities.

I think what’s happening in Najaf is very similar to what happened to the Sunnis in Falluja, and the issue is still in doubt as to whether the outcome is going to be beneficial or whether the consequences are going to be negative. No one can predict what will happen. But if this thing fails, if there isn’t a successful military operation, or if there isn’t some sort of acceptable political solution to the culmination of this battle, then I think the tipping point goes against the interim government.

When I last interviewed you in the spring, the United States was on the verge of going into Falluja, but it stopped. You thought that going into Falluja was right. In retrospect, was failing to subdue that city a mistake?

Well, I changed my position after we talked. I thought the downside was too high a penalty, and I shifted my support of the thing when they came up with the idea of having this Falluja brigade commanded by a former Baathist officer not associated with the Saddam Hussein regime. I thought this was the best solution: that instead of destroying the city, saving it. However, I had a caveat that they clamp down on the extremists. They didn’t clamp down on the extremists, so we are still faced with that particular problem. But the alternatives are not very attractive. To win militarily has consequences politically. On the other hand, if you don’t go in militarily, the consequences on the downside are about 50-50 on the political side of the slate. No easy solutions on this one.

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