CSIS book launch for Cobra II – listen to the audio

I thought I had already posted this a couple of weeks ago – dang, sorry about that! The audio-only recording described below is Essential Listening [there is no transcript]. On March 16 the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) hosted the book launch for “Cobra II: the Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq” by Michael Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor (Ret). [download the 1 hr 15 min launch event audio]. CSIS sponsored the two year Gordon/Trainor research — to produce the best book (so far) on the Iraq war.

The book launch event provides a venue for informal comments from Gordon and Trainor, comments that get succinctly to key conclusions — plus the authors give frank answers to some informed comments & questions from the panel comprised of Dennis Ross, Richard Falkenrath and Michael O’Hanlon, and from the audience. I got more insights and confirmations out of an hour [and two replays] of this event than from any other hour studying the Iraq war. I’m still reading Cobra II — more on the book when I’ve finished.

Reference is made several times to the authors’ special access to “classified materials”. I’ve concluded the reference is to the previously posted [and now declassified] USJFCOM Iraqi Perspectives Project — which forms the basis of Trainor’s commentary on what the Saddam regime was thinking and doing.

I’m not a super transcriber, so please don’t take my text version as gospel – I’ll transcribe just a bit to give you the flavor of the proceedings.

Michael Gordon leads off:

…How did we get into this predicament we’re in now? Three or four principle factors that, taken together, contributed to the unpleasant situation we find ourselves in today.

[1] In the design of war campaign we essentially fought the last war. By that I mean the principal enemy the US envisioned on the march to Baghdad was the Republican Guard. The basic concept was you beat the Republican Guard, you take Baghad, the regime topples and we put in our own Iraqis, they run the ministries, and we can get out in a relatively short period. There’ll be a lingering presence to stabilize the country, but basically we will have achieved our victory.


I think this was partly an intelligence failure. I think the CIA reinforced this view, and I think the American intelligence community did a very poor job of documenting the threat in southern Iraq that the forces actually confronted. They got where the tanks were, the WMD we thought was going to hit these forces, but what they really didn’t see was the things that didn’t have icons, weren’t observable from outer space or airplanes – where was the presence of thousands of paramilitary fighters in southern Iraq, with RPG’s and large caches of arms. And you know the basic image that American intelligence was “the southern cities are ours”… The troops were told they should be prepared for parades… There was even a scheme at one point to distribute tiny American flags throughout southern Iraq so they could wave at the American forces…

That was the capitulation scenario that a lot of people were led to expect. It didn’t happen that way. When American forces crossed into Iraq, they were met from the very beginning they were fighting this irregular foe that didn’t wear uniforms, centralized command & control… I think the forces adjusted pretty well to this. But still at the higher headquarter, by which I mean DOD and CENTCOM leadership, they tended to see the Republican Guard as the sole principal threat… These guys are just a speed bump, keep the pedal to the metal, get to Baghdad – the war will be over. This was a fundamental misreading of the battlefield.

One consequence that it had, as the forces were approaching Baghdad, Scty Rumsfeld raised the issue of offramping the 1st Cavalry Division, raised it rather insistently… So at a time that our forces are fighting a foe that we hadn’t anticipated … that had not so much been defeated, but had gone to ground and been bypassed, the leadership was reducing the number of forces in the plan, not adding to it…

There were people who had warned of this – in the sense that they at least alerted the leadership that there was a different type of adversary there… There was a Marine intelligence officer in Nasaryah who said “the Fedayeen is a threat that is not going to go away. We are bypassing them and we’re going to have to deal with them later.”


[2] A second major factor that contributes to the situation we have today is basically … a kind of aversion to nation building as an enterprise on the part of the White House…

I was interviewing Condi Rice …. they said “we’re not going to do this Clinton-style nation building, this Bosnia stuff – that’s for the allies – we are just going to do major war fighting. We’re not going to get tied down with this sort of thing.”

…They didn’t really want to resource, you know, what do we do about the electrical grid, what do we do about the infrastructure… A lot of people think these were errors of omission, as if they forgot to do this… No — these are errors of commission… It wasn’t like they forgot that there would be a problem of law and order in Baghdad — no it was raised by mid-level officials in the Justice Dept. who said “we need 5,000 international civilian police”. That issue went to the White House. And the White House said “We are not sending these people. We’re going to rely on the Iraqi police, because we want them to be in charge.” That was a perfectly strategy on the assumption the Iraqi police were competent and didn’t run away. What was the backup plan if the Iraqi police didn’t hold — there wasn’t one.


[3] A third factor that I think made a very difficult situation worse was the ill-advised decision by Amb. Bremer to dissolve the Iraqi military and essentially try to run Iraq as a viceroy of the country… This decision was taken against the advice and counsel of the US military. I was with the US military, and they — the plan they went in with was basically to work with the Iraqi army, to retrain them — this was the plan BTW briefed to the President, and he thought that was the plan going in, and use them as a source of security for the country, as a source of labor — that was the plan.

And Gen. McKiernan, with whom I was embedded, and the CIA station chief, was meeting with Iraqi generals to try to recall them. And sure, the Iraqi army went AWOL, but the plan was to bring them back. There was every indication that they were prepared to come back (they came back later for their pay).

The consequence of that is, is having misread the battlefield, and not appreciating the significance of the Fedayeen – which provided an indication that when Baghdad fell, maybe there would be another element out there that you might have to deal with. And having off-ramped the 1st Cavalry Division, there was a limited number of US troops. And then Amb. Bremer comes in and disbands the Iraqi army, “we don’t need them”, and now there is a very limited number of Iraqi troops. You have a limited number of American troops, a limited number of Iraqi troops – you put the two together, what you really have is a security vacuum. A perfect environment for an insurgency to gain traction and grow. And combined with the nation-building failures, which left a large proportion of the Iraqi population disillusioned with their liberators. In that long hot summer of 2003, virtually all the military officials I talked to at the time believed there was a window of opportunity to put Iraq on a better track…


Gen. Trainor’s comments “the view from the other side of the hill”:

…while we were reading the Iraqis, or more correctly, misreading the Iraqis – the Iraqis were misreading us… Most of this information we were able to glean from a classified program that was conducted by the Joint Forces Command and put together from interrogation reports from the senior leadership of the Iraqi political and military hierarchy: Iraqi Perspectives. We also drew upon the studies of the Iraqi Survey Group

I’ll stop the transcription there – download the audio, you’ll be glad you did.