ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL REPORT
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Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan says the U.S. has the forces in place now for a successful attack.
Army general: U.S. ready for war
By William H. McMichaelCAMP DOHA, Kuwait - If President Bush decides to launch an attack on Iraq, the Army general who will direct all land forces involved says he’s ready to go. Now.
With or without United Nations support and with or without Turkish cooperation, Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan said the U.S. has the forces in place now for a successful attack.
“No doubt about it,” he said.
McKiernan, 52, a native of Atlanta, reports directly to U.S. Central Command commander Gen. Tommy Franks. He now has a ground force he says numbers in excess of 100,000.
McKiernan is a career armored specialist who ran the VII Corps Tactical Command Post during the 1991 Gulf War. This time around, he has technological capabilities that didn’t exist 12 years go. He can track the movements of his forces in a futuristic operations center filled with digital equipment and large flat-screen displays that show where all coalition ground, air and sea units are at any given time.
And while he expresses some concerns over what the future may bring, he exudes confidence in the ability of the U.S. force to decisively defeat Saddam Hussein.
“If a decision is made to conduct operations,” McKiernan said, “I am very, very confident in not only the land forces, but the air component command and the maritime command and the special operating forces - very confident - that we’ll decisively win.”
McKiernan is paying close attention to the Turkish reticence to allow the stationing of the 4th Infantry Division in Turkey. The division would establish a strong northern front for a U.S.-led attack.
“We’re still hopeful that we can get Turkish access in the north,” he said. “There’s certainly a great rationale to have ground forces in the north if we’re going to conduct operations.”
But if that doesn’t happen, he said, the division’s troops and ship-borne equipment could be brought in through Kuwait.
“If we can’t get into Turkey, we’re not going to turn ‘em around and sail ‘em back to the United States,” he said.
“They are,” he said. “No doubt about it.”
McKiernan has a sober view of current Iraqi military capabilities. The Iraqi army, led by the vaunted and tank-heavy Republican Guard, remains “sizeable” and “pretty significant,” McKiernan said. But the will of those forces to once again engage an overwhelming U.S.-led force is questionable, he said.
“There are some indications that the regular army forces might not be as loyal to defending Saddam as they could be,” he said. “But it’s still a country the size of California with an armed force that’s pretty significant. So there’s nothing about this that would be necessarily easy.”
McKiernan also must prepare for the possibility of unconventional tactics, such as the use of chemical and biological weapons. It is a top priority, he said.
“From private to general, we’re concerned about his use of chem-bio weaponry,” McKiernan said. “We know he has the capability. We know he personally has the will to use those weapons. He’s proven that in the past. Whether those who would actually execute or trigger those weapons have the same will and intent is another matter.
“We’re equipped for it, we train for it,” McKiernan said. “But make no mistake about it, if you’re where a chemical weapon detonates or a biological agent is taking effect, that’s a set of conditions that nobody in our military has ever faced before. So it’d be pretty significant. But it would not stop us from executing any mission.’’
The challenge of successfully invading Iraq would also be complicated by the possibility of urban warfare, McKiernan conceded.
“It’s like operating in a chemical environment - a very, very tough set of conditions,” he said. “It’s slow, it’s methodical, it requires great precision, it requires timely and very accurate intelligence.”
Yet if it came to that, U.S.-led forces would not fight in the way many may envision.
“It would be a tough set of conditions to operate in,” he said. “But we train for it, we have contingency plans on how to do it, and if that’s what it took, if called upon, we’ll do it.”
Complicating all battle plans is the environment itself. On this day, winds estimated at between 30-40 mph are whipping across Kuwait, buffeting aircraft, filling the air with dust and reducing visibility to less than a mile. The drawn-out debate over launching an attack also brings closer the daunting heat of summer, when it can reach as high as 130 degrees in the region. It would be difficult, but not something completely foreign to U.S. troops, McKiernan said.
“The question’s always asked, could we conduct operations in the summer? And the answer is, obviously, yes, we could,” McKiernan said. He pointed out that the Marines regularly train at sweltering Twentynine Palms, Calif., Army units regularly rotate through the National Training Center in California’s Mojave Desert and make periodic training deployments to Kuwait. “There’s a lot of our ground forces that are used to either training in the United States in these kinds of conditions, or training in the region,” he said.
``So 130 degrees is hot,” McKiernan said. “But it’s also hot for the opponent.”
McKiernan readily admits his concerns over a possible invasion.
“What do I worry about? I think anybody would worry about the potential use of chemical and biological weapons,” McKiernan said. “I worry about making sure we come out of this at the other end with a viable Iraq and a stable region. And I worry about any individual that might lose his or her life in the course of operations. But I go back to what I started saying, and that is that I’m very confident in this formation that they are trained and ready if called upon.”
McKiernan is aware of the potential for political instability in a post-invasion Iraq, particularly among the Kurdish and Shiite populations in the north and south. But the peacekeeping missions of the 1990s have helped prepare U.S. forces for what may come, he said.
“In a post-hostility environment - what we call stability and support operations - we train and have a lot of experience, actually, between the Balkans and Afghanistan and other operations, doing those types of stability and security operations,” McKiernan said. “And we would certainly plan for all of those contingencies.”
McKiernan is fully aware of the worldwide storm of protest that has accompanied the aggressive U.S. stance against Iraq. He said he feels there’s little he needs to tell his troops about the importance of their potential mission.
“I think, universally across the formation, there is a recognition that this guy possesses weapons of mass destruction, he’s a dictator, he threatens the region, he threatens globally, with the capabilities that he has. And he poses a danger that, as our president has said repeatedly, we can’t just hope goes away,” McKiernan said. “And so the mission of disarmament of weapons of mass destruction from Saddam Hussein is a mission that all the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines fully understand over here. I don’t have to convince them of that.”
On a personal level, McKiernan said he does not pay much attention to the anti-war sentiment.
McMichael, a writer with Gannett's Navy Times newspaper, is helping to cover the conflict with Iraq for GNS.