War Stories

Eight Questions About the War

What we still don’t know about Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Questions for Tommy
Questions for Tommy

Now that Gulf War II is all but officially over, when is Gen. Tommy Franks going to give his big briefing? The precedent for such an event was set, of course, by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who held Franks’ post in charge of U.S. Central Command during Operation Desert Storm. On Feb. 27, 1991, as that first war on Saddam neared (but had not yet reached) its conclusion, “Stormin’ Norman” stepped to the podium at the press center in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and delivered what came to be called the Mother of All Briefings (in parody of Saddam Hussein’s pre-war pledge to fight the Mother of All Battles). It was at this briefing that Schwarzkopf revealed the secret strategy of the ground war—the deployment of allied troops straight across from the Iraqi Republican Guard, then, once Iraq’s air force was destroyed and its intelligence apparatus blinded, the shift of these forces way to the west, so they could sweep up and around the Iraqis, surprising and enveloping them from the flanks and the rear.

A briefing by Gen. Franks on Gulf War II probably wouldn’t unveil anything quite so dramatic as that—though, then again, maybe it would. For all the embedded journalists and round-the-clock newscasts, there are still a lot of mysteries about this war, and a Schwarzkopf II briefing might clear up a few of them. Yet, in part for that reason, there probably won’t be a public post-mortem this time around. For instance, Franks would have to tell us how he and his staff revised their war plan after the first week, to adjust for the speed bumps, the sandstorms, and the Fedayeen guerrillas unexpectedly sniping at our supply lines. It might be a good story from the Army’s standpoint, a case study in operational flexibility. But don’t expect to hear it, not officially anyway, because, just as the offensive was slowing down and some generals started criticizing the strategy, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, declared that the war plan was “excellent” and “brilliant.” Any report now that the plan had to be rewritten, or even slightly rejiggered, would belie that claim.

Which leads to our first question: What did happen between the first and second week of the war? On March 27, Gen. William Wallace, commander of U.S. Army forces in the Persian Gulf, was telling reporters, “The enemy we’re fighting is a bit different from the one we war-gamed against because of these paramilitary forces.” On the 29th, an unnamed officer told the Washington Post that the war would last through the summer. On the 30th, Gen. Myers said the assault on Baghdad would have to await the arrival of reinforcements. Then, suddenly, on April 1, U.S. troops were on the outskirts of Baghdad. Two days later, they were occupying the airport. Next day, they were inside the capital. What happened? Did the Fedayeen simply stop attacking the supply lines? Why? When a few U.S. battalions broke away on “seek and destroy” missions in Nasiriyah and Najif, going door to door and block to block, did they kill all the Fedayeen guerrillas who were taking refuge in those cities? And was that all the guerrillas there were? Did that finish off the threat?

Second question: Farther north, just short of Baghdad, the 3rd Infantry Division had to pass through the Karbala Gap, a narrow passageway that many U.S. officers feared might be a bottleneck, subject to attacks—possibly chemical attacks—from Fedayeen and Republican Guards. Yet the Karbala Gap turned out to be the proverbial cakewalk. Or at least there were no reports of fighting. What happened? Did the U.S. troops feign an advance to draw out the Iraqis, then blast them with artillery and airstrikes? Were the Iraqi forces distracted elsewhere? Were they bombed on the road to the Gap?

Third question: Given how relatively easily the 3rd Infantry and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force barreled into Baghdad, just what was the Army’s 4th Infantry Division slated to do in this war? The 4th, you may recall, was going to form a northern front, crashing into Iraq from a base in Turkey, until the Turkish Parliament declined to allow it a base. The Bush administration was prepared to pay Turkey $20 billion over several years—or, as the negotiations evolved, $6 billion almost right away—to secure basing rights. What was this division going to do to justify the expense? Blaze into Baghdad from the north? Occupy the northern oil wells, in order to stave off potential conflict between the Turks and the Kurds? As it turns out, they weren’t needed for either task. In that sense, Rumsfeld was right: those two extra divisions of tanks and troops, which the Army generals had said were required, weren’t. But what were they originally intended to do?

One thing the 4th Infantry could have done—and might still do, if on the late side—was keep order in Baghdad. Certainly a key (fourth) question for the Pentagon’s postwar planning is: Why weren’t U.S. troops ordered to stop looters or guard more ministries, hospitals, and museums? True, as Rumsfeld noted, there was still fighting going on when the mayhem began, but the firefights were in isolated corners of the city and not that many soldiers or Marines were involved. Some of the others could have acted as military police. Or, if they couldn’t, why weren’t hundreds or thousands of MP reserves deployed? After the Baghdad airport was secured, they could have flown straight to the scene. A certain amount of post-Saddam disorder was inevitable—there was considerable chaos in Kosovo and Afghanistan after the fighting stopped in those places. And U.S. civil-affairs troops were dispatched to those countries almost instantly. Did the war plan not include such troops for the aftermath of Iraq? Did Rumsfeld assume the liberated Iraqis would be so busy dancing in the streets that they wouldn’t have the time or energy to rob banks and steal office furniture?

The Pentagon never likes to discuss my fifth question, but at some point, somebody is going to have to assess civilian casualties. Whatever the final number turns out to be, it will surely be uncannily low, given the tonnage of ordnance dropped on Baghdad and other cities. This is a testament to how precise our bombs have become. Still, as was predicted even by optimists, not everything went off perfectly. Missiles went astray, targets were misidentified, people got in the way. In Desert Storm, when U.S. bombs hit a bunker that was believed to be sheltering Iraqi officials but in fact was crammed with 300 civilians, all of whom died, at least the Defense Department acknowledged, explained, and apologized for the error. We haven’t heard much remorse during this war. What about the explosion in the Baghdad market? Was it an errant cruise missile? Now that Americans are on the ground, they can find out what happened with a reasonable level of certainty. And what about the unavoidable victims of “collateral damage”? Now that we “own” the country, should we compensate their families?

Question 6 is a geeky military one. How big a role did the high-tech drones play in this war? Over 11,000 smart bombs were dropped in Gulf War II, mainly GPS satellite-guided JDAMs. But to what degree were the targets spotted from the air—and to what degree by soldiers or special-operations forces, old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground human beings? And if lots of drones were peering down from the sky, why were any Republican Guard troops allowed to move from northern Iraq to the area south of Baghdad, as they did when U.S. troops neared the capital?

A major military issue, which will never be addressed in any briefing, concerns the role played by special-ops forces. Still, Question 7 might be addressed without violating security regulations. We know that “shadow soldiers,” as they’re called, were roaming Iraq’s western desert before the war, hunting for Scud missiles, with the idea of destroying them before Saddam fired them at Israel. (Saddam was thought likely to launch such an attack, in order to lure Israel into the war and thus inflame the Arab world; for the same reason, the United States was intent on preventing such an attack.) Saddam never did fire Scuds, at Israel or anyplace else. Was this because special ops found missiles and took them out? Or was it because Saddam never had any Scuds to begin with? (He had lots of Scuds in ‘91 and fired several at Tel Aviv. Under the post-Desert Storm cease-fire, Scuds were prohibited in Iraq. The U.N. inspectors destroyed many of them. Could it be that Saddam didn’t build or buy any more?

Finally, Question 8, the big kahuna: Did Saddam Hussein have weapons of mass destruction? If he did (and I think the evidence is compelling on this point, though we may not have forensic proof for a long time), where are they? Are they in somebody’s basement? Were they carted away to Syria? Were they actually weapons? In other words, had they been compressed or processed in a form that could be packed in artillery shells, tipped on missiles, or sprayed from unmanned aerial vehicles? Or were they simply chemical or biological agents, stashed away for as-yet-unfinished development? Bush cited Saddam’s weapons program as the chief rationale for getting into this war. It would be nice to know if he was justified.