Trainor Says Iraq War Rapidly Ending and Calls It an ’Extraordinary Military Operation’ for Coalition Forces

April 10, 2003

Interview
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 with the Iraq war in its final days, the coalition forces conducted an “extraordinary military operation.” He gives especially high marks to the use of tactical airpower in decimating the Iraqi armed forces and for the speed and maneuverability of the allied ground forces, which he believes caught the Iraqis by surprise.

He adds that the war’s only puzzle is how, with all the intelligence-gathering ability of the allies, the Iraqi leadership has been able to slip away so far.

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Trainor, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on April 10, 2003.

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Is the war about over, or is there still more to do?

I think it is coming to an end, probably in a matter of days. Let me review what has happened. If I could point to a map, I would be working up from the south. The United States is still sending forces into Kuwait. The Fourth Mechanized Infantry Division is just about ready to enter the fray, but will probably be unnecessary. Umm Qasr, the southern Iraqi port, is open. Humanitarian aid is coming through it. Basra is in pretty good shape under the British. There are still some problems, and there is still looting going on there. But generally speaking, it is coming under control.

And all the way up the road, in Nasiriya, Kut, and Karbala, there are still some residual problems, but those cities are all basically under allied control, as is Baghdad. In Baghdad, there will be some isolated incidents, as we have seen since the seizure of the city on Wednesday. That will go on, but they will die off. The main problem now for Baghdad is the return of security, stability, and normalcy, and for the United States to get in there and control the population.

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Who will stop the looting and restore control?

The military will have to do some of it. You have military police, but more importantly, you have these very highly trained civil affairs units. Most of them are reservists. These units deal with civic matters, politicians, lawyers, and administrators. They follow on the heels of the fighting forces. They will be putting together a military government and will probably be making use of the people known to be politically clean within a city, people they know, or know of. They may also make use of some Iraqi exiles, but the role of the exiles will probably be downplayed because nobody knows how the locals will regard them.

There will be this interim period as we saw in Basra, and we are seeing in Baghdad, of looting and so forth. But there is no Iraqi governance in Baghdad right now. Anything south of the Baghdad line is pretty much under allied control.

What’s the situation in northern Iraq?

The Iraqi opposition in the north is collapsing very quickly. Although not confirmed by the Pentagon, reporters on the scene report that Kirkuk, a major oil center, has fallen. It fell to the Kurds, not because of the threat from the Kurds, but because the Iraqi defenders were battered by airpower and came to the conclusion that the regime has already been destroyed. The Republican Guard and regular army units in the area have just dissolved. I think you will see the same thing occur in Mosul.

The problem up north is not a problem with the Iraqis. The problem is the friction between the Kurds, and between the Kurds and the Turks. That’s why we have American troops in the area, though not very many, to provide some sort of stability and some sort of buffer. And we will probably get some more people up there.

If this thing was going slower, I would think that we would probably move the Army’s Fourth Mechanized Division to the north. Of course, that’s where they were originally slated to be sent, by way of Turkey. But this thing is moving into collapse so fast, I don’t think that will be necessary. Now, the United States may want to use some of the 101st Airborne [Air Assault Division] to beef up the American presence there.

What’s left of Iraqi opposition?

The only significant Iraqi presence is likely to be in Tikrit. And its only importance is that it is the hometown of Saddam Hussein and is very loyal to him. This is possibly where some of the administration has fled, possibly Saddam Hussein himself, if he is still alive. But with the rest of the country gone, I don’t see any necessity to have a fierce battle in Tikrit itself. You could just surround the place and bring enough pressure to bear to ultimately occupy it.

Out in the West, we have that under control. For all practical purposes, it seems to me that in a matter of days the basic struggle for Iraq will be over, except for a few outstanding areas like Tikrit, and holdouts in some metropolitan areas.

So on reflection, what are your conclusions?

This has been just an extraordinary military operation, and an extraordinary psychological warfare operation. The airpower clearly paved the way. It managed to break the back and discourage both the regular units and the Republican Guard units on the approaches to Baghdad. The speed and flexibility of U.S. forces heading to Baghdad were enormously impressive. Anytime they were faced with unexpected circumstances, they adjusted very, very quickly, including in Baghdad itself. The original plan was to put a cordon around Baghdad and selectively hit targets there until we caused the collapse, but when they got up there and made the first raid to check the defenses and see what the response would be, they found out it was very brittle. So they took advantage of that and rushed right in. We saw the result of that in the very impressive pictures of Saddam Hussein’s statue being torn down— by Marines, I might add.

The airpower was very effective. I think it was more effective on the tactical side than on the strategic side. The shock and awe really didn’t shock and awe the Iraqi leadership as the United States had hoped. But the tactical use of airpower and missiles, such as the Tomahawk, was very, very impressive. It just chewed up and discouraged any sort of opposition.

The airpower really knocked out the Republican Guards around Baghdad.

Yes. But I think it also discouraged the Special Republican Guards. It was just enormously effective in terms of accuracy and devastating power. I think the Iraqis took a lot of casualties. Of course we didn’t have any television coverage of what was happening in the countryside. That’s where [coalition aircraft] were hammering them. All those flashes you saw on the horizon over Baghdad [in televised reports on the war] were attacks on the Republican Guards. I think they were very effective. So for all practical purposes, it was a walk-in for the allied forces as they headed north.

The surprises were of course that the Iraqis had embedded the Fedayeen, the irregular troops, in the various cities along the route to maintain control over the Shiite population and to harass and cut our communication and supply lines coming up from Kuwait. That was an impediment. But it certainly didn’t change the complexion of the operation, only slowed it down a little bit. The United States should have paid a little more attention to the assumption that the Shiites would rise up and greet us. And that there wouldn’t be any interdiction of our supply lines. They should have followed the doctrinal book and have had units dedicated to maintaining the lines of communication. We ended up having some of the combat units peel off to do that.

In the face of the irregulars and an extraordinary sandstorm, we still went hell-bent for leather, with speed, speed, speed being the key to overwhelming the Iraqis’ ability to react to what we were doing. The Iraqis were victims of their own calcification. They couldn’t believe we were moving that fast. They were believing their own propaganda, that we were not anywhere in the area. So we were on top of them before they really had an opportunity to put together a coordinated defense.

Throughout the entire campaign, as short as it was, there was no coherency, no coordination, no comprehensive plan that the Iraqis were able to execute. And it is even questionable if they ever had one.

What do you make of the “disappearance” of the top Iraqi leadership?

That, I think is a very interesting aspect. We have had our Special Operations guys in there, the CIA types, all of these signals intercepts, drones, surveillance satellites, and the aircraft. And all of a sudden, all the top Iraqis disappear. You have to say to yourself, if they had a good plan anywhere, it was to get out of the way. I have no idea where they went or how they did it without our getting an inkling of it.

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