Trainor Says the U.S. Military Gets an ’A’ for Winning the Iraq War but a ’D’ for Postwar Operations

August 25, 2003 5:10 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.

Retired three-star Marine Corps General Bernard E. Trainor says that U.S. forces merit stellar marks for their military victory but only a “D” for postwar operations. He blames much of the problem on the Pentagon’s “wishful thinking” in failing to anticipate the nature and number of forces needed at the end of the war.

“The real issue in Iraq was not the combat phase but the post-combat period, to be able to saturate Iraq with enough forces to keep everybody in awe of our capabilities and minimize the problems,” he says. “We weren’t able to do that because we didn’t have sufficient forces and as a result of that, you saw the looting and the rioting.What that signaled to the locals was that the Americans were not invincible.”

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Trainor, who is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on August 25, 2003.

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It’s been about four months since the major combat phase of the Iraq operation ended. At that time, you gave the United States military very high marks. What is your thinking now?

At the time the fighting stopped, I gave an “A” to an “A+” to the military operation. I think we have to give something in the vicinity of a “D” to the post-military aspect of the war.

Can you explain?

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Immediately after a victory of this nature, you have to be able to establish what I call the “three S’s”: security, stability and services. By services, I mean getting the utilities back on line. We carried out the “three S’s” very, very poorly because I don’t think there was any proper planning. People today ask, “Well, do we need more troops over there?” That’s a two-edged sword. Yes, we could probably use more troops, particularly military police and civil affairs units. But by the same token, that also has the danger of turning the population against you. The problem now is like closing the door after the horses have gotten away.

During the early stages of the war, when we first talked, you were unhappy with the size of the combat force that was put into battle. You felt we did not have enough troops to police the rear echelon. Is that why we did not have enough people to do the civil affairs and policing when the war ended?

I was concerned about not having protection for the long lines of communication and that caused a lot of problems, as we know. It was a sufficient force in terms of defeating the enemy, but in terms of securing the lines of communication, we did not dedicate enough forces for that.

The real issue in Iraq was not the combat phase but the post-combat period, to be able to saturate Iraq with enough forces to keep everybody in awe of our capabilities and minimize the problems. We weren’t able to do that because we didn’t have sufficient forces and as a result of that, you saw the looting and the rioting. What that signaled to the locals was that the Americans were not invincible. You want to have that perception of invincibility so that you can control the area and get it back on its feet as quickly as possible. We weren’t able to do that because we didn’t have enough forces and we didn’t have the correct mix of forces. Now we are paying the penalty for that.

Was this a “wishful thinking” problem? I think you also pointed out that people in Washington seemed to think that as soon as U.S. troops got into Iraq, the population would come out and cheer and it wouldn’t take much to pacify the people.

Absolutely. The administration and the Pentagon in particular made erroneous assumptions. They were wrong to assume that the Shiites would rise up and support us. And then they made the assumption that they could get the government back on its feet and that the people would welcome us at the end of the operation. And that assumption was wrong.

In military planning, at the end of your planning cycle, you look at the assumptions that remain in your planning and say, “Now, if any of these assumptions turns out to be wrong, is it critical? Will it have a major impact on my operation?” And if the answer to that is yes, then you come up with an alternative plan to take into account the possibility that the assumption is wrong. They failed to do that and as a result, we’re having considerable problems.

Let’s talk about overall U.S. military strength. Many people are now suggesting that the military is poorly equipped to handle North Korea and the large-scale occupation in Iraq. Do you have a sense of what should be the proper size of the military? Should it be enlarged by a division or two as some senators have suggested?

The military size should be built on the basis of geostrategic assumptions. We went for a long time during the Cold War saying we could fight a two-theatre war. And then we talked about fighting a one-and-a-half theatre war. And during this period with [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld, we talk about fighting and winning one war and just holding on in a near-simultaneous situation. These are all magic words. We never really have had the capability, even in World War II, to fight a full two-theatre war. The best we could do was to fight one theatre and then hold and do certain things in another theatre. But to fight two full-scale simultaneous wars: we never had that capability, and we don’t have it now. Our forces are stretched very thin. However, we are not faced with the kind of standoffs of mass armies that we had during the Cold War. The size of the military is probably adequate right now, but it is the way that they are organized and employed that I think is under study.

What would you suggest?

I don’t think that we really need more combat units. But I think more attention should be given to the type of chaos we faced— nonstate type of operations, transnational warfare, and terrorism. I do think we probably need more in the way of military police, civil affairs forces, psychological warfare people, and special operations forces.

The Marines have been given good marks in certain parts of Iraq for doing well in civil affairs. Do you think the Marines should take on more of these responsibilities? It’s not their usual job, is it?

I can’t say it is their usual job. But the Marines are the closest thing the United States has ever had to colonial infantry, such as the British and French had in their imperial days. And they are used to operating in the third world and taking on odd jobs for which there is no manual. As a matter of fact, the Marines did write a manual in the 1930s based on their experiences in places like Santo Domingo, Haiti, and Nicaragua. It’s called the “Small Wars Manual,” and is still very applicable today. It tells you what to do when you are put in what are today called “peace enforcement operations.” For the Marines, this is a cultural sort of thing. They are used to operating in weird places, under weird circumstances, and they’ve just adjusted to it. So, I think they have done very well, as have the British in the southern part of Iraq.

But this is not the best way to use the Marines. The Marines are best used as a kind of force in readiness. They are at sea all the time, and they are expeditionary. By that, I mean that they have the logistics and sustainability as well as the combat power. You can fly forces in and have combat power on the ground, but unless you have the sustainability for them then all you are doing is hastening their destruction. The Marines, because they are self-contained, because they are mobile, and because they are embedded with naval forces, become very useful general purpose forces for any crisis, small or large, around the world. And that’s their best role, not as peacekeepers or policemen.


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