Trainor Says Early Assumptions in Iraq Fail, Causing Conflict to Continue; Notes that Iraqis Are Using Vietnam War Era Tactics

Trainor Says Early Assumptions in Iraq Fail, Causing Conflict to Continue; Notes that Iraqis Are Using Vietnam War Era Tactics

March 28, 2003 5:56 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 three-star Marine Corps General Bernard Trainor says that a “shock and awe” air campaign has failed and an anticipated uprising of Shiias has not occurred, thereby prolonging the Iraq war; in his words “taking the bloom off the rose.” Trainor, who has criticized the level of U.S. forces in Iraq, warns that Iraqis are likely to set up a“spider web” defense around Baghdad to ensnare coalition troops.

Trainor also notes that Iraqis have adopted tactics similar to those used by the Viet Cong to limit the effectiveness of U.S. power in the Vietnam War.

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Trainor, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, made his comments in an interview with Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on March 28, 2003.

Other Interviews

What’s your judgment on how the Iraq war is going after the first 10 days or so of fighting?

“Shock and awe” was designed to use overwhelming air power to paralyze the leadership and military in Iraq, to be followed almost concurrently by a quick dash toward Baghdad from Kuwait. The “shock and awe” campaign apparently did not work. There seems to be no paralysis and no defections. The swift run-up from Kuwait to the south of Baghdad, however, was very spectacular. It was amazing, going some 300 miles in a few days. But there was a basic assumption that, when we moved into the southern portion of Iraq in territory inhabited by Shiia Muslims, the Shiias would probably rise up against the Iraqi leadership. That didn’t happen.

The basic assumption about the Shiias failed?

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Yes. Was that because the Shiias did not want us there, or were sitting on the fence, or because the Baathist regime had sent teams to maintain iron control in cities like Nasiriya or Basra? We don’t know yet. But the fact is we do know that the Fedayeen Saddam Hussein and some of Iraq’s other internal security organizations are in all the populated regions in the south maintaining control for the Baathist regime.

Now, not only are they doing that, but Saddam turned each one of these locations, cities, towns, and areas of any significance into citadels, prepositioning ammunition and supplies so that the forces there, in addition to maintaining control of the population, could also harass long U.S. supply lines. Sadddam Hussein recognized that he could not stand toe-to-toe with the armored and mechanized forces attacking north. But he saw that the Achilles Heel was the supply line that kept those iron monsters fueled and armed. So, as a result of that, he selected particularly critical points crossing the Euphrates River, such as Nasiriya. And this has become a real irritant and trouble to the supply line.

As a result, this has slowed down the advance, along with the unexpected severe sandstorm.

The basic problem is that the United States made the assumption that air power would have a greater effect than it did, that the Shiias would rise up against the regime and in support of us. Both of these assumptions have proven wrong. They haven’t turned out to be show-stoppers, but they have taken the bloom off the rose.

Why did the Marines go right into the town of Nasiriya?

I guess it was a reasonable assumption, if you accepted the assumption that Nasiriya being a Shiia city, its residents would welcome U.S. forces. However, that assumption was wrong, and as a result, Nasiriya became one of the choke points where the Fedayeen have chosen to interdict U.S. lines of communication.

You’ve been critical, in our previous conversations, about the level of U.S. forces in theater when the fighting started. Are we now waiting for the Fourth Mechanized Infantry Division to show up before advancing on Baghdad?

I don’t think so. The Fourth Division will be a reinforcing element. We still have sufficient forces to [take over Baghdad]. The United States has had to make some adjustments to establish security forces along [its supply lines]. They are in the process of doing that with elements of the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Division. I think originally the plan was to use the 101st in their classic role. Under normal circumstances, when you have a supply line of any length, you normally would have an armored cavalry regiment or unit to provide security. [Those troops] are still on the way, so the coalition is using the 101st in that role. But there is another aspect. There is now a question of whether the 101st would be used in its classic [air assault] role anyway.

It had an undesirable experience, just before the heavy sandstorm, when an Apache regiment, which are the top-of-the-line attack helicopters in the army, attacked some of the Republican Guard elements of the Medina Division. We lost one helicopter and all of the others turned back because they had received such severe ground fire. The Iraqis used RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) and machine guns, and they used a technique the Viet Cong found to be very useful: anyone with a weapon just aimed it up in the sky. Don’t even try to shoot at a helicopter. Just aim it up in the sky and fire. And the assumption is, and a good assumption, I might add, that the helicopters will fly into the fire. And so [U.S. commanders] pulled all these Apaches back. I think the coalition is having second thoughts about having any sort of helicopter assault.

And although this happened to the Army, the Marines have one-third of their forces designed to go in by helicopter, and Marines have not used any of their helicopters. I think they have been rather chastened by the air defenses that the Iraqis have set up.

What is your estimated timetable for the war?

I am not so sure that I want to put a time on it. I will talk in terms of phases.

The first phase is to reduce the defensive capability of the Iraqis in the Red Zone, which is roughly the 50-mile radius around Baghdad. At the present time, the United States is facing three Republican Guard divisions— an armored division, a mechanized infantry division, and an infantry division. The Army and Marines want to soften those up. So when you see all those air attacks in and around Baghdad, some of the attacks are going into Baghdad against command and control [facilities], but most of the air attacks are going against known or suspected locations of the Republican Guard. They want to soften them up before they attack.

The second phase would be the attack into the Red Zone toward Baghdad. Once that is successfully completed, there would be the move into Baghdad for the third phase, if necessary. So it really depends upon the degree of success they are getting in their air attacks into the Red Zone, to determine the timing of the attack. They don’t need the Fourth Mechanized Infantry Division to do that. They already have sufficient forces. They outnumber and outgun the Republican Guard considerably. There’s plenty of firepower there to do the job, even though they don’t have the Fourth there, or the First Cavalry or the First Armored, which are reportedly on their way. A combined air, armor, and land attack could be overwhelming.

Describe the Iraqi defense plans, if you can guess.

I don’t know what the Iraqis will do. But I can give you a logical Iraqi defense. First of all, they don’t want to go toe-to-toe with us. They would surely be defeated. But look at the terrain in the Euphrates-Tigris Valley region. It’s populated, with lots of villages, lots of towns. The closer you get to Baghdad, there are a lot of industrial parks. There’s lots of vegetation. This is a very fertile area.

So, I would say that a logical type of defense for the Iraqis to put up is to decentralize their forces and disperse them in small packets, so you have a tank behind a mosque, you have a tank in a gully some place, and you have infantry troops with RPGs. I would describe it as a “spider web” that extends out from Baghdad some 50 to 60 miles, with hidden, interconnected, and fully supporting small units. They are under camouflage and cover so they are hard to locate from the air. The defense is in built-up populated civilian areas, where they know we would be reluctant to open fire because of so-called “collateral damage” and the bad public relations we get for that sort of thing.

And then they would exercise what we used to call the “doctrine of close proximity,” which is what the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese did in the 1960s and 1970s: You get close to the Americans, so close that they are afraid to use their artillery and air power for fear of hurting their own people. That neutralizes the range differential, for example, between the M1A1 U.S. Army tank, which can fire two miles, and a T-72 [tank fielded by Iraq], which can fire only one mile. If you get close to the Americans, it makes it difficult for the United States to use its supporting arms and aircraft. It is a defense that I think is probably the best way that the Iraqis can contend with the attacking American forces in that second phase. It is designed, not to defeat the Americans— the Iraqis know they can’t do that— but it is designed to cause American casualties, to cause Americans to bring about civilian casualties, and to slow the Americans down. The whole military strategy is in support of the political strategy, which is to get the international community so outraged and the casualties so high that demands become almost unbearable on [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair and Bush to stop the military campaign.

Is this Defense Minister Sultan Hashim’s thinking?

It well may be. He is a very good soldier. He is not a political hack. He has not disclosed what his game plan is but, given the man’s credibility as a soldier and the options open to him, it would seem to me that would be the best option he has. And it is in accord with the political goals of the regime.

You obviously know the Viet Cong tactics very well from your two tours of duty in the Vietnam War.

Yes, as a matter of fact.

It’s interesting that the Viet Cong and Iraqi tactics seem so similar.

When you are the weaker party, you have to find a way to turn the enemy’s strength against him. You saw what happened in Somalia [in 1995 when U.S. forces withdrew after taking casualties]. It was basically the same thing.

Some people say that Saddam Hussein was fascinated by the fact that the United States pulled out of Somalia after 18 U.S. soldiers were killed.

Yes, I think he was very much influenced by our abandoning the South Vietnamese, our abandoning Beirut after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, and turning tail after what happened in Somalia. I think Saddam thinks the United States cannot stand loss of life, and if he bleeds us badly enough, the domestic pressure will [force U.S. leaders to] bring an end to [the war]. He misreads us on that.

So what do you figure— another month?

Depends on how long the phases last. The Air Force is going to say, “Give us more time to search these targets out, and destroy them.” And there will be some people in the ground component who will agree and say. “Yes, we have to destroy more people from the air.” I don’t think that’s a very good thing. I think they should get on with it as soon as possible and get it over with as quickly as possible, not only for military reasons but also for the political concerns within the international community and at home. So get moving and get to the outskirts of Baghdad and then do an assessment. And if we are successful, we can reduce the likelihood of having a bitter fight inside of Baghdad. But I can guarantee you that if we allow ourselves to be suckered into a strategy of going very cautiously through the “spider web” and being concerned by our flanks and rear, it is going to enhance the likelihood that they will fight in Baghdad.


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