Monday, May 01, 2006


COBRA II ..... A Book Review

COBRA II, a recent book on the Iraq war written by NEW YORK TIMES Michael Gordon and Marine General Bernard Trainor is worth the read. Normally, I would dismiss things by Gordon who was wrong most of the time when he wrote regularly for the NYT years ago on the strategic arms limitation talks. As far as Marine generals, apart from amphibious operations, and command of the bravest of the brave troops, never had much respect for Marine general officers when involved in sustained operations above battalion level. But in this case, changed my mind, bought the book and read it. I will tell you why.

Chris Matthews on MSNBC HARDBALL interviewed General Tommy Franks recently -- General Franks had staged himself for the interview with a large picture window behind him, with two copies of his book displayed balanced on two of the window sashes. Franks is not a handsome man -- the books, the 1965 picture window, and his donkey looks projected a cheesy Saturday Night Live sketch. When Matthews pressed the General on what he thought about some unflattering issues directed toward him in COBRA II, Franks refused to reply to the questions... Matthews asked why he refused to answer. Franks replied he did not want help sell the book. This goofy answer intrigued me. Why so defensive? So I bought he book and read it.

Memoirs by retired generals usually should be taken with a grain of salt. They all have something to prove or a private agenda. I served with General Schwarzkopt in Vietnam in the Americal Division as a Lt Colonel and earlier with his deputy in Desert Storm, General Calvin Waller in Santo Domingo in the 82nd ABN Division as a major. Was underwhelmed with Schwarzkopt's performance, but very impressed with Waller's. Appreciated the Army's wisdom of buttressing Schwarkopt's command in GULF WAR I with a gifted officer like Waller... General Colin Powell was by his own admission a product of affirmative action. He seemed to have problems with most of his general officer assignments and finished his career splattering himself on the UN windshield with his egregiously false promotion of Bush's WMD. As far as General Wesley Clark's war in the Balkans -- he won the war with the air forces destroying Serb infrastructure -- he tried to destroy the Serb army in Kosovo from 30,000 feet -- all he destroyed were Kosovars innocently riding tractors. Serb Army returned to Serbia from Kosovo unscathed and just a little drunk on slivovitz -- Clark's ignominious deployment of Apache helicopters to Albania still needs to be explained -- as matter of fact that whole war should be explained -- so now you understand my skepticism on general officer memoirs.

Much of the information in COBRA II was the result of debriefing POW Iraqi leadership, both civilian and military. From these sources, it was clear now that Saddam's national security priorities were: 1) prevent coup d etat by his own military establishment; 2) prevent uprising by Shiites; 3) defend Iraq from Iran. Bet if you look into the National Intelligence Estimate with which GWB took us to war, you will not find this information there -- Bush wanted Saddam to have the US as enemy number one threat and this was not true; but when Saddam found out it was true, it was too late for him --Saddam was not a threat to the US, period.

WMD -- same sources indicated that all WMD were destroyed in Iraq by Iraqis; further, Saddam made a special effort to scour Iraq to be certain none remained -- you did not find this or even speculation about this in Bush's spurious national estimate -- Saddam apparently was ambiguous in his replies on WMD, because he wanted the Iranians, with whom he fought a bloody war for 8 years, to believe he may have them -- he assumed the US knew the truth.

By the way, there were no SCUD missiles that concerned the Israelis so much -- risk -- lots of manpower and money wasted searching for them, but it made the neocons happy. Just another factor in the war that made it an intelligence debacle.

Planning for the Iraqi invasion was a harum scarum operation with the Pentagon Joint Chiefs mostly cut out out of it. It was a Frank's CENTCOM operation from beginning to the end. Drum beat guidance by Rumsfeld and his neocon cohorts was to invade as fast as you can with as little forces possible. To do this CENTCOM staff had to jettison 8 years of careful planning that included a postwar Iraq -- there was no approved postwar plan when Iraq was invaded. To make planning for a quick, cheap war make sense, faith based intelligence was incorporated into the plan. Accordingly, plans assumed the US forces would be met by happy natives with very little resistance, and fast capitulation of regular Iraqi forces was an expectation. There was no factoring in the irregular Fedayeen -- no thought of insurgency -- strong points, ammunition dumps and urban areas were to be bypassed in the race to Baghdad -- this rosy reception scenario was even incorporated into the rules of engagement (ROE). Planners developed ROE, to the extent that Iraqi civilians carrying rifles should not be engaged -- it took about three days of heavy fighting and some US casualties to shed this ROE -- the authors indicated that the ROE were quickly substituted for the rules of survival.

CENTCOM planners had to shift forces from Afghanistan to Iraq for the build up -- Rumsfeld and his neocons argued that if few forces and Special Forces worked so well in Afghanistan, why not in Iraq. Rumsfeld was desperately trying to justify his concept that light, highly mobile forces could win wars with cutting edge military technology. This was a Deputy SecDef Wolfowitz and Andy Marshall's dream concept -- both of these guys are old time system analyst net assessors. Over the years their concepts were always rejected, because the threat seldom matched their proposed US force structure -- in the case of the invasion of Iraq, they cooked the books on the threat, so it would match the reduced forces requirement for the invasion -- and Franks, instead of falling on his sword, let them get away with it. Additionally the Army system of generating phased support units was side tracked and was later to cause major problems.

Every 2nd Lieutenant infantryman knows that light fast forces are to gain ground and heavy forces are needed to hold it. Apparently Franks forgot this basic rule when he set the plan in Iraq.

Another major element in COBRA II was the narrative of tactical and operational combat of US forces -- reconstruction of battles was based mainly on interviews of those who fought the war on every level -- men were interviewed even in hospital beds. This contribution will remain as an important part of military history as the data was taken while it was still fresh -- before memories faded or molded to fit a future agenda. The book is not a White paper or a white wash... It is all there -- bravery, stupidity, mistakes, friendly fire, glory and interim victory -- there was no question, despite vexations and poor planning, Saddam and his party went down. But what happened after that is the looming defeat that the US nows faces in Iraq.

The book is well sourced with footnotes and copies of important documents. Refreshingly, it is written with candor and eschews political correctness.

The picture of General Franks is not flattering. He comes across as arrogant, narrow minded, inflexible, foolish and in one instance, insensitive to US casualties. War is always organized chaos, bloody and brutal. Things continuously go wrong -- not for boy scouts or the sisterhood. The military leadership is expected to win at all costs and Franks delivered a first phase success, but his planning was terribly flawed for the long term. It is a nine inning ball game and it is the score at the end that counts. Franks wore his team out in the first innings. His misguided planning insured he had no bench to call on for relief.

Buy the book. Spend the money. If for nothing else, to show your appreciation to Mr. Gordon and General Trainor for their fine work. As you read it, you will understand quickly why General Franks does not want it promoted. Robert E Bartos Colonel USA Ret

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