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Saturday, March 18, 2006 7:46 AM
Michael Gordon and General Bernard Trainor on the Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq



Friday, March 17th, 2006

Almost three years to the day the war started, a new book takes a look at the inside story of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. “Cobra II,” by co-authors Michael Gordon, the chief military correspondent for The New York Times, and retired Marine general Bernard Trainor, the book is based on interviews with a wide range of officials as well as a classified report based on interrogations of more than 110 Iraqi officials and officers and 600 Iraqi documents. [includes rush transcript]

This weekend marks the third anniversary of the launch of the Iraq invasion. On March 19, 2003, the United States began dropping bombs on Iraq, while thousands of U.S. and British forces began pouring across the country’s borders.

Three years later the occupation continues – with no end in sight. The U.S. military announced Thursday it launched its biggest air offensive in Iraq since the 2003 invasion. Over 130,000 U.S. troops remain deployed with no clear plan for withdrawal. The country is wracked by daily bloodshed and violence and the prospect of an all out civil war is more real than ever.

Now, almost three years to the day after the war started, a new book titled “Cobra II” details the inside story of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The book is written by Michael Gordon, chief military correspondent for The New York Times, and retired Marine general Bernard Trainor.

Gordon was in the war room with Tommy Franks, Donald Rumsfeld, and various field generals during the planning and execution of the invasion. The book combines this firsthand experience with classified military documents, interviews with a wide range of officials as well as findings from a classified report on Iraqi views on the war prepared by the U.S. military’s Joint Forces Command. The report is based on interrogations of more than 110 Iraqi officials and officers as well as over 600 Iraqi documents.

Among what Gordon and Trainor found was that Saddam Hussein was convinced President George W Bush, like his father, would not go to Baghdad and they lay out how the Iraqi leader escaped from the capital.

The book also finds that Britain’s top envoy in Iraq, John Sawers, expressed major concerns about how the U.S. was handling the occupation of Iraq as early as May 2003, just four days after arriving in Baghdad.

And “Cobra II” exposes that the tapes that then-Secretary of State Colin Powel played within his speech before the UN of recordings of Iraqi military officers in which one said, “I’m worried you could have something left” was not referring to WMDs as Powell alleged.

  • Michael Gordon, chief military correspondent for The New York Times. He is co-author of the book “Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq.” Gordon has covered conflicts spanning Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Chechnya and Panama.
  • Gen. Bernard Trainor (Ret.), a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general. He is co-author of the book “Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq.” He was a military correspondent for The New York Times from 1986 to 1990 and director of the National Security program at Harvard University from 1990 to 1996. He is currently a military analyst for NBC.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, we’re joined by both authors of Cobra II, Michael Gordon of The New York Times and Bernard Trainor, retired Marine general and former military correspondent for the Times. They join us in the studio in Washington, D.C. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!


MICHAEL GORDON: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you both with us. If you, General Bernard Trainor, can lay out what you think were the five problems with the invasion, as you lay them out in the book.

GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR: Well, these — I think it can be generally stated that there were erroneous assumptions made upon which the planning floundered. The ground attack went to Baghdad in record time. However, along the way they ran into the sort of resistance that they had not expected. But if you’re looking for the weak link in the process, it wasn’t the operation itself, the invasion itself. It was the plan for the end of the invasion. And I use the term “plan,” because a lot of people say that there wasn’t any plan after Saddam’s regime fell.

But there was a plan. And the plan was for the United States military to get out of Iraq as quickly as possible, turn Iraq over to a U.S.-supported Iraqi government, on the assumption that the infrastructure, both the political and economic infrastructure, would be largely intact, and that the international community, the U.N. and others, would get involved in the post-Saddam period. That was a fatally flawed assumption, and as a result, a fatally flawed plan.

So, if you’re looking for the problem that emerged with the insurgency, that would be kind of the fundamental principle. There were lots of other little mistakes that went through it, which turned out to be very large mistakes: disbanding the Iraqi army, not having sufficient American forces to follow on the invasion — as a matter of fact, cutting back on the forces that were involved in the invasion — and all of these things closed a window of opportunity of reasonable stability that existed immediately after the fall of Baghdad. But that window of opportunity only stayed open for a short period of time, and it slammed shut, and the insurgency emerged.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Gordon, do you think the invasion itself was a mistake?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, that’s a policy judgment and a political judgment that’s really beyond the scope of our book. Our book is not about whether we should or should not have gone to war. The book is about how we went to war. And one thing that our analysis and reporting shows, as General Trainor said, is in the summer of 2003 — and I was embedded throughout this period in Baghdad then — I think most of the U.S. military commanders there thought that there was a chance to put Iraq on a better course had we done some things differently, had we had more troops, had we had effective nation-building policies, had we not disbanded the army. And it was the combination of these errors that created an environment which allowed the insurgency to gain some traction.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Michael Gordon, your book is especially critical throughout of the role of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. You talk about a variety of ways in which he directly participated in the planning and even when troops would be deployed, micromanaged the military at a level unprecedented. Could you talk a little bit about that and why you were so critical of Secretary Rumsfeld?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, you know, in our book, General Trainor and I, we didn’t set out to do an investigation of Secretary Rumsfeld or General Franks. We just laid out the facts, and we had a lot of documents and a lot of interviews. And what the facts show is that Secretary Rumsfeld came to the Defense Department with an agenda. The agenda was to transform the American military. There’s some good in that. We’re not saying that’s all bad by any means. But he wanted to create a force that could be basically lean and mean and carry out operations that were far smaller than, let’s say, an invasion force that Colin Powell would put together. I think the force that he put together — and he didn’t actually order the generals to do it this way or that way, but he guided them, through suasion, as one of his aides put it, by asking the appropriate questions, by demanding certain briefings, by sending down papers that he wanted the generals to read.

But basically, the force that he essentially established for the invasion was adequate for the task of taking Baghdad and getting there, although there were a few hairy moments along the way, but utterly inadequate for what followed, you know, the so-called — what the military called “Phase IV” or really the post-war operations. He was really a dominating presence. But, you know, General Franks, I’d say, was very much on the same wavelength, and the two, you know, basically collaborated to put together the plan. You know, one very interesting thing is that the joint chiefs of staff were largely marginalized in this process, and in certain respects, the National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, and Secretary of State Powell were pretty much cut out of it, too.

AMY GOODMAN: General Trainor, you talk about the troika — President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Rumsfeld — making the decisions?

GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR: That’s correct. That’s a correct — the three of them were joined at the hip, if I can use that expression. They all thought basically the same way, and their perceptions became reality. I think the President, I would describe it as the man who presided over the troika. I think Vice President Cheney was very influential in terms of the policy. And certainly, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was a man in charge of the execution of the policy. Everybody else was what I would describe as in the outer circle. The National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and even the neo-cons, which gained so much blame for things going wrong. But those people were — they were in the outside of the private sanctum of the President, Vice President and Secretary of Defense. Those three thought alike and acted in unison.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But interestingly, in terms of Secretary Powell, while he wasn’t as much in the loop, according to your book, it wasn’t so much that he opposed going into Iraq. According to some of your, I guess, interviews with Richard Armitage, the secretary’s thoughts were the invasion of Iraq should wait until President Bush’s second term, after he had built more international support, and that he saw it as totally — something totally acceptable perhaps in the second term.

GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR: Well, I think you have to step back and look at the situation as it existed. The international community, all the intelligence agencies were all convinced that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. And this administration saw that as a threat that required preemptive action, because — not that Saddam Hussein was going to pop a nuclear weapon or chemical weapon here in the United States — but he saw that after 9/11, the threat of amorphous terrorism, with terrorists getting chemical, biological weapons and ultimately nuclear weapons without any national fingerprint on it. And how do you deal with something like that?

So the policy was, we have legitimate right to defend the United States. We have the responsibility to defend the United States. And in this instance, we have to preempt the Iraqis from providing the wherewithal to terrorists. And so, that convinced a lot of people. It convinced the Congress. And it convinced the average man on the street that this was something that should be done. Obviously, there were certain people that did not agree. But the fact is, the Congress supported the whole thing.

The Secretary of State’s position wasn’t quite as crude as you describe it, as waiting for a second election. He wanted to give diplomacy a chance. It wasn’t that he was opposed to going into Iraq. It was a matter of timing. And that’s what he was insisting on. See if we can’t build up a coalition, whereas the troika felt that they could pretty much act independently and a coalition would follow after the defeat of Saddam Hussein.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to General Bernard Trainor, who used to the write for the Times, now is an NBC military analyst. And we’re talking to Michael Gordon, chief military correspondent for The New York Times. They have written a new book. It’s called Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq. We’ll come back to them in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We continue our conversation with the authors of Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq, Michael Gordon, of the New York Times and General Bernard Trainor, who was with the New York Times, now an NBC analyst. You have a piece in this past Sunday’s New York Times, where you talk about what Saddam Hussein understood before the invasion. I want to ask Michael Gordon this question. What was the understanding before the U.S. invaded? How did Saddam Hussein prepare for it? And then, the first attack of the United States on Iraq, being a site where the U.S. had hoped they were taking out Saddam Hussein.

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, you know, one thing that’s really fascinating is the extent to which each side misread the other. I mean, Saddam and his regime utterly misread the United States’ political and military strategy, and vice-versa, as we now know. So these two sides, which miscalculated so greatly, kind of produced an outcome neither side anticipated. But Saddam was the ultimate survivor, and his primary concern was internal security.

He was afraid of a Shia uprising with some cause. There had been a Shia uprising right after the end of the Gulf War, and he wanted to keep a lid on that. That was his major worry, and he took a whole – a number of measures to try to keep the Shia in line, which actually turned out to be completely counter-productive when the Americans invaded. For example, under penalty of death, he didn’t allow his military commanders to destroy bridges in southern Iraq, without his explicit permission. Why? Because he wanted to use these bridges to put down the Shia. This was very convenient for the Americans, because they used the bridges to go to Baghdad.

And to extent he was focusing on an external enemy, he was worried about, somewhat ironically, the same enemy that President Bush highlighted in his recent national security strategy: Iran. I mean, Iraq had fought Iran in eight years. Each side had used chemical weapons against each other. They had fired missiles at each other’s cities. They were worried about Tehran. That was really their principal thing, and the Americans, for the Iraqi regime, were really kind of a third-order threat. They certainly expected that there would be air strikes; they thought the Americans might invade the south, maybe sit on the Ramallah oilfields, but what they really didn’t anticipate, we now know from debriefs of the inner circle, Saddam’s inner circle by the U.S. military, they didn’t anticipate the U.S. was going to drive all the way to Baghdad.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, the U.S. attack and what happened, that first attack?

MICHAEL GORDON: Yeah, that’s really, again, a fascinating episode, and you know, apart from all the policy stuff that we have in this book, really a large part of the book is just a group of very interesting stories and accounts of what actually happened that we don’t really know, because in large measure this war was widely covered, but not well understood. Well, on March 19, George Tenet, the Director of Central Intelligence, came to the administration, to the White House, and he said, “The C.I.A. is 99.9% sure they’ve got Saddam and his sons located at a site outside Baghdad called ‘Dora Farms.’ This is the minute to strike,” and so the President had to make the call. You remember, there was a 48-hour ultimatum for Saddam Hussein to get out of dodge, so to speak. Hadn’t quite yet expired. They were waiting for it to expire, and so the White House was very interested in striking at Saddam, what they would call a “decapitation strike” to kill Saddam and, they thought, end the war in one blow.

Well, the White House decides to do this. The F-117 pilots at al-Udeid scrambled to carry out this short-order mission, in a matter of hours, to carry out a mission you normally plan for for days, and they got to the site near Baghdad. It was a bit of a hazardous mission, because dawn was beginning to break, and these stealth fighters, they’re low-observable on radar, but they’re not invisible in the sky. And they hit the exact place they were supposed to strike, you know, on the button. And they got back. Everybody thought, “Hurray! We got Saddam! The war is over.” And then, about a couple hours later, this mysterious figure emerged on Iraqi television, wearing these thick pair of glasses, reading some kind of speech.

You know, in the United States — I was in the theater then — but in the United States, people thought and the C.I.A. thought and the Bush administration thought, well, this is probably a double. It doesn’t look like Saddam. Saddam was obviously killed or wounded in the attack, and that was what the American government thought for a while. Well, we now know, because Saddam’s personal secretary was captured and interrogated, that it actually was Saddam. He was nowhere near Dora Farms at the time of the attack. In fact, hadn’t been there for years, and then he went to his personal secretary’s house. He wanted to prepare a speech to the Iraqi people. He wrote it himself. There was no teleprompter, no cue cards, no printer. So he had to read it in his own hand, which he didn’t normally do. He stuck on his pair of glasses, and so that actually was Saddam, very much alive and nowhere near the point of impact when those bombs fell. In fact, not only was Saddam not there, when Americans troops later got to the site and dug it up to investigate it, there was not even a bunker there. There was nothing there.

AMY GOODMAN: Who died?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, if you bomb an empty field, the results probably aren’t very satisfying from a military perspective. They did totally obliterate the site with cruise missiles. I don’t know who would have been there at the time, but if they were there, they undoubtedly didn’t survive.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, one of the things that you raise in the book, I’d like to ask General Trainor about this, is that there was a decision in terms of a willingness of General Franks to accept collateral damage or civilian casualties, but that the rule was that if the expected casualties were greater than 30 civilians, that it required the approval of Secretary Rumsfeld himself?

GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR: Yes, Juan. You know, this really isn’t unusual. When you draw up a target list, you have to prioritize it and put a value on it, and you have to match that value of the target against other circumstances, which include collateral damage in terms of both structural damage and human loss of life, and you then make a decision on whatever metrics you want to use and established in this instance, they used the 30 civilian casualty metric for very high-value targets, and then you apply it with judgment at a specific time.

This is not — this is not unusual, and let’s – I mean, just for the purpose of taking out of the context of a disputed war, going back, and say we had a high-value target named Adolf Hitler, and we knew he was going to be at junction x at a certain date and a certain time, and there were going to be a lot of school children there waving swastikas at him. A decision would have to have been made by the president, President Roosevelt or Winston Churchill, as to whether or not the – getting assured destruction of Adolf Hitler was worth the life of the innocents. This is a judgment call that only policy-makers and their conscience have to make. So the set-up for high-value targets in Iraq has to be seen in that sort of light.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about the whole issue of Paul Bremer’s role and the provisional authority, the decision to dismantle the Iraqi armed forces? To what degree — and to purge all the Baathists. To what degree was that Bremer’s policy? Was that fully supported by the White House or President Bush?

MICHAEL GORDON: Is this for me?

JUAN GONZALEZ: This is for General Trainor, sorry.

GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR: I’m sorry. I thought it was over to Michael. Yeah, the basic policy was to make use of the political, but non-Baathist infrastructure, the civil service in Iraq, the police and the army. Police to maintain stability and security in the country, the civil service to keep things operating, the military to protect and defend the sovereignty at the borders of Iraq and also assist the police in stability and security. This was all part of the thinking of the U.S. military when they went in there, and indeed, also part of the administration’s thinking. But then the decision was made by Paul Bremer, with kind of the amorphous approval of the Secretary of Defense, and I’m not – we’re not even – there’s no indication that the President and he ever signed a piece of paper for the disbandment of the army.

The administration says, in effect, that the army disappeared itself, that it dissolved, there was no army. So the business of getting rid of the army was simply putting a cap on what already existed, and to a certain degree, that was true. You know, the troops went AWOL, deserted when they saw the war was over. But they could easily have been called back.

As a matter of fact, they didn’t even have to be called back. They returned for their paychecks, and they didn’t get their paychecks, and they were pretty disgruntled. So now you have 300,000-plus, with AK-47s out on the street, unemployed and pretty angry about things. It was a bad move, but it was done with the idea of eliminating the Baathist influence within the emerging post-Saddam government. And it turns out that with — after the studies of the makeup of the military at the time of the collapse, that there were relatively very few hard-line Baathists that were in the chain of command, and they were clearly at the top and had been eliminated.

So that was — it was a terrible mistake, one of the major mistakes that went along with the others that upset the apple cart and prevented stability and security and services being restored, restored in Iraq. And the invincibility of the Americans who could get to Baghdad in a couple of weeks against Saddam Hussein’s army, could put a man on the moon, now could not prevent looting and could not restore services like electricity and the flow of clean water or protect national treasures. This was seen as a chink in the armor of the invincible Americans, that they were not invincible, in fact, and prompted the growth of the insurgency, and a lot of people who were either in support of the Americans when they first arrived and liberated them from Saddam Hussein or were sitting on the fence to see which way it went, they were greatly influenced by the ineffectiveness of the Americans, largely because of the ineffective post-war planning policies, including the dissolution of the Iraqi army.

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